Survival Training

Parents can teach their kids not to touch that hot stove, and dogs learn to stay away from that electric fence. But can conservationists teach a rare marsupial that they are about to reintroduce into the wild how to avoid deadly cats and foxes?

That was the question that Katherine E. Moseby of Australia’s University of Adelaide and two colleagues tried to answer in a recent study involving the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), a nocturnal, burrowing marsupial that is facing severe threat from introduced predators.

“Many threatened species’ reintroductions in Australia fail because of predation by introduced cats and foxes,” they note in Animal Behavior. Usually, however, conservationists try to protect newly-reintroduced creatures by “controlling the predator itself rather than improving predator avoidance strategies in prey.” This time, however, the researchers decided to see if they could train bilbies to sniff out and avoid their enemies.

In a two-part experiment, they trained bilbies to associate cat and fox smells with “an unpleasant experience” – in one case having a dead and declawed feral cat “thrust on top” of them while trapped in a net, in another having cat scent sprayed into their burrows while researchers simulated a predator trying to dig up the burrow with a metal rake. Having learned the lesson, the presumably traumatized bilbies were then released into both a preserve free of predators, and an area outside the preserve “where cats and foxes were present in low densities.” In a final step, the researchers then compared how trained and untrained bilbies in both areas responded to things like spraying cat scent in or near burrows.

In the predator-free preserved, trained bilbies “moved significantly further, used more burrows with more entrances and changed burrows more frequently than untrained control animals,” the researchers report. Trained bilbies also fled to new burrows when their homes were sprayed with cat scent, while control bilbies stayed home.

In the area with predators, however, there were few differences between the trained and untrained bilbies, with both groups exhibiting “high survival rates in the first 6 months after release.”

The study “provides the first evidence that wild na├»ve bilbies can be trained to respond to predator scent by associating their capture with an unpleasant experience,” the researchers conclude. But “further work,” they caution, “is needed to determine whether this translates into a net benefit in the wild.” – David Malakoff | March 27, 2012

Source: Moseby, K., Cameron, A., & Crisp, H. (2012) Can predator avoidance training improve reintroduction outcomes for the greater bilby in arid Australia? . Animal Behaviour, 83(4), 1011-1021. DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.01.023

Image Wikimedia Commons