Image Source: https://www.abc.net.au/
Children at a primary school south-east of Melbourne have made a significant scientific discovery while collecting bugs.
Kongwak Primary School students were participating in a science program when they found a purple-coloured bug among a collection of grey and brown slaters.
And when this unique bug was examined by experts, it was discovered the South Gippsland students had stumbled upon a rare virus that had only been seen once before in Australia.
The children found the slater, also known as a wood louse, while participating in Bush Blitz, a science program aimed at discovering new species.
They uploaded a picture of the slater, and Melbourne University PhD student James Douch identified that a virus could have made it turn purple because he knew of similar cases overseas.
He is now sequencing the DNA of the slater, which is an invasive species in Australia, to try to work out the origin of the virus.
Kids get involved after COVID-19 changes
Normally, the Bush Blitz program sends scientists to remote areas to find new flora and fauna species, but this year citizen scientists were invited to join in.
Bush Blitz manager Jo Harding said the COVID-19 pandemic meant they had to reinvent the program.
They set up an online site and encouraged participants to send in photos of their backyard discoveries so they could be analysed by scientific experts.
Ms Harding said the initiative had added more than 100,000 new records to the program.
“We’ve had everyone from school kids to retired people who have gotten involved and said, ‘This has made me look at the nature around me that’s just behind my fence’,” she said.
From playground to PhD research
Mr Douch said prior to the discovery he had been searching for virus-affected slaters “for months”.
After the COVID-19 lockdown ended in Victoria, Mr Douch visited the Kongwak students to collect more slater samples and talk to the students.
Year 5 student Lucas Rowson-Pickett was involved in finding additional purple slaters.
“The day James came to pick [the slaters up] … we looked behind the goal posts at school, and we found 12 of them,” Lucas said.
Mr Douch said involving the children in the program showed the value of citizen scientists.
“These kid are able to connect with scientists in the field and that’s something that’s quite special,” he said.
Mr Douch said he was analysing the unique slaters as part of his PhD and hoped to write about his research, which could be the “first published record in the Southern Hemisphere”.