SPRINGER spaniel Sophie has put her feral cat sniffing skills to the test as part of a Queensland Government project.
The four-year-old conservation detector dog is attached to the Queensland Murray-Darling Committee's pest team and has just spent a week in Taunton National Park near Dingo with her handler QMDC regional pest technical officer Dr Dave Berman and a team of scientists attached to Biosecruity Queensland.
Sophie and her cohort Rocky are trained to find the scent, dens and scats of feral cats, foxes, wild dogs and rabbits and have worked with QMDC's Conservation Pest Detection Team over the past two years on several successful pest control efforts in Queensland.
The dogs' work on foxes in particular has produced exceptional results for the government's Nest to Ocean Turtle Protection Program at Mon Repos where the pair has helped protect countless turtle hatchlings from fox predation with post-program monitoring revealing just two nests attacked compared to 100 nests over the previous three-year period.
In this latest expedition, Sophie was tasked with finding feral cats that Biosecurity Queensland is tracking as part of a project aiming to improve management of feral cats to ultimately protect native species like the bridled nail-tail wallaby population in Taunton National Park.
According to Dr Berman, while Sophie's fox work is proven - she is yet to master the evasive feral cat.
"Sophie has found evidence of feral cats in work associated with bilby protection but we were yet to see her pinpoint an actual cat,” he said.
"This project gave us the chance to test her ability to find collared cats whose location Biosecurity Queensland could narrow down with a radio tracker.”
Dr Berman said after a few false leads, Sophie alerted the team to a collared cat hiding in dense bush.
"Sophie is trained to locate the scent only of her target and used her body language to let us know a cat was in a log. She is rewarded with a ball game, there's nothing she enjoys more than getting it right,” he said.
"Given her repertoire covers a variety of pests, it's vital that she and I both know she is finding the correct target. This exercise confirmed her nose is on the right track and marks an important milestone in her feral cat detection training.”
Robert Wicks Pest Animal Research Centre senior zoologist Dr Matt Gentle said Sophie's presence was a learning experience for the whole team which is working to study the behaviour and improve control of feral cats at Taunton and other areas of Queensland.
"Trained detector dogs clearly have the potential to improve how we locate and capture notoriously elusive pests like feral cats. It was extremely useful to examine first-hand how detector dogs operate, and think about how best to develop the technique for research and control purposes,” he said.
"We will keep looking for opportunities to work with teams like Sophie and Dave to refine the technique in the future.”
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