Researcher creates world’s first database of animal ‘odors’ using shingleback lizards

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This article was reviewed according to Science

Shingleback lizard tries to look scary. Willandra National Park, New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Kasia-aus/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

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Shingleback lizard tries to look scary. Willandra National Park, New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Kasia-aus/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Scientists have used bobtail lizards to create the world’s first database of “smells” from a living animal.

The researchers collected bobtails – or shinglebacks as they are known in Australia’s eastern states – from all over Australia, including Western Australia. They then analyzed the volatile organic compounds (also called smelly chemicals) released by the lizards.

It is hoped the technology can be used to detect bobtails being illegally smuggled in luggage and other cargo.

Wildlife forensics expert Dr. Amber Brown led the research as a Ph.D. student at the University of Technology Sydney and the Australian Museum Research Institute. She says the results should shine a spotlight on wannabe wildlife traffickers.

“I found that 44 habitats were distributed across all habitat types and captive shingles,” says Amber. “So those are good targets for detection.”

The romantic lizards

Because short-tailed lizards are often found basking in our gardens, most Australians probably wouldn’t expect these shy creatures to be one of the most poached Australian animals.

One lizard can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the global black market. According to Dr. Brown, many are taken from the wild and illegally exported as exotic pets.

“This is especially challenging for the shingleback because they are monogamous,” she says. “They also give birth in sets of twins, so their reproduction rate isn’t great.”

Catching a scent

Dr. Brown moved to Australia from the United States to pursue her PhD, dreaming of becoming a crocodile hunter like Steve Irwin.

“I have always loved Australian wildlife, especially reptiles,” she says. “It was a dream come true to have the opportunity to pursue a PhD in this field, to work with these animals and achieve positive results.”

Her research is based on the principles of her supervisor’s work, which uses scents to detect human remains.

Theoretically, Dr. Brown that she could use two-dimensional gas chromatography in combination with mass spectrometry instruments during flight. But just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s easy. It took Brown a full year to adapt the method for bobtails.

“I had to make the dimensions for the sample container,” she says. “I had to look at how I could decontaminate the sampling container without harming the animals, by removing all (volatile organic compounds) from the sampling container without using toxic chemicals.

“Then I had to see how much time I needed to let the animals stay in the box so that they could produce their odors. How long I collected them without stressing the animal. Which material was best to capture their odors? how the instrument can best be adapted.”

According to Dr. Brown bobtails can emit different odors depending on their size, age, sex, diet, genetics and whether they have ticks. She says her research has also linked certain smells to individual regions. It means scientists may be able to identify where seized lizards come from and return them to their home environments.

Although the technology is not yet ready for use by border security, Dr. Brown that science is constantly developing better detection methods.

“There’s a lot of potential,” she says. “It’s not a perfect method yet, but I think we’re on the right track, and that’s exciting.”

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