Letting the Dogs Out (to Sea)

To study and ultimately to protect highly endangered northern right whales, conservation scientists enlisted help from some keen-nosed canines

  • Phil McKenna
  • Apr 01, 2009
THE FIRST TIME Bob, a four-year-old Beauceron mix, got up close and personal with a right whale—a 50-foot behemoth more than twice the size of the boat he was riding in—he crawled to the bottom of the vessel. Fargo, a onetime narcotics detection dog, tended to get seasick when conditions were rough. Yet neither challenge could keep these canines from the task at hand: tracking large, orange blobs of foul-smelling whale poop.

In the summer of 2003, researchers studying the endangered North Atlantic right whale began employing Bob and Fargo in their efforts to collect fecal samples from the enormous sea creatures. It was an unusual arrangement—enlisting one species to help study another—but if the right whale was to be saved, the scientists decided that man’s best friend was our last best hope. Three winters earlier, the already depleted population of approximately 350 right whales took a sudden turn for the worse. The whales, which make their home just off North America’s eastern seaboard from Florida to Canada’s Bay of Fundy, had long been plagued by low birth rates, often only a dozen calves per year. But in 2000 just one new calf was born, and whale researchers had no idea why. “For an endangered species, that sets off alarm bells,” says Senior Scientist Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium. “We were scratching our heads, asking why is right whale reproduction so low and where do we even begin to look to find the answer?”

For most land-based animals researchers would start with blood tests, but whales present some unique challenges. “These whales are 45 to 50 feet long, weigh 50 tons and are under water 90 percent of the time; you can’t catch them and do the blood sampling we’d typically do on an animal,” says Rolland. She decided the next best thing was to collect fecal samples. Yet as bright and stinky as whale poop is, when Rolland and her colleagues followed their own noses, they were lucky if they could net a single sample per day.

That’s where the dogs came in. When the scientists started bringing Bob and Fargo along, the number of samples they were able to collect quadrupled. Relying primarily on the canines’ keen sense of smell, they’ve netted a wealth of samples—more than 300 in 4 years collecting in the Bay of Fundy—that have provided a treasure trove of information. The findings, including reproductive status from hormone levels, metabolism and genetics, are beginning to shed light on why reproductive rates are so poor, a complex riddle that, if solved, could hold the key to the species’ long-term survival. “It’s revolutionary to suddenly have such a wealth of information on these animals,” says Rolland.

Sitting in her Boston office, Rolland shows a video of Fargo in an orange life vest pacing back and forth across the bow of a 21-foot boat, wagging his stumpy tail and pointing his nose in the direction of a rapidly approaching orange blob. Off screen a handler keeps a tight hold on his leash to keep him from jumping in the water. “He gets so excited he’d swim right to it if we let him,” says Rolland.

The idea of using dogs for conservation biology was first developed in the late 1990s by Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Wasser, who employed Fargo in his grizzly bear studies, realized collecting poop from endangered and often reclusive animals was easier and less invasive than taking blood.

Hunting stool on the high seas presented some unique challenges, however. “It was a real leap,” Rolland says. “We had to integrate the position of the sample with 20-foot tides, the direction and speed of the wind, the speed of the boat and what the dog was telling us.”

To get Bob and Fargo to lead them to whale poop, the biologists started out on dry land. They introduced them to the odor, then hid samples of whale poop in an open field. Once the dogs were able to find the feces on land, the researchers took them out to sea where they deployed previously collected samples on plywood floats. They would steer their boat a half a mile downwind from a sample and then, by watching for tail wags and using the dog’s nose as a compass, let the canines bring them back to the sample. “It’s like a big game of hide-and-seek for these dogs,” Rolland says.

Today, two years after Fargo led them to their last sample, Rolland and her colleagues are still trying to piece together why right whales are reproducing poorly. One possibility they’ve uncovered is that the whales are infected with high levels of giardia and cryptosporidium. The pathogens’ source remains unknown, but Rolland suspects they may come from human waste that is pumped out to sea. To investigate, collaborators at Colorado State University and Mississippi State University are sequencing the genomes of the whales’ pathogens to see if they match the genetic makeup of those found in humans.

Other possibilities include marine biotoxins, low genetic diversity and environmental stresses such as human interference—ship strikes and fishing net entanglements are responsible for half of all known deaths in the species. “There are multiple things that could be affecting them, and it’s going to take a long time to sort through them all,” Rolland says.

As she and her colleagues continue to study their data, Wasser is applying what the scientists learned in Canada to sniff out orca excrement in Washington’s Puget Sound. Orca, or killer whale, populations dropped by 20 percent in the 1990s. Possible explanations range from the depletion of salmon, their primary food, to the buildup of PCBs and other poisons in the whales. Wasser has also noticed higher levels of stress hormones in orca scat collected from individuals surrounded by whale-watching boats. “When they come into the sound, they are swamped by boats; it may cause direct stress or disrupt their foraging ability,” he says.

For the moment, the closest Rolland gets to working with her four-legged companions is the occasional visit she pays to Bob, now nine, who is enjoying retirement on a farm in Putney, Vermont. While Fargo, at eight, is also reaching the end of his working days, it’s possible she could get him back on the water if her research calls for more data. “If you want to collect fecal samples from whales,” says Rolland, “there is no question that dogs are the way to go.”

Phil McKenna is a correspondent for New Scientist magazine.

Saving the Endangered

NWF is working in Congress, with federal agencies and in the courts to maintain strong protections for endangered species including the right whale. In cooperation with its state affiliates, NWF also is carrying out on-the-ground actions, such as habitat restoration and species monitoring, for the benefit of imperiled plants and animals.

Web Exclusive

Laura Tangley

Right-of-Way for Right Whales

After several years of intense lobbying by marine scientists and conservationists, the federal government last December enacted regulations to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from ship strikes near busy ports on the U.S. East Coast. According to the new rule, enacted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all ships 65 feet or longer must slow down to 11.5 miles per hour when they are within 20 miles of ports during periods when whales are likely to be present. Though conservationists had hoped the regulations would extend to waters 30 miles from the ports, they nonetheless applauded the agency for taking this critical step. Only about 350 North Atlantic right whales are believed to exist today, and ships are their major cause of mortality. At least a third of all right whales that died over the last decade were killed by ship strikes.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates