Most days Cate Quinn finds herself sorting through shit. In her lab at the UC–Davis Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit, Quinn, a postdoctoral researcher, is leading a study on one of the rarest species in North America: the Sierra Nevada red fox. Originally thought to be extinct in the region, the foxes were rediscovered in eastern California in 2010. In the years since, Quinn’s team has been extracting DNA from scat, or poop, samples, left by an estimated fewer than 50 foxes who call the high ridges of the southern Cascades and the Sierra Nevada home. As of August, they are now officially listed as endangered.
The rediscovery of the foxes coincides with significant advances in the speed, accuracy, and reduced costs with which scientists are able to analyze DNA. At this stage, extracting and interpreting genetic information are no longer the major challenges to understanding rare and endangered species like the Sierra Nevada red fox—finding them is. The foxes’ low numbers and density—they live in alpine meadows, rocky slopes, and timber forests at an elevation of 9,000 feet and above across more than 20,000 square miles of rugged terrain—make them especially difficult to track and gather even the most basic data, like how many individuals there actually are, let alone who is moving about the landscape and where, how they are related, their stress levels and reproductive statuses, and the overall population dynamics. Quinn gathers the information by visually searching the ground for scat and collecting and analyzing traces of what the animals leave behind, rather than relying on static and sporadic data points from tools like trail cameras, or expensive and potentially dangerous strategies like catching and attaching remote collars to animals.
But despite her scat-scanning expertise, after several years, Quinn—like many other researchers, conservationists, and wildlife management officials working with genetic sampling—knew there had to be a more efficient way to collect data, and thereby speed up the rate at which the information she was gathering could actually be useful in implementing conservation measures. So, she decided to let the dogs out.
Dogs have been both tools and companions to humans for at least 15,000 years. Some have even argued that early humans survived the volatile climate of the late Pleistocene due to help from their canine comrades. While we have developed many technologies in the millennia since to adapt to our planet’s changing climate, there are some challenges we simply aren’t equipped to handle alone. Today, we may not need dogs’ help hunting for food or providing protection from predators, but the urgency of despeciation and habitat loss, energy crises, floods and wildfires, and other climate-exacerbated disasters reaches every part of the world. In response to these and related conservation issues, a multidisciplinary field has emerged, one in which humans turn to one of our oldest technologies for new applications.
Armed with information from animal behavior sciences, wildlife management, ecological monitoring, veterinary shelter medicine, forensics, and more, a growing group of trained detection dogs and their handlers are being called on to assist global conservation efforts—including finding rare animals like black-footed ferrets, tracking invasive species such as spotted lantern flies and zebra mussels, helping reduce bird fatalities at wind farms, and policing wildlife trafficking.
For those familiar with the story of the fox and the hound, sending dogs out on the hunt for a rare species may seem more like a recipe for disaster than responsible science. But Lucia Lazarowski, who studies canine performance sciences—including the behavioral characteristics, olfactory learning, and training abilities of detection dogs—at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, says it makes perfect “scents” (if you’ll forgive my pun). The physiology and neuroanatomy of canine olfaction gives dogs a distinct advantage over humans who rely more on their eyesight, especially when it comes to detection. A dog’s nose has about 300 million olfactory receptor cells that send signals to the brain, compared with our roughly 6 million. Dogs, unlike humans, also have a vomeronasal organ, a special patch of sensory cells within the nasal chamber that can detect pheromones and other chemicals. Furthermore, a dog’s olfactory bulb, the region in the brain largely responsible for processing smell, is three times larger than a human’s. But it’s not just their noses that make dogs good candidates for conservation work.
“[I]t’s also … their social characteristics. They’re highly trainable, they’re cooperative with humans, and they work well with a team,” Lazarowski says. “There are plenty of other species out there that have just as good if not better olfactory systems as dogs, but they’re not going to work with humans like dogs do.”
In addition to the critical element of cooperation, Lazarowski and her colleagues have also found that dogs don’t seem to “max out” when it comes to learning new odors. Research from her lab shows dogs are capable of learning up to at least 40 odors sequentially, without forgetting those they learned earlier. Dogs at work in the field wouldn’t typically be asked to alert to multiple different stimuli (like scat and feathers and bones) all on one job, but if necessary, they can be trained to give a unique signal for different scent triggers. In essence, with proper conditioning techniques, once dogs learn how to learn, their potential scent catalog appears to be limitless.
This is useful information for people like Jennifer Hartman, the co-founder of Rogue Detection Teams. A research grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service enabled Quinn and the Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit to hire Hartman and her dog Filson to help find fox scat. Conservation detection dog work is often supported by collaborations between state and federal agencies and tribal governments, private landowners, and various other stakeholders, but funding is still hard to come by, and training, handling, deploying, and caring for the dogs are all expensive. Instead of purchasing dogs, Hartman and her team work with shelters to identify dogs who may be a good fit for ecological detection work (such as those with high energy, high motivation, and low “kill” drive). Being able to train one dog to detect many different scents—be it endangered fox poop, an invasive insect, or poached ivory—also cuts back on costs.
Toward the end of the summer, high in the Sierra, Hartman’s and Filson’s day begins as early as 4:30 a.m. They’ve already driven as close to a trailhead as they can get with many roads closed due to the intense wildfires plaguing the region, and, in some cases, hiked nine to 15 miles to a field site. Hartman dons a headlamp and outfits Filson with all-terrain dog boots and a bright-orange visibility vest. They have already spent several days running short “acclimation” hikes—two- to three-hour excursions around areas with known red fox activity—getting Filson’s feet and lungs conditioned to unusual soil substrates and high altitude. These practice rounds also orient Filson to the scat scents he’ll be working, as his previous project involved sniffing for bird and bat carcasses.
Above the tree line, UVA light exposure is intense and the site heats up quickly. The pair cover several miles along the alpine ridge and Filson “hits on,” or stops and alerts to, 25 to 40 scats during the morning’s outing. By 11:30, the sun is too high to continue safely without risking injury or heat exhaustion, even with periodic breaks. Hartman and Filson head back to camp where, after hydrating and being checked for abrasions, Filson is rewarded with his red Kong and a good long rest. While Filson recharges, Hartman gets to work processing the samples he has found. For each sample, she puts on a fresh pair of sterile gloves and pinches off a small bit of the end of the scat that might contain epithelial cells. She deposits it into a 10-milliliter vial with ethanol and labels it with the date, site, and size. Hartman had indicated to Filson that his target for the day would be mammalian scat, generally, not specifically red fox. Once he located it, she was able to visually inspect and distinguish it. Many of the samples she knows do not belong to foxes—some are bobcat, others coyote—but these, she says, can be just as valuable to collect, for several reasons.
“What I love about detection dogs and using them as a tool is they’re helping us see a different world when we’re out there. Over the years, what we started to do and encourage with different researchers was to collect more data. It’s more bang for the buck and it’s also more reward for the dog and they stay motivated, especially when they’re on these incredibly rare species projects,” says Hartman.
Quinn agrees that by analyzing the scat both from the foxes and the other species that the dogs find, they are able to get a fuller picture of who is using the landscape and how the different species are potentially interacting. With a DNA approach to something like diet, for example, the researchers can identify who is potentially competing for the same resources. (In this case, it turns out to be the red fox and coyote.)
“What really is important, from a conservation point of view, is being able to tailor our actions to the things that are working,” says Working Dogs for Conservation executive director Pete Coppolillo.
Working Dogs for Conservation has been in the business of rescuing and training dogs to put them to work for wildlife and wild places for 20 years. Like Rogue Detection Teams, the organization is tool-oriented, defined by the dogs, not by a particular species, site, or conservation effort. For WD4C, this means work is distributed among focal areas: ecological monitoring, biosecurity, law enforcement and wildlife crime (anti-poaching work), and environmental justice.
Like Quinn and Hartman, WD4C dog teams are also working with partners on scat analysis, but with a different goal in mind. The first program that WD4C will launch under its environmental justice pillar is with the Blackfeet Nation, using mink and otter as sentinel species for evaluating legacy contamination and disease. By analyzing mink and otter scat found by the dogs, researchers are able to go to a particular area and identify the risk of environmental contaminants like heavy metals, various endocrine disrupters, and even illnesses affecting wildlife populations like chronic wasting disease. “There’s a lot of ongoing contamination there,” says Coppolillo, “and part of the reason we’re doing this is Blackfeet Nation in particular, like many indigenous nations, rely disproportionately on wild foods. So this is also about food sovereignty and security as much as a health concern.”
In addition to engaging environmental justice issues, Coppolillo is excited about pairing other technologies with the dogs’ skills. New artificial intelligence cameras placed in preserves and protected habitats, for example, can identify images as potential poachers and send a text signal to game wardens via satellite phone, even in remote areas. Once receiving the alert that a potential poacher is in the area, park and preserve police can deploy dogs to scent-track the would-be criminal before they’ve had a chance to kill an animal.
While dogs’ unique abilities allow them seemingly boundless potential in the conservation field, like all tools, reaching their potential requires correct user implementation.
For this reason, while the organization continues to be active on project work, WD4C is also shifting focus to provide training demonstrations and develop educational and training models for those who are eager to become part of conservation dog teams.
Rogue’s Hartman stresses that while the work is romanticized in the eyes of many dog-loving outdoor enthusiasts, it is hard and dangerous, and there is a lot at stake for dogs, humans, and wildlife alike if and when humans mess up. Even she and her experienced team members have learned the hard way about assigning the right dog to the right project, how to properly condition dogs for remote sites, getting injured and breaking gear, and how (not) to handle specimens once you’ve found them.
“This is a very special, fragile field,” says Hartman. “And if we don’t do it right, it all comes down around our ears. It’s not a game, or a hobby. It’s real and there’s actually ramifications for the species if we go out there. If we’re not bringing our A-game, shame on us, because there are so few dollars in conservation that every single asset we put out there, every day is like gold.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.