5 min read

The fox, the malleefowl and the camera trap: my research plans

In March 2014 I started with my masters in the qaeco research group at the University of Melbourne. Since it is almost June now and my research proposal has been accepted, I thought it was about time I give a bit of an explanation about what I will be doing in the next two years.

Note: I am going to be saying a lot of ‘we ‘in this article. Since I am not the queen I am not referring to myself, but mainly to a whole group of people who have been involved with research on the malleefowl for much longer than I have. Read more here and here.

Threatened bird
Have you ever heard of the malleefowl? It looks like this:

[caption id="attachment_17" align="alignnone" width="584"]The Malleefowl or Leipoa ocellata. Source: Wikipedia The Malleefowl or Leipoa ocellata. Source: Wikipedia[/caption]

It is a cool bird for three reasons:

  1. It build nests that function as an incubator:[caption id="attachment_18" align="alignnone" width="300"]Schematic malleefowl mound Cross section of a Malleefowl mound, showing a layer of sand (up to 1 m thick) used for insulation; egg chamber; and a layer of rotting compost. The egg chamber is kept at a constant 33°C by opening and closing air vents in the insulation layer, while heat comes from the compost below. Source: Wikipeda (text and figure)[/caption]
  2. It’s is only found in Australia, is part of aboriginal culture and has a lot of different names in different aboriginal languages such as Nganarmara
  3. It’s name in Dutch (my native language) is thermotervogel, which translates back to English as “thermometerbird”

If you have ever seen one, you are lucky, because the malleefowl is rare. In fact, this funny mound-building bird is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list.

Does the fox eat the bird?
The malleefowl is threatened for a whole lot of reasons and no one knows exactly why. It is thought that the red fox, an invasive species in Australia, plays a role in the decrease of malleefowl (Benshemsh 2007). However, there is no scientific consensus on this particular problem (Walsh et al. 2012).

[caption id="attachment_19" align="alignnone" width="351"]Red fox or Vulpes vulpes The red fox was introduced in Australia in the 1830s and is now considered a major pest species. This particular fox is a Vulpes vulpes crucigera, I am not sure if these are the ones in Australia. (Honestly, I haven't been able to figure out what particular subspecies of foxes is dwelling around in Australia.) Source: Wikipedia[/caption]

Fox baiting: 1080 poison

To figure out if foxes play an important role in the threatening of malleefowl, fox baiting is done in some areas in Australia.

[caption id="attachment_22" align="alignnone" width="298"]Fox bait logo and warning sign Sodium fluoroacetate ('1080'), a.k.a. fox bait or FOXOFF is poisonous to canids. Sources: Foxoff and Bubs Smith[/caption]

The reduction in fox population size is expected to lead to an increase in malleefowl abundance. If this is actually true is what we are trying to figure out.

Monitoring the fox population
To figure out if foxes affect malleefowl populations, we need to monitor fox and malleefowl populations to see if there is any increase in malleefowl populations after fox populations decline.

Also, we need to check if the fox baiting is actually working and killing enough foxes (it doesn’t always work in the long term (Thomson et al. 2000)).

To answer the question of whether or not fox baiting is working, we will need to collect data by monitoring fox populations.

That’s where I come in. I will focusing on the effective monitoring of fox populations.

Monitoring is generally expensive, you need people with skills, you need time, you need transport, you need do to it more than once. The newest trend in wonderful world of species monitoring is the camera trap.

[caption id="attachment_24" align="alignnone" width="261"]This is a camera trap A camera trap is basically a camera that is triggered by motion and takes pictures of animals. It sits in a robust casing so it doesn't break easily. Source: Wikipedia[/caption]

Okay. Now we get to what I will be doing:

  1. I will look at pilot data that was collected when monitoring a fox population and answer superpractical questions like:
    1. how high should you position the camera,
    2. how long do you need to monitor to need a good estimate,
    3. how far do you want to space the cameras apart?
  1. Using this data and using findings of others who have used camera traps for monitoring, I will design a way to set up camera traps in the field that should be most effective in monitoring fox populations and detecting changes in population size.
  1. Then I will do simulations of fox baiting at different intensities to analyse how good my design is at detecting the effects of fox baiting at these different intensities. This way I find out what the minimum number of camera traps that is necessary to still detect a difference between fox baiting and no fox baiting.

That’s it!

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References:

Benshemesh, J., 2007. National Recovery Plan for Malleefowl. Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia.

Thomson, P. C., Marlow, N. J., Rose, K., Kok, N. E., 2000. The effectiveness of a large-scale baiting campaign and an evaluation of a buffer zone strategy for fox control. Wildlife Research 27 , 465–472.

Walsh, J.C., Wilson, K.A., Benshemesh, J., Possingham, H.P., 2012. Unexpected outcomes of invasive predator control: the importance of evaluating conservation management actions. Animal Conservation 15, 319-328.