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Dogs chase whale poop for science


March 31, 2008
By Manure Manager

The tantalizing aroma of whale
poop is enough to send Gator the Australian shepherd and his buddy
Tucker, a black Labrador, into paroxysms of excitement.

The tantalizing aroma of whale poop is enough to send Gator the Australian shepherd and his buddy Tucker, a black Labrador, into paroxysms of excitement. And their fascination with the slimy, green excrement may be the key to discovering reasons for the dramatic decline of the resident orca population off southern Vancouver Island.

dog


The two highly-trained dogs, working for the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, spent time perched on the bow of a Boston Whaler, following killer whale pods around Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound, waiting for orcas to poop.

“The dogs are really amazing,” said Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology. “When the scent comes to the dog, he gets up and gets very excited. He’ll stick his head over the bow, with his tail wagging. Tucker’s cheeks will be puffing in and out,” he said.

That is the signal for Wasser, research student Kathryn Ayres and program coordinator Heath Smith to zero in on the feces and collect a sample.
The centre already uses dogs to identify scat from other animals, such as wolverines, whose samples can indicate stress levels, state of reproductive hormones, exposure to toxins and diet.

There has been some skepticism about the dog program, Wasser admitted. However, dogs have already enabled researchers to collect scat from whales off the coast of New England—although, that was an easier project because that species has bright orange fecal material that floats, compared to killer whales, which have green feces that sinks, Wasser said.

Most misgivings faded recently when the scientists, with their canine help—who trained on Lake Washington with orca poop from aquariums floating in pie pans—collected seven samples in one day.


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