San Diego Zoo researchers stationed in Australia to provide relief for koalas devastated by months of bushfires have added an adorable team member to their search team.
"Smudge" the rescue dog uses his astute sniffing skills to help researchers locate koalas that survived fires that have ravaged the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales, Australia.
The trained wildlife detection dog can pick up a koala's scent, which allows him to hone in on an area and find koalas faster than a human could, San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) said.
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Koalas are often hard to spot with the human eye alone because of their canopy dwellings making Smudge and his handler, Kim, a "critical" part of the team, SDZG said.
Simply put, dogs are just more aware of their surroundings because of their heightened senses.
And they have a big area to search. The fires burned more than 25.7 million acres in Australia since September 2019, which is larger than the U.S. state of Indiana.
In that time, the fires have killed 28 people and burned more than 2,600 houses, the Associated Press reported.
Researchers aren't sure of how many koalas are left in the region but they have hope that koalas are moving to different habitats to avoid the fires.
"They are on the move due to the fires," SDZG researcher Dr. Kellie Leigh said. "There are likely to be unburnt patches of native habitat that would provide refuges for koalas and a range of other threatened species."
In both Australia and western North America, climate experts say, fires will continue burning with increased frequency as warming temperatures and drier weather transform ecosystems.
Most of the nearly 25,000 square miles that have burned in Victoria and New South Wales has been forest, according to scientists in New South Wales and the Victorian government.
By comparison, an average of about 1,600 square miles of forest burned annually in Australia dating to 2002, according to data compiled by NASA research scientist Niels Andela and University of Maryland research professor Louis Giglio.
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservation Agency has set up a fundraising page to support the recovery of species affected by the fires in Australia. To help, go to EndExtinction.org/help.