To better protect endangered species, scientists often have to do massive surveys to work out how many there are in the wild. But some animals can be pretty tough to track down like, say koalas that live up in treetops. So one group of researchers has come up with a pretty interesting way of tracking them down – koala tracking dogs. Just wait till you hear how they sniff them out though.
CARL SMITH, REPORTER: This is Maya, and she’s on the hunt. But she’s not hunting an animal; she’s hunting its poo.
DR ROMANE CRISTESCU: Maya’s job is to help us humans do a better job finding koala poo.
Yep, Maya is a koala poo hunter. Disgusting. So how come Maya’s trained to find koala droppings? Well it’s to help her handlers find the koalas that dropped them there. Because koalas aren’t always that easy to find, hiding all the way up in their trees.
DR CELINE FRERE: The great thing with dogs is they can smell what we can’t see. Koala poo smells very much of eucalyptus, and so they can help us locate scats very easily.
DR ROMANE CRISTESCU: Where is it? Where is it? Do you see? She just pointed at it with her nose and then she dropped. You’re such a good girl, Maya. Well done.
And a smart nose like this one can even track down koalas that have moved around a bit!
DR ROMANE CRISTESCU: The poo stay in the environment for many months, sometimes years, which mean that if you arrive in a site and there’s no koala, you may find the evidence on the ground, and that tells you that’s koala habitat.
In many parts of Australia koala numbers are declining because of dog attacks, road strikes and vanishing habitat. So researchers like these guys are trying to figure out which are the most important areas to keep protected.
DR ROMANE CRISTESCU: You can see how small they are and they’re so easily obscured in the litter, so for a human to see that is really hard. Maya, Maya!
Although a canine researcher might sound like a strange idea, dogs like Maya are really suited to the job!
DR CELINE FRERE: You need a lot of stamina because you have to cover a lot of ground and look under each tree for scats. For Maya that’s not a problem. She’s playing and she has high stamina, so she’s 20 times faster at finding the scats. But most importantly for conservation, she’s 150% more accurate. So that means she’s finding scats where humans are not and for habitat protection, this is critical.
But even the best poo detectors need to keep their skills up with a bit of training!
DR CELINE FRERE: So it’s very simple ’cause we don’t want to take her in the bush and for her to start indicating on possum poo or eastern grey poo. We want to make sure that Maya knows what koala poo is and exclude any other marsupial poo.
And what does Maya get out of it? Well, first up she was actually rescued and given a home when she got the job!
DR ROMANE CRISTESCU: It was a win-win for her. She got a second family, and for us, we pretty much got the best detection dog we could wish for.
And on top of that, for this pup tracking and playing fetch rarely feels like work.
DR ROMANE CRISTESCU: If you think about it, dogs don’t go to work for a salary, they go to work because for them it’s play.