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Accuracy and efficiency of detection dogs: a powerful new tool for koala conservation and management

Cristescu, RH, Foley, E, Markula, A, Jackson, g, Jones, D & Frere, C 2015, Scientific Reports, vol. 5, no. 8349.

Koala scat detection dogs are a promising alternative to koala scat surveys by humans, as dogs’ strong olfactory abilities allow them to detect scats in circumstances under which a human typically cannot. This experimental study revealed that, due to their high efficiency and accuracy, koala scat detection dogs can reduce both the cost and time required to complete koala scat surveys and provide more accurate distribution and abundance data.

  In the experiment described in this paper, a dog was trained to detect koala scats and indicate their presence. An experimental trial occurred in a section of Eucalyptus bushland on North Stradbroke Island, Queensland. In this trial the dog attempted to find both fresh and old scats randomly distributed along a 25-metre transect line by a third party. Following the experimental trial, a field trial was conducted, where both the dog and a team of four humans searched for koala scats across nine parks in the Logan City Council region, Queensland. The human team and the dog searched the same trees over a four-week period. The human team used the koala rapid assessment method to find scats, a technique commonly used by state government agencies to assess koala habitat. During the experimental trial, the dog was very accurate, achieving a 97% success rate of 150 trials. No variable was found to influence the time required for the dog to find scats. In the field trial, the dog was 19 times faster at finding scats than the human team. Furthermore, the dog had a false negative rate 24% lower than the human team, making it 153% more accurate. The only factor identified as reducing the dog’s accuracy was being leashed, as the leash may restrict its movement and potentially become tangled, disrupting the search.

  Accurate data on the presence, absence and spatial distribution of wildlife is essential for conservation and management. Such data can sometimes be difficult, costly and laborious to obtain. These issues are exacerbated when the target species lives in low densities, has large ranges or is elusive. For cryptic species, including koalas, abundance data is usually gathered through indirect measures, such as scat surveys. Due to the small size of scats, and the tendency for scats to become obscured by ground cover, koala scat surveys run the risk of being inaccurate or producing false negatives. Inaccurate conclusions regarding abundance and distribution can have considerable adverse impacts on conservation. In this regard, detection dog surveys can overcome many of these challenges and lead to better conservation outcomes.

  The accuracy of detection dog survey results is dependent on the individual dog and handler used. Additionally, concerns exist around the negative effects of having dogs present in koala habitat. As the detection dog was more accurate at finding scats when unleashed in this trial, it is necessary that any potential negative impacts of the presence of dogs in wildlife habitat are suitably addressed before this method is widely adopted.

 

Summarised by Alexander Hendry

 

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