A million dollar investment in sniffing out threats to our environment

18 December 2018

Dr Clare Browne.

A major funding boost is enabling Waikato researchers to establish whether detection dogs can sniff out invasive pest fish.

Dr Clare Browne has received the grant from the Endeavour Fund. Her and her team will be using pet dogs that have been trained to get the best out of their olfactory abilities to find traces of koi carp and catfish in water samples. New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems are under threat from the invasive fish, which compete with, or prey upon, native and taonga species like tuna and kōura. Lakes with two or more species of invasive fish experience an average 53% decline in water clarity.

Current detection methods are electrofishing and netting, which are expensive, time-consuming and intrusive. They also don’t detect pest fish at low levels, but preliminary results show that a dog can detect one koi carp in the equivalent of an olympic swimming pool. Dr Browne says at the moment the best way of detecting low levels of the fish is eDNA - environmental DNA. “It is quite an exciting technology, where you can take a sample from the environment, and see what DNA is present, to establish what species are there. But currently it is still quite expensive. We’re hoping dogs are more effective at a much lower cost, so we are testing them side by side with eDNA sampling.”

Working with Dr Tim Edwards, the team already have the country’s only laboratory-based canine scent-detection facility. They know their training and measuring works, now they need to ensure the dogs can smell the pest fish through the “noise” that is present in places like lakes. The training involves getting the dogs used to a clean sample of water with the fish in it, then progressing to have them smell the fish in real water samples from real lakes, which contain that olfactory noise, such as the scents of vegetation, other animals, waste products, and run-off.

The aim for Dr Browne is to make finding the pests easier and faster, as the sooner they are identified the better the chances are of eradication. “I am hoping that end users like regional councils, iwi and DOC will be able to send water samples to us, and we can present them to the dogs in the laboratory, and they can screen them. It is far cheaper and easier than other methods.”

There’s an unexpected side-effect for conservation as well. Dr Browne and her team are using pet dogs. So owners drop off their furry friends for the day, the animals get trained, walked, treated and loved.  Dr Browne says it is also a really good way to promote community engagement. “We have these dog owners who’re telling people their dogs are involved in this really cool conservation project. So it is getting this information out to the public through a different way. It’s great.”

The research team currently have two scholarships on offer - a Masters, and a PhD. They are also working with external experts from Rotorua, Otago University, and Canberra University.

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