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These adorable sheepdogs are saving a vulnerable penguin population by fighting off predators: 'They're the true heroes'

"Eudy and her sister Tula have been the heart and soul of the project."

The Middle Island Penguin Protection project is working hard to solve a big problem with dwindling numbers of the Little Penguin; it has become world-famous due to some of its unusual employees — namely, Maremma sheepdogs

Middle Island is off the coast of Warrnambool, Australia, and has long been home to a colony of Little Penguins. The smallest of the penguin species, they're only about a foot tall and weigh just over two pounds. 

The penguins are endemic to Australia and the only species to breed there. They generally breed from August to February, during which European red foxes, a non-native, invasive species, took advantage of their vulnerability.   

"We started having this horrible problem out at Middle Island between about the year 2000 and 2005 where foxes started coming to the island," Doctor Patricia Corbett, the marine biologist in charge of the project, told RAZOR.

Changing tidal patterns and higher sedimentation made the uninhabited island accessible from the shore, allowing the foxes to swim from the mainland to the island in areas with shallow water.  

In 2006, Maremma dogs were trained to protect the penguins and brought to the island during breeding season when their numbers are highest. The Italian sheepdogs have been bred to protect livestock from predators for thousands of years, but this was the first time they had been trained and used to protect wildlife. 

A local chicken farmer known as Swampy Marsh is given much of the credit for the brilliant plan. He had been using a Maremma dog to protect his free-range chickens and suggested they be used to protect the penguins, which he said were basically just "chooks in dinner suits." 

Eudy — who died two years ago — and her sister Tula were the first Maremma dogs trained specifically for the Middle Island Project, and there was no evidence of fox attacks on their watch. To date, no Little Penguins have been lost to fox attacks on the island when the dogs were on duty. 

The penguins' numbers have grown from single digits to well into triple digits since the onset of the project. Other species have bounced back, as well, showing that when we go to great lengths to protect a species and its habitat, the entire ecosystem benefits.  

Little Penguins are top ocean predators and play an important role as an indicator species, so their survival is important. They are also not the only native species at risk from invasive predators, and the success of the project has the strategy being tried elsewhere in the country with species that are more at risk. 

At the time of her death, Eudy was the longest-serving dog on Middle Island, and the project's Twitter paid her a lovely tribute. 

While the project relies on the work of many, Dr. Corbett told ABC News that "Eudy and her sister Tula have been the heart and soul of the project — they're the true heroes." 

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