Science prize to fund woylie research

January 31, 2014

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Western Australia’s critically endangered woylies will benefit from a $10,000 prize awarded by the Australian Academy of Science.

Dr Stephanie Hing with a woylie joey.

Veterinarian and Murdoch University PhD candidate Dr Stephanie Hing said she was thrilled to receive research support under the Margaret Middleton Fund for endangered Australian native vertebrate animals.

“It’s very difficult to secure this level of funding for wildlife research, so this will be a huge help in the effort to conserve the woylie,” she said.

Dr Hing is investigating whether an increase in stress hormones makes a woylie more susceptible to illness.

“It’s well documented that when humans are stressed, we’re more likely to get sick,” she said.

“This has been noted in other animals too but is rarely looked at in wildlife, so it will be interesting to see whether stress changes woylies’ susceptibility to parasite infection.”

There is growing evidence to suggest that parasites may have contributed to a dramatic decline in woylie populations, with numbers dropping up to 90 per cent over the past decade. The exact causes of the decline are not yet known but stress may increase a woylie’s chances of contracting a parasite.

“Woylies face a number of potential threats to their survival such as changing population density and introduced predators,” Dr Hing said.

“I’ll be simulating some of these natural stressors in a controlled environment and assessing the woylies’ weight, blood and faecal samples to see if there is a trend over time.”

For example, researchers hope to use the scents of foxes and cats to find out whether the presence of these introduced predators in an environment affects woylies’ stress levels.

“This will give us a more complete picture of how woylies respond to challenges and how we can help them cope in the face of threats,” Dr Hing said.

Research will take place at a number of locations across the south west of Western Australia.

“Working with nocturnal mammals can be a labour-intensive process, and we will have to put in the hard yards to obtain the data we need,” Dr Hing said.

“In the end, I hope we’ll end up with some useful results which will assist in the management and conservation of these rare little marsupials, who play a vital role in the ecosystem.”

The project has also attracted funding from the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife.

The Australian Academy of Science Awards will be formally presented at the Academy’s annual conference in May.

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