Sniffing out invasive species in the Otways

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Sonny the Conservation Detection Dog has confirmed our worst fears – that feral cats are everywhere across the Otways, and they are eating precious threatened species.

After 12 days in the field, resulting in the detection of over 200 scats, the presence of cats was confirmed at all sites Sonny surveyed, from dense heathlands to wet forests, between Angelsea in the south-east and Gellibrand in the north-west.

Across Australia, feral cats kill 1.4 billion native animals every year and the Otways has a feral cat population more than three times the density of the national average, making them a huge threat to native wildlife in the region. 

Dietary analysis of cat scats found by Sonny showed feral cats in the Otways prey on a range of native animals including swamp wallabies, ringtail possums, bush rats, antechinus, birds and beetles.

One scat was also found to contain South Brown Bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus), which is a federally listed endangered species.

“With their outstanding sense of smell, and willingness to go deep into the bush at ground level on the track of the scent, dogs like Sonny are able to find scats that humans simply can’t,” says Sonny’s handler, Fiona Jackson from Skylos Ecology.

“This makes conservation detection dogs a critical tool in places like the Otways, where the rugged landscape and thick vegetation give invasive predators (like cats and foxes) plenty of places to hide, making them hard to find, let alone study, or control.”

Sonny’s deployment is being funded through the Environmental Community Grants program of the Australian Government’s Wild Otways Initiative which is managed by the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority, and complements the Fox and Cat Management Program, being undertaken by the Conservation Ecology Centre under the same program.

“By conducting detection dog deployments on established study sites, we can increase the collection rate of cat scats, providing a more dynamic picture of feral cat ecosystem use than camera traps alone would give us,” says Dr Jack Pascoe, Conservation & Research Manager at the Conservation Ecology Centre.

“Conservation detection dogs complement our other research techniques wonderfully and provide land managers with another tool to inform future management strategies to protect threatened species,” says Jack.

Sonny has a permit that allows him to work in the Great Otway National Park, which is off limits to other dogs.

To arrange an interview, or join a detection dog on the job contact:
Toni Stevens, Communications Manager, Conservation Ecology Centre on 0401763130 or additional photos are available here.