Wavy Arm-Flailing Inflatable Tube Men Scare Off Looting Dingoes In Australia

The scarecrow just got an upgrade. Artography/Shutterstock.com

There’s no love lost between dingoes and Australian farmers. For centuries, these medium-sized canines have been busting into ranches and preying on sheep, goats, and even cattle. While the dingoes are just doing what comes naturally to them, the total collateral of their looting activities costs around $60 million in damages per year, and farmers aren’t happy.

A novel solution has been put forward by new research published in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology, and we think you’re going to like it. Rather than poisoning or shooting the dingoes, researchers looked at how the dingoes reacted to nonlethal alternatives such as high-pitched noises and colorful flags but found they quickly stopped being frightened of these. What did prove effective, however, was deploying a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.

The decision to enroll such a comical deterrent was inspired by Suzanne Stone, a US wolf conservationist who used a tube man to scare off wolves at a ranch in Oregon. To test if the unpredictable movements of these ridiculous promotional figures would be sufficient to continually spook dingoes, researchers rigged up one such tube man they endearingly named “Fred-a-Scare” at a Melbourne dingo sanctuary. The 4-meter (13-foot) flailing scarecrow was erected near a bowl of dry dog food as breeding pairs of hungry dingoes approached in search of a snack.

Sure enough, Fred-a-Scare quickly spooked nine of the 12 dingoes who were searching for the food. The testing continued over three days and the tube man continued to be an effective deterrent stopping the dingoes from reaching the food in 75 percent of cases. They also tried the experiment using the sound of gunshots, but this was only effective in spooking one of the hungry dingoes. 

“When you have sound, the dingoes will flinch. They’re a bit nervous but they don’t run away,” said lead researcher Bradley Smith, an animal behaviorist at Central Queensland University, in an interview with Science Magazine. “But the wavy man, boy, they bolted.”

Fred-a-Scare had a few tricks to address habituation as well. The trial was done with a manual trigger to ensure Smith had a control for this study and each session was consistent. The "field-deployable" version has randomization and motion detection to help reduce habituation.

The efficacy of Fred-a-Scare comes as good news not just for the farmers and their livestock but also for the dingoes themselves. Existing methods of managing troublesome dingoes largely revolve around killing them, which is of course bad for the dingoes but also for the ecosystems they exist within. As apex predators, dingoes have a significant influence over the food chain, and if their numbers decline populations of their prey can explode and devastate the landscape through overgrazing.

The researchers were also mindful to the fact that, as a deterrent, Fred needed to be able to run without requiring an expensive energy bill as the tube man in Stone's wolf experiment was run on a generator, which can be expensive. As such, the engineers designed Fred-a-Scare to contain a high efficiency fan and custom-designed tube assembly that improves airflow, reducing the power needed to really get Fred groovin'. The result is a deterrent that requires one-third of the power of the equivalent fan units used in Stone's wolf trial, which the team felt was essential in rendering the tube men as a viable dingo deterrent by keeping down the demands for battery or solar power. Exactly how many Fred-a-Scares it takes to defend a farm has not yet been determined, but their low energy demands mean that even if a veritable army of tube men need to be erected to defend land from dingoes, it still constitutes a green solution.

It's not yet clear if it was the wavy man's unpredictable movements or its similarity to the human form with large eyes that made the dingoes run away, but the latter could be supported by a recent study that used human eyes painted on the posterior of cows to keep predators at bay. The researchers behind the unusual project found that for Botswana's livestock, a pair of peepers on a cow's derrière prevented attacks from predators including lions and hyenas. Something perhaps for victims of Australia's swooping season to consider?

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the tube men were energetically expensive to run, however, it has been clarified that the models used in the dingo experiment were custom made to reduce power demands and could be run using solar power to reduce their energetic cost.

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