Home
Work of Dogs
Print|Email|Text Size: ||
Dogs Sniff Out Whale Scat
Scientists enlist detection dogs in their quest to learn more about whales
Pages:

Pages

Perched on the bow of a small boat racing across Puget Sound, Tucker can catch the scent of killer whale scat from as far away as a nautical mile. When he whiffs the slightly salmony smell, the 60-pound Lab leans hard over the bow, so hard that his handler must hang on with all his might to keep him from toppling overboard. The captain points the boat the direction of Tucker’s black nose.

 

Tucker is one of the few dogs in the world who has been used to track whale scat on the open ocean. Another is Fargo, a Rottweiler, who tracks right whale droppings on the North Atlantic. Each, with his finely trained nose, has been helping solve puzzles and in the doing, saving fellow mammals.

 

“Nobody ever dreamed we could do what we are doing, ” says scientist Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

 

Scat provides scientists with a mother lode of biological information about an animal, from its diet to its genetics. It can tell them if an animal is sick or affected by toxins. Using scat, scientists hope to find the answers to mysteries, such as why right whales have not flourished.

 

That is the question that has long nagged Rosalind Rolland, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. Right whales, despite long, concerted efforts by scientists and conservationists, have yet to thrive. Before commercial whaling nearly finished them off, an estimated 100,000 right whales plied the cold northern Atlantic. By the time a worldwide hunting ban went into effect in the 1930s, only about 100 called those waters home; some 70 years later, their population still only numbers a mere 300 to 350.

 

No one knows exactly why right whales have not rebounded. Ship strikes and habitat destruction are suspected, but Rolland also wonders if the female whales are not conceiving. To answer that question, she needed to test the animals’ reproductive hormones but, as she says, “You can’t catch a 50-ton whale and take a blood sample.”

 

So, in 1999, Rolland and her husband, fellow scientist and whale researcher Scott Kraus, began scanning the Bay of Fundy for flotillas of bright-orange right whale poop. Though they found some, it was slow going. The scat only floats on the surface for about a half hour or so before sinking; adding to the difficulty, the notoriously rough water of the Bay of Fundy—tucked between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia—often knocks it apart in short order. On top of that, bad seas frequently kept the research boat in harbor at Lubec, Maine, limiting the opportunities the team had to search. In two weeks, they found five samples.

 

Wasser visited Rolland in 2001 and told her she had the perfect scenting conditions for a dog. “At first I thought he was out of his mind,” she says. In the late ’90s, Wasser, working with Washington trainer Barbara Davenport, pioneered teaching dogs to track the scat of terrestrial animals, such as cougars, foxes, moose, and even giant anteaters. Wasser’s Center for Conservation Biology now has 19 of these conservation dogs, but back then, they had yet to train a dog to track scat from a boat on the water. The big challenge was the dog could not physically lead the trainer to the source, nor nose the scat as is done on land. “This is completely unlike any kind of detection work,” Davenport says.

 

Davenport started by choosing the right dog for the job. For starters, the pooch had to have a strong play drive so he would work long and hard for the chance to tug or catch for a few minutes. Color was also a consideration; a white dog would be exposed to too much sun on the bow of a boat, Davenport says. Also, the dog needed a wide stance to keep his balance on a moving boat. That narrowed it down to a blackish, wide-chested, ball-crazy dog who was not inclined toward seasickness. Davenport tested canine candidates by taking them for a boat ride on a lake.

 

Pages:

Pages

Print|Email

More From The Bark

More in Work of Dogs:
The UnMusher
A New Leash on Life
YAPS Brings Hope to Cancer Victims
Puppy Raisers Wanted
The Making of a Guide Dog
Guide Dogs for the Blind
Bodie
Avalanche SAR Canines
Jumping for Joy
Dog Law: Dogs in the workplace