Sheepdog guardians keep this colony of Fairy Penguins safe


Click to enlargeJJ Harrison

They’ve been our best friends for centuries, and in more recent years, dogs have proved they can also be our allies in conservation, from sniffing out endangered species to fighting wildlife crime. One place where they’ve notched up a major conservation victory is on a small island off the Australian coast, where a colony of tiny penguins has been brought back from the brink – a success story that’s now inspired a multimillion-dollar movie that opens in the country this week.

Middle Island, a rocky outcrop off the coast of Victoria, is best known for its avian inhabitants: it’s home to a colony of the world’s smallest penguins. Just 33 centimetres tall (13 inches), the little penguin – or fairy penguin, if you prefer (of course you do!) – tips the scales at only around one kilogram.

While the birds spend most of their lives at sea, they do come ashore when breeding season rolls round – and that’s where Middle Island’s residents began running into trouble. The few hundred metres that separate the island from the mainland are not much of an obstacle for hungry foxes who proved quite capable of crossing the distance at low tide for the promise of an easy penguin meal.

With the predators picking off the defenceless birds, populations began to plummet dangerously: by 2005, what was once a colony numbering in the hundreds had been left with fewer than ten survivors.

Enter “Oddball”. The maremma sheepdog was initially bought by a mainland farmer whose chickens were being targeted by the very same enemy. “I used to spend my nights up with a rifle shooting foxes. One night I noticed the neighbour’s dog barking and the light went on in my head. I realised he was barking at the same thing I was trying to shoot,” the farmer, Allan Marsh, told ABC last year.

Marsh decided to get a dog of his own, and Oddball soon proved to be a pro at keeping foxes away from the farm. After a series of fortunate events, the sheepdog ended up on Middle Island, where wildlife officials hoped her chicken-guarding skills could work to keep the penguins safe too

Oddball first set paw on Middle Island in 2006, when the penguin colony was on the verge of total collapse. Since then, other maremmas have followed in her footsteps, and the Middle Island Maremma Project has proved a major conservation success. Fox attacks have stopped entirely and penguin numbers have been recovering, with around 180 birds at last count.


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Conservation success + dogs = enough to make my heart happy for quite a spell.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Blood moon Sunday night — don’t hold your breath waiting for the end of days

blood-moon
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A rare astronomical phenomenon Sunday night will produce a moon that will appear slightly bigger than usual and have a reddish hue, an event known as a super blood moon.

It’s a combination of curiosities that hasn’t happened since 1982, and won’t happen again until 2033. A so-called supermoon, which occurs when the moon is closest to earth in its orbit, will coincide with a lunar eclipse, leaving the moon in Earth’s shadow. Individually, the two phenomena are not uncommon, but they do not align often…

Appropriately, some loonies need to be cautioned

A rare confluence of a lunar eclipse and a supermoon set to happen this weekend has prompted such widespread fear of an impending apocalypse that the Mormon Church was compelled to issue a statement cautioning the faithful to not get caught up in speculation about a major calamity…

It’s unclear how many Latter-day Saints buy the theory, but Mormon leaders were worried enough that they took the rare step this week of issuing a public statement cautioning the faithful not to get carried away with visions of the apocalypse.

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told its 15 million worldwide members that they should be “spiritually and physically prepared for life’s ups and downs,” but they urged them not to take speculation from individual church members as doctrine and “avoid being caught up in extreme efforts to anticipate catastrophic events.”

True Believers really work at validating their ticket to the Great Beyond over simple astronomical events like this. It’s enough to make some believe the Earth is round.