Genetic analysis of scat samples to inform conservation of the Tasmanian devil

18 August 2020

Recent advances in molecular genetics have enabled a great deal of information about species to be obtained from analysis of non-invasively collected samples such as scat. Scat provides genetic information via residual host DNA on the outside of the scat, via characterising the genetic makeup of intestinal microbes that are present in the scat, or by examining the DNA remnants of prey items that have passed through the animal’s digestive tract. In this review, we provide a case study to demonstrate how these approaches are being used to better understand the threatened Tasmanian devil in the landscape, and to support the species’ conservation. Scat analysis enables us to quantify the genetic diversity of remote populations, where trapping is logistically challenging. We are beginning to learn how conservation management impacts the microbiome of threatened species, and investigate how various management strategies may be impacting the diverse array of bacteria and viruses that devils, like all animal species, are host to. We are using scat samples to better understand the interaction between devils and other animals in their environment by learning more about what they eat. We explore the strengths and challenges of these approaches by comparing our work to that conducted in other species. Finally, we provide specific examples of how our results are being integrated into conservation strategy for the devil.