Our New ARC Grant on Motor Performance and Ageing

If you thought turning 30 was bad, you're not going to like this. 

We lose more than 0.5% of our muscle mass each year after 30, which decreases our ability to run, jump, swim and perform virtually any motor task. Age-related muscle loss (known as sarcopenia) increases our risk of dying due to injury and even illness, as the proteins in our muscles are a major source of fuel for our immune systems.

Elderly sea gypsy weaves nets in Phuket, Thailand

Elderly sea gypsy weaves nets in Phuket, Thailand

Bike riding in Sri Lanka         Photo credit: Getty Images

Bike riding in Sri Lanka        Photo credit: Getty Images

Luckily, there's a simple solution to the problem: getting off the couch.

Exercise improves the efficiency of muscle metabolism and makes muscles more protein-dense, which helps slow ageing. We live longer, healthier lives. 

For humans, motor ageing affects the quality and length of life. But what about animals? In nature, motor function literally means life or death, as individuals have to escape predators and catch prey to survive. They also have to find mates to reproduce. They have to run over varied terrain, in the night or day, driving rain or blazing sun, with varied body sizes and shapes. Males may have dangling testicles, females may have dangling babies. And they have to do all this while avoiding catastrophic injury. 

Last week, our research team - A/Prof Robbie Wilson, Dr Diana Fisher, Dr Hamish Campbell, Dr Celine Frere and me - got a major grant from the Australian Research Council to study a critical aspect of animal performance: how an animal's habitat affects its motor development and ageing

Well-endowed male antechinus

Well-endowed male antechinus

Male antechinus

Male antechinus

What does habitat have to do with anything? We believe that within a species, individuals living in more-complex (i.e. rocky or diverse or steep) environments will have better motor function and slower motor ageing than those living in simpler (flat or unvaried) environments. This will help them live longer and produce more offspring.

Over the next 3 years, we'll be testing these ideas on small mammals - including quolls and antechinus - both in the wild and in captivity. At our field sites, we'll use GPS trackers to understand how animals use complex versus simple habitats, and how this affects their motor performance, ageing and mating. At our research facility, we'll raise animals in complex versus simple habitats to measure differences in performance, muscle physiology and mating success between environments and over lifetimes. 

Our study will show how habitat use affects motor performance and ageing in wild animals, which is key to their conservation. But more than that, we hope to shed light on a new way of thinking about motor rehabilitation. Over 50% of elderly people will experience debilitating muscle loss in their lifetimes, yet little is known about how the complexity  of movement affects muscle quality.

So this is some of what we'll be doing these next few years! If you're interested in collaborating, volunteering or learning more, please get in touch - we'd love to hear from you. (amandacniehaus@gmail.com or a.niehaus@uq.edu.au)

*This post was originally published here .

Source: https://wilsonperformancelab.squarespace.c...

From the field: Studying endangered northern quolls on Groote Eylandt

It's a new year, which means there's new research to be done as I delve into my PhD. But before I start writing about that, I want to write about a somewhat related experience I was lucky enough to have last year.

In August/September, I got to join my labmates Ami, Jaime, and Gwen up on Groote Eylandt, which is a large island off the coast of the Northern Territory owned and run by the Anindilyakwa people. The reason: to help them out with their research on the endangered Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus).

Catwoman, a pretty little female Northern Quoll ( Dasyurus hallucatus ). 

Catwoman, a pretty little female Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus). 

A classy addition to any accessory collection. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

A classy addition to any accessory collection. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

Now, if you’ve ever been to Australia, you probably have heard the story of the Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) – even if it’s just via one of the many delightful novelty souvenirs available in Australian tourist shops.

The cane toad is an extremely successful invasive species that was introduced into Australia in 1935 to eat a beetle that was negatively affecting the cane industry (which it didn’t), and since then it has spread down the East coast and across the Northern Territory, and is slowly making its way down the West coast as well. One of the reasons Groote Eylandt is so amazing is because it is one of the few areas up North that has remained cane toad-free. Because of this exclusion, it is the last stronghold population of the endangered Northern Quoll, whose numbers have been decimated via their predation on this toxic species. This makes Groote an ideal location to study the quoll in its natural habitat, as numbers are high enough for recapture studies to generate useful amounts of data.

A magical sunset in the bush next to the highway to Umbakumba.                                              Ami measuring one of our little darlings. 

I was on Groote Eylandt for 5 weeks helping Ami with data collection for her PhD project. As well as stunning landscapes and amazing native animals, Groote Eylandt is also home to a large manganese mine. All animals need some amount of manganese to function, but like any heavy metal it can be toxic in high concentrations. For her PhD, Ami is looking at how quolls from different parts of the island (that have been exposed to different amounts of manganese) perform in motor control and cognitive function tests. We are lucky enough to have access to laboratory facilities at the Anindilyakwa Land and Sea Ranger Station, where we get to work with the Rangers to figure out how to do our research in a way that is compatible with indigenous culture.

We went out every night and set 30-60 traps in one of our three trapping areas various distances from the manganese mine, which we then checked first thing the next morning. If we were lucky, we’d see white spots and hear some angry growling – otherwise it was rather likely that we’d caught one of the other marsupials that populate the area. We then transported our precious bundles back to the lab at the Anindilyakwa Ranger Station where we sexed them, weighed them, took various morphological measures and a hair sample (to get their internal manganese concentration from) and pit- and ear-tagged them.

Alfred, a feisty (and adorable) little male. 

Lastly, we’d gather information on their level of motor control. I won’t give away too many details, but we basically assessed their performance at various speeds and analysed how many mistakes they made depending on the difficulty of the task and the speed at which they performed it. We would expect that as speed and/or “difficulty” of the task increases, the quolls will make more mistakes. The reasons for this are very intuitive and you will probably have observed them in your own life; as you do things faster you have less control over your movements and are more likely to make an error. Similarly, if a task is difficult, you’re more likely to make a mistake than if it’s relatively easy. What Ami wants to know is whether the manganese concentration the quoll has been exposed to enhances this effect – i.e., whether high manganese concentrations affect motor control.

Back to the bush you go.                                                                                                                              Having a sniff out of the corner of his bag. 

Ami also wants to look at whether manganese concentration affects cognitive function in the quolls – but that’s for her to write about! She’ll continue to run these experiments for the next two years, and hopefully get some excellent results. I was very lucky to be involved in helping out with this project, as many of the techniques she used will be helpful in my own PhD.

Although quolls were the main attraction for us, Groote Eylandt has plenty of other amazing qualities that made my trip there one of the most memorable ventures into the field that I’ve ever had. We are extremely privileged to be able to conduct research there, and I learned more about indigenous culture than I ever thought I would. I also saw loads of awesome animals and plants, and got to spend a lot of time in the field – which is definitely one of the best ways to spend it.

A Mertens' Water Monitor (Varanus mertensi) chilling by Milyerrngmurramaja (the "Naked Pools"). These guys are also threatened by ingestion of the cane toads. A Striated Pardalote (Pardalotus striatus) that was nesting next to the Anindilyakwa Ranger Station.

A Burton's Legless Lizard (Lialis burtonis) we found while we were setting traps near Alyangula. A Helmeted Friarbird (Philemon buceroides) next to the highway to Umbakumba.

I’d like to say a huge thank-you to my lab for this opportunity, but most especially to Ami, Jaime and Gwen for teaching me so many new skills and being the best bush-buddies ever. I’m looking forward to future adventures with the Wilson Performance Lab as I start my PhD on another kind of carnivorous marsupial… the Yellow-footed Antechinus (Antechinus flavipes)!

Sunset on the beach at Ayangkwa ("Tasman Point"). 

All images by Rebecca Wheatley unless otherwise credited.

Fieldwork, Groote Eylandt, NT

Leaving Darwin, the propellers outside hummed loudly (reassuringly). We pressed our noses to the windows, looked out on the wild top coast of Australia. The fires lit by thousands of years of tradition. And then, we were there. Over the mines, into the red dirt.

the GEMCO manganese mine

the GEMCO manganese mine

On the deck with Jennifer and her niece; with Chopper; with MacBook Pro

We drove east to Umbakumba then headed into the bush on sandy tracks. We set up tents on top of a berm, feeling {relatively} safe from water-borne crocs and collected firewood from the beach. We watched a heavy moon pull itself up into the sky.

Picnic Beach, Groote Eylandt | Jaime and Eddie set out, bait, and mark quoll traps

Under Jaime's guidance, we set out traps for quolls, hoping to catch at least a few to obtain measurements and hair samples.

We caught 4. Plus a few bandicoots. It was good enough for Jaime to get her samples, and good enough for me - these were the first wild quolls I'd seen.

 

It was only a week ago we got back from Groote Eylandt. What a special place. Wild, and raw, and special. An island of contrasts, between a traditional culture and a modern mining industry. An island with a lot of crocodiles.

It was my first trip up, and Nelle came along. We met the Rangers and friends and family and Gavin and Kerry and the rest of the team and Alex-from-Stanford. We drank tea on the deck at the Ranger station, and packed up everything {but petrol} for a quoll-catching venture to the east side of the island. {Former labmate} Billy was appointed Ranger Coordinator. We learned our first Anindilyakwan words. We entertained Nelle, and learned the value of ABC for Kids downloads {and PhD students}.

A quoll curled up in its very own, custom-made pillowcase | fishing for dinner

We were almost as successful catching fish ... the ocean here teems with them {apparently} but we didn't have much luck. Three fish only made it into our bellies.

That's ok. We had plenty of patience ... and potatoes. 

- written byAmanda Niehaus

How to Catch and Process a Quoll*

*and no ... we're not making sausages out of them ...


So how do you catch a feisty little marsupial, that's nocturnal and ground-dwelling and generally doesn't like to be caught?
Ecologists typically use baited traps, but of a sort that aren't likely to harm the captured animal - like this Elliott Trap, which has a door that springs shut when the animal steps inside.

Just before dark, our intrepid quoll-catchers set out the traps (with goodies inside) and then return to camp to give the quolls a chance to find - and take - the bait.


When a quoll's been captured, we take it back to the lab to 'process' it. Which sounds really suss but actually just means that we measure them and add tracking and identification devices to them. This is so we can obtain information about the health and size of the quolls, and keep track of particular individuals over time.




After we've taken all the important measurements, it's time to 'mark' the animals. In this study, we mark with ear tags, pit tags (like microchips), and collars - which may seem like overkill, but actually allows us to collect different kinds of data.


Ear tags are like earrings that have a specific number on them, unique to the animal. This means that if we catch this quoll again, we can easily and quickly determine its identity. Ear tags, toe tags, and leg or flipper bands (depending on the animal of focus) are commonly-used by ecologists for this purpose.


Pit tags are the second line of identification ... they're inserted under the skin, and hold all the relevant information about the animal - just like the microchip that you can get for your dog or cat. The coolest thing about pit tags? You read them with a scanner.

(as in, "clean up on aisle 3 ... ")


And collars - they're for the purpose of tracking the animal, using either radio frequencies or GPS (depending on the type of collar). By tracking individuals, ecologists can learn more about how the animals interact with each other, how large their range is, and how much they move around. If you want to know more, we talked about tracking koalas here and here.

After all this, the quoll is released back into the wild ... where it is no longer the anonymous little carnivore it once was.


So now you know how to catch and process a quoll. (Or, for that matter, any animal of ecological interest). Please use your wisdom for good, not evil.

Thanks Gavin, Sean, Robbie, Billy and Bill for the great photos!