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Tracking small feet on the ground

Did a cat, weta, skink, stoat, rat, possum or hedgehog visit our garden last night? That’s a question children and their families on Otago Peninsula are answering in a new local project.

Simple tracking devices – tracking tunnels (with inkpad and paper floors), chew cards and wax tags – will be distributed to participating schools on the peninsula and in a nearby area of Dunedin city. Children will also be given cards to identify the nocturnal visitors by the footprints in the tunnels or the pattern of teeth marks left on the cards. Any visits will be recorded the next morning, then entered on a website.

Dr Katrin Berkenbusch from Dragonfly Data Science, a Wellington-based science provider, is involved in creating the website and data entry interface. “We’re planning to build a system that displays the data immediately, and is really easy for the children to use,” she says.

The project will help the Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Group build a map of where animal pests are living. The group is currently targeting possums, but its longer term goal is to get rid of all pest animals on the peninsula. 

Collecting and sharing data

“The children will be collecting data about their local environment – where they live or go to school – and sharing that with others. It’s an opportunity for them to see the value in their own data and its contribution to a bigger picture. Some competition between families and schools about who has the most results may also develop!”

Katrin, who lives on the peninsula, is excited about what’s in it for the children who will take part.

“Children are naturally curious, and this project will raise their awareness about animals that aren’t around in the daytime. There’s an element of mystery about what happens in the dark. By teaching children about monitoring techniques that are not direct observations, we hope they will be more curious about the things that are going on around them that they can’t see.”

New opportunities

For Dragonfly, the project is an opportunity to be part of something quite different to their usual data analysis and statistical modelling work.

“It’s a really great opportunity for us to be involved in research that’s also educational – and with much longer-term goals than our usual work. Some children are really keen on the biodiversity aspects of this research, but there will be others who get right into the data entry and monitoring side. It could open up lots of new ideas for them. 

A place to treasure and protect

Otago Peninsula is home to many special plants and animals, including yellow-eyed and little penguins. New Zealand’s only mainland colony of northern royal albatross is at Pukekura/Taiaroa Head, the peninsula’s most northern point.

Farms, scrubland, forest and rocky outcrops cover the large peninsula (9500 hectares) that is joined to Dunedin by an area called ‘the neck’. This area is being targeted for the monitoring because possums could reinvade from here once they have been removed from the outer areas.

About the project

This project, Backyard Biodiversity Stage 2, is supported by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund. A previous project, Backyard Biodiversity, was funded by Curious Minds in 2015.

The Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Group was set up by the local community and has already helped reduce possums to low levels. Backyard Biodiversity Stage 2 will run in 10 schools (with input from the Department of Conservation) and encourage awareness and action from people who live nearer to the city.


Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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