This week’s episode of The Dolphin Pod is not actually about dolphins, but this little gem was simply too precious to ignore. OK, imagine for a second that you are a whale researcher, and your task is to investigate the health of an endangered population of North Atlantic right whales. There are only about 350 individual whales of this species left in the world today. Their numbers have not increased over several decades. Obtaining accurate and up-to-date information about this population is vital to their survival; and, as a whale scientist, you need to know which whales are male or female, which are pregnant, which have calves, and what environmental toxins might be contributing to their decline. Since whales are notoriously difficult to flop onto an examination table so you can take blood samples, you must look for other methods of collecting this information; methods that allow you to get tissue samples but that won’t disturb these whales in any way. Any ideas? Well how about this:
One very popular method is the collection of whale scat. Scat is a fancy word for whale poop, and poop can be an amazing repository of information about an individual whale’s health and reproductive state. Physicians examine human feces in order to diagnose a range of diseases and other ailments. This practice is in fact quite ancient – court physicians in Europe often examined the royal feces in order to keep tabs on the health of their precious monarch.
Finding royal feces is easy enough (they are often available from the royal chamber pot after all) – the real challenge is looking for whale scat that could be anywhere in thousands of square miles of ocean. Making it even harder is the fact that right whale scat will only float at the surface for an hour or so before sinking to the bottom and being lost forever. This gives scientists who are on the lookout for whale scat a very small window of opportunity for the collection of their precious quarry.
Dogs, as we all know, have an incredible sense of smell. They have 25 times as many cells in their olfactory organs as do humans. This allows them to detect odors that are in concentrations many millions times lower than what a human can detect. Sniffer dogs have been used to sniff out drugs at airports, and have even been trained to detect illegal DVDs, and cancerous skin cells. Their keen sense of smell, as you might have guessed, is also capable of detecting whale poop.
Scientists at the New England Aquarium have been training sniffer dogs to detect scat from right whales. Not just any whale scat, but specifically the scat of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Since 2003, scat-detecting dogs have been riding on the bows of research vessels with their noses in the air, trying to track the elusive scent of fresh whale scat. They are, of course, wearing life jackets while they work. When they catch a whiff, a handler is able to interpret the not-so subtle changes in the dog’s behavior, and guide the boat captain in the direction of the whale scat. The dog’s behavior is much like a compass with their sniffer pointing the way to the precious poo.
Without the dogs, researchers used to be the only ones on the bow of the boat looking for whale scat. Luckily for researchers, right whale poop is extremely stinky, making it possible for the trained human nose to detect scat on the water with some degree of accuracy. But scat-sniffing was a time-consuming process that did not often result in success for the sniffing-scientists. With the introduction of the scat-sniffing dogs however, researchers are 4 times better at locating whale scat than before – a very impressive increase in efficiency. And it’s all thanks to the dogs.
Dogs have, yet again, proven themselves to be in possession of one of the most discriminating noses in the animal kingdom. Other cetacean researchers may now look to dogs for help as they attempt to learn more about populations of whales and dolphins. In fact, there are plenty of scat chasers out there at the moment; scientists studying right whales, sperm whales, and even bottlenose dolphins. Some day, each research vessel may come complete with its own scat-sniffing dog.
Now if I could only train a dog to sniff out winning lottery tickets…
- Read an article from the Boston Globe about whale-scat sniffing dogs: The scent of a whale
- Read a scientific article about scat-sniffing dogs: Faecal sampling using detection dogs to study reproduction and health in North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis)