Wildlife sniffer dogs teach platypus experts new tricks

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Finding a wild platypus is tough. First, locate the entrance of a burrow, usually hidden by long grass and bushes at the edge of a creek. The tunnels are narrow, up to 10 metres in length, and full of dead ends, ‘pugs’ of backfilled earth and multiple entrances. Oh, and platypuses constantly move between different burrows.

Somewhere, if it hasn’t been alerted by a blundering approach, lies the elusive platypus, sleeping about 17 hours a day curled up in a nest of native mat-rush leaves.

Or, you could ask Kip, the sniffer dog. It takes him only a matter of minutes.

Wildlife detection dog Kip with his trainer Naomi Hodgens

Despite the platypus having an iconic status in Australia, much remains unknown about this unique egg-laying duck-billed monotreme – particularly its population numbers – and this makes it challenging to halt its slow decline.

They are notoriously difficult to find or trap, which is where the six expert dogs at Healesville Sanctuary’s wildlife detection dog program, come in. These dogs – including a kelpie cross, a labrador and a spaniel cross – have been trained to find wildlife (or their scat) by odour, and can detect live platypus in their burrows.

The training methods are similar to those used on drug detection dogs, but wildlife detection dogs need to be able to work in rugged environments, like a mountain stream, and not threaten any wildlife they uncover.

“When our dogs find the targets, we don’t want them pawing or barking,” says trainer Naomi Hodgens. “We want nice sit-and-stare behaviour. It’s important the dogs are specific about where the live platypus is because they move around their burrows.”

Healesville Sanctuary Platypus survey.

A demonstration by a wildlife detection dog was shown to dozens of platypus experts who gathered for the first conference at Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary last week to discuss the future of the threatened native species.

Sniffer dogs have also been used to find birds and bats struck by wind turbines and detect the fertility of Tasmanian devils in their scat. In the US, they have even been used to detect whale species from aboard a boat, by detecting the scent of the whale faeces floating on the surface of the water.

Dr Jessica Thomas, a platypus specialist at Healesville, said the species was particularly vulnerable to the extreme weather brought by climate change. Fires can completely dry out small creeks and wash sediment into the rivers where they live, while flooding threatens the young in their burrows because they cannot swim.

The platypus is listed as endangered in South Australia and vulnerable in Victoria. Humans need to stop altering platypus habitat, Thomas said, pointing to how the successful introduction of marine protection areas was a boon for vulnerable ocean species. “We have to protect waterways, their vegetation and invertebrates [which platypus eat] and let them flow the way they’re meant to flow.”

Healesville platypus experts survey for platypus at Coranderrk Creek.

There are other ways of finding wildlife. In the Kosciuszko National Park, researchers from Western Sydney University have tested for fragments of platypus DNA in creeks and waterways to see the extent of their range.

Healesville Sanctuary Platypus survey. Coranderrk Creek.

They detected platypus in waterways at much higher altitudes than expected, at least 1650 metres above sea level, and in tiny streams where they had not previously been detected. “This highlights the need to increase our coverage of data on platypus,” researcher Breony Webb told the Healesville conference.

The unusual appearance of the platypus confounded European scientists when they first encountered it, declaring a preserved platypus body that they had examined was a “fake”, made of several animals sewn together.

In Victoria and New South Wales there has been more than 40 years of platypus research, but Queensland only has limited data on the south-east of the state, said Wildlife Queensland PlatypusWatch project officer Tamielle Brunt.

Ultimately, a healthy platypus population means healthy freshwater ecosystems, said Brunt. “Regardless of whether you care about the platypus, you should care about yourself and fresh water because water is the lifeblood of this country.”

During September, the Australian Conservation Foundation is encouraging people to spot a platypus as part of its citizen science Platy-Project, which encourages people to head down to their local creek or river, try to spot a platypus and record what they see.

Last year, platypuses were recorded at 59 locations where the species hadn’t been recorded for more than a decade and in 45 spots where they were documented for the first time.

Much of the world’s biodiversity is declining. Globally, cases of recovery have been recognised, but in most cases, threatened species are not recovering, and Australia is typical of this global trend.

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