Australia Zoo’s longstanding partnership with The University of Queensland (UQ) dates back more than 10 years. With UQ Professor of Zoology, Craig Franklin, and his team at the helm of the UQ scientific research team, the collaborative annual croc research trip with the Irwin family and Australia Zoo is going from strength to strength.
The team continues Steve Irwin’s work to uncover the mysterious lives of crocodiles. This work has been greatly assisted through the use of GPS satellite tracking technology, time depth recorders and temperature recorders. Much of the information recorded has been merged with existing information from various sources to produce incredible insights into the lives of these secretive creatures.
Acoustic Telemetry is used to track the estuarine crocodiles (commonly known as “salties”) in the Wenlock River. Once captured, an acoustic tag is surgically implanted in the crocodile’s armpit. These acoustic tags send a signal to an array of around 50 receiving stations set up on the length of the Wenlock River and some surrounding water bodies. These signals are logged and when analysed enable us to discover how the crocodiles are using the river and interacting with each other.
During the August 2014 Croc Research Trip, five crocs were captured in the Wenlock River and fitted with additional GPS-Satellite transmitters. These transmitters record the animal's position and are accurate to less than ten metres. Data is transmitted by satellite back to our laboratory, where they are converted and displayed on Google Earth.
To date, the acoustic tag project is tracking a total of 129 estuarine crocodiles, providing critical data and contributing to the knowledge base of these incredible apex predators.
Another exciting new part of our research developing on The Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve is isotopic analysis. We hope that isotopic analysis will identify markers in bloods/muscle/bone to give us an insight into what makes up the natural diet of the estuarine crocodile and just how important the role they play is in their natural environment.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for us as there are many questions that remain unanswered. This vital research has provided insights into the travel range of a single crocodile, their ability to return to their habitat after relocation, revolutionary findings on their ability to remain submerged and their behaviour during flood events. All this information is critical in learning how to successfully manage our wild crocodile populations, and most importantly, keep people safe.
Each research trip to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve continues to break new ground in crocodile research globally and is central to managing the co-existence of crocodiles and people.
Focus for 2015
As we move forward with our research, 2015 will see us recapture crocodiles we’ve been following for the past 3-6 years to ascertain diet, examine environmental drivers for movement and behavioural patterns of crocodiles with a focus on temperature, and deploy satellite-dive transmitters to look at long-scale movements and diving behaviour.
We also aim to broaden the horizons this year by venturing into a larger multi-species study, which involves not only deploying acoustic tags in large estuarine crocodiles, but also other aquatic species in the Wenlock River such as bull sharks, whip-tail rays, golden catfish, spear-tooth sharks and barramundi. We aim to eventually track over 230 animals in the river, and this will allow us to monitor them for the next 7-10 years.
We are honoured to be working with the Eskitis Institute, a drug discovery research centre at Griffith University, who have just begun collecting plants from the Reserve on an ongoing basis to study for life-saving medical research. Additionally, this year we have implemented an exciting volunteer program in partnership with Australian Geographic Magazine, with 10 individuals travelling to the Reserve to learn from our experts this August.
Educating local communities
Each year, the Irwin family take what has become almost a pilgrimage up to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, and as part of their conservation work there, they venture into local schools in Weipa to do talks with the children, to educate them on how to safely live alongside crocodiles. It is the Irwin family and Australia Zoo’s belief that individual culling and relocation are not effective ways to manage crocodile/human co-existence; Rather, research and educating people are the key.