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Friday, June 13, 2008

Synthetic dingo urine could save marsupials

Raw dingo urine is in limited supply due to the small number of dingoes in captivity
Raw dingo urine supply is limited due to the small number in captivity

The lives of millions of Australian marsupials could be saved with the invention of a synthetic equivalent of dingo urine.
Countless possums, wallabies and kangaroos are killed with poison by timber companies wanting to protect young saplings.

Scientists have found that the urine of Australia's native wild dog acts as a powerful deterrent to the marsupials.

They hope to invent a synthetic equivalent which could then be produced on a commercial scale, providing an effective but harmless alternative to poisons such as cyanide and the compound 1080.

A team led by Dr Michael Parsons, of Curtin University in Western Australia, has found that dingo urine - made into a gel - repels all but the most determined animals from gardens and plantations.

During trials conducted in Tasmania, 80 per cent of possums and 78 per cent of wallabies steered clear of areas marked by the gel.

Dingoes never reached Tasmania, but it is thought the urine triggered a response similar to that which would have been produced by encountering a Tasmanian tiger, prior to the species' extinction in the 1930s.

A "urine barrier" kept Forester kangaroos away from a garden full of rose beds for a month.

Film footage of the kangaroos showed them freezing about five metres from the garden's edge, before turning tail and hopping away.

The raw urine was collected from animals kept at the Australian Dingo Conservation Association in Canberra, and flown fresh to Perth.

But its limited supply - there are only a few dingoes in captivity, and pure-bred dingoes are a vanishing breed in the wild because of inter-breeding with feral dogs - means that the gel is expensive.

A 40ml bottle costs A$20 to produce - hence the necessity to come up with an artificial replica.

Researchers found that dingo urine contains a surprisingly complex range of chemicals. "We're talking about 200 different elements, from pheromones to minerals," Dr Parsons said today.

Each chemical will have to be carefully copied by scientists at the government-run Chemistry Centre in Western Australia.

"Twenty years ago this wouldn't have been possible. If we can synthesise it then we can reduce the cost of a bottle to a matter of cents rather than $20. We're looking at 2010 as our target date," said Dr Parsons.

"We're really excited because we've shown that dingo urine works as a deterrent. "It's a humane, safe, biodegradable alternative to trapping, shooting and poisoning."

The project, which was recently awarded a A$1.6 million grant, is supported by the Australian RSPCA.

The gel is likely to be of interest not only to timber companies but by gardeners fed up with the night-time marauding of their local possum population.

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