Zorro is one smart pup with a very unusual job: sniffing out the vomit of the Tasmanian masked owl, an endangered bird that is quite large but hard to find in the forest.
The regurgitated pellets are the parts the owl’s stomach can’t digest (such as fur, feathers, bills, claws, teeth and bone), and will give researchers crucial information about the owls’ diet, location, and preferred habitat. In essence, what they need to survive.
Because of massive desforestation in Tazmania, the population of the masked owls is dwindling. Though experts aren’t entirely sure how many of them are left, it’s estimated at less than 1,000. A field survey this year only found 30 of the endangered birds, but finding them is notoriously difficult and methods in use are unreliable at best.
Adam Cisterne, a PhD student at Australian National University, has been trying to get more information on the nocturnal birds with little luck. He would hike around the southern forests in Tasmania during nighttime with a looping recording of the masked owl echoing out into the forest, hoping any masked owls nearby would hear it and respond.
“It’s pretty frustrating, out of 850 surveys I’ve only detected owls 30 times,” he told ABC News.
That’s where Zorro comes in.
The talented border collie and springer spaniel mix (a sprollie) is on the hunt for the earthy, smelly clumps of bone and fur belonging to the possums, rabbits, and rats the masked owls have eaten and thrown up.
Though the smell doesn’t seem like something humans would… enjoy hunting for, Zorro is a fan of the smell. According to his trainer, Nicole Gill, she has to keep her eye on Zorro when he finds them so he doesn’t eat them!
In order to train Zorro, Australian National University’s (ANU) Difficult Bird Research Group needed funds. So they launched a crowdfunding project, and met their goal in mid-September. Dr. Dejan Stojanovic, a postdoctoral fellow, is leading the campaign.
Not only are Tasmanian masked owls endangered, but they prey on sugar gliders — a type of possum that looks adorable but preys on another endangered bird in Tasmania: the swift parrot. Because of sugar gliders, swift parrots could go extinct in as soon as 16 years. Sugar gliders are not native to Tasmania and since they also make their homes in the trees, they are pushing out other wildlife in forests that are already shrinking because of deforestation. Sugar gliders are sought after as pets in some places, but should not ever be kept as one. They are often smuggled illegally, and are social creatures that live in groups of 30, so isolating one from its brethren is additionally cruel.
Zorro is undergoing training for his important new job, and can already seek out owl pellets on walks in the forest with his trainer.
Good job, buddy!
C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband, son, and dog.