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Sniffer Dog Helps Australia Fight Yellow Crazy Ant Invasion

FILE - Yellow crazy ants are seen on an image posted on an official Australian government website,

Efforts are underway in Australia to eradicate the last remaining pockets of aggressive yellow crazy ants. First discovered in Australia in the 1980s, the ants spray formic acid when aggravated, and have devastated populations of frogs, lizards and ground-nesting birds.

Rangers are approaching the halfway mark of a 10-year eradication plan in Queensland and have killed off about 85% of the known infestations through aerial and ground baiting, but stubborn infestations remain.

The yellow crazy ants are about 4mm long with a golden-brown body and have a lifespan of about 84 days. They are thought to have come to Australia inside shipping containers or other cargo.

The ants are a particular menace in the far north of Queensland.

They can form super colonies containing thousands of queens. It is estimated that up to 20 million worker ants can inhabit a single hectare of land. On Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, scientists say they have been responsible for the deaths of up to 20 million red crabs, a species of land crab unique to the area.

Andrew Cox from the Invasive Species Council, a conservation group, says they are a major threat to biodiversity.

“These ants are pretty nasty because they spray formic acid as a way of disabling their food sources -- the animals and insects they attack. They have arrived in Australia without their normal parasites and predators. They could cover vast areas of northern and northeastern Australia and when they are invading an area it is like there is nothing else there. They just consume all of the ground-dwelling insects, lizards, even birds and small mammals. So, it is really bad for the environment,” Cox said

A sniffer dog called Fury is helping to detect colonies of yellow crazy ants.

Scott Buchanan, the executive director of the Wet Tropics Management Authority, which is leading the elimination campaign, says the two-year old Labrador has been carefully trained to sniff out the insects.

“What we do is get these dolls, so toys, we produce the odor from the ants, put it onto those toys and then we hide those toys away for the dog. The dog has also been trained to not stick its snout into a nest. It will just sit down. That is the signal - ‘I’ve found something. Come over and see what I have found,’” Buchanan said.

The ants are part of a long list of invasive species including cane toads, foxes, pigs and camels that have caused ecological carnage across Australia. It is estimated that feral cats kill nearly one million birds in Australia every day and have caused the extinction of some ground-dwelling birds and small to medium-sized mammals.