Dogs trained to find endangered insects
Canine ‘citizen-scientists’ are helping map a rare fly population. Tanya Loos reports.
In a world first, dogs in Australia have been trained to search for live specimens of an endangered insect species.
Their quarry is the alpine stonefly (Thaumatoperla alpina) – the largest species of stonefly in the family but, at just 50 millimetres in length, one of the smallest animals dogs have been used to detect.
The team, led by Julia Mynott from Latrobe University, successfully trained three dogs to search for the insects in their natural habitat – the alpine region of Falls Creek, in the state of Victoria.
Dogs are increasingly used in conservation work; their highly sensitive sense of smell and willingness to work with handlers for rewards have seen them employed to sniff out turtle nests, koalas, and lesser known marsupial species such as quolls (from the genus Dasyurus) and greater gliders (Petauroides volans).
They also are used to detect insects in the pest industry, particularly by termite control businesses to find nests in homes in the US and Australia.
The stonefly trial is unusual, however, because the dogs are trained to look for the live insects, rather than nests or waste products.
“This is an exciting and innovative way to revolutionise how we gather data on our endangered species, no matter how big or small,” Mynott says.
“In the past, we’ve been restricted to traditional methods of detection when looking for stoneflies, which include visual surveys and aquatic sampling.”
Using existing strategies to find the stoneflies has been challenging, because the insect is largely aquatic. Larvae live in cobbled streams for two years, and only emerge in adult form between January and April to reproduce.
“With all these factors in mind, it’s easy to understand why the traditional detection methods can be time consuming, and for the larvae, fairly ineffective,” Mynott explains.
“Right now, we have no idea of the population size of the species.”
Conservation dog work usually involves previously trained dogs and professional handlers. This trial involved volunteer animals, from human community members responding to a call-out for “canine citizen scientists”.
The dogs and their handlers were trained by members of the university’s Anthrozoology Research Group Dog Lab (ARG) over seven weeks.
First the dogs were trained to recognise the unique odour of the stonefly in a controlled setting. Then the trial moved to nearby small areas of bushland, where they were rewarded with ball games and treats when their tiny quarry was located.
The dogs had to be trained to point at the insects with their snout, to avoid an excited paw crushing the prize.
Preliminary trials suggest their ability to recognise and find the target is transferable to another threatened species, the closely related Stirling stonefly (Thaumatoperla flaveola), which lives on two nearby mountains.
“We chose stoneflies as a starting point because they’re such an interesting animal,” says Mynott.
“They have wings but are flightless. They’re sensitive to changes in water quality and, despite their role as one of the top predators in the alpine region, their inability to fly makes them vulnerable to other predators in this environment.”