Scientists have unleashed a new weapon in the fight to save critically endangered wildlife: dogs.
No pun intended.
The University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology's Conservation Canine (CK9) program is training dogs to track endangered species by sniffing out their scat. The dogs are being trained to identify the droppings of everything from orcas, to spotted owls, to Iberian wolves, to giant armadillos. Scat provides scientists with invaluable data about an animal's life. Specimens contain information about diet, sex, genetics, environmental contaminants, and stress hormones, among other things.
One of the benefits of using dogs to hunt down fecal leavings is that it's a noninvasive collection method. Other ways of collecting data, such as trapping animals to gather samples, using camera traps, and attaching tracking collars, can influence the behavior of the animals being studied. Biased data leads to less accurate conclusions. The CK9 program bypasses that issue.
Many of the program's 17 dogs are rescues that were too high-energy for household life. The program accepts all breeds and mixes provided they are high energy, ball-obsessed, and motivated by 24/7 interaction with their handlers.
The CK9 program partners with a number of regional shelters that help them identify dogs that might be a good fit for the program. According to Kitsap Humane Society canine behavior specialist Deana Case:
"They're looking for the dog that's nosy, the one who finds the ball that's been under the metal case for a month. You can almost feel them."
And it's that obsession with retrieving that is at the heart of the program's training method. Scat is gradually substituted for the ball. Eventually, the scat becomes the prize.
Samuel Wasser founded the CK9 program in 1997. He had been involved in wildlife conservation efforts since the 80s, but knew that the magnitude of the task at hand (identifying the many threats facing critically endangered species) required some outside the box thinking. That's when he came up with the idea of applying narcotic dog training methods to wildlife research and conservation efforts. With help from the drug dog trainer for the Washington Department of Corrections, Wasser developed the CK9 program.
The CK9s are used to track a variety of species. However, a large part of their job currently revolves around tracking orcas in the Pacific Northwest. The dogs accompany their handlers out on boats. When the dogs pick up the scent of orca scat, they rush to the bow of the boat and alert their handlers. In the right conditions, the dogs can hone in on the scent from a mile away. Once the scientists have collected the sample, the dogs are rewarded.
The orca scat-sniffing CK9s have allowed scientists to collect a huge volume of data - up to 150 scat samples each year, far more than previous methods have yielded. From the samples, the scientists have learned a great deal about the lives of Puget Sound's resident orcas. In addition to their ongoing work with orcas, the CK9s are slated to begin work with a number of other marine species in the near future.
The researchers who have worked with the CK9s now can't imagine life without their four-legged partners.
"They are like our arms and legs out there," says Jennifer Hartman, a biologist who has partnered with CK9 program to study owls.
Given the enormous contributions these dogs have already made to science, it will be interesting to see if and how their role in conservation fieldwork expands and changes in the coming years.
Want to learn more about the amazing work the CK-9s are doing? Read all about these hardworking, wet-nosed research assistants here.