Science goes to the dogs: Canine companions who do more than just fetch
In addition to high-tech tools such as radar, satellites, GPS units and infra-red cameras, scientists in the field also use a decidedly low-tech tool—dogs. One surprising project canine assistants have been particularly adept at? Protecting nesting habitats for endangered sea turtles on the Texas coast.
At Padre Island National Seashore, female sea turtles crawl ashore to nest on the windswept beach from March to July. Kemp's ridley sea turtles nested here for centuries, if not longer, but had completely disappeared from these beaches by the 1970s. Thanks to a decades-long project based at the Seashore the highly endangered animals have returned. During the 2011 nesting season, scientists working with the project recorded 199 nests, each containing as many as 90 eggs. Eggs left in nests on the beach are likely to be eaten by coyotes, feral dogs, crabs or other critters, so park staff and volunteers patrol 80 miles of beach all during the nesting season and bring eggs into a special lab to keep them safe until hatching.
Patrollers find nests by looking for tracks that nesting mothers leave in the sand, or for the turtles themselves. It can be a challenging task. Kemp’s ridley turtles usually nest during the day, when high winds often blow away those tracks. Ridleys are also the smallest and lightest sea turtles, at 80 to 100 pounds and two feet in shell length, so their tracks are faint even in the best of conditions. The mother turtles take just 45 minutes to crawl onto the sand, bury their eggs and return to the water, so people seldom spot them in the act. Sometimes, patrollers see signs but aren’t able to find the actual nest.
Several years ago, Donna Shaver, chief of the sea turtle research and recovery program at the National Seashore, trained her Cairn terrier (appropriately named Ridley) to locate nests. She began by teaching Ridley a “find” command, using hidden treats; then, she exposed him to nests to teach him what the eggs and nest cavity smell like. Next, she took the dog to sites where eggs had already been removed from a nest and had him “find the nest.” She reinforced the smell by burying eggs that had failed to hatch after incubation. The first summer furry Ridley hit the beach, patrollers spotted a set of turtle tracks and staff and volunteers searched in deep, wind-blown sand for five hours. When they called in the dog, he immediately found the nest and the team took the eggs to safety. Shaver has since trained a second terrier, Kayleigh.
Dogs have also been used by scientists studying bird and bat fatalities caused by wind turbines. Some locations and conditions seem more deadly than others, and scientists are trying to determine why. So far, research shows that more bats are killed when winds are low, and during certain months when, for example, bats are migrating. Bat species that forage in open areas seem to more affected than others. This kind of information can make it possible to lessen the danger by, for example, stopping turbines during times known to present high risk. Ed Arnett, PhD, director of science and policy for Austin-based Bat Conservation International, uses dogs to search for carcasses in his studies of turbine-related mortality in bats.
“We asked ourselves, can we improve the accuracy of the fatality count, and could we do so with dogs?” Arnett says. To answer that question, he conducted tests using two Labradors with basic obedience training and field skills. “I just built off of that, and taught them that it was a good thing to find dead animals on the ground by rewarding them for it.”
Training dogs to find the dead bats proved to be quite simple, he adds. As a field trial, Arnett seeded the area around two wind turbine facilities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania with the carcasses of various species of bats in different stages of decomposition. The dogs found 71 and 81 percent of the carcasses, respectively, compared to 42 and 14 percent for human searchers. Humans found fewer carcasses as vegetation height and density increased, he reports, while the efficiency of dog and handler teams remained high. Similar work has been done by researchers in Portugal evaluating bird strikes at wind farms, and in other countries as well, Arnett says.
“One aspect of that summer study was training the animals, watching them and getting a sense of how they can be used,” Arnett says. “It was very enjoyable. Any time I can get out with my dogs is a good time.” For retrievers, he adds, retrieving is its own reward.
The University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology has a Conservation Canine Program trains dogs to track scat (otherwise known as poop). Scat is a great tool for scientists; it’s readily available, non-threatening (unlike some of the animals that produce it), and easy to work with. It also contains a wealth of information. By analyzing scat, researchers can determine what an animal eats. Hormone levels reveal stress, nutritional status and reproductive health.
Scat also contains immunoglobulins, which give clues to an animal's general health, and can reveal toxins in an animal’s body. It also, of course, contains DNA. One drawback to scat can be finding it, though, which is where the Center's trained dogs come in. They have been used to help track elephant poachers, and to research the effects of oil sands development on caribou and moose populations—scientists compared rates of stress hormones in the poop of animals near development and those not near it. Another study monitored stress and reproductive success in endangered North Atlantic right whales off the East coast, taking advantage of the fact that the dogs can even find scat in the water.
An ideal Conservation Canine field dog has high focus and high energy. These traits tend to make dogs less than ideal as family pets, so many Conservation Canines are rescued from shelters. That means that not only are the dogs helping scientists out, but science is giving them a second chance.
Dogs like to work, too. Shaver says Ridley is very happy when he finds a sea turtle nest. “He has a keen interest in what we’re doing, and he knows he’s done something that pleases me when he finds a nest.”
Austin dog trainer Margaret Johnson says, “Trainers have known and advocated for years that dogs are happiest when they have a job. We're finding that many different types of dogs can fill these roles. With 200 million olfactory receptors, compared to our 5 million, dogs have a natural ability to use their noses. Harnessing that is a win-win for the animals on both ends of the leash.”