Saving kangaroos with dingo urine

By Melissa Leong 24 May 2010
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Experts say that synthetic dingo urine could be used an effective repellent to prevent kangaroos being shot by farmers.

KANGAROOS AVOID AREAS THAT reek of dingo urine and faeces, a new study has found. Scientists claim that this method of deterrent could be used to help prevent kangaroos from coming into risky conflicts with humans.

In Australia, it is common for these grazers to be either shot or poisoned to save crops and other human property. Biologist Daniel Blumstein from the University of California in Los Angeles, USA, says, “Kangaroos are not typically repelled, they’re eliminated. There is a compelling need to develop less invasive control measures.”

Michael Parsons a biologist from Murdoch University, Western Australia believes that dingo urine could present the first tool in non-invasive kangaroo repellents, and hopes that “a complete toolbox of similar approaches will one day become available.”

Dingo urine an effective repellent

Dingo (Photo: Michael Parsons)

Dingo (Photo: Michael Parsons) VIEW GALLERY

Previous international studies have shown that small animals avoid food laced with predator scents. A new study completed by Michael and Daniel shows that bigger marsupials may avoid areas with predator scents — a finding that could fast track the creation of synthetic urine to repel kangaroos through smell.

“Kangaroos respond to scents from a natural predator of the past 5000 years [the dingo] and instead of habituating to repeated exposure, our animals ultimately chose to avoid the area,” says Michael.

In a study in Caversham Wildlife Park, WA,wild kangaroos were bribed into entering an area of highly palatable food. The marsupials exhibited recognised alarm behaviour; alarm-stomps and then flight in the presence of treated dingo urine and faeces. Also, animals did not feed on food next to the waste, showing fear of feeding in high-risk areas.

Eventually, the kangaroos chose to avoid the area – visitors declined from 45 to 0 in eleven days. The initially long-term trial was cut short when the animals stopped showing up for the experiment.

Daniel says, “This is pretty exciting because it shows that just because you put out a repellent, animals may not inevitably habituate to it. Avoiding habituation is necessary if we’re to use remotely deployed repellents.”

This study was published in the journal PLoS ONE earlier this month.

Benefits and risks

Additional benefits abound. Synthetic urine, according to Michael, “may minimise animal/traffic collision at pre-identified highway ‘black-spots’; minimise encroachment on golf courses, viticulture, horticulture, home gardens and airport runways; and help to maximise kangaroo husbandry practice including mustering and translocations.”

Michael also notes that deployment could help conserve species by teaching “predator-naïve” animals to avoid future dangers, by exposing them to predatory cues prior to moving them.
However, there are challenges. Synthetic urine will need to mimic the complex scent of predatory cues, but little is known about the chemical composition of the waste and the stability of the messages it emits.

Also, some animals habituate to cues, rather than avoid them, when predators remain absent. For example, a similar study published in the Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture in 2006 found that captive goats acclimatised to tiger faeces after just three exposures.

Michael is optimistic, nonetheless. He says habituation does not totally eradicate the fear response. Instead, he believes that “in cases where habituation does occur, the time taken to habituate might be enough time to successfully save some [plants]… from being overgrazed — at least until seedlings can harden off and defend themselves.”

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