Drones, detection dogs, poo spotting: what’s the best way to conduct Australia’s Great Koala Count



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Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Desley Whisson, Deakin University

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley this week announced A$2 million for a national audit of Australia’s koalas, as part of an A$18 million package to protect the vulnerable species.

The funding might seem like a lot – and, truth be told, it is more than most threatened species receive. But the national distribution of koalas is vast, so the funding equates to about A$1.40 to survey a square kilometre. That means the way koalas are counted in the audit must be carefully considered.

Koalas are notoriously difficult to detect, and counts so far have been fairly unreliable. That can make it hard to get an accurate picture of how koalas are faring, and to know where intensive conservation effort is needed – especially after devastating events such as last summer’s bushfires.

Methods for counting koalas range from the traditional – people at ground level looking up into the trees – to the high-tech, such as heat-seeking drones. So let’s look at each method, and how we can best get a handle on Australia’s koala numbers.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley holding a koala
Environment Minister Sussan Ley has pledged $2 million for a national koala count.
Glenn Hunt/AAP

Why we need to know koala numbers

Gathering data about species distribution and population size is crucial, because governments use it to assess a species’ status and decide what protection it needs.

In announcing the funding, Ley said the new audit aims to fill data gaps, identify where koala habitat can be expanded, and establish an annual monitoring program.




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So far, population estimates for koalas at the state and national level are rare and highly uncertain. For example, the last national koala count in 2012 estimated 33,000-153,000 in Queensland, 14,000–73,000 in NSW and 96,000-378,000 in the southern states.

This uncertainty can make it hard to detect changes in population trends quickly enough to do something about the threat, such as by limiting development or logging. However, the new audit can use methods not available in 2012, which should help with accuracy.

Three koalas in trees
To date, estimates of koala numbers have been highly uncertain.
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So how do you actually count koalas?

Finding a koala can be difficult. There may be few individuals spread over large areas. And koalas are well camouflaged and quiet, unless bellowing. Finally, they can sit high in the tree canopy.

In numerous research and management programs, we have observed that even the most experienced koala spotter may only see 20–80% of koalas present at a site, especially if the vegetation is thick or the terrain difficult to move through.

Romane Cristescu with detection dog
Romane Cristescu with detection dog USC x IFAW detection dog Bear. Detection dogs have been trained to locate koala and their scats.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

Making the job even harder, existing koala habitat maps can be highly inaccurate and miss unexpected hotspots. However, computer modelling using the latest methods, if carefully validated on the ground, can produce more accurate maps.

Traditional surveys involve multiple people independently searching the same area, and correcting counts based on the number of koalas each observer sees. This helps account for the difficulties in koala counting, but it’s hard, slow and costly work.

Searching for koala scat (poo) also is a common method of determining koala habitat – wherever koalas spend time, they will leave scats. However, the small brown pellets are easily missed, and large surveys for scats are time consuming.

Detection dogs have been trained to locate koala scats: in one study, dogs were shown to be 150% more accurate and 20 times quicker than humans.

And because male koalas bellow during the breeding season, koalas can also be detected with acoustic surveys. Audio recorders are left at a survey sites and the recordings scanned for bellows to determine whether koalas are present.

Recently, heat-seeking drones have also been used to detect koalas. This method can be accurate and effective, especially in difficult terrain. We used them extensively to find surviving koalas after the 2019-20 bushfires.

Citizen scientists can also collect important data about koalas. Smartphone apps allow the community to report sightings around Australia, helping to build a picture of where koalas have been seen. However, these sightings are often limited to areas commonly traversed by people, such as in suburbia, near walking tracks and on private property.

Adult and juvenile koala
Everyday citizens can help with koala counting.
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Getting the koala count right

All these methods involve a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses, which means the audit will need input from koala ecologists if it’s to be successful. Survey methods and sites must be chosen strategically to maximise the benefits of the funding.

Robust research data exists, but is patchy across the koala’s entire range. The first step could include collating all current data, including community sightings, to determine where additional surveys are needed. This will allow for funding to be prioritised to fill data gaps.

It is promising that the announcement includes monitoring over the long term. This will help identify population trends and better understand the response of koalas to ongoing threats. It will also reveal whether actions to address koala threats are working.

Finally, while threats to koalas are generally well understood, they can vary between populations. So the audit should allow for “threat mapping” – identifying threats and looking for ways to mitigate them.

Saving an iconic species

Last summer’s bushfires highlighted how koalas, and other native species, are vulnerable to climate change. And the clearing of koala habitat continues, at times illegally.

Government inquiries and reviews have shown state and federal environment laws are not preventing the decline of koalas and other wildlife. The federal laws are still under review.

However, the new funding underpins an important step – accurate mapping of koalas and their habitat for protection and restoration. This is a crucial task in protecting the future of this iconic Australian species.

Koala sleeping in a tree
The koala count is critical to protecting the species.
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The Conversation


Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Desley Whisson, Senior Lecturer in Wildlife and Conservation Biology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Meet Moss, the detection dog helping Tassie devils find love



Zoos Victoria, Author provided

La Toya Jamieson, La Trobe University and Marissa Parrott, University of Melbourne

Moss bounds happily through the bush showing the usual exuberance of a young labrador. Despite this looking like play, he is on a serious mission to help fight the extinction of some of our most critically endangered species.

Moss is a detection dog in training. Unlike other detection dogs, who might sniff out drugs or explosives, he’ll be finding some of Victoria’s smallest, best camouflaged and most elusive animals.




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These dogs use their exceptional olfactory senses to locate everything from koalas high in the trees, desert tortoises burrowed deep under soil and even whales — often more effectively than any human team could aspire to.

What makes Moss unique, however, is he’ll not only find endangered species in the wild, but will also be part of a larger team helping endangered species breed in captivity. These dogs will be the first in the world to do this, starting with a ground-breaking trial with Tasmanian devils.

Moss will eventually help find the tiny, cryptic Baw Baw Frog in the wild.

Why Moss needed a job

Wildlife detection dogs are a very rare type of dog — they are highly motivated, engaged and energetic, but also incredibly reliable and safe around the smallest of creatures.

And Moss is the first dog to join Zoos Victoria’s Detection Dog squad, a permanent group of highly trained dogs that will live at Healesville Sanctuary.




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Moss was adopted at 14 months old, after he somewhat “failed” at being a family pet. He is a hurricane of energy with an intelligent and playful mind. He’s thriving with a job to keep him occupied and new challenges for his busy brain.

One sign he was perfect for this program was his indifference to the free range chickens at his foster home. For obvious reasons, a dog who likes chasing chickens wouldn’t be a good candidate for protecting some of Australia’s rarest feathered treasures.

Moss will also help monitor incredibly well camouflaged plains-wanderers, which are nearly impossible to spot in the day.

Currently Moss is learning crucial foundational skills, and getting plenty of exposure to different environments. Equally important, he is developing a deep bond and trust with his handlers.

The detection dog-handler bond is crucial not only for his happiness, but also for working success and longevity. Research from 2018 found a strong bond between a handler and their dog dramatically improved the dog’s detection results and reduced signs of stress.

The Tasmanian devil’s advocate

Healesville Sanctuary breeds endangered Tasmanian Devils every year as part of an insurance program to support conservation and research. This program is crucial to help protect the devil following an estimated 80% decline in the wild due to a horrific transmissible cancer, Devil Facial Tumour Disease.




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But managing a predator that’s shy, nocturnal and prefers to be left alone can be tricky.

Wildlife, including Tasmanian devils, need a hands-off approach where possible, so they can maintain natural behaviours and thrive in their environment.

Tasmanian devils prefer to be left alone.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

In the wild, devils leave scats (faeces) at communal latrine sites and use scent for communication. Male devils can tell a female is ready to mate by smelling her scat. And we think dogs could be trained to detect this, too.

We aim to train dogs to detect an odour profile in the collected scat of female devils coming into their receptive (oestrus) periods, so we can introduce females and suitable males to breed at the optimal time. The odour profile will be further verified via laboratory analyses of hormones in the scats.




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The project will also explore whether dogs can detect pregnancy and lactation in the devils.

Currently, the best way to determine if a female has young is to look in her pouch, but our preference is to remain at a distance during this important time while females settle into being new mums.

Moss with his trainer, Latoya. Moss is a ball of energy and thrives in the challenging environment of conservation detection.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

If the dogs are able to smell a scat sample (while never coming into contact with the devil) and identify that a female is lactating with small joeys in her pouch, we can support her – for example, by increasing her food – while keeping a comfortable distance.

A new partnership in conservation

The results from this devil breeding research could offer innovative new options for endangered species breeding programs around the world.

Wildlife detection in the field means we can more accurately monitor some of our most critically endangered species, and quickly assess the impact of catastrophic events such as bushfires.




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Detection dogs are the perfect intermediary between people and wildlife — they can sniff out what we can’t and communicate with us as a team.

And over the next few years, the Detection Dog Squad will expand to five full-time canines. They will all be selected based on their personalities rather than specific breeds, so will likely come in all shapes and sizes.

Dogs may yet go from being man’s best friend to the devil’s best friend and beyond, all starting with a happy labrador named Moss.


This article is co-authored by Naomi Hodgens, Wildlife Detection Dog Officer at Zoos Victoria, and Dr Kim Miller, Life Sciences Manager, Conservation and Research, at Healesville Sanctuary, Zoos Victoria.The Conversation

La Toya Jamieson, Wildlife Detection Dog Specialist, La Trobe University and Marissa Parrott, Reproductive Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria, and Honorary Research Associate, BioSciences, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.