Photo credit: visualpanic/Creative Commons
It may not be glamorous, but collecting an analyzing scat is one of the best ways conservationists can monitor and assess the health of individual animals and entire populations. Not only does the scat contain traces of toxins that indicate pollution levels in the habitat, it also contains hormones that provide insight into the animal's nutritional, immune, and reproductive health. Genetic analysis reveals even more and allows researchers to track specific individuals without trapping or tagging them.
The only problem is that scat is very hard for human researchers to find in the wild. Now, specially trained scat-sniffing dogs are lending their noses to make the process much simpler—and more productive.Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, explained:
Dogs have such a phenomenal sense of smell...the power of this method is absolutely phenomenal.
The dogs—all of which were rescued from shelters—allow researchers to collect scat while keeping distance from the animals. This eliminates the stress tracking usually causes wild animals. Moreover, the dogs can be trained to detect any type of dung and have already been used to track pumas, jaguars, armadillos, foxes, and even whales.
For four years, dogs have sat atop the decks of research boats in Puget Sound, sniffing for killer whale droppings. In the past, collecting them required a boat to follow a whale for an extended period of time, causing considerable stress. With the dogs, things are completely different. "Often when we're out sampling we don't see the animal at all," Wasser said, "it's really minimizing the amount of stress [researchers] put on the animal."
And the dog's skills don't end with tracking animal scat on land and sea. Already, the dogs have been used to find owl pellets, endangered plants, and invasive species. Regardless of their query, all the dogs are trained the same way. In the end, the system becomes something of a game for the dogs—when they perform a specific task they are rewarded with play time with their favorite toy.
For researchers, however, it's more than a game—it's a valuable new tool that helps them better monitor and understand the natural world.