Esperance echidna ‘spike’ shows value of citizen science in face of changing climate

2021-08-18

Lynn Kidd has run an Esperance wildlife sanctuary for eight years and has never seen an echidna in the region.

Although the area has been famous for its beach-hopping kangaroos and wave-riding dolphins, she believed the spiky creatures simply did not live near West Australia’s south coast town.

That was until last week when echidnas were reported at two separate Esperance locations.

While some on social media said they had seen the occasional echidna in Esperance before, many more said they had never heard of them in the region at all.

“I haven’t seen any,” Ms Kidd said.

“I’ve never had an injured one brought in, I’ve never even heard of anyone seeing one.

“I would just say it’s climate-related. Possibly the drought has made them come further down than what they would normally do so.

“Now we are having loads and loads of rain. Maybe they will end up staying here.”

Tahlia Perry, an echidna expert from the University of Adelaide, says Ms Kidd is probably correct, particularly as echidnas run at a lower body temperature than all other mammals.

“It means the hotter it is, the less they can deal with it,” Dr Perry said.

“They’ll seek out water sources — you’ll see them swimming in beaches and in people’s bird baths.”

She says climate change may be forcing echidnas to migrate, and also says it is now echidna breeding season, which is when they are generally more active.

‘Little known’ about iconic animal

Dr Perry says even though echidnas are one of the nation’s most iconic species, relatively little is known about them.

She says echidnas moving “tens of kilometres a day” and the difficulties they pose in trapping and tracking make them a tricky animal to study.

But in recent years, Dr Perry has set up a citizen science project called Echidna CSI, where the public can upload pictures and videos of their echidna sightings to build a database about populations.

While no Esperance echidnas have been logged yet, she says the closest sightings have been at Fitzgerald River National Park, west of Esperance, and the Dundas Nature Reserve, to the north.

Dr Perry said data from the project indicated that more sightings were occurring in urban areas.

“There have definitely been locations across Australia where we’ve been getting told they’d never seen them before and now they are,” she said.

“Even in the middle of major cities, we are seeing echidnas popping up. Probably because a lot of their habitat is disappearing.”

Dr Perry said their biggest threats tended to be habitat loss, feral predation and traffic.

She said echidnas would go basically wherever they could find food and shelter, and had been seen anywhere from deserts to beaches to the snow.

“They are the most widespread native mammal that we’ve got here,” she said.

Citizen science important as climate changes

Citizen science projects — where the public is asked to upload sightings of particular creatures through an app or website to build a database — have leapt in popularity across the globe in recent years.

Last year, one even helped to log Esperance’s first ever kookaburra sighting.

Dr Perry said these projects were crucial for monitoring the health of species, particularly as the climate changed.

“With the echidna, because we don’t know enough about them, they’re still listed as just a ‘least concern’ animal, even though they’ve got major threats,” she said.

“So, the more information we can find about them now, hopefully that can help with even identifying which populations are considered under more major threats.

“That’s true for a lot of animals, which is why there are now so many citizens science projects.

“The more that we can find out about our natural world around us, the more we can make sure that it stays the way it should.”

abc.net.au, 18 August 2021
; https://www.abc.net.au