Trialling detection dogs as a novel method for finding threatened reptiles

Project start date: 01/05/2023
Project end date: 30/06/2024
NESP funding: $98,000 (GST-exclusive)

This project is trialling the use of specially trained detection dogs to sniff out the critically endangered Victorian grassland earless dragon. The dragon – a cryptic lizard that was presumed to be extinct – was recently rediscovered in grasslands in Victoria’s west. The lizard had not been seen in more than 50 years, despite many searches. New methods are needed to find any remaining populations in the grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plain.

Victorian grassland earless dragon found by detection dogs
The Victorian grassland earless dragon was recently rediscovered after more than 50 years. Photo: Peter Robertson, Wildlife Profiles Pty Ltd.

This project is supporting the Zoos Victoria Wildlife Detection Dog Squad to train dogs to detect the Victorian grassland earless dragon by harnessing the dogs’ exceptional sense of smell. Having better ways to find the dragon is critical to its conservation by providing much-needed information about its populations, ecology and habitat use. Locating more dragons for a conservation-breeding program and insurance population is another way to save them from extinction.

If this project shows that detection dogs can successfully find this lizard, it could be a game-changer in the conservation of this and other imperilled Australian reptiles.

A panel showing 4 dogs all wearing vests identifying them as Zoos Victoria Wildlife Detection Dogs.
Zoos Victoria Wildlife Detection Dogs (clockwise from top left) Finn, Kip, Daisy and Moss. Photos: Zoos Victoria.

Key research areas

To address the challenge of finding rare reptiles and improve knowledge, capacity and tools for their management and conservation, we will work with government, Traditional Owners and landholders to:

  • train dogs to detect the rare and cryptic Victorian grassland earless dragon
  • undertake surveys across habitat that’s suitable for dragons in priority areas
  • enhance understanding of the effectiveness of using detection dogs to find rare reptiles
  • assist conservation in Victoria’s Southern Plains, a priority place of the Australian Government’s Threatened species action plan 2022–2032.