Who Wears the Genes in This Ecosystem?

This week on the Particle Podcast we are bringing back Jurassic Park. Well, preventing it maybe.

We are joined by Robyn Shaw, an ecologist and conservation geneticist who uses DNA to monitor and protect our native species. Tune in to hear her chat about which species she would bring back to life and what the future of our ecosystems might be.

You can find Robyn on Instagram @robyn.shhh and Twitter @RobsShaw
If you want to do your own DNA extraction on strawberries, Robyn recommends checking out this resource.

Particle Podcast is about science and the people who just love it. It’s produced and presented by Rose Kerr (@rosie.zkerr). Particle is powered by Scitech, and you can tweet us which animal you’d bring back to life @ParticleWA on Twitter and Instagram.


What can you dig up from the past?

  • Host: Rose Kerr
  • Guest: Robyn Shaw

Rose Kerr – Particle would like to acknowledge and pay respects to the Traditional Owners of this land we record on, the Whadjuk people. We also acknowledge the role of Aboriginal people as the first scientists in Australia.

Rose Kerr – Welcome to the Particle Podcast where we talk about science and the people who just love it! I’m your host, Rose Kerr, and this season, we are deep diving on the environment. Today I am joined by Robyn Shaw, ecologist and conservation geneticist. She stopped by to chat about the power of DNA in protecting our native species.

**Cue music (Intro theme)


Rose Kerr – Welcome to the podcast Robyn.

Robyn Shaw – Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

Rose Kerr – What do you actually do?

Robyn Shaw – So I’m an ecologist and a conservation geneticist.

Rose Kerr – Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?

Robyn Shaw – I don’t think I knew what it was until I started doing it. So yeah, I guess, as an ecologist, I’m interested in understanding animal populations and things about animals’ life history. So that’s, you know, mating systems, reproduction, how many babies do animals have all these sorts of really detailed species level questions. And then as a conservation geneticist, I’m using tools like genetics to kind of understand the broader picture and help manage those populations. So yeah, conservation is all about kind of managing animal populations so that we can protect them into the future.

Rose Kerr – That’s obviously something like a speciality you get to, after many years of studying.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Thinking kind of back on maybe being a kid was science or something that you aspired to do?

Robyn Shaw – I don’t know about science in itself. I think that I mean, that was what I was doing. But I just was really interested in nature and in animals and plants. And, you know, whenever we went camping and things like that, I’d be looking at the birds and picking up shells. And yeah, I think I’ve just always had a real curiosity about nature and the environment.

Rose Kerr – Totally.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Who were you before you found this pathway? Was, kind of, was it the first degree that you started? So like, maybe what were you doing before that or the job that got you through study? Who were you before you, Robyn, conservation geneticist, all those things?

Robyn Shaw – So I guess it probably wasn’t until uni that I yeah, kind of found, found this path. But before that, I was always watching, kind of, David Attenborough documentaries and reading books about zoologists. And I think I wanted to be a zookeeper. So I was just the kid at every zoo, who would spend hours staring at like a marmoset, just scratching his eye or something being like wow!

Rose Kerr – Nature’s amazing!

Robyn Shaw – Yeah. But then I guess, through uni, I did random jobs. So many random jobs, like after school care. I think at one point, I was one of the Elves of that Santa photography at David Jones or something. So yeah, lots of random jobs, but always kind of with the mind that I would go to uni and do something with animals.

Rose Kerr – Did the rest of your family go to university?

Robyn Shaw – Um, no. So my dad went to uni to study librarianship,

Rose Kerr – That’s cool

Robyn Shaw – Which I think was kind of a path that let him study archaeology as well, which is what he was really interested in. But then he had a job already lined up and so ended up kind of switching to that. My mum went to TAFE and also has always done a lot of really creative things. So she had a stall at the markets for a number of years, and then ended up being a small business owner, owning a couple of shops. And yeah doing a lot of art and things like that. So yeah, I guess my parents both had very different jobs. My dad ended up in IT. And yeah, mum always had that gallery gift shop type career.

Rose Kerr – So do you consider yourself a creative person? Did any of that get passed down?

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, that’s a good question. I think so I think, firstly, science is a very creative career path, because you’re always questioning things and always thinking of creative ways to ask different questions. So yeah, if you’re, if you’re trying to test something, or trying to come up with hypotheses, you’ve really got to think very creatively. So I think in that way, a lot of the creativity has come through. But then also, it’s surprising just how many scientists are also incredible artists as well. So yeah, a lot of friends that I did my PhD with would also be amazing watercolour painters or, you know, incredible in illustrator design, that sort of things. So yeah, I think a lot of people really enjoy the kind of artistic side of Natural History

Rose Kerr – Yeah

Robyn Shaw – Drawing their species and yeah, things like that. So yeah, it’s very, it’s a very creative field I think.

Rose Kerr – That’s really cool.

Thinking about working in conservation,

Robyn Shaw – Mm hmm.

Rose Kerr – I’m assuming and do correct me if I’m wrong there’s a lot of fieldwork involved?

Robyn Shaw – Yes. Yep.

Rose Kerr – I’d really like to know what a day in the life of fieldwork is like for someone in your career.

Unknown Speaker – Yeah, sure. Um, so I guess it depends on where you’re doing the fieldwork. When I was doing my PhD. I worked up in the Kimberley. And I was trapping Pale Field Rats, which are a native rodent. They’re declining across the tropics, they’re kind of locally abundant, which means that when you’re trapping them, you get a lot. But over the kind of broader landscape scale, they’re declining. So really important to kind of find out why. But yeah, for my PhD, I would get up before the sun rose, so my alarm would usually go off at 3am.

Robyn Shaw – Which was always nice. I’m not a morning person.

Rose Kerr – That’s night time, that’s actually just not mornight that’s night time.

Robyn Shaw – That’s night time. Exactly. That’s it

So I’d get up, go have a weird middle of the night breakfast, and then get in the car and drive off to one of our sites. My sites were usually between about 20 minutes or 40 minutes drive away. But sometimes they were only maybe 15 kilometres or something like that. It’s just that the roads are so rough.

Rose Kerr – Yeah.

Robyn Shaw – And then you get out, get your tracking kit ready to go and start checking the trap lines. So what you normally do is have these little box metal traps if you’re trapping a small mammal, and you bait them, the kind of universal small mammal bait is peanut butter and rolled oats.

Rose Kerr – It’s a good snack.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah. Well, you start off when you’re, when you’re an ecologist, and you’ve got these bait balls, you start off thinking that they’re delicious. And you can’t stop thinking about eating peanut butter. After maybe a week of kind of getting the gross, waterlogged rat smelling peanut butter out of traps,

Rose Kerr – Yeah, yuck.

Robyn Shaw – You can’t eat peanut butter again for a little while. So yeah, I think it goes- it comes and goes. But I can look at peanut butter again now but at the time, no way.

Rose Kerr – Do we know why we- Why do you use peanut butter and oats?

Robyn Shaw – I think just because it’s such a delicious snack. It smells it brings the animals in. It’s a Yeah, tasty snack that brings them into the trap, which I guess otherwise, the trap is kind of an unknown scary place. So you need something to tempt them in so that you can actually capture them. Yeah. So yeah, it’s maybe 4am by the time I would get to a site. And then for my PhD fieldwork, we would have 100 traps to check spread over about a kilometre. So you’re really just kind of walking along, bending down, seeing if there’s an animal in the trap, going to the next one seeing if there’s an animal in the trap. And then if you do catch one, it’s exciting because you actually get to get some data for your future analysis. And you would put them in a small bag, a little kind of Calico bag, and then do whatever you need to do. So take some measurements. For my work, we often take like a little foot measurement. And then we’ll weigh them. And so those sorts of measurements can tell us whether I guess it’s an adult or juvenile or it can help us with identifying the animal to species because there’s quite a few different species out there and some of them look really similar. So those little details kind of help you narrow down what you’ve actually caught. Then, for my work, because I do genetics, we take a little ear clip. So for different species, you take different tissue samples, but for most small mammals, you have this little clipper that you take a notch out of the ear, kind of like an ear piercing, I guess. Put that in a little tube and sterilise everything. You might also be doing microchipping. So if you’re doing it’s called a mark recapture study. So if you want to catch the same animal again, and know whether it’s that same animal, you might put a little microchip in like you do with a dog or a cat. And then you can scan it and see if you’ve caught it again.

Rose Kerr – That’s pretty cool.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah. And after all that you try and do that as fast as you can, because it’s obviously quite stressful for the animal.

Rose Kerr – Yeah.

Then you let it go on its way and go off and check the next trap.

How long does that take?

It depends some some of the sites I trapped at, we’d get one new animal in a morning. Yeah.

Robyn Shaw – And so, very fast.

Rose Kerr – Yeah.

Robyn Shaw – Some of the sites that I trapped, there’d be 60 new animals every morning. And so every trap would be full. You might have some animals you’ve caught before, so you can just let them go. But anything new, you have to kind of sit down and take all the equipment out and start scribing. So that can take a really long time.

Rose Kerr – And you’d find things that you maybe don’t expect I guess.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, totally. I think once I had a Blue Tongue lizard in one of the traps

Rose Kerr – Do they eat the peanut butter?

Robyn Shaw – I don’t know, I can’t remember. I think it was gone, yeah!

Rose Kerr – And do you do this field work by yourself or do you go out in a team?

Robyn Shaw – Normally, you’d go out with someone. So a lot of the time, there’s people that will volunteer, which is amazing, because it’s a huge chunk of time that they’re giving up. And, yeah, you get a lot of really passionate people that are really keen to come in and see what you’re doing. So I’ve had amazing volunteers come up to the Kimberley and, you know, spend months and months there. So, yeah, you usually try and go with people, you might kind of split up to check more traps. But yeah, it’s better when you’re in kind of remote areas. And when you’re doing things like this, where you kind of want a bit of backup and help with certain things. Yeah, we’d usually go out in a bit of a team.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, they’d be long days. And if you’re – did you say in the Kimberley?

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, so for my PhD work, I did field work up in the Kimberley,

Rose Kerr – What were you researching?

Robyn Shaw – So that was the Pale Field Rat. And I was looking at how small mammals recover after fire.

Rose Kerr – Okay,

Robyn Shaw – Yep. So I guess in Northern Australia, there’s a lot of fire, it’s a part of the landscape. But since Europeans have come to Australia, there’s been a real shift from the original kind of fire management that the indigenous people implemented compared to these massive wildfires that now dominate with European settlement. And so there’s been a real push to try and do this early dry season fire management, which means that you’re lighting these low intensity fires early in the wet season, when everything is still quite wet and damp. And so fires don’t kind of blaze out of control and burn down everything. So we were trying to see whether small mammals recovered differently from those two different fire types.

Rose Kerr – I see. Were they?

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, we do- we found that after the kind of patchy burns, we would have animals surviving after the fire event. And that means that sites can be kind of repopulated from the animals that are already there. Whereas if you have a really intense thorough burn, that wipes out all of the vegetation, there’s nothing left. And so animals have to come from outside of the area to kind of repopulate a site. And that might not matter so much on the scale of what I was looking at, which is, you know, a couple of kilometres. But if you think about the scale of wildfires, which can be massive, if there aren’t any survivors in that area, animals have to come from a really, really, really long way to kind of repopulate. And that’s why we might be seeing – Well, that’s one of the many reasons we might be seeing these massive declines.

Rose Kerr – Is there a lot of research going on within Australia about these kind of population dynamics?

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, definitely. Yeah. So I guess, ecology in general is kind of interested in how animals interact with the landscape, and the environment. And so those things I was talking about earlier, things like mating systems, reproduction, all of that is really vital to understand, because if you understand how the kind of individual level things work, you can figure out how a meta population works. So how you can maintain a really healthy population, because you know, whether, you know, they’re likely to be able to respond to events in different ways. So I guess that’s where I use genetics. Because genetics can tell us a lot about those kind of individual dynamics that you just can’t tell from kind of observing.

Rose Kerr – Jumping in just for a second, I want to point out that Robyn actually brought in some DNA she extracted at home! You can see her show us the DNA on our Particle WA Instagram page, if you just take a look at our “show and tell” saved highlight. In the show notes she’s also given us an example of how to do your own DNA extraction.

Rose Kerr – If you’re doing genetic studies, you’re obviously looking at maybe like, the DNA structure and how that animals made up, how does that relate directly into conservation?

Robyn Shaw – Hmm, so one of the really important things in conservation is to conserve genetic diversity. And one of the reasons we do that is so that there’s, I guess, the information is there if there’s an extreme weather event or something like that. So with climate change, we want animals to be able to kind of adapt to a future of extreme weather. And if there’s no genetic diversity, we might see all individuals be wiped out, because they don’t have the building blocks there to be able to adapt. So that’s another aspect. We can use genetics, both to monitor what’s happening in a population. But we can also use it to kind of help them be more resilient to environmental change, which is really important with climate change that we’re seeing at the moment.

Rose Kerr – Absolutely. When you tell people about your job, and about what you do, is there any kind of misconceptions around the use of genetics in conservation because the first thing that pops into my head is like, people who maybe don’t understand or think you might use, like, genetic modification on animals.

Robyn Shaw – Yep, yeah, I think that’s the main one for sure. So I think people don’t think about genetics so much as a tool. So, as I was saying, we can use genetics just for the sake of genetics, so protecting diversity, so they’re able to adapt. But one of the main ways that genetics is used in wildlife biology is kind of in more of a forensics way. So a lot of the analyses, we do a very similar to what happens in a forensic investigation, where you’re trying to match a suspect to a crime or something like that. The way that we use genetics is much more to understand a population and to understand relatedness and how connected populations are. So I think that’s a massive misconception, that idea that we’re all growing ears on rats or something, which is also a very cool area of biology. But yeah, quite different.

Rose Kerr – Do you remember the moment of inspiration when you thought, yeah, I’m going to commit to doing you know, more study and keep on going? Because you’ve I imagine done just so much research now in your life, you remember when you thought Yes, I’m willing and ready to kind of commit and do this?

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, I think there were probably a couple of points, but I remember – So I did first year uni, a Bachelor of Science, and it was, I guess, kind of broad, like I did some earth science and more molecular biology, and then also all of the ecology courses as well. And I remember just finding all of them quite interesting. And usually gravitating towards the ecology courses, but not being quite sure. And so then I, I took a gap year, after my first year, and I did a little bit of backpacking as you do. And I went to Namibia, to this kind of wildlife reserve. And it was, I think, it was a lot of fun. It was amazing to see all of these animals that have been rescued and, you know, get to be somewhere totally new.

Rose Kerr – Yeah.

Robyn Shaw – But at the same time, I think it really woke me up to wanting to do research, because I just thought, wow, the impact that you can have, when you’re actually, you know, understanding how these things work and trying to do conservation on a broader scale is so important. So yeah, I think going out there and getting to actually work with, I guess, practitioners, and people actually, on the ground doing conservation was really, really inspiring. Yeah. So after that, I went back, and I really committed to ecology. I did a lot of ecology courses. And I think it was just kind of following my interest that led me to genetics as well, like, just found myself taking genetics courses, and thinking about how those things can be paired up. And then after my honours, I took another year off, and I worked in a lab for a little while. And that was great, too. But at the end of the day, I thought, well, I could just be studying, like, I could just be doing a PhD right now. I know, this is what I want to do. So I may as well jump in.

Rose Kerr – A lot of people find that idea of doing so much research and writing so much like, you know, getting through your postdoc, that’s a lot of writing, a lot of research.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Was there ever a point where you thought, nope, this is too much. I just want to do something a little less … I don’t want to say difficult, but a little a little less … on your own. And in search of answers. You know, it’s a little bit more clear cut.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah. All the time.

Yeah, it’s a real challenge, I think. Yeah, you just, there’s so much to find out. There’s so much to learn that sometimes it can be overwhelming, because you’re trying to write your specific paper, but you’ve read all of this incredible research and you want it all to be in there. And you know, I often get overwhelmed by the research because, yeah, there’s so much to learn. But I think every time I I kind of have a bit of a break or something. I’m just wanting to get started again. Yeah, very addictive. Because while it can be really mentally exhausting, I guess there’s not that many jobs where you just get to spend every day following your interest. Like, yeah, I think we’re very lucky to just be able to read papers, read research papers every day. You know? Who gets to do that. It’s incredible. Go out to the remote Pilbara or something like that and learn about the animals and plants that are there. It’s a pretty incredible job.

Rose Kerr – How, how do you feel when your research is going to populations that are generally declining? Does that make you sad?

Robyn Shaw – Oh, of course. Yeah. I think that’s one of the kind of big challenges of this job is just seeing how we’re losing biodiversity. We’re losing it at such an alarming and drastic rate, that I think you’ve got to sometimes just take a step back and think about what you can do rather than, I don’t know, it’s, you’ve got to balance that worrying about the bigger picture with, you know, your specific area and what you can do to change things. So, yeah, I think, you know, I mean, in the world, it’s not looking great. But in Australia, in particular, we have the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world,

Rose Kerr – Wow.

Robyn Shaw – Which is pretty awful. We’ve also got, I think we’re second in the world for endemic mammals. So mammals found nowhere else, we’ve the highest level of biodiversity for that. So, you know, we’re losing a lot of things that are found nowhere else in the world, I think it can be really upsetting to think about, to think about that. But it’s also really inspiring to be surrounded by people who want to change that. So yeah, there are good parts and bad parts. And hopefully, if we, we kind of all keep working on it, we can start to see a bit of a difference.

Rose Kerr – What are some of the things that could improve in our conservation practices? Do you think?

Robyn Shaw – Probably funding is the main one, I think more funding is really important. But also just valuing biodiversity, you know, putting that higher priority in protecting our biodiversity is really important, because I think not many people know a lot about it, we have so many crazy, unique animals, but sometimes they can be quite hard to go out and see. So for example, the animals that I’m working on at the moment, are found in the Pilbara, which not too many people have been to. They’re also often nocturnal. And they’re also tiny. They can be really hard to see. And I think if you don’t have that connection to what’s there, it’s not – it doesn’t seem as pressing to protect it, because you kind of don’t know what you’re losing. So yeah, I think that’s where some of the, the really big stories can kind of snap people into, into kind of wanting to demand change. So things like Australia has lost the first, or is the first record of a mammal extinction happening because of climate change. So yeah, we lost the first mammal due to climate change.

Rose Kerr – What was it?

Robyn Shaw – It was the Bramble Cay melomys. So that’s a native rodent that was the only endemic rodent on the Great Barrier Reef, the only living mammal on the Great Barrier Reef. And just because of sea level, we’ve lost it forever.

Rose Kerr – Wow.

Robyn Shaw – We’ve lost a third of the spectacled flying fox population because of heat waves.

Rose Kerr – So sad.

Robyn Shaw – So you know, some of these really big stories, I think can can kind of help people see how how drastic it is, and hopefully kind of demand change.

Rose Kerr – Can you tell us a little bit more about your current research, your postdoc?

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, sure. So I moved to Perth to study small mammals in the Pilbara. So we’ve got at the moment about eight species of small mammals from tiny little planigales, which are one of the smallest mammals in the world,

Rose Kerr – How little are they?

Robyn Shaw – They’re like thumb sized, they’re tiny, maybe like half the size of a house mouse or something like that.

Rose Kerr – Wow.

Robyn Shaw – So so they’re really small. They’re also flattened, because they hunt, well, some of the species hunt in the black soil, cracking clays, so they’re these really crazy little species. And then I’m also looking at, I guess the biggest species would be the northern quoll, which is probably a bit more well known. Distributed across northern Australia, but also really suffering because of a few threatening processes, like cane toads would probably be the most well known,

Rose Kerr – Okay.

Robyn Shaw – But also things like inappropriate fire regimes and feral cats as well. So yeah, we’ve got a big range of species. And what we’re planning to do is, we’ve got genetic samples from all of them. And we’re trying to understand how they use the landscape. So that’s where the genetics comes in. Again, we can have a look at the samples scattered across the Pilbara to see how genetically similar or different they are, and whether that kind of corresponds to environmental corridors and things like that. So if we can figure out kind of how they’re using the landscape to move maybe, for example, quoll might really rely on kind of complex rocky habitat to move through. And so areas that are connected by complex rocky habitat would be genetically connected as well. So if we can understand kind of those corridors that they’re using, we can start to prioritise the areas that we protect. The other thing that I’m looking at is habitat use. So it’s something called species distribution modelling which is all about finding out what sort of environmental variables are important for why of species is where it is. So things like spinifex soil, so there are Sandy specialists, Rocky specialists. And then also climate can be really important as well. And so if we can start mapping out where we find each species, how they move through the landscape, we can kind of layer all of that up and find where are these really, really key areas that need to be protected.

Rose Kerr – That makes a lot of sense.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah. And so if we do that for a bunch of different species, I mean, at the moment, we’re doing it on mammals, but it would be amazing to have a look at a whole lot of different taxa, we can see whether there are kind of areas that overlap. And so those would be the really high priority areas. Because if you invest in protecting that, you’re going to protect a whole bunch of species, we can do a little bit of mapping and show people where the areas are that they should kind of focus on when they’re using conservation strategies.

Rose Kerr – We’re going to jump across to some questions from the restof the particle team.

Robyn Shaw – Okay

Rose Kerr – And some of these are a little bit silly, so feel free to not take them too seriously.

Would you rather work with animals or people?

Robyn Shaw – Oh, I really like working with animals. But I have to say sometimes the best part of fieldwork is just the random people you meet, like, the people you meet in like some remote Field Station are just the best. You often brought there by a similar passion. But you’re from all different places from all over the world or all over Australia. And yeah, I find you just have very different conversations than you would have with someone you see in the office. So yeah, I think a good combination of both.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, that’s a healthy answer.

Robyn Shaw – It’s a bit of a cop out answer.

Rose Kerr – Eh, it’s all right

If you were an Australian native animal, what would you be?

Robyn Shaw – Oh. Oh, that’s a really hard one. I have to think for a bit. I think. No, I think my mom and my sister and I always say we’re galah’s.

Rose Kerr – Oh, that’s a good one.

Robyn Shaw – Because we’re a bit kind of like loud and squawky and bumbling. But you know, you can tell galahs have a heart of gold.

Rose Kerr – I like that one a lot. If you- so thinking about kind of the use of genetics for something like Jurassic Park. If you had to, so you have to, to be clear you can’t say none. If you had to bring back an extinct species, what would you bring back?

Robyn Shaw – Oh, totally the diprotodon.

Rose Kerr – What’s that?

Robyn Shaw – The giant wombat.

Rose Kerr – Oh that’d be awesome

Robyn Shaw – Or like any of the megafauna? Yeah, there’s one, I can’t remember what it’s actually called, but the demon duck, it’s like this massive, incredible goose thing from Australia. Or the giant goanna, any of those megafauna are just… Yeah, they would blow my mind. I would then regret it because it would totally be a Jurassic Park situation.

Rose Kerr – It really would.

Robyn Shaw – We’d all get eaten. But it would be great to see.

Rose Kerr – It’d be so exciting.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah

Rose Kerr – How big were the megafauna, do you know?

Robyn Shaw – I think they ranged in size, it depends which one but the I think the giant wombats were like, bigger than people sized. They were massive. Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Yeah that’s a good one to bring back, that’d be exciting. Imagine if you could ride them, like, around the place.

Have you ever considered trying to sequence your own DNA?

Robyn Shaw – I’m sure I have.

You’ve got to be so careful when you’re preparing samples

Rose Kerr – Oh yeah!

Robyn Shaw – Because you just get your DNA in there all the time.

Rose Kerr – Would you know if you had accidentally done that?

Robyn Shaw – Luckily, a lot of the stuff we do is very species specific.

Rose Kerr – Okay.

Robyn Shaw – I think working in like a forensics lab would be so hard, but we have a lot of protocols in place so that we don’t do that. But yeah, who knows, maybe it’s slipped through a few times.

Rose Kerr – It would be easy to do by accident.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – With that in mind, if you could take a, we’ll call it a superpower, if you could take something from an animal and put it in your own DNA to give yourself a superpower. What would you pick?

Robyn Shaw – Um, maybe like the nudibranchs, the sea slugs. You can see them around Perth. If you go snorkelling, they sequester toxins from other animals that they eat and put it in their skin.

Rose Kerr – Oh, that’s cool.

Robyn Shaw – So but yeah, then nothing can eat them. Maybe I do that.

Rose Kerr – That’s very cool.

Robyn Shaw – Not that I’m really worried about anyone eating me.

But I think I would just do it for laughs

Rose Kerr – That’s really cool.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Which are the most challenging animals that you’ve had to work with to trap them?

Robyn Shaw – Um… I think I helped out on a project with Mountain brushtail possums in Victoria. Yeah. And they are very cute but also, they have very big claws. So when you catch them some of them are super chilled out because it’s a really long, ongoing project. And they’ve probably been trapped like three times a year for 15 years or something like that. And so they’re just like, Alright, I got my apple, I’m good.

Rose Kerr – Awww!

Robyn Shaw – But some of them the whole way back carrying them on your back in the bag, you can just feel their claws digging into your back

Rose Kerr – That’s so stressful. With the little ones like, not so bad I imagine

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, they, you often get like bites on your fingers. But I’d prefer that over big claws in my back, I think.

Rose Kerr – Do you ever have moments of like, I don’t know, when you are in just remote Australia, and you’re working with these animals that a lot of people don’t even know exist, do you just have a moment of “I have a really weird job”?

Robyn Shaw – Yeah. I think it’s more a moment of like, I just have an amazing job.

Rose Kerr – Yeah

Robyn Shaw – Because there aren’t that many jobs where you just get to see, like the sun rise and set every day, you get to go walk down these random creek lines that I don’t think people would bother going for a walk down if they had the choice. But you know, that’s where your species is. So you’ll go see these spots that, yeah, there’s no reason for other people to go to. And you just get to have this really, I guess, intricate view of a tiny little area, you know it so well, and you get to see so many different animals going about their business, I think, yeah, it’s probably more about like, my job is weird, but it’s awesome.

Rose Kerr – On the flip side of that, though, they’re long days and that’s hard physical work.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, for sure. Yeah.

Rose Kerr – How do you handle that?

Robyn Shaw – Oh, I think I mean, people who do it all the time, like, it’s amazing. I don’t know how they do it, it’s really hard work. But when you’re doing it for a project where you know, you’ll be, it’s not forever, I think I’ve always found it pretty easy to kind of like, you know, the end is in sight. If it’s a long day, well, it’s not going to be forever. So just try and enjoy it while it lasts. And then I guess just sometimes you have bad days. Sometimes you’re exhausted, and you just need to go sit in your tent for a little while. But yeah, I really enjoy that kind of physical work. Because on the flip side, you often spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer or at a lab bench. So it’s really nice to have that kind of balance I think.

Rose Kerr – This is a very simple question. But when you are studying a species’ DNA, Mm hmm. Like, what are you doing? Are you at a computer looking at A’s and T’s and G’s and C’s, like, are you looking down a microscope, how – like what does actually look like?

Robyn Shaw – So most of the time, now, we’ve got these companies that you can send DNA off to, and they do the sequencing. But it depends on what type of sequencing you’re doing. So what we usually do now is we’ll extract the DNA. And then we send it off to a company that randomly chops it up, and then puts it through a sequencer, which spits out all the A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s. And then we get certain sections of the DNA all lined up so that you’ve got every individual at the same spot. And you can look through that region of the genome and see whether there are differences. So you’ll have a spreadsheet that tells you this individual had an A, this one had an A but this one has a C. And so by having a big spreadsheet that’s got all of the different locations in the genome, where there are differences between individuals, you can start to kind of see, okay, these ones all have the same DNA, these ones have a different mutation. So they’re probably from two separate genetic clusters or two populations. So yeah, lots of lots of ones and zeros. But yeah, some people do entire sequences. So they’re kind of comparing all of the bases and having a look at that. Some people compare the kind of more coding DNA. So yeah, it really depends on what your question is, I guess,

Rose Kerr – When you’re thinking about whether or not two individuals are in a different species, is there a role for how different their sequences have to be to be like they’re different?

Robyn Shaw – That’s a whole kettle of fish you’re getting into there!

Rose Kerr – Yeah, I thought it might have been.

Robyn Shaw – There’s a whole lot of different species concepts, and I guess it’s gotten easier and harder with DNA. So it used to be based, I guess, more on kind of whether things were able to mate, that sort of thing. morphology. So what do they look like? Do they look different? Now we have DNA, we can actually see how similar they are, we can start to try and resolve some of these things. But DNA keeps getting better and better, the technologies to sequence it. So before we might have been basing that on one little fragment of DNA from a mitochondria, now we can do it based on an entire genome, so even though it seems like it should be really clear cut, it’s always changing. We’re always kind of figuring out new things. And I guess at the end of the day, it’s a bit of an arbitrary line that we draw. As humans, we like to group things, but everything is kind of more distantly or closely related. It’s kind of a continuum.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, I think that’s why I really like population genetics, because it doesn’t focus so much on kind of splitting species and things like that. It’s more about understanding how each component builds up.

Rose Kerr – Yeah.

Robyn Shaw – So yeah, population is part of a meta population is part of a species. So it’s kind of fun understanding those different levels of biodiversity.

Rose Kerr – Definitely, it would change as well. I imagine the conservation actions you then decide to take?

Robyn Shaw – Exactly. I think that’s where listing species is really important. Not naming species is important, because it’s hard to protect something if it’s not named. We can’t put it on our lists to say, we need to protect this…

Rose Kerr – …if you don’t know in the first place.

Robyn Shaw – Exactly.

Rose Kerr – Yeah. What are some unexpected skills that you’ve picked up in your research lifetime?

Robyn Shaw – Probably being really good at like popping open a tube one handed?

Rose Kerr – Oh, that’s a good one.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, I think that one, I’m also incredibly clumsy. So – and also a bit of a short attention span. I think I’ve learned a lot of ways to kind of counter that. For example, if you’re kind of in the lab, pipetting in various liquids into different tubes and plates, I’ve got all of these different strategies to make sure that when I inevitably vague out and lose track of where I am, I can look at count the number of pipette tips or something.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, that is a good one.

Robyn Shaw – Yeah, lots of little tricks. So yeah, that’s probably the main one. Also very good at holding animals in bags, which I don’t think ever applies anywhere else.

Rose Kerr – But it is a strangely specific skill

Robyn Shaw – Yeah

Rose Kerr – In carrying like you said, a possum on your back is a bit of a weird one.

Robyn Shaw – Exactly

Rose Kerr – What skills are required to be good at your job?

Robyn Shaw – I think, yeah, a very intense curiosity. It’s really awesome to work with people who are just really interested in how things work, how the world works, and also a passion for conservation and how we can do things better. I think, yeah, just just being really passionate and excited about what you’re doing is really important. Because to be honest, there’s just so many different things you can do as an ecologist, like from day to day, I could be in the field or in the lab, or in front of the computer coding or doing some random statistical analysis, and any of these things you can kind of focus on, or you could branch off and do something totally different. But I think all of this stuff is really interesting when we come together and collaborate and learn from each other. So if you’re just really interested in it, I think that’s the main, the main thing,

Rose Kerr – Yeah, to keep that drive going.

Robyn Shaw – Exactly.

Rose Kerr – Do you ever wish you get to work with a different kind of animal?

Robyn Shaw – I don’t think so. Because I think while I love, the animals that I work on, it’s… normally the kind of work I do isn’t so much driven by the species. I really, I get really interested in a question. And then we find the species that helps us address that question.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, yeah.

Robyn Shaw – Or there’s a landscape that we really want to protect, you know, do better with our conservation management strategies, or our fire management strategies or something. And so we can test whether our management is working by looking into a certain species, or a certain group of species. So yeah, I think I think I just really like working on a big range of different animals.

Rose Kerr – That’s completely fair.

Now, the final section, which I don’t doubt you have had, you have so many of these, I was hoping to get your favourite Fun Fact.

Robyn Shaw – Um, yeah. So I had to think it’s hard to come up with just one. But I thought, since I’m working in the Pilbara at the moment, I should come up with an arid or semi arid fact. So I thought a good one was to talk about how incredible our mammal species are at adapting to arid conditions.

Rose Kerr – Oh, yeah?

Robyn Shaw – So we’ve got a huge range of animals that live in Australia’s arid zones. And I guess one of the main challenges for them is how do they deal with not having very much water. And so one species, the spinifex hopping mouse has the most efficient, tiny kidneys. What it does is it doesn’t drink water because obviously free standing water is quite hard to come by. So it gets all of the water it needs from its food, seeds and things like that. And then it’s kidney- kidneys will recycle that over and over and over again until finally what it pees out is solid.

Rose Kerr – Wow!

Robyn Shaw – So there’s no loss.

Rose Kerr – That’s amazing!

Robyn Shaw – Yeah. And then they’ve also got these incredible big ears which help with heat loss, and they hop which is a very efficient way of conserving energy.

Rose Kerr – Who would’ve thought! That’s so cool. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Robyn Shaw – No worries! It was a pleasure.


Rose Kerr – Thanks for listening to the Particle Podcast. You can find more of our content on all of the socials, as well as at Particle is powered by Scitech, and everything we make is made in the wonderful science hub that is Western Australia, on Whadjuk country.

Rose Kerr
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Rose Kerr
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