10 min read

Meet The Rescued Pup Who Is Saving Orca Populations With His Nose

<p>John P Huerd</p>

The poop of a southern resident killer whale has a pungent smell, like a tin of salmon that's gone bad. The closer you get -- especially if the wind is blowing across the north Pacific -- the fishy scent can be so strong "you can almost taste it," says Elizabeth Seely. Seely, in the name of killer whale conservation, collects whale scat up and down Washington's coast. But it's her partner, Tucker, who's got the real nose for poo -- Tucker is so attuned to orca scat he can track down a whiff from a nautical mile away.

Tucker, a rescued black Lab mix, is one of a team 17 pups trained to sniff out the scat of endangered animals. (Tucker's other stool specialities include arboreal iguana, moose and wolverine.) With the help of handlers like Seely, these dogs travel the globe as part of Conservation Canines, a program based at the University of Washington.

[Tucker at sea. Credit: John P Huerd]

Conservation Canines grew out of the work of biologist Samuel Wasser, now a professor at the University of Washington. As a PhD student studying wild baboon reproduction, Wasser needed a way to noninvasively monitor hormones. The trick, it turned out, was scat -- "an incredibly powerful tool," Wasser says. With the right laboratory techniques, biologists can mine fecal material for troves of information (everything from an animal's hormones to DNA to level of toxins) without disturbing their subjects. The other nice thing about studying animal poop is that there's plenty of it -- as long as you know where to look.

Enter detection dogs like Tucker. These dogs are highly driven -- or, as Wasser puts it, "completely insane for a ball." The conservation program taps into the dogs' sense of play, as well as their incredible smelling abilities. Like narcotics dogs trained to suss out different strains of marijuana, Tucker and his canine compatriots are taught to find a variety of scats from the same species, to make sure no pile gets left behind. Once the dogs find the right scat (be it grizzly bear, tiger or orca), handlers give their canine partners a reward: playtime with their favorite toy.

"Our dogs have a bunch of different behaviors when they're on a scent," Seely says. Out in the field, she'll look for the dogs to start zig-zagging, or prick up their ears, or curl their tails. And if the scent is strong, some dogs begin to wag. "That's because they know they'll get their ball soon."

Of all the animals Conservation Canines surveys, orcas have the poop that's hardest to find. On a boat, the dogs can't simply run after a smell. Instead, handler and captian work in concert, acting as the dog's sea legs. Seely is so in sync with Tucker she can tell which way to direct the boat based on a twitch of Tucker's nose, Wasser says. If Tucker's right nostril flares up more than his left, Seely will notice, and then the boat zooms off to the starboard side.

The researchers have a roughly 30-minute window to scoop up orca poop, which can range in size from a fingernail to a dinner plate. Whale feces are unstable, Seely says. "It sinks quickly, or the water can tear it apart." On a recent July expedition, Seely and Tucker had found two orca samples -- a rather successful day.

[Orca poop afloat. Credit: John P Huerd]

Back in the lab, biologists get a snapshot of the orcas' health using hormonal information extracted from the samples. Unfortunately, the hormones and other data paint a grim picture. Southern resident orcas, which spend May to October in the Salish Sea, are "doing really bad right now," Wasser says.

There are only about 79 resident killer whales left, legally protected as an endangered species in the U.S. In the 1960s, there were nearly 150 resident orcas living in the waterway between Canada and Washington. But, based on a critical miscalculation by the captive orca industry -- which had assumed the whales numbered in the thousands, not hundreds -- 48 resident whales were harvested by the mid-1970s.

Forty years later, the orca population has not recovered. The whales' health is closely tied to the health of Chinook salmon in the Pacific -- resident orcas are picky eaters, subsisting on these salmon for nearly 70 percent of their diet. When the Chinook salmon population dips, orcas go hungry. Based on hormones in the orca scat (found by Tucker), Wasser and his colleagues can tell how well the whales are eating.

When the whales return to the Salish Sea in May, hormones indicate the marine mammals arrive well-fed, Wasser and his colleagues report in a 2012 PLOS One study. It was a surprising finding -- it meant the whales also dine at a source of salmon outside the Salish Sea. The orcas, it turns out, were hunting at the mouth of the Columbia River before their northward swim. It's a critical habitat that, prior to this discovery, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hadn't been monitoring for orcas.

Both Seely and Wasser point out that Conservation Canines doesn't only help killer whales, Mexican gray wolves and other endangered species -- for the detection dogs, the program is home. Tucker, like his canine teammates, were all adopted, either from shelters or families who couldn't keep their pets. "They're the crazy, crazy ones that don't usually find a home," Seely says. "We get to give them a second chance -- and go all over the world to help endangered species. And the dogs are happy to do it, just to play with a ball."

And among his human colleagues, it seems, the feeling is mutual. "Tucker's just about the sweetest dog there is," Wasser says. "There're few greater pleasures I get than watching him work."