A decade ago, Amanda Peucker lived through a penguin scientist's worst nightmare. As a PhD student at Australia's Deakin University, Peucker hopped from colony to colony, collecting blood samples of Little Penguins for genetic research as the birds bred on Australia’s southern coast. Then, in the midst of her project, an entire penguin colony vanished. Foxes, an introduced species in Australia, had invaded the colony on Middle Island, killed many of the birds, and scared the rest off.
"It was 50 penguins here, 60 there and it just kept going and going," Peucker says. “Within a year or two, it went from 600 down to four individuals and no breeding. We just thought, that's it; there's nothing we can do."
It turned out that wasn’t exactly true. It just took an outsider to suggest a crazy idea to revive the colony. When local chicken farmer Swampy Marsh heard about the Middle Island penguins, he thought of when his own birds were under attack. To protect them from local predators, Marsh adopted a maremma dog, an Italian breed with a strong guarding instinct, to protect them. If maremmas could protect his chickens, could they also protect the penguins?
That suggestion flew in the face of what most scientists understand about bird-dog interactions—which, admittedly, isn’t very much. Dogs—both wild dingoes and off-leash pets—are known to be among coastal nesting birds’ top predators, in Australia and beyond. Foxes, dogs, and feral cats threaten Little Penguins throughout their range. What little research exists on the effects dogs have on birds has been for beach-nesting birds like plovers and terns, says conservation biologist Mike Weston of Deakin University. The effects dogs have on those species are pretty clear: Dogs eat eggs and chicks, and they accidentally run over and destroy nests when sprinting down beaches, he says.
But that’s not all. Dogs’ very presence keeps shorebird parents from taking care of their eggs and young. When a dog is on the beach, even if it is far off, bird parents often abandon their nests to save themselves—and hopefully avoid giving the dogs an obvious clue as to where their eggs lay hidden, says Weston. Worse, parent birds fly farther from the nest and stay away longer in dogs’ presence than in that of other threats including people, raptors, or crows.
So when Marsh suggested putting a large dog on Middle Island, "we thought, 'my god, that is a crazy idea,'" recalls Peucker. "But we had no other option."
And so the next year, in 2006, Marsh’s maremma, named Oddball, made her debut as a penguin protector. For the month of November, she lived on Middle Island (under human supervision) as a test run for the idea. While Peucker didn't think that Oddball would hurt the penguins, she was worried about how the penguins would react to Oddball—would fear drive them from the island and their chicks?
In the end, just as Oddball ignored the penguins, the penguins were unfazed by Oddball. She deterred the foxes enough that birds returned to breed—that year, 70 adult penguins lived on the colony and 12 chicks survived to fledging. The population has slowly grown ever since and is now 130 birds strong.
"When the dog was on the island, we had no fox prints at all," says Peucker, but when Oddball left, the fox prints returned. "So it seemed to work very well!"
After the successful test, two other maremma puppies were trained to protect Middle Island's penguins. The current pair—sisters named Eudy and Tula for the Little Penguin genus name Eudyptula—spend 5 months per year on the island, just long enough to deter foxes during breeding and molting seasons (they do get weekends off). Oddball has since gone back to Marsh’s farm, but the story of Oddball’s pioneering side-job has been made into a movie, Oddball, which opened in Australian theaters last week. (Negotiations are currently in progress for a U.S. release; our fingers are crossed.)
Scientists still aren’t sure why the Little Penguins didn't react poorly to the maremmas, but they’re taking advantage of the relationship in other places: About 75 miles away in Portland, Victoria, maremmas revived an Australasian Gannet colony after foxes and feral cats decimated it in 2007. And Zoos Victoria is currently training maremmas to protect endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoots after they are reintroduced into the wild. (The entire species currently lives in captivity).
If these projects succeed, using guard dogs to protect vulnerable animal colonies could perhaps expand beyond its oddball beginnings into a viable conservation tactic.
Here's the trailer for Oddball: