Sniffer dog to seek out endangered quolls

By Beau Gamble 30 June 2011
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Conservationists have enlisted the help of an unlikely assistant to sniff out elusive tiger quolls.

SNIFFER DOGS HAVE BEEN used internationally to track threatened grizzly bears, tigers, and even killer whales. Now the concept will be used in Australia.

A team at Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology (COCCE) in Victoria are enlisting the help of a sniffer dog to track a declining native species – the tiger quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), the largest carnivorous marsupial on the Australian mainland.

Traditional survey methods like remote sensor cameras have been ineffective because tiger quolls are found at very low population densities.

“The Otway Ranges is one of their strongholds, but they haven’t been picked up here on camera surveys for a very long time,” says Lizzie Corke, co-founder and CEO of COCCE. “Eight years ago there was a hair in a hair trap – that was it. But we’re having lots of reports [of tiger quolls] on private lands. We’re hoping they’re still around and we’re working very hard to confirm that so we can start conserving them.”

Badger: The world’s first tiger quoll detection dog. (Credit: Kellie Leigh)

Scat detection  to siff out quolls

Using the scats of captive tiger quolls, the team at COCCE is training Badger the Australian shepherd to sniff out tiger quoll latrine sites in the wild.

“We thought we’d try a new approach,” says Dr Kellie Leigh, Program Leader for Research and Conservation at COCCE. “And tiger quolls are perfect for this sort of thing because they use communal latrine sites to communicate…They all defecate in the one spot to let each other know who’s around.”

Once Badger discovers a latrine site, the team can infer the type of habitat that tiger quolls are using, and hence which areas have the highest priority for protection. DNA extracted from the scats can then be used to identify individual tiger quolls and perform a census of the population.

Tiger quolls are declining rapidly across much of their range. “They’re facing habitat loss, competition from cats and foxes, and possibly things that we’re not even sure about yet,” says Lizzie.

But the team is optimistic that Badger will help to shed light on the plight of the species.

“Badger’s doing really well – we’ve got him to the stage where he’s sniffing out the scats,” says Kellie. “He’s always raring to go, working from downwind to sniff them out. Now we’ve got to teach him to sit next to the poo and bark when he finds it. Within about five weeks, hopefully he’ll be able to do the job. He’s loving it… He’ll do anything for a Schmacko [treat].”


Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology