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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Nose Knows: Dogs Sniff and Save Endangered Species

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The Nose Knows: Dogs Sniff and Save Endangered Species
by Marguerite McNeal

           Pet Heroes    Image via Facebook/Conservation Canines
CK9 Tucker surveys orca scat. Image via Facebook/Conservation Canines
With one sniff, dogs know a lot about you. Their sense of smell lets them detect low blood sugar levels in diabetics or identify drug smugglers, for instance.

Researchers at the University of Washington are relying on this amazing olfactory ability to track and conserve endangered species. Conservation Canines, as the dogs are called, are trained to identify wildlife scat (another word for poop), which scientists collect and analyze to understand environmental issues that affect the species’ survival.

One Conservation Canine, Tucker, received media coverage for his ability to detect orca scat up to a mile away. Using the samples Tucker located, researchers were able to determine that the lack of chinook salmon is the biggest threat to Puget Sound’s orca population. Just by looking at animal feces, the researchers can extract DNA identifying individual animals, gender, eating habits and important stress levels.

For more than a decade, the program’s dogs and their handlers have been non-invasively identifying threatened and endangered species around the world, including tigers, spotted owls, bears, wolves, caribou, giant armadillos, giant anteaters, pumas and jaguars.

Heath Smith, program director for Conservation Canines, just returned from Mexico where a team is working with the Nature Conservancy to find and protect endangered salamanders. While humans have to destroy the salamander’s habitat to confirm its presence, the canines identify that the animal is in a log, for instance, and conservationists can then protect the area surrounding it, Smith says.

The program’s dogs come from animal shelters and they’re all between one and a half and three years old and have. Most of the dogs are mutts or mixed breeds, Smith says. There’s Allie, an Australian cattle dog mix; Casey, a Jack Russell terrier; and Captain, whose breed is unknown. There currently are 17 active Conservation Canines, and Smith says that their stamina and enthusiasm is more important than the breed. They all share “this insatiable drive to play fetch,” he says. The dogs’ work is challenging, requiring four to six hours of fieldwork each day when they’re out in the field.

When they’re not on site, the dogs live at the program’s training facility in the University of Washington’s Charles L. Pack Forest in Eatonville, Wa. Smith says that the sky’s the limit when it comes to the Conservation Canine program’s efforts. When it started in 1997, researchers were only studying bear scat. Now they’re up to 40 species and continuously adding more. And dogs’ noses play a role in identifying more than poop. They’re detecting live species, plants, carcasses and invasive species, Smith says.

“It’s a very positive thing to be out there with them,” Smith says. “Some days we’ll collect more than 150 samples. Other days we won’t find any, but the dog still loves being out there, running around the forest, looking for stuff.” 

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