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How DNA Sampling is helping the Aviation Industry

By: Dr Rebecca Johnson, Dr Greta Frankham, Category: Science, Date: 29 Aug 2014

Wildlife strikes (aka birdstrikes and airstrikes) are common at airports all over the world. Our new video is helping to manage the risk.

It’s probably not something you think about (or want to think about!) when you are boarding a plane to jet off on holiday, but about 1 in 1000 take off and landings in Australia is involved in ‘wildlife airstrike’ with bird and bat species that live on or around the airfield. These strikes can cause very dangerous situations including crashes.

The responsibility of recognising and managing the wildlife risk at an airport is the job of many different people including those who oversee the overall management of the airfield; those who work as part of environment, safety or airport operations teams; air traffic control; pilots; cabin crew; and, in part, scientists like us.

That is why we here at the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG) at the Australian Museum Research Institute, in conjunction with colleagues from the Australian & International Pilots Association and Avisure, put together the above training video for those who work in the aviation industry.

Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine that a small soft bodied animal such as a bird or a bat could genuinely pose a risk to aircraft. However, if you think back to your basic physics (even if it was learned some time ago!) you may recall the formula for kinetic energy, KE = ½mv2 (m= mass of an object and v = speed of an object).

This demonstrates that when two moving objects collide, even if one is relatively slow (such as an animal) but the other is fast (such as and an aircraft), the energy of impact is substantially influenced by the “relative velocity” of the two objects. Therefore in the event of a collision, this high energy can cause significant damage, tearing alloy, cracking impact modified glass, or even resulting in severe engine damage, compromised performance or failure (the most recent high profile example being the 2009 emergency landing into the Hudson River by flight US1549).

ACWG has been working with the aviation industry since 2005, when mandatory reporting of these incidents was introduced. Prior to this up to 90% of these collisions were being reported as unidentified ‘species unknown’, which makes it almost impossible for airfields to manage the risk wildlife may pose to aircraft effectively.

This reporting was occurring because often all that remains from these collisions is blood smears or small amounts of tissues, feathers or fur, so nowadays most commercial and military airports across Australia send these remains to the ACWG for DNA analysis to accurately identify the species involved. From these samples we have built up a database of hundreds of species of birds and bats that have involved in these collisions, and more effective management of wildlife at airfields is underway based on this highly accurate data,

This video provides an overview about the risk wildlife poses to aircraft, and how a solid understanding of the species involved can be used minimise this risk. Also included in the video is as a “how-to guide” on the recommended techniques to collect DNA samples in order to ensure the best possible results from the lab.