Taronga Zoo’s surprising new recruitment strategy to save an endangered species


To celebrate National Science Week, 12 August – 20 August, EducationDaily is publishing a series of STEM-focused articles featuring inspiring Australians and innovative ideas.

Taronga Zoo scientists need help with a pressing issue and they’re finishing 2023 National Science Week by recruiting the nation’s high school students to help them solve it.

Regent honeyeaters once flocked across south east Australia and up to south Queensland in their thousands, but today they’re considered Critically Endangered (CR), mostly due to significant loss and fragmentation of their woodland habitat. This is ultimately an environmental issue too because regent honeyeaters are ‘ecosystem engineers’, pollinating the trees that provide a home for other wildlife.

Taronga Zoo has engaged in a major conservation effort for this native Australian bird species, successfully breeding 600 in a zoo-based breeding program, and releasing around 400 into 5000 hectares of newly rejuvenated box gum forest, partnership with the NSW government.

Once released into the wild, regent honeyeaters need to be equipped with a radio tracker that can monitor their movement and behaviour to give us a greater understanding of how they live, breed, migrate, settle and survive.

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The Taronga Zoo Science Week challenge is to create a tracker that meets the complex criteria for regent honeyeaters to successfully reintegrate into the wild, which is where the new recruits come in.

the regent honeyeater being studied at taronga zoo for science week

The science behind regent honeyeater tracking devices

Every zoo-bred animal requires a tracking device when it’s released into the wild so that scientists can monitor survival and spread.

Taronga Zoo scientists require trackers that cause no harm to the animal, and don’t interfere with their behaviour out in the wild. This means they need to weigh less than 5 per cent of the animal’s weight and include a battery that lasts for at least 10 weeks from the release date.

They’ve already conducted some research which showed that GPS trackers require a lot of battery power, and solar trackers aren’t suitable, as regent honeyeaters spend so much time under the canopies of trees.

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The consensus is that radio frequency trackers require less battery power and are more sustainable. The challenge is how to attach them to the birds.

The Science Week program

Primary school students were invited to participate at the beginning of National Science Week, with Taronga Zoo’s director of education Paul Maguire saying, “This Science Week, Taronga Zoo’s education team were blown away after receiving some incredible innovations from nine to 11-year-olds who were tasked with researching and designing prototypes for tracking critically endangered regent honeyeaters.

“The students brainstormed ideas such as tracking batteries powered by wind and movement, magnets as harness weakness points, and microphones to monitor the birds’ special songs – all incredibly well thought out ideas for collecting data from this environmentally important species.”

For the last school day of Science Week, Taronga Zoo scientists invited high school students to develop prototype harnesses for attaching the trackers. Harness requirements include incorporating a weak point into the design, made of a material that can break easily when the battery runs out, or so the birds don’t get snared on branches. This weak point must also enable the device to break off unassisted after 10 weeks, as it cannot stay attached for life. Lastly, the harness cannot impact the birds’ natural wing or tail movements – with design specs that call on mathematics skills and ethical thinking.

Some high school students were invited to attend the zoo in person, and a downloadable resource was designed to enable students to participate regardless of their location.

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They were directed to research regent honeyeaters for themselves, encouraging critical thinking and informed decision-making, as they begin the process of developing a solution.

Final submissions will include a prototype name, reasoning, specs, safety features, and photographs.

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By Charlie
Charlie Writes is a Sydney based, London born, Caribbean writer, interviewer and poet. A colourful 27 year career has taken Charlie from typing poems on the spot on her 1970’s typerwiter named June, to donning a hard hat as a roving reporter in the construction industry. All while living out her favourite quote that the greatest adventures begin with a simple conversation.