Monday, January 17, 2011

UC Berkeley Study: Scat-Sniffing Dogs Invaluable for Wildlife Surveys

By Nate Seltenrich
Mon, Jan 17, 2011 at 12:43 PM

You knew your Labrador retriever could track the neighborhood cat’s scat from a hundred feet away — and probably wish he wouldn’t. But did you know this special canine talent could be put to use for science? A study published this month in the Journal of Wildlife Management by former UC Berkeley graduate student Sarah Reed — she wrote the study while a PhD in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Colorado State University — shows that dogs can be highly useful in locating the scat of various species in natural settings.

Wildlife biologists can then extract and analyze DNA from the collected scat, which allows them to non-invasively identify individual animals’ hormone levels and diet. Dogs’ super sniffers can also provide immensely useful in monitoring the location and population size of key species, as they can identify biological targets far faster and at a much greater distance than can humans.

“Dogs have assisted wildlife biologists for tens or even hundreds of years,” said Reed. “Most recently, that relationship has been formalized for dogs to detect specific scents. … Our study was the first to really try to test the relative abilities of different dogs and to calibrate their abilities.” To do so, Reed and co-author Aimee Hurt of Montana non-profit Working Dogs for Conservation, selected two dogs from over 600 candidates: a female Labrador retriever mix trained to detect the scat of mountain lions, bobcats, and domestic cats; and a male pit bull terrier mix trained to detect red fox, gray fox, and kit fox scat.

Reed and Hurt found that both dogs were able to detect scat samples placed 10 meters (33 feet) from a transect line 75 percent of the time, and samples placed 25 meters (82 feet) from the line 30 to 40 percent of the time. A human, by contrast, has a detection range of three to five feet — which just about renders us obsolete. Man’s best friend, however, has loads of potential in the world of wildlife surveys. “There’s definitely a wide range of applications from government agencies to academic researchers,” Reed said.

Other UC Berkeley co-authors on the paper include Wayne Getz, professor, and Allison Bidlack, a former graduate student, both from UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

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