Scientists think it’s possible that there are close to 600 koalas living in Belair National Park outside Adelaide, Australia, and soon visitors to the park will be able to detect some of them using just their phones.
Flinders University researchers are using a new kind of solar-powered Bluetooth ear tag – designed by Dr Romane Cristescu and her colleagues at the University of the Sunshine Coast – to find, track, and monitor up to 200 koalas in the park.
An app, developed by CSIRO and the National Koala Monitoring Program (NKMP), is currently being tested to accompany the researchers. It will allow people to detect the ear tags to learn important information about the individual they’ve come across while helping to provide essential data for koala demographics studies.
Cosmos journalist Imma Perfetto travelled to Belair National Park, with Flinders researchers Professor Karen Burke Da Silva and Dr Julian Beaman, to find out more about the technology and how involving citizen scientists benefits koala research.
Read more: Southern Australia’s koala comeback: what they can tell us about helping their threatened northern counterparts.
Developing solar-powered Bluetooth ear tags
The process of developing these innovative new ear tags was an iterative one, Cristescu told Cosmos, and they’re currently on the fifth version of the technology.
“We started with an idea. Then assembled different components and stuck them to koala ear tag – which the koala un-stuck rapidly,” she says.
“We had several different moulded versions which were still not koala proof (they ripped our antenna). The current version is 3D printed and, so far, works the best.”
Because the tags are solar powered, there’s no need to change out when they go flat.
“Testing of the tag has revealed it works even in cloudy weather… But it gets tricky if the koala is sleeping in a ball and the tag is snuggled in fur,” Cristescu says.
The tags send a Bluetooth packet with information about the koala when it builds up enough solar energy. A signal, Cristescu says, they chose to use because almost everyone has already invested in a receiver for it.
“By adding a Bluetooth ability, we can now not only identify the koala, but through an app link all its past records and history,” she says.
“For the App user, it means getting all the gossip on the koala.”