An innovative new digital tool being developed in Scotland could help save endangered species around the world.
The software, which combines cutting-edge technology with ancient African hunting skills, will allow conservationists to determine whether animals are related to each other by analysing their footprints.
Focusing on cheetahs in Namibia, the project is the brainchild of life scientist Larissa Slaney, a postgraduate student at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University.
She believes the concept can be developed to cover other endangered species that are difficult to study because of their habits, such as Scottish wildcats, red squirrels and giant pandas.
Cheetahs, which are found in southern Africa and Iran, are struggling to survive in the wild. Numbers have fallen dramatically from an estimated 100,000 at the start of last century to around 7,000 today, sparking their classification as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction.
The research aims to address poor genetic variation among populations, which can lead to inbreeding, health problems and further declines.
Traditional methods of establishing an animal’s lineage – including DNA analysis from tissue samples such as blood, hair, stool or saliva –are invasive, time-consuming and expensive.
Ms Slaney’s plan is to create a cheaper, quicker and totally harmless alternative by using newly created footprint identification Technique (FIT) software and skills honed by Namibian hunter-gatherers over 20,000 years.
Ms Slaney insists an animal’s tracks can reveal a lot.
“Your fingerprint develops due to the embryo’s movement in the amniotic fluid but the shape of your hand, feet, face, nose and ears is influenced by the genes that you inherit. This is the same for paws,” she said.
“It is impossible for our untrained eyes to see such similarities or differences, but trained native trackers can read a footprint like a book.
“This is why we need the software to measure and analyse the morphological points, distances and angles in the footprint to determine relationships between animals.”
She now needs to raise £20,000 to cover the first phase of the Fit Cheetahs project.