24 November 2014
USC has just hired its first four-legged employee. Maya, Australia’s only koala poo (scat) detection dog, will work alongside USC academics on koala research and conservation projects and will be used to help teach the new Bachelor of Animal Ecology degree.
Maya, a border collie cross who was rescued from an RSPCA pound three years ago, is now making a major contribution to koala conservation and research in South-East Queensland and northern New South Wales.
She can pinpoint koala scats quickly and accurately and has been trained not to chase or bark at wildlife. She has passed rigorous testing to gain permits to access national parks and reserves throughout Queensland.
Maya’s employment at USC has been supported by Dr Celine Frere, an evolutionary biologist and Research Fellow at USC’s Genecology Research Centre.
“Maya is really important for koala conservation,” Dr Frere said. “Unless we know where the koala habitat is we can’t protect it. Regardless of their vulnerable status now we still have very little knowledge of koala distribution – especially in South-East Queensland,” she said.
Knowing where the scats are means scientists know where koalas have been, as well as where they are now.
“It is important that our habitat surveys and modelling encompass the trees in which the koalas sleep as well as the trees in which they feed at different times of the year,” said Dr Frere. “We really need to know all of the trees the koalas use.
“Maya is going to enhance our ability to research koala habitat and conservation. She will also have a role teaching animal ecology here at USC.”
Maya’s owner and handler is USC Adjunct Researcher Dr Romane Cristescu who knows more about koala scats than most. She wrote her PhD on them.
“The scats are small and brown and often in long grass or dried leaf litter, so they can be quite difficult to see,” she said. “Maya can find a koala scat about 350 times faster than a highly trained human like me.”
Maya will soon be joined at USC by another rescued border collie cross with special sniffing skills.
Dr Frere’s current research project is on eastern water dragons living in Brisbane’s CBD. Her new dog, Snowy, is about to start training in how to detect water dragon eggs.
Snowy will be trained by Gary Jackson – the same man who trained Maya. Mr Jackson is also a USC Adjunct Researcher and has trained Australia’s first detection dogs for research involving quolls, pigmy blue tongue lizards and cane toads.
USC’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Hill recently saw a demonstration of Maya’s detection skills and was impressed.
Professor Hill, who wrote his PhD thesis on the ecology of eastern grey kangaroos across southern Queensland, knows all too well how laborious it is to collect animal scats and appreciates the difference Maya will make to animal ecology research.
“Science is continually seeking better ways of doing things,” he said. “Recruiting lovely animals like Maya who may otherwise have ended up on death row at an animal refuge is a fantastic outcome for everyone.”
— Jane Cameron