Solar powered tags to save koalas from bushfires

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Koalas like this one at Endeavour Veterinary Ecology will be fitted with ear tags powered by solar panels. The tags will make it easier for rescuers to locate and remove them if a bushfire approaches. Picture: Lachie Millard media_cameraKoalas like this one at Endeavour Veterinary Ecology will be fitted with ear tags powered by solar panels. The tags will make it easier for rescuers to locate and remove them if a bushfire approaches. Picture: Lachie Millard

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A solar panel the size of a five cent coin could be the key to saving koalas the next time bushfires ravage* the country.

Scientists are working on a way to quickly find koalas in the path of a bushfire using ear tag tracking devices that weigh less than a slice of bread.

Once the koalas are located they can be kept safe until their habitat regenerates and monitored once they are released.

media_cameraMini solar panels power these ear tags that will make it easier to locate koalas when in danger of a bushfire.

Koalas have already been fitted with bluetooth ear tags that allow mobile phones to detect their location within 20m, but scientists are now working to fit solar powered ear tags with VHF* transmitters* detectable from 250m away.

Tests have shown that drones flying in grid patterns can map the VHF signal from the transmitters, allowing wildlife rescuers to swoop in and nab the koalas before a bushfire engulfs them.

Kangaroo Island media_cameraThis koala survived the Black Summer bushfires on Kangaroo Island in South Australia but thousands of others are thought to have died in the blazes across Australia in 2019-2020. Picture: Brad Fleet

An estimated 5000 koalas perished in the Black Summer bushfires in 2019-2020, sparking fears koalas could become extinct in NSW before 2050.

“The ear tags are light and because they’re powered by a solar panel there is no need for a battery which needs changing every six months,” said University of the Sunshine Coast research fellow Dr Romane Cristescu.

“We believe these ear tags will last for the life of the koala.

“As intense bushfires become more common, the VHF solar ear tag could play a crucial role in saving koalas and conserving genetic diversity*.”

The tracking devices would run straight from solar power, replacing bulky battery packs.

Dr Cristescu’s team will have a prototype* in testing within a year.

media_cameraTakka the koala is fitted with one of the solar powered ear tags while under sedation. media_cameraA close-up of Takka the koala’s solar powered ear tag.

The research is being funded by WWF Australia, which has pledged $1.32 million towards nine projects designed to help wildlife survive and recover from bushfires.

“Bold new ideas are crucial to help restore species and landscapes, build their resilience, and adapt to a changing climate,” WWF Australia chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said.

Macquarie University wildlife researcher Dr Alexandra Carthey has also won funding to trial cardboard “habitat pods” to give small animals somewhere to hide from raptors, feral cats and foxes in scorched landscapes following a bushfire.

“Raptors arrive within minutes after a fire, while feral cats and foxes can travel many kilometres towards fire because they know the hunting will be excellent,” Dr Carthey said.

“They come in and decimate* our native animals who are vulnerable and exposed in a burnt landscape.

“(The habitat pods) would be made of recycled cardboard, waterproofed with beeswax, and will simply biodegrade* away over about 12 months, leaving no trace.

“By that time, the vegetation cover will have regenerated*.

“This idea could help small native animals persist following fires, allowing for a more rapid recovery.”

GLOSSARY

ravage: cause severe damage to VHF: stands for Very High Frequency and is a radio wave often used in the tracking of wildlife transmitters: equipment used to send radio wave signals genetic diversity: the variety of genes within a species. Greater genetic diversity makes a species better able to adapt to changes in its environment prototype: a first model on which later designs are based decimate: kill, destroy or remove a large proportion of something biodegrade: able to decay or break down naturally regenerated: new growth that happened after loss or damage

EXTRA READING

Census to count every koala in bid to save species

Young fundraisers’ crafty idea to save koalas

Drones helping secure a future for koalas

Koalas at risk as numbers halve in 20 years

QUICK QUIZ

    How big are the solar panels that will power the new ear tags? How far away can the ear tags with VHF transmitters be detected? How many koalas are estimated to have died in the Black Summer bushfires? What organisation is funding this research? What has Dr Alexandra Carthey received funding to trial?

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CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Koala Rescue
If these ear tags work successfully on the koalas, work with a partner and brainstorm different ways of collecting the koalas quickly in the event of a bushfire. You can be as creative and imaginative as you like. Draw a sketch to accompany your ideas.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Visual Arts, Critical and creative thinking, Personal and social

2. Extension
Work with a partner and come up with a project that would help wildlife survive and recover from bushfires. Think about the species that you’ve seen or heard about after bushfires that need protecting and what would help them.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and creative thinking, Personal and social

VCOP ACTIVITY
Create an innovative design
Can you create your own innovative design idea to present to the WWF, or can you re-purpose one of the inventions listed, for another use?

You will need to write a pitch for your idea, including what the item is and all uses you can think of.

Ensure it is environmentally friendly and solving a current problem in the environment.

Add a picture/design to go with your pitch. Don’t forget to be clear with your details and label its features.

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