SCIENTISTS hope specialist dogs trained in Bendigo will prove that a greater glider population has not completely collapsed.
The vulnerable native species has not been detected at Hanging Rock since 2014.
It could be evidence the species has vanished from the area in the wake of habitat loss and human development.
Or it could be that the region’s forests have become more fragmented and greater gliders are just getting harder to find.
It is a mystery that calls for those capable of sniffing out clues - or at least of following their noses to greater gliders’ faeces.
Faeces, or scats, can tell conservation scientists a lot about wildlife population numbers or provide information about animal health and diet.
Taking up the case are some of the 14 dogs and their volunteer handlers trained at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus.
It is their first deployment after two years of specialist training.
La Trobe PhD student Nick Rutter hoped the dogs could overcome other wildlife survey methods’ shortcomings.
“Currently, the most common way to find evidence of Greater Gliders is to search for them at night with strong torches, looking for eyeshine,” Mr Rutter said.
“However if an animal is hiding – or we don’t happen to walk right past it – we can miss them and get a distorted view of their prevalence in the area.
“Dogs, on the other hand, can cover large areas, including challenging terrain, and take us straight to the evidence.”
If greater gliders are still around, the dogs’ evidence could inform thinking on which areas humans should focus their survey efforts.
If greater gliders are not at Hanging Rock they may have moved elsewhere, perhaps to areas within the Wombat State Forest or the Macedon Ranges, potentially even as far away as Gippsland.
The dogs are being deployed to the Wombat State Forest, into an area where greater gliders had been detected in recent months.
Greater gliders prefer tall, established forests and, much like koalas, fed almost exclusively on eucalyptus leaves.
The critters are not the only animal the dogs are slated to assist, with plans afoot to train them to help turtles.
“In Victoria and a lot of other places freshwater turtle nests are often predated by foxes. Up to 90 per cent of nests are raided,” Mr Rutter said.
He said the dogs would be able to track down nests so that conservation volunteers and workers could cover them with mesh, protecting them from predators during the nesting season.
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