It sounds like a B-rated science fiction movie: wallabies implanted with microchips opening their own personal pet doors when they want to come home.
But this isn’t an ill-advised sequel to Tank Girl. Researchers in Australia recently implanted a bridled nail-tailed wallaby with a microchip and trained it to use a cat door to find food and escape predators. The 62-day experiment was designed to prove that such technology could be useful to help in the eventual wild release of captive-bred animals.
Bridled nail-tailed wallabies are among the smallest wallabies, themselves often described as smaller versions of closely related kangaroos; both are marsupials in the Macropodidae family. About as large as medium-sized dogs, the wallaby’s name refers to a small nail it has on the end of its tail (nobody has yet figured out the nail’s purpose).
The wallabies, listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are threatened in their native Australian habitat by predators like feral dogs and cats. Since these predators aren’t native to the continent, the wallabies have nary a notion of the threats they pose. The IUCN estimates that fewer than 250 bridled nail-tail wallabies remain in the wild.
“If we don’t act now, there won’t be any left soon,” said Julia Hoy, research manager at the University of Queensland’s Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre, a research and teaching organization focused on wildlife management.
Hoy admitted that wallabies aren’t known for their intelligence. But she and her colleagues wanted to see whether they could train a captive nail-tailed wallaby named Flood to use a cat door to find food and escape from predators.
“If we can do it with her, we can do it with anyone,” said Hoy.
Flood was born in captivity in 2011, around the time of intense flooding that wiped out several towns west of Brisbane, Australia. She is one of a number of wallabies and other native Australian animals held by the wildlife center as insurance, in case wild populations drop to unsustainable levels. In the meantime, the researchers are developing techniques they could use to help captive-raised animals survive if they are released in the future.
The team implanted Flood with a microchip that allowed her to push open an otherwise locked pet door, which led to a safe space with available food. The door was programmed to unlock when the microchip got near, but Flood wasn’t exactly a quick learner.
“The answer is do it very slowly and careful, and do it in small stages,” Hoy said, adding that they first had to get the wallaby comfortable with pushing the door open. Eventually, though, Flood got the hang of it and made use of her secure personal apartment. Their report on Flood’s training was published in June in Zoo Biology.
She said that the results signal good news if wallabies like Flood are released back into the wild. Doors like these can help researchers do a type of soft release, which involves partial feeding as well as giving the animals a safe place to hide from any feral dogs intent on making a meal out of them, at least until they learn to fend for themselves completely.
Cautious steps like this are necessary, since it would be a waste of time, resources, and precious wallabies if the animals were released only to be immediately eaten by an invasive predator. Hoy and her colleagues are busy training other animals, including northern brown bandicoots, to fear dogs and cats.
While this is the first time that this type of setup has been used on wallabies, other research has employed door-opening tech for species as varied as owl monkeys and birds.
Biology professor Vladimir Pravosudov and his colleagues from the University of Nevada, Reno, placed electric bands on the legs of chickadees that allowed them to access feeders, as part of an effort to learn about their spatial memory performance and cognitive flexibility.
Pravosudov said he’s not surprised that the wallaby could learn to use such a device, and suggested that the use of this technology will soon become common among wildlife researchers and managers.
“It doesn’t require handling animals in the wild, so [the technology] is all over the place,” he said, adding this allows for a way of monitoring wildlife behavior without the interference of human presence.
Joshua Rapp Learn is an Alberta-expat based in Washington, D.C. who covers science and exploration. Find him on Twitter @JoshuaLearn1.