Convincing my husband to support my decision to return to studying after his retirement seemed like a difficult task. However, to my surprise, he was enthusiastic about the idea. He even suggested several interesting topics such as sea turtles, dugongs, and coral reefs. Anything involving a boat in a warm climate had his full support.
Choosing a topic to dedicate three and a half years of study to requires excitement and passion. Despite my husband’s dismay, I decided to immerse myself in the subject of gut bacteria and health, specifically focusing on marsupial feces. As a result, he started jokingly calling me Dr. Poo.
Fortunately, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my interest in fecal matter. Wildlife carers understand the importance of monitoring an animal’s excrement to ensure its health. When I reached out for volunteers to collect feces from wild and captive marsupials across a wide area, it was mainly wildlife carers who answered the call.
I formed a group of around 20 dedicated individuals who would venture out in all weather conditions armed with forceps and zip-lock bags to collect fresh pellets from their resident animals or wild marsupials. They would then label and store the samples in freezers until they could be sent to the university for genetic analysis.
Our goal was to establish a baseline of the normal gut microbiome in different marsupial species at different times of the year and in different areas. This information would help us identify any imbalances in captive animals that could be addressed through dietary changes or supplements.
To facilitate communication with the volunteers, I created a Facebook group called the Marsupial Microbiome Poop Troop. The group attracted some interesting characters, such as Kate, who had a talent for obtaining fresh wombat feces by stalking wild wombats. Another member, Darryl, experienced great distress when his collection of possum feces thawed due to a storm-related power outage.
While our work may sound amusing, it has serious implications for saving marsupial lives, particularly orphaned joeys. These young marsupials arrive at wildlife shelters stressed, injured, and in need of care. Because they are born undeveloped and spend a significant amount of time in their mother’s pouch, they require extended care when orphaned.
The gut microbiome of these orphaned joeys is still developing and can be negatively impacted by the sudden loss of parental care, captivity stress, and a change in diet. This imbalance can lead to infections, diarrhea, and dehydration, which can be fatal. By addressing this imbalance, we hope to increase the success rate of rearing orphaned marsupials and reintroducing them to the wild.
While our study focuses on common marsupial species, the principles we discover may also be applied to endangered species in captive breeding programs. Without the help of the Poop Troop volunteers, it would have been impossible to collect such a wide range of samples consistently. The remaining feces will be kept frozen and made available for future researchers, ensuring that these dedicated individuals have made a valuable contribution to marsupial microbiome research that will continue to benefit wildlife.