Seduced by the Stoat Stench

As a child who was raised next to the ocean, I suppose it’s only fitting that the beach is my attractant. Something about the sand between my toes takes me back to when I was 6. My talents were at a peak as I managed to take the win in multiple sandcastle competitions. The sea gives me a sense of security and allows my mind to reset, clearing all worrying thoughts. And of course, it is the foundation behind most of my hobbies; fishing, diving, swimming (and sandcastle building). The beach has always been a part of my upbringing, a place where I enjoy the company of family and friends.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2022-04-28-at-12.16.58-PM-1024x692.png
Beach Day – CC BY-NC-ND Image by Anna Meban

One of the things I found most interesting after a trip down to the beach was how my little jack russell paid far more interest in me when I returned home. Now maybe this had something to do with us neglecting to take him with us, but he would always sidle up to me, frantically sniffing and then stare at me longingly, as though I had betrayed him. He knew I’d made friends with a passing puppy on the beach and he knew that whoever had left these hairs entwined in my clothing was not him.

It’s important to remember that these attractants differ, especially when they include scents such as urine, scats and bedding odours. Yes, you read that right, these are the types of odours that Lincoln University’s Elaine Murphy and James Ross, along with their fellow colleagues, investigated in terms of the power of attraction in stoats (Mustela erminea). More specifically their study discussed whether body odours of reproductively fertile (oestrous) stoats have the potential to be used as lures for pest trapping.

Their study, published in the journal Animals, tested these lures in a series of lab and field trials. Lab trials were undertaken at Lincoln University and involved wild-caught stoats. The experiment was set out in a way where each odour sample was placed in a metal mesh tea ball, allowing stoats to smell but not interact. As well as this, a control sample was used, consisting of unscented Dacron, allowing stoats to choose between scented and unscented chambers.

The field trials differed slightly, with the lure stations providing a menu selection of stoat odours and more traditional lures consisting of hens eggs and dried rabbit meat. The field trials took place in a range of New Zealand’s well-known locations, Abel Tasman, Lake Rotoiti (Tasman) and the Coromandel.

Exploratory Stoat - By Charlie Marshall -
Exploratory Stoat – CC BY 2.0  Charlie Marshall (Flickr

This got me thinking about how important scents are as an attraction method for animals, even for humans themselves. It may be the scent of home-cooked meals in the kitchen. The strong scent of cologne as your crush walks by. The smell of salty air drawing me to the ocean and reminding me of home. Everyone has something they are attracted to but these things differ depending on the person… or species.

In Abel Tasman and Lake Rotoiti, the trials compared fertile female stoat bedding odours to a dried rabbit meat block formulation. In the Lake Rotoiti trials, they also tested a combination of both lures together. It was the Coromandel trial that grabbed my attention, as this focused on whether male odours had the same charm as females. The trial was divided into two stages, first the male stoat bedding odour was partnered with either dried rabbit or hen eggs, and second, the male bedding odour was trialled on its own.

The lab and field trials both showed very promising outcomes for the control of stoats. In the captive animal trials, stoats had greater interaction times with stoat odours than with the control dacron. Stoat odours were just as much preferred by stoats as the hen eggs and dried rabbit meat. Male odours were also equally effective attractants for both males and females showing interest in the scent of the opposite sex.

So what can we do with these alluring aromas?

Well, it is becoming increasingly more evident that food lures in the wild are not always the most effective way of targeting stoats when using kill traps and bait stations. Although these are the best techniques at the moment, conservation workers still struggle to catch stoats in many locations. Elaine and her colleagues mention how this is likely due to every individual having different preferences (basically a personality), as well as stoats being spoilt for choice in terms of food sources in certain areas.

With all pest control there will be some animals that manage to dodge the bullet. The use of odour as a lure adds another technique into the mix. This new tool may be just what we need to increase chances of stoat capture rates in areas where food is abundant.

Stoat - RSPB Sandy
Stinky Stoat – CC BY-SA 2.0 Airwolfhound (Flickr

What’s even better is that, as stoat populations begin to decline, this scent lures method will only become more effective! As desperation sets in and survivors scramble to find mating opportunities, they will lead themselves right into their own funky smelling fate.

But wait, there’s more…

From the results gathered within this study, it is thought that these stinky stoat odours may have even more potential than just capturing stoats. In conjunction with traditional lures, these odours also captured the attention of ferrets and rats. With the looming deadline of ‘Predator free 2050‘, this research could be the next step in trying to reduce these sneaky (and stinky!) pests.

More research is now needed to figure out which chemicals are driving the attraction and how to produce these lures in a form that can be utilised nationwide, Elaine, James and their colleagues are on the trail of a breakthrough scent that has the potential to revolutionise predator trapping methods. Something to think about next time I’m at the beach.

The author Anna Meban is a postgraduate student in the Master of Science – Conservation and Ecology taught at Lincoln University. This article was written for an assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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