The Future of: Biosecurity & Animal Conservation

Featuring Dr Katarina Mikac

“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same five questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Dr Katarina Mikac is a Senior Lecturer for the School of Biology at UOW. She holds an interest in invasion biology, genetics & diagnostics for integrated pest management and also conservation biology & genetics for conservation management of spotted tailed quolls and squirrel gliders in New South Wales, Australia.

She is the principal scientist and founder of Team Quoll Illawarra and Southern Highlands, a group of concerned scientists, students and citizen scientists who focus on conservation of threatened species in the South Coast Region of NSW.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

I'm working on two main research streams. The first is quarantine and food biosecurity issues related to insects (beetles mostly) that are major pests of the food crops we eat, like corn and wheat. The second stream is on the conservation biology and genetics of threatened mammals such as spotted-tail quolls and squirrel gliders. I try to incorporate the latest technology into my research to make sure that I'm advancing our findings as much as possible. At the moment I'm excited about using drones in my research and teaching. My students and I will be using drones to help us conduct vegetation and wildlife field surveys. I recently got my drone (remote) pilot licence and I'm excited to be teaching such emerging technologies in the new Master of Science that UOW is offering from 2019. It’s an exciting time.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the most innovative or exciting things emerging over the next few years?

The use of facial recognition technology, including artificial intelligence, in the field of conservation biology is exciting. My team and I have developed a program to individually identify small mammals using a modified wildlife camera trap design coupled with facial recognition software and we’re moving into the realms of deep learning and artificial intelligence to achieve our vision of being able to count individual animals without the need to physically trap them. Live trapping is expensive and very demanding on researchers and trapping is especially difficult when you’re dealing with a threatened species and there’s not many of them to trap in the first place. Individual animals within a species are sometimes indistinguishable from each other too, so it makes it very difficult to work out numbers in a population. The facial recognition work we’re doing will help us overcome this.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the things readers should be cautious/wary of over the next few years?

In one word: quarantine.

Australia is an island continent and we are very lucky because of this. Many of the human, animal and plant diseases that are so common elsewhere in the world are absent from Australia and while this is in part because of our unique geography it is also because of the immense efforts of Australian quarantine and biosecurity officers and scientists.

My own biosecurity research keeps me busy tracking down invasive insect pathways and migration routes both in Australia and globally. I’ve been working on this issue for 16 years and use many different scientific methods (DNA, live trapping, and forensic techniques) to track insect movement patterns and try and predict their next path of invasion and geographic entry route into a country. My work repeatedly has shown that insects are amazing stowaways and quietly travel with us and commodities we transport wherever we go; we are a hop-on-hop-off tour bus for them.

Given how connected we are with the rest of the world, an invasive insect can make it to the other side of the world overnight in economy, business or first class. If that insect was travelling with its mates and one or more of the group was gravid (carrying eggs) then a population of that insect could be transported to an environment that is free of its natural predators and diseases. Once an insect population is in a place where none of the usual controls are in place, the population can lie dormant for a period of time (usually 10 years) before it becomes established and thrives. Once it begins to thrive, it will spread, and that’s when we begin to notice associated problems - massive crop losses, plant/food crop diseases. These invasions can sometimes also have catastrophic consequences for native plants and animals.

So, next time you are travelling overseas, just have a quick check of your belongings and make sure that you don’t have any stowaways. By doing this, you will have done your bit to strengthen Australia’s rich natural environment and world class agriculture. You’ll also have made my job a little easier.

In terms of conservation, small things make big differences and the citizen science movement is one of the most important things to happen to conservation science in a very long time. As scientists we can only be in one place at a time. But with the help citizen scientists we can be in hundreds of places at once. The data that we get is far greater and so much more valuable than what we could get on our own or within our small research groups.

I am the principal scientist of a local conservation research group called Team Quoll and our work is helped by our dedicated citizen scientists who keep us informed of quoll sightings in the Illawarra and South Coast as well as provide us with quoll specimens that turn up. This assistance and collected data has been invaluable and we’ve used it to understand the biology, genetics and ecology and assist in the conservation management of quolls in or region.

Anyone can become a citizen scientist. As soon as you pay attention to the plants and animals in your part of the world and report things you observe about those plants and animals to groups like Team Quoll you have directly contributed to and positively shaped the conservation biology and management of a threatened species.

Where do you believe major opportunities lie for youth thinking about future career options?

I firmly believe that young people should be preparing for the unknown and I mean that in a very positive way. Preparing for the unknown is best done by developing your creative intelligence, that means learning how to think outside of the normal conventional box to come up with ways to problem solve that are different to what you know from your core discipline knowledge.

I think that young people need to become comfortable with change and unafraid to borrow ideas and concepts that work in one discipline and be ready to make it work in another. So yes, get grounding in one area of knowledge (e.g. structural engineering, biomedical science etc.) but be open to a path of lifelong learning in other disciplines (law, ecology, conservation etc.) and always ready to use the knowledge and skills you’ve learned in one for the benefit of the other.

In regards to your field of study or expertise, what is the best piece of advice you could offer to our readers?

In regards to quarantine and biosecurity, be mindful of how easy it is to transport invasive plants and animals into Australia when we travel. Get into the habit of checking your luggage and clothing for any insects or seeds or the like and get rid of them before you come back to Australia. You could save Australia billions of dollars in future agriculture and production losses and help out some of our many threatened species from extinction. It’s up to all of us to be mindful of this and it really only take a few insects to cause a full on invasion in a country: red imported fire ants, western corn rootworm, and so many more invasive insect species, enter into countries in very small numbers but have a devastating impact. Small actions really can have big consequences.

In regards to animal conservation, find out about some of the plants and animals in your neighbourhood that are threatened and get to know what they look like and where they might live. Nationally endangered animals like spotted tailed quolls might be living in your backyard, especially if you have a property that is near or backs onto the Illawarra escarpment. Knowing more about them will help in their conservation and help ensure their survival. Any information you pass onto scientists about the threatened species is good information and immediately grants you your citizen scientist licence. We do genuinely need you - the citizen scientist – to help. We can’t do it alone. We need all the help we can get.

In regards to life, learn to embrace failure and setbacks. There’s so much positivity in such events. Scientists often experience failure and setbacks but they can use their knowledge and skills to find creative solutions to problems and eventually produce - often wonderful and exciting - findings with benefits for the whole of society.

The major lesson that you learn early on as a scientist is that in each of the failures there is the promise of success by simply choosing to not repeat whatever it was that caused the initial failure. So don’t give up. We need everyone’s knowledge and creative intelligence to navigate the challenges our global society throws at us constantly. It’s a team effort.

For more from Dr Katarina Mikac you can visit her UOW Scholars profile, which links to her papers and publications.

To read more about Team Quoll read this story in The Stand or go to their Facebook page