In an ironic twist for the little penguins of Sydney's North Head, a usual predator has come to their rescue.
According to the Office of Environment and Heritage in New South Wales, the penguin population has dramatically decreased to just 60 pairs after once numbering in the hundreds, due to dog and fox attacks, habitat loss and nesting site disturbances.
To protect what is left of the the endangered colony, Australian Wildlife Services have started using specially trained sniffer dogs to track and monitor the birds.
An English Springer Spaniel named Eco has been called to the job. Not only does Eco sniff out the tiny penguins, which stand 30 cm tall and weigh about 2.2 pounds when fully grown, the dog is on the tail of the cats, foxes and other dogs who are not after the penguins' best interests.
"I've trained her to passively respond when she detects a penguin burrow," her trainer Steve Austin told Australian Geographic. "In contrast, when detecting foxes, Eco's response is very active whereby she vigorously digs the area when she detects a fox den."
Wiinterrr's Day reports that park ranger Melanie Tyas says the birds were difficult to find and conserve because they stay hidden during the day, only coming out at night. Rangers can tag birds and get a better idea of what the penguns are doing with Eco's help -- According to Australian Geographic, the dog takes one hour to cover an area that would take 10 people four hours to monitor.
The penguins are not the only ones being helped by the nose of their predators. Working Dogs For Conservation has sent one of their trained sniffer dogs to China to help out on a research project that analyzes Asiatic Black Bear (also known as Moon bear) feces in an effort to conserve the endangered population.
Even cheetahs have benefited from the help of clever pooches. The elusive species was becoming increasingly rare across Africa, according to Wildlife Extra in July 2010, and is currently classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. A Welsh company specializing in training sniffer dogs, Wagtail UK, was reported to be helping to track the big cats in their native South Africa.
Using a sniffer dog to track Sydney's little penguins is a pilot program, according to Wiinterrr's Day, which started at the beginning of November.