A Biologist's Best Friend

How dogs are helping biologists work on endangered species

  • Adele Conover
  • Aug 01, 2004
With a little help from their trainers, a pack of "workaholic" dogs is providing scientists a wealth of data on endangered species and other wildlife

"FIND IT," biologist Debbie Smith orders her dog Rio, a large and dignified German shepherd. And with the efficiency of a Hoover, he's off, weaving among bushes, nose to the loamy sands of LoKern Natural Area in California's Central Valley. Suddenly, the dog stops, ears cocked, quizzical tea-colored eyes trained on his mistress. Smith, a University of Washington Ph.D. candidate, looks down--kit fox scat! "Good dog!" she exclaims, pulling out a large rubber toy. The two play tug-of-war, and Rio "wins."

The real winner, though, may be the San Joaquin kit fox, an endangered subspecies that hangs on in isolated remnants of the wildlands it once inhabited. Beyond conserving what's left of this beleaguered habitat, protecting the diminutive carnivore requires detailed knowledge of its status and habits. And that's where the scat comes in.

For several decades, biologists have been collecting and analyzing wildlife scats to glean information about animals' home ranges and diets. Now, using techniques of molecular genetics, they also can extract DNA from intestinal cells in feces, which allows them to identify species, individuals and gender and to potentially determine population sizes, sex ratios, paternity and kinship. Scat analysis is particularly useful to scientists who study endangered species like the kit fox, because--unlike methods such as radio collars and implants--it is noninvasive and poses no potential threat to an animal.

Locating wildlife scats, however, can be challenging, especially in woodlands or other dense vegetation. Enter a keen-nosed canine like Rio and a scientist like Smith, who, along with three other researchers and their five dogs, make up the Montana-based Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC). To date, WDC dog-handler teams have been enlisted to find scats from wolves, lynx, desert tortoises and black-footed ferrets as well as from kit foxes. And demand for the group's services is growing.

Beyond being scat detectives, the dogs have other valuable skills--locating wildlife sign such as nests and dens as well as tracking down both live and dead animals. One of Smith's colleagues, University of Montana Ph.D. candidate Megan Parker, has a dog, Carrou, that "doesn't do scats. Tracking wolves--dead or alive--is what she does best," says Parker. "That and sleep on the couch."

As it happens, Carrou and Aimee Hurt's dog, a black lab named Finny, were pivotal in solving an endangered species crime: the killing of two wolves in Montana. Federal agents learned about the crime when a biologist received a mortality signal from one of two radio-collared wolves. They easily found the first wolf--shot dead by a high-powered rifle--but not its mate, so they asked for WDC's help. Fifteen minutes after the dogs got out of the truck, Carrou and Finny found the missing wolf buried under snow.

To become a working dog, a canine must possess specific qualifications, including being large and agile enough to traverse difficult terrain for long periods. In addition, the dogs are "interviewed," says Smith. "They must demonstrate an ability to concentrate consistently and focus intensely on a toy, food or other reward that makes them love to work." What the dogs do not need is a pedigree, adds Parker. "Some of the best working dogs come straight from the pound."

The dogs also tend to be workaholics. As Smith and Rio head out to explore a set of trails one day, for example, his canine colleagues whimper, their ears perked, a forest of triangles silhouetted in the back of the van. "Take me! Take me!" WDC member Alice Whitelaw translates for her dog Camas. Recently, this jovial German shepherd discovered a bonanza of kit fox scat. After getting the reward--a fuzzy ball--she pressed on, ball in mouth, to follow the scent to a hole, obviously a den. She dropped the ball, stuck her nose in the hole, backed off, picked up the ball and tossed it around, looking excitedly at Whitelaw. Rio shows similar dedication. One morning, after Smith had spent two days training an apprentice dog, the German shepherd blocked the front door so she couldn't leave without him.

Out in the blonde sands of LoKern Natural Area, among oil derricks dipping and bowing like a crowd of huge dabbling ducks and under the stinging hum of high-voltage transmission lines, Smith and Rio cross a slightly paved road to another trail. Rio, tail up like a flag, sails into the creosote, weaving, tacking, and yet he does not stop--nothing. "We can't see it, but this other side of the road is completely different," says Smith. "The kit fox is not stopping here--at least not long enough to deposit scat."

The day before, it had taken several hours to walk just two kilometers because the dog found 122 scats. But this trek turns out to be a disappointing one for Rio--a meager two-scat day.

In the distance, a flash of white reveals a cottontail rabbit hightailing across the monochromatic landscape. Trained to ignore such temptations, Rio just watches the rabbit disappear into the Tule fog, then trots back to Smith, eyes bright, ears erect, waiting for the next "Find it."

Tucson, Arizona-based writer Adele Conover accompanied WDC members on a scat hunt in LoKern Natural Area.

The Little Foxes 
The San Joaquin kit fox is one of North America's smallest foxes, with an average length of 20 inches and weight of about 5 pounds. Its diet includes ground squirrels, rabbits, doves, lizards and insects.

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