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Witchetty grub DNA sheds light on Indigenous bush food eaten for thousands of years

Witchetty grubs held in an outstretched hand.
Witchetty grubs are among the best known bush foods, but not much is known about them.

Supplied: Alan Yen

The DNA of witchetty grubs has provided an insight into the eating habits of Indigenous people over thousands of years, according to researchers.

What is a witchetty grub?

  • The large, white wood-eating larvae of several species of moth, witchetty grubs have long been important to the diets of Indigenous people, particularly in central Australia.
  • Cooked lightly, the grubs are high in protein and can have a taste similar to scrambled eggs.

A team of scientists travelled across the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Victoria to collect the large, white larvae in the hope of protecting traditional knowledge about the grub, as well as the plants in which they live.

Witchetty grubs may be among the best known bush foods, but not much is known about the species being consumed, according to Latrobe University researcher Conrad Bilney.

"At the moment we've only got one edible insect listed in the science discipline," Mr Bilney said.

"Aboriginal people have been telling us there's more than 20, so we set out to find out how many there actually were."

For the past three years, Mr Bilney, a Kokatha-Wirangu man from the Nullarbor Plain region of South Australia, has visited communities across the country to collect larvae.

With help from Aboriginal community members, he has collected more than 200 specimens, but not all the grubs he found ended up at the lab.

Cooked grubs taste like 'scrambled eggs'

Large witchetty grub reclines on a piece of bark.
With help from Aboriginal communities, researchers have collected over 200 specimens.

Supplied: Alan Yen

"We'd go out digging up all sorts of grubs because they knew exactly where to find them," Mr Bilney said.

"We found some really big ones, and when they started pulling them out they were saying, 'that one's for me'."

"At the end of the day I'd be sitting around the campfire with some of the old ladies and participants and having a good old feed of witchetty grub.

"They taste like a combination of scrambled eggs and probably a chocolate-like infusion. It stays in your mouth for a while — that's the cooked version."

Mr Bilney's knowledge of the local Pitjantjatjara dialect in the tiny community of Kiwirrkurra, on the edge of the Gibson Desert in WA, also led to an unexpected discovery.

"The other thing we found, because of my background, the language interpretation of witchetty grub, we found that not to be accurate," he said.

"Witchetty is actually a stick used to hook grubs out of a plant or a tree trunk, it's not a grub."

Traditional knowledge meets Western science

Large witchetty grub reclines on a piece of bark.
Researchers hope the project will help conserve the plants witchetty grubs live in.

Supplied: Robert Whyte

Mr Bilney worked closely with biologist Dr Michael Shackleton from La Trobe University to extract and sequence DNA from the witchetty grubs to find out which specimens belonged to which insect species.

"We know what some of the adults are, so what the moths are — what we're doing is putting some names to the grubs themselves."

Mr Bilney said he hoped the project would be the beginning of further research into the grubs, and efforts to conserve them.

"The big thing for me is this is a combination of Aboriginal traditional knowledge and Aboriginal Western science," he said.

"It's also based on a global protein demand for nutritious foods from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, who are advocating for the greater use of insects as both human and animal feed, particularly as they've got higher protein content."