"Scat Dogs" Sniff Out Endangered Species Feces

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The canines can detect up to 18 species and differentiate between two animals with similar looking feces.

By Land and Sea

While most scat dogs work on land, a pilot study in August placed the pooches in a new environment—on boats.

Roz Rolland, senior scientist at New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts, conducts population, health, and reproduction studies on North Atlantic right whales.

The 50-ton creatures live along the east coast of the United States and are among the most endangered whales in the world, totaling 350. Unlike southern species of right whales that have rebounded since being protected, she said the North Atlantic population has not increased.

To find out why, Rolland runs tests on their bright orange excrement.

Researchers locate the foul-smelling feces, which floats briefly before sinking, by following their noses. But the problem, she said, is not enough samples were being collected.

Last month Rolland, who is also a veterinarian, got help from some four-legged friends. Fargo, a three-year-old rottweiller, and Bob, a four-year-old beauceron mix, were sent on assignment to the Bay of Fundy in Maine, where a lot of the right whale population resides between July and October.

The canines worked on the bow of a 21-foot (6.4-meter) boat, searching the sea for floating feces. Handlers read the dogs' body language for clues on which direction to take the vessel.

Each dog has a unique change in behavior that is consistent whenever it smells a specific odor, says Davenport, the trainer. By looking for those changes in ear set, tail movement, breathing rate, and facial expression, as well as taking into account tide and wind direction, researchers were able to figure out where to go.

The 30-day study, funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service, worked "incredibly well," said Rolland, who declined to reveal the results until they are published in a scientific journal.

"The dogs really are impressive," she said. "They know their business."

Wasser hopes others will feel the same way. He and Davenport are opening a facility in Washington state within the next several months to train and certify scat detection dogs.

" The dogs are an incredibly valuable tool for gathering information," he said. "It's so much better than anything else I've seen out there by a long shot."

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