Training Australian native marsupials to avoid introduced predators

Background

Native wildlife in Australia and New Zealand have faced devastating effects from introduced predators, as fauna from these countries have not evolved concurrently with eutherian predators (Salo et al. 2007).  Following the introduction of cats, foxes and other exotic predators, Australia now has the world’s worst mammal extinction record (Johnson 2006).  This high extinction rate and reduction in wild populations has been the motivation behind many wildlife reintroduction programs.  However, ongoing predation by these introduced predators remains the downfall of most of these programs (Armstrong et al. 2015).

One method of combatting these high extinction rates and failed reintroduction programs includes training native animals to avoid introduced predators.  This is particularly relevant for Australian wildlife, where native species appear to be naïve to introduced predators and fail to recognise the predator as a threat, or exhibit an ineffective response (Cox & Lima 2006).  There are various methods of predator avoidance training, including olfactory and visual cues, usually paired with something unpleasant to encourage the native animals away from the perceived threat (Moseby et al. 2015).  Predator avoidance training can be combined with technology to increase success of release e.g. microchip-automated devices could provide released (microchipped) animals with areas of refuge inaccessible by predators.

Aims

  • Determine whether Australian marsupials have an innate fear of introduced predators
  • Train Australian marsupials to avoid introduced predators
  • Determine whether predator avoidance knowledge can be socially learned
  • Investigate the effectiveness of training Australian marsupials to avoid predators using microchip-automated technology

Methodology

Both scent and visual cues have been used for predator avoidance training.  Introduced predators typically used for training include the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, and the cat, Felis catus.  Urine or scat of the predators are used for olfactory-based (scent) training.  Visual training can include life-size taxidermy models of the introduced predators, and live animals (e.g. a cat and a dog).

During training, the experimental stimulus (either urine/scat, taxidermy model or live animal) can be placed into the native animals’ enclosure, and an alarm call can be played in addition to an unpleasant experience (such as a squirt from a water pistol), to encourage the native animal away from the predator and into a safe area controlled by a microchip controlled door.

Time budgets are used to compare study animals’ behaviour before, during and after exposure to predator stimulus.  Released animals’ can be tracked to observe whether the training has an effect on reintroduction success to the wild, and which training is more effective.

First record of a wild-caught animal (brush-tailed phascogale) using a microchip-automated feeder

Expected outcomes

This research will provide valuable information on the effectiveness of different methods of predator avoidance training.  Few studies have looked at whether predator avoidance can be learned socially, or whether the training improves the success of reintroduction to the wild (Shier & Owings 2006).  Microchip-automated technology has great potential for both captive and released wildlife (Hoy et al. 2010) including a tool as part of predator avoidance.  This research should improve outcomes of wildlife reintroduction programs.

References

Armstrong, DP, Moro, D, Hayward, MW & Seddon, PJ 2015, ‘Introduction: the development of reintroduction biology in New Zealand and Australia’, in DP Armstrong, MW Hayward, D Moro and PJ Seddon (eds), Advances in Reintroduction Biology of Australia and New Zealand Fauna, CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South, Australia, pp. 1-6.

Cox, JG & Lima, SL 2006, ‘Naivete and an aquatic-terrestrial dichotomy in the effects of introduced predators’, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 21, no. 12, pp. 674-680.

Johnson, C 2006, Australia’s Mammal Extinctions: A 50,000 year history, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Moseby, K, Carthey, A & Schroeder, T 2015, ‘The influence of predators and prey naivety on reintroduction success: current and future directions’, in DP Armstrong, MW Hayward, D Moro and PJ Seddon (eds), Advances in Reintroduction Biology of Australia and New Zealand Fauna, CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South, Australia, pp. 29-42.

Salo, P, Korpimäki, E, Banks, PB, Nordström, M & Dickman, CR 2007, 'Alien predators are more dangerous than native predators to prey populations', Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 274, no. 1615, pp. 1237-43.

Shier, DM & Owings, DH 2006, ‘Effects of predator training on behaviour and post-release survival of captive prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus)’, Biological Conservation, vol. 132, no. 1, pp. 126-35.

Acknowledgements

SureFlap logo  https://www.sureflap.com  

Project members

Megan Edwards

PhD Student
School of Agriculture and Food Sciences

Dr Julia Hoy

School of Agriculture and Food Sciences

Dr Sean FitzGibbon

Research Fellow
School of Agriculture and Food Sciences

Associate Professor Peter Murray

Associate Professor
School of Agriculture and Food Sciences