From Viral Fossils to Whale Parties: Five science stories that we think you’ll love!

February 10th, 2022

Felt like 2021 went by in a blur? Us too! Here is a selection of intriguing research published in our journals that you may have missed last year.

We have the pleasure of publishing some truly fascinating science in our journals and last year was no exception. But with so much happening in the news, we wouldn’t blame you if you missed some of the research we shared… so here are five stories we think you’ll love.


Not at all a crappy job sniffing out cat scats

Bax and Digger are specially trained detection dogs who help conservation researchers by sniffing out feral cat poop.

In a trial to demonstrate the dogs’ ability to detect cat scats in woodland conservation reserves in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia, they detected 55 per cent of droppings with no false indications. The results, which were published in Wildlife Research, show detection dogs can efficiently search woodlands to find cat droppings, especially when they are fresh.

This job may sound a little on the nose, but the work done by these good dogs has the potential to help the monitoring of feral cats, which are considered a major threat to native wildlife in Australia.

If you think this story stinks, you’ll love our kids’ book Poo, Spew and Other Gross Things Animals Do!, which includes stories of other animal poo detectives just like Bax and Digger, as well as disgusting things animals do to survive and thrive.

Two photos of two dogs outside in a forest. The dog on the left is a Belgian Malinois, and is crouched by a log. The dog on the right, a Labrador retriever cross, runs through the forest.

Bax (left) and Digger (right) are expert sniffers. (Photo: Mark Holdsworth)

Scientists put a ring on spinifex mystery

Iconic spinifex grass, which covers almost a fifth of our continent, grows in rings… but why?

The answer is microbes, according to researchers from University of New South Wales (UNSW), who tested the idea that an accumulation of pathogenic soil microbes might impede seedling emergence and subsequent growth in the centre of spinifex rings.

“When people see rings in the arid land, they tend to think, ‘Oh, it must be to do with water limitation’,” said the paper’s co-author Professor Angela Moles in an article on ABC News. But when she heard about a similar ring-shaped grass that grew in swampy ground, she thought: “That’s it. It’s the same as what’s happening with the spinifex.”

The results of the study, published in Australian Journal of Botany, will help scientists further understand the unique ecology of Australia’s arid grasslands, and adds to the growing recognition of the crucial roles soil microbes play in our ecosystems.

A red soil landscape with circles of spinifex grass dotted throughout.

Turns out it was soil microbes all along. (Photo: Fiona Walsh, Flickr)

Lessons from the extinction of the Paradise Parrot

The Paradise Parrot went extinct almost a century ago and was at that time the only mainland Australian bird species known to have suffered that fate since colonisation.

“The Paradise Parrot was stunningly beautiful but among its misfortunes was the fact that its habitat was not, and failed to meet the aesthetic standards demanded for contemporary national park declarations. It was open, grassy woodland of a kind so common that Australians took it for granted,” writes James Cook University’s Russell McGregor in his paper published in Historical Records of Australian Science.

“We need scientific understanding of how a species’ survival might best be ensured, but we also need a level of emotional engagement with other species to the extent that their survival matters to us in a personal way,” says McGregor in the Guardian.

The Paradise Parrot is also one of the species honoured in a new book Extinct: Artistic Impressions of Our Lost Wildlife, a showcase of stunning artwork and stories of Australian animals that have been lost, as well as Joseph Forshaw’s Vanished and Vanishing Parrots, where the birds are brought to life once more by the brush of renowned wildlife artist Frank Knight.

A painting of three now extinct Paradise Parrots

There is a lot we can learn from the extinction of the Paradise Parrot. (Painting: Frank Knight, Vanished and Vanishing Parrots)

Secret cellular guardians protect marsupials from viruses

Fossils of ancient viruses are preserved in the genomes of all animals, including humans, and have long been regarded as junk DNA. But are they truly junk, or do they serve a useful purpose?

After the examination of DNA and RNA of 13 Australian marsupial species, researchers believe that viral fossils may be helping protect animals from infection.

“This could be a mechanism similar to vaccination, but is inherited through generations. By keeping a viral fossil, the cell is immunised against future infection,” said lead researcher Emma Harding, from UNSW’s School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences in a statement.

“If we can show it occurring in marsupials, it may also be occurring in other animals, including humans. So if we look more closely at the viral fossils inside our DNA, we could potentially get clues about how they may be protecting us.”

They published a review in Microbiology Australia, the open access journal of the Australian Society for Microbiology.

A Tasmanian Devil looking towards the camera.

Tasmanian Devil DNA was one of a number of marsupial species’ DNA analysed for this study. (Photo: David Clode, Unsplash)

Humpbacks head to the Gold Coast to socialise, to Hervey Bay for family time

Scientists have documented humpbacks having a whale of a time in a popular Queensland hot spot, in a study published in Marine and Freshwater Research.

The research team analysed long-term citizen science data collected from not-for-profit organisations Humpbacks and High-Rises (Gold Coast) and The Oceania Project (Hervey Bay), studying movements and behaviours of 5400 humpback whales during their migration through the regions.

Turns out the Gold Coast attracted “more competitive groups and aggressive behaviours”, while Hervey Bay was shown to be “predominantly a resting area for mother-calf pairs.”

“The work demonstrates that long-term citizen science data can make significant contributions to better understand the species habitat preferences,” said Griffith University’s Olaf Meynecke, co-author of the research article, in COSMOS. “Our study also shows that humpback whales need a variety of stopovers during their annual migration to socialise, rest and mate.”

Share the story of whale migrations with young readers, with our gorgeous picture book, Voyage of Whale and Calf.

Four humpback whales, with their heads out of water and mouths open.

“How are yoooOOOOoooooou?” Humpback whales like to catch up on the Gold Coast. (Photo: Vivek Kumar, Unsplash)

Enjoyed these science stories? Visit our website to discover more brilliant research published in journals.