Couples Count: The Melbourne Science Duo Saving Aussie Mammals

History is replete with examples of inspiring couples who, in their complimentary talents, have changed the world and reshaped society. While most of these individuals belong in the realm of myth and legend or have had their true character lost to time, there remain some power-house couples that are very real and very now. One such pair doing their utmost to improve our world is that of Dr Jenny Martin and husband Dr Euan Ritchie, who have recently launched a campaign to fund important research into Australia’s mammals.

Both are experts in the ecology and evolution of our native mammals and both have an immense passion for the communication of science and conservation. Jen runs highly successful and popular classes in science communication at The University of Melbourne, and Euan is as active an academic as you’ve seen on social media.  As Jen explains, she comes from a pedigree of zoologists:  "My parents met in the tea room of the Zoology Department… My childhood was that of a zoologist’s daughter, you know, doing fieldwork, chasing frogs, and camping and a lot of outdoors stuff."

For Euan, things were somewhat different. In high school, he was conflicted between an artistic pull towards studying graphic design and his innate passion for nature. However, once he realised that career options existed to support his naturalist tendencies, there was no turning back. Yet contrary to the clichés, Euan was no born scientist. In fact, he was terrible at chemistry and physics. There was something about the life sciences, however, that really clicked with him. During his PhD, he determined the distribution and abundance of a range of kangaroos and wallabies across a massive area of northern Australia – in fact it was about ¼ the size of our country. He worked out what made the different species tick, and found that the influence of fire and access to water were of fundamental importance.  Furthermore, his was also the first study to do any thorough research on the Antilopine Wallaroo: the largest macropod restricted entirely to the tropics.

Now, Euan wants to return to his old field sites alongside Jen and see how things have changes. This is crucial to our understanding of mammalian conservation in Australia, as several species in the area are under threat of extinction. But what mammals are most at risk? “As with previous extinctions, it’s probably most often animals that fall within what is called the critical weight range (above 35 grams and below 5500 grams),” says Euan. “Essentially, mammals in the snack-size range of cats and foxes. Species of particular concern (and that many may not have even heard of) include the Northern Nailtail Wallaby, Spectacled Hare Wallaby, Rufous Bettong, Black Wallaroo, and many rock wallaby species. It’s worth remembering that nearly 30% of the 30 species we’ve lost since European settlement have been macropods. We simply can’t afford to lose anymore!”

In the video for their Pozible campaign, Jen mentions that people would be “amazed” by how much information you can gain from collecting “Roo-poos”, and Euan clarifies:  “If you’re a real mammalogist you must work on poo and, indeed, we mammalogists have a love affair with it of sorts. It can tell you what individuals are eating, helping to explain their distribution patterns and habitat preferences.” He goes on to say that, perhaps most excitingly, “we can use molecular techniques to determine what macropod species are present at a site using their scats (many scats of different species look quite similar), and in some cases even calculate population estimates.”

Ten years is a long time in the world of technology and so the pair will be putting advances in this field to good use. They’ll be using camera traps to obtain better distribution and abundance information on smaller macropod species (for example, the Rufous Bettong and Spectacled Hare Wallaby), and if they raise enough money they might even use a drone to create accurate 3D habitat and fire scar maps.

Of course, their efforts to learn about our native mammals will go hand in hand with a drive to educate our communities. As Euan puts it: “The best scientific research in the world is almost useless unless it’s shared and communicated, ideally widely and certainly effectively! This is particularly pressing given the fate the mammals of northern Australia currently face. Jen and I firmly believe in science communication and spend lots of time practicing what we preach."

The pair will communicate their research findings in a range of ways, including public talks, traditional print, radio and television media, but will also be tweeting like crazy (check out #BigRooCount), posting a regular blog on their trip’s progress at www.euanritchie.org, and providing updates on their Pozible page and on Facebook.

Already, they've earned $1000 more than their $15, 000 target, but people can still donate to this important expedition and support these Melbourne-based researchers doing Australia proud. Watch the video below to find out more.