Jawoyn Rangers have been working alongside researchers who have, for the first time, worked out how to trace endangered species by analysing water taken from drinking holes.

Researchers from Charles Darwin University, the University of Western Australia and the Northern Territory Environment Department have developed a method of using environmental DNA (eDNA) to track the endangered Gouldian Finch.

Once common across northern Australia, Gouldian Finch populations have plummeted due to altered habitats, poor fire management, feral predators and illegal wildlife trade.

In the past decade there have been a number of projects dedicated to monitoring the finches and gathering data on Jawoyn country, particularly in the Yinberrie Hills area, which has been seen as one of the remaining finch strongholds

The birds need to drink frequently and so researchers have turned their focus to using eDNA from sampled water holes around Yinberrie Hills to detect where the finches are congregating.

The team have done this by developing a test that can identify estrildid finches from a fragment of mitochondrial DNA and formulating a probe specifically designed to detect Gouldian finch DNA.

They needed to do this to distinguish the colourful Gouldians from other estrildid species such as masked finches (Poephila personata) and long-tailed finches (P. acuticauda) that often flock together at the same waterholes.

The study, published in Endangered Species Research, has found that Gouldian finch eDNA could be reliably detected from a 200 mL water sample collected from waterholes the birds had visited in the previous 48 hours.

At waterholes with the highest number of birds, Gouldian finch DNA was still detectable 14 days after sample collection, regardless of whether the sample was stored at room temperature or refrigerated.

It’s an exciting development in the move to restore Gouldian finch populations, as the study paves the way for Jawoyn rangers and scientists to keep track of the Gouldian finches’ movements by enabling them to collect small water samples.

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