Nosy predators check out the competition

Growing up in New Zealand, I had a great passion for animals. Viewing everything through a child’s eyes, I believed that all wildlife should be free to thrive anywhere they wanted. Today I see the realities of the world were all animals are cherished, but some are out of place and others are vulnerable. I am not alone in realising the endangerment and damage that pest species can cause to our native species. This awareness has me seeking to understand the appropriateness of eliminating certain species from particular locations in order to protect others.

The flora and fauna within New Zealand are some of the most remarkable in the world. A large majority of the animals and plants (and fungi) are endemic, or unique, to New Zealand. Over the years, many species have been introduced to New Zealand, such as ferrets, stoats, hedgehogs and ship rats, that have put these unique animals and plants at risk. It has become vital that monitoring and control of these predators is implemented to allow our native species a greater chance of survival.

Research to improve strategies and techniques to monitor and remove these predator species has been underway for many years now. One method used to monitor these predators is through deploying food-based lures that attract the target animals to traps or cameras. This allows for observations to be made in order to determine the density of these species in the surrounding area, as well as to increase the chances of trapping and removing these animals.

One way to attract these predators is to use odours from more dominant predators to attract the target species to the traps or cameras. This technique is based on the observation that mammals, like stoats and rats, use scent as their primary sense to forage for food and detect dominant species (higher ranking species than themselves). Dominant species directly influence the behaviour of mesopredators (mid ranking predators) by either attracting them or repelling them away from the odour. A dominant predator’s odour may provoke the subordinate (lower ranking predator) into preforming eavesdropping behaviour. This behaviour is used by species to inspect the location where the dominant predator has roamed. If the location is good enough for the big, tough predator then maybe it is a good place for the subordinate as well.

Researchers from Lincoln University, University of Auckland and Landcare Research chose to test ferret odour verses fresh rabbit meat (a traditional lure) for stoats, hedgehogs and ship rats. This study took place at Toronui station, a 1500 hectare sheep and beef farm located in Northern Hawkes Bay. It lasted for 64 days trial.

From left to right; Stoat (Mustela erminea), Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), Ship Rat (Rattus rattus) and Ferret (Mustela putorius furo), all mammalian predators introduced to New Zealand. Charlie Marshall, (CC BY 2.0), Duarte, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0),; Amanda and William Explore, (CC BY-NC 4.0), Moreau, (CC BY 2.0),

The results from this trial confirmed that the ferret odour was the best for attraction, at least for stoats and hedgehogs, while rats avoided the ferret odour. Other studies have also found that rats avoid fresh odours. Stoats showed the strongest attraction to the ferret odour, with double the number of stoats being observed at the monitoring stations compared to fresh rabbit meat. These results can lead to exciting new possibilities to improve the monitoring and management of these species, especially in places where they are predicted to be rare.

One surprising result that was found was that the population of stoats at Toronui station before the study began was estimated to be rare. After the study was completed, the stoat population was predicted to be widespread. This makes you wonder just how underestimated the population of stoats in New Zealand really is.

Studies like this are important as New Zealand. With very limited native mammals, the native species, such as birds and insects, within New Zealand have had no need to adapt to mammalian predators. As a consequence when predator mammals were introduced into New Zealand they caused devastating damage to the endemic species.

Ferret odour lures were found to last longer than the fresh rabbit meat lures. This means that the ferret odour lures can be left out in the field for a longer period of time and still work just as well. Rabbit meat lures become ineffective faster leading to underestimates of pest populations.

The finding of the effectiveness of ferret odour as an attractant, especially in stoats, introduces a new tool and opportunity for pest management and conservation. It opens up many paths for future research to develop and learn more about this type of monitoring and the positive effects that it could have on our native species. More recent work has reported similar outcomes.

Mammalian predators are a major threat to the unique biodiversity that we have in New Zealand. New discoveries, such as the use of dominant predator odour in predator removal, gives me hope that there is a future for our taonga, native species.

The author Stacey Lewthwaite is a postgraduate student in the Master of International Nature Conservation taught at Lincoln University. This article was written as an assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

Garvey, P. M., Glen, A. S., Clout, M. N., Wyse, S. V., Nichols, M., & Pech, R. P. (2017). Exploiting interspecific olfactory communication to monitor predators. Ecological Applications27(2), 389-402.

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