Celine Frere Chases Dragons and Koalas to Learn How They Adapt
Celine Frere Chases Dragons and Koalas to Learn How They Adapt

Celine Frere Chases Dragons and Koalas to Learn How They Adapt

The biologist at the University of Sunshine Coast in Australia wants to understand why some animal species adapt well to urbanization, while others fall flat.

Max Kozlov
Max Kozlov
Jan 1, 2021

ABOVE: UNIVERSITY OF THE SUNSHINE COAST, AUSTRALIA

Growing up in the lush countryside of Geneva, Switzerland, Celine Frere spent the bulk of her childhood outside “with nature, in nature, observing nature, and admiring nature,” she says. Her parents were dealing with their own problems—her mother struggled with mental illness and her father wasn’t around much—so Frere sought solace in the animals that roamed the rolling hills around her. “I was always fascinated by this inability to communicate [with animals], yet we can have such great connections with them,” she tells The Scientist.

By the end of high school, Frere sought to escape Switzerland. Its cold climate didn’t suit her, and because she identified as a lesbian, neither did its socially conservative culture. She set her sights on Australia, where in 1999 she enrolled at the University of Queensland and turned her fascination with animals into a scientific pursuit. “You respect nature even more in Australia because it’s such a powerful force,” she says, noting the number of animal species that can be lethal to humans is much greater than in her home country.

After three years of courses, Frere researched humpback dolphins for her honors degree, comparing individuals found off the coast of Australia with those found in Indonesian waters. Genetic tests analyzing mitochondrial DNA in samples taken from stranded dolphins or ones ensnared in fishing gear revealed that Australian humpback dolphins were, in fact, a distinct species. 

RIANA GARDINER

Frere graduated with a bachelor of science in zoology in 2002 and continued her work with dolphins as a graduate student in evolutionary biology at the University of New South Wales. She joined the Shark Bay Dolphin Project, which is one of the longest longitudinal studies in animals, she says. She researched how the combination of social and genetic factors interact to influence dolphins’ fitness. Female calving success depends on both genetic inheritance and social bonds, Frere and colleagues reported in PNAS in 2010. “Throughout my PhD studies, I transitioned from being someone who admired and had a passion for animal conservation to being a real scientist where I fell in love with questions,” she says.

In a 2010 PLOS ONE paper titled, “Thar she blows! A novel method for DNA collection from cetacean blow,” Frere and colleagues detailed a less-invasive way to retrieve dolphin DNA from exhalations through their blowholes instead of using darts that biopsy the cetaceans, a method that led to the death of a dolphin in 2000. 

“One of the reasons [Frere is] so much fun to work with is because she’s such a creative researcher. She thinks about big problems in a new way,” says Georgetown University biologist Janet Mann, the senior author of the PLOS ONE paper, who praised Frere’s role in developing the new technique.

Although Frere enjoyed her work with dolphins, she says she felt they were too difficult and expensive to study in order to learn about human influence on animal habitat. When she went on to a postdoc in 2009 at the University of Queensland, she began working with koalas, which were starting to see dramatic population declines at the time. She had noticed that governmental bodies and companies often relied on mathematical models to predict where there might be koala habitat so that it could be preserved, but Frere was determined to find a better way to locate koala habitat in the field. She turned her attention toward using koala scat to provide definitive evidence for the presence of the animals—an approach that would become the foundation of her later work.

Following her postdoc, Frere took a lecturer position at the University of Exeter in the UK before returning to Australia as a research fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast. There, she pioneered the method of using “detection dogs” to sniff out the koala scat, helping researchers create detailed maps of koala habitation. Frere and colleagues demonstrated that Maya, the dog they trained, was 19 times more efficient than other scat survey methods and 153 percent more accurate. 

Frere has since become an associate professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast and cofounded the organization Detection Dogs for Conservation, which has trained three more dogs. One of the dogs, Bear, became famous for his role in tracking down and helping rescue koalas in habitats that were affected by the widespread Australian bushfires of 2019–2020, garnering the attention of celebrities like Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio

As she continued her research, Frere became interested in what allows some animal species, such as rats, to adapt well to human influence and urbanization while others, such as koalas, have not fared so well. To investigate, she turned her attention to an extreme urban adaptor: the eastern water dragon, a meter-long reptile that has taken refuge in the cityscapes of metropoles like Brisbane. “It’s almost like the dragons have become my teachers, and koalas—we’ve become their caretakers.” 

She’s found that city-dwelling dragons have different gut microbiota, nesting temperatures, and body sizes than their wild counterparts. “We are driving [some] species to go extinct, and then you have this flip side of urban adapters—we might actually drive them to speciation,” Frere says.

Over the last decade, however, Frere noticed that many city-dwelling dragons have developed a fungal disease, leaving them with yellow lesions that can lead the animals to lose toes and often their lives. Frere and colleagues described the disease late last year in Scientific Reports. In 2020, she was also awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to investigate the role that dragon social behavior plays in the spread of the disease. “I’ve been working on these guys for 10 years, and I’m now having to watch them die,” Frere says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Still, she continues to chase her dragons. “I try to approach the challenge that we are facing from an optimistic point of view because it gives me energy to continue to fight every day, and ultimately, at the end of the day, animals will remain once we’re gone,” she says.