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Digging into bilby conservation at a deeper (genetic) level with Brianna Coulter

Today we speak with Brianna Coulter whose PhD looks at factors influencing translocation outcomes for the threatened Bilby. She shares her journey that led her to the work she has done to improve understanding and conservation outcomes for bilby translocations as well as tips and tricks on how you can work in wildlife conservation today!

Digging into Bilby conservation at a deeper (genetic) level with Brianna Coulter | #itsawildlife

A nocturnal, burrowing, marsupial, the Greater Bilby is one of two bilby species surviving following the extinction of the Lesser Bilby around the 1930s. However, the Greater Bilby is nationally Vulnerable, primarily due to predation by feral cats and foxes as well as habitat loss and potentially climate change in the near future.

Bilbies once covered about 70 % of Australia’s mainland but have experienced significant population decline and range contraction and are now found in small, isolated populations across the mainland including islands and fenced reserves for conservation. While fenced areas are an important strategy for Bilby conservation (and they are one of the most translocated species in Australia!) it is also important to consider genetic diversity and reduce inbreeding for their ongoing survival and population resilience.

There are many “supplementary” translocations that aim to mix up genetic diversity by moving animals between populations but little is known about whether these translocations actually succeed at this. Brianna has looked at factors influencing the genetic, health and behavioral outcomes of translocation for both resident and newly translocated animals.

Brianna has been busy working across 3 bilby reintroduction sites:

Brianna has monitored movements and home range shifts in resident and newly introduced bilbies using VHF and GPS trackers at some sites. She has also re-caught animals at regular intervals to check their health, reproductive status and take small genetic samples for young born in their new homes to test the longer-term impacts of translocations on bilby health and genetic connectedness.

At Sturt National Park, the Wild Desert Project constructed 2 fenced areas, “north” and “south”. Initially, 10 bilbies were first released into south exclosure in September 2020 and in May 2021 an additional 10 bilbies were released into the same area and another 20 were separately released into the other “north” exclusure without any resident bilbies. This has been an incredible way for Brianna to best compare the impacts of translocation success between “habited” and “uninhabited” sites, as well as the health, behaviour, movement and genetics between animals.

With her fieldwork complete (several successful translocations later!), Brianna is now in the final stages of her PhD: extracting DNA in the lab and writing up her thesis. And she has some promising preliminary results: supplementary bilbies translocated to Arid Recovery have spread out to occupy the same habitat as the resident bilbies without conflict… and started breeding right away!

Projects like Brianna’s are incredibly important for bilby conservation, especially at the genetic level for maintaining population viability within isolated populations for the long-term. Translocations can be resource intensive and stressful experiences, for the people and animals involved – which is why increasing the certainty and understanding of benefits and outcomes is so crucial in informing the decisions made to optimize the outcomes of translocations for species conservation.

Although conservation fencing is not necessarily a viable longer-term solution for threatened species conservation, it is an important stepping stone in the shorter-term – and the only way to ensure vulnerable species like the Bilby don’t go disappear on our watch.

Brianna’s story

Brianna has always been interested in and concerned about wildlife conservation. Her first exposure to the science of conservation was a small project investigating echidna sperm at the end of her undergraduate degree in biotechnology. Brianna completed her honours on sperm-egg binding in mice and when her prospective PhD project fell through, she spent several years working in heart and stroke research (wow!).

In what would become her final year of work in medical research, Brianna had an epiphany – although medical research is important, the things she most enjoyed (in nature) were being destroyed – and she wanted to spend her time protecting nature in a tangible way.

She decided to test the waters as a volunteer on a biodiversity survey in the Piliga National Park, a property managed for conservation in partnership by Australian Wildlife Conservancy and NSW National Parks. It was here she felt sure that this was the path for her: she fell in love with the pitfall trapping, the people and appreciating the native fauna.

And of course, serendipitously, the perfect PhD project came up with a great model combining genetics, translocation, monitoring and a landscape-scale conservation perspective. And here we are. While the project focused on bilbies, it could be extended to many species. After all –

“Bilbies are just one of the many threatened species that need help”

Brianna Coulter, PhD candidate
The biggest moments

Brianna has loved so many aspects of the project – the translocation experiences, the skills she has built, the people she has met and her incredible supervisors – Rebecca West, Katherine Moseby and Richard Kingsford.

“One of the most memorable times in my PhD was packing up traps on our last day at Arid Recovery having removed all tracking devices on the bilbies, just before heavy rains closed the soaked desert roads for days. The timing was perfect!”

“Another amazing experience was flying over the Flinders Ranges on a charter flight stacked with pet packs full of bilbies destined for release at Wild Deserts. After spending the whole night catching them on Thistle Island, I had to pinch myself”

PhDs are not always smooth sailing, and Brianna also had her fair share of problems to solve throughout the experience: flat tyres, missing transmitters, COVID lockdowns, drought and the challenges of sample size when conducting fieldwork with threatened species to name the big ones.

Digging into bilby conservation at a deeper (genetic) level with Brianna Coulter | #itsawildlife
Tips to get involved in wildlife conservation today!

If you see yourself doing something amazing like Brianna, we got ya! These are Brianna’s top 5 tips for working in wildlife conservation:

When considering a PhD,

  • Think about your why and your goals (what you want out of it) – PhDs are full of ups and downs and you need to find your motivation
  • Break down big tasks and focus on small wins – this makes it easier to keep going
  • Do your homework when it comes to choosing your supervisors and topic (look into research, personalities, papers) – ensure you have a good dynamic and working relationship

And to get involved in wildlife conservation, YOU can make a positive difference today,

  • Your voice is powerful – advocate for more money and action towards conservation
  • Support conservation work by donating to keep it going
  • Get involved – the conservation industry would be lost without volunteers – there are some amazing experiences to be had (so it definitely goes both ways!)

Working in wildlife conservation gives you such a cool life! Although there are challenges it can be so rewarding so if you are interested – you should go for it!

Keep in touch

You can follow Brianna’s adventures on Instagram @zuperbri and Twitter @briannacoulter.

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What are your thoughts? Do you have questions or feedback for us? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch by email, in the comments or you can use social media like Instagram.


Brianna has 3 incredible ecologists who have overseen her project: Rebecca West, Katherine Moseby and Richard Kingsford. The project was carried out in collaboration with Arid Recovery, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, NSW National Parks and Wild Desert Project (University of NSW).

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