Spotlight on Larissa Slaney: the PhD student harnessing the power of innovative footprint recognition software to save the Cheetah from extinction

By Marian Shivji

One of the many cheetahs cared for by the Na’ankusê Foundation, Namibia. Photo credit: Larissa Slaney, 2017

Like many of us, Larissa’s first career did not turn out to be her calling in life. Whilst studying law in her home country of Germany, Larissa made her way to the UK to pursue an internship at a law firm in 1993. Her stint in Britain lasted a bit longer than expected: 20 years later, Larissa still resides on our little island, on which she met her husband and raised her children. During this time, Larissa’s fascination with the world of science drew her away from her original law career and into a life of scientific research.

Larissa’s new vocation began with a degree in Life Sciences at the Open University. Following this second degree, Larissa found herself volunteering with RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, alongside working for the Edinburgh International Science Festival in the UK and Abu Dhabi. Through working with the public and the various animal enclosures the zoo had to offer, she was exposed to the worlds of conservation and science communication. Her interests in these areas continued to deepen, which prompted her to approach the Head of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. She requested to be given a position within any of the department’s research labs to further cultivate her understanding of the wider biological sciences field.

I thought about which area I wanted to work in and considered everything from microbes to human biology.

The university granted her a two-week placement within a plant molecular biology lab. A year later – in the same position – Larissa had honed a curiosity in genetics.

Larissa then travelled to Africa, where she spent a month working with an animal conservation charity: The Na’ankuse Foundation Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia. At one of the organisation’s research facilities, Larissa was introduced to a novel technology developed by WildTrack to monitor populations out in the wild. It was one of the few places in the world using such technology. The Foot Print Identification Technique – or, ‘FIT’ – harnesses the knowledge of the native trackers who can read an animal’s footprint like a book. The software analyses animal footprints to reveal an individual’s species, sex and age-class with over 90% accuracy. Armed with the possibilities of the software, Larissa reflected on the current means of tracking animals – most notably, for the cheetah.

The cheetah, infamous for their speed and agility, have been classed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Since then, the population has only continued to plummet. In 1900, earth was host to around 100,000 cheetahs. Today? The figure of the global wild population is closer to 7,000. Further research highlights that cheetahs are heading towards extinction and should more aptly be classified as ‘Endangered’. Whilst research in cheetah conservation has burgeoned in response to this crash in numbers, the focus tends to be on issues like trophy hunting and other protective forms of conservation.  A crucial piece missing from the research is the major contributing factor of genetics. Cheetahs have an approximate 99% gene identity due to their small population size. This inbreeding has led to deterioration of the population’s reproductive health, greatly contributing to the high infant mortality rate. Knowledge and understanding of the cheetah’s genetic relationship is therefore crucial for conservation efforts, especially when it comes to choosing a suitable release site for a wild cheetah that needs to be relocated, e.g. due to human-wildlife conflict. Without proper tracking of relatedness amongst cheetah populations, conservation organisations may unknowingly choose a release site for a cheetah that places it amongst a population with a similar genetic make-up, therefore encouraging inbreeding and leading to a further reduction in genetic variation. In conjunction with this, Larissa noticed that the traditional genotyping technique currently being used to monitor cheetah populations requires removing tissue samples. This process is clearly very invasive, expensive and time consuming, all of which could possibly contribute to the comparative lack of research in this area.

Larissa decided to address the lack of monitoring of relatedness in cheetahs and now leads a novel campaign on Crowd.Science entitled, ‘Fit Cheetahs.’ The project aims to compare the traditional genotyping technique with the ability of FIT technology to distinguish “relatedness” amongst cheetahs. If successful, FIT could become the staple tech to increase genetic variability and reduce disease in species in a non-invasive manner and, therefore, increase the genetic ‘fitness’ of populations. The project also hopes to collect more data on the cheetah and use this to negotiate better funding for global cheetah conservation from governments and other organisations.

If FIT could establish relatedness, it would make an enormous difference to cheetah conservation because it would give us a non-invasive technique that is cheaper and quicker than genotyping.

Larissa is currently working with a group of captive cheetahs in Namibia to carry out this research, with the goal to involve as many zoos and cheetah subspecies as possible in the study. Incredibly motivated by her idea, she decided to pursue the project as a self-funded PhD with Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. She has drawn on her years in science communication and unusually given her PhD project a brand, which can be found here.  

I had not planned on doing a PhD but when I had the idea for this research project, I felt so passionate about it and realised how big a project it is, I thought I am just as well to do it as a PhD. I have put most of my savings into this project – about £12,000.

Despite her unfaltering financial commitment to her work, Larissa is now at the stage where she needs support to continue. Lucky for us, she is a big ambassador of crowdfunding science.

Crowdfunding science addresses a key issue. The combination of raising funds and connecting to the public and getting them to engage in your project is the very definition of science communication. I recently went to a school to ask for funding for my project and seeing the willingness to support an animal conservation project was truly inspiring. The children were very interested – asking questions and coming up with ideas. Even the teachers learned a lot. […] The money is secondary here, but connecting with these kids and inspiring them, as well as teaching about conservation, cheetahs, and biology. The school committed on the spot.

Overall, Larissa will require £85,000 over three years, £20,000 of which she seeks to raise on Crowd.Science. Given that FIT software is currently used to track other species, determining its effectiveness in discerning relatedness will have a positive impact on animal conservation in general. Larissa hopes to apply her work to other species beyond the cheetah, identifying opportunities for the white rhino, jaguar and polar bear. Given that in less than 120 years, we have lost near 90% of the cheetah population, now is the time to get behind Larissa’s work. To see a video on FIT Cheetahs, see here and anyone who supports her campaign will have the opportunity to follow her project from start to finish through access to her research blog, which will be updated on a monthly basis.

Larissa pictured here with one of the captive cheetahs that she works closely with. Photo credit: Larissa Slaney, 2017

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