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Dogs are saving endangered species

Scientists have begun enlisting ‘conservation canines’ to help track down – and protect – endangered species around the world.

What did we do to deserve dogs? Not only are they known for sniffing out drugs, finding people during search and rescue missions, and recognising diseases such as cancer, but now we can count on them to help save critically endangered wildlife as well.

As their powerful noses make for the perfect radar when looking for things that may be hidden from our sight, organisations like Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) have started training rescue dogs to identify the scents of species that may be in decline.

To break it down, while humans can detect up to a trillion different scents (which is actually quite impressive when you think about it), dogs dedicate proportionately 40 times more of their brain to analysing the scents than we do.

By tracking animal droppings or faecal matter with their remarkably sensitive snouts, they are able to reveal where endangered wildlife is living, how many are living in that area, and what may be threatening them. It’s also a non-invasive way of monitoring species that’s much less harmful than other collection methods like trapping and releasing them.

‘Conservation detection dogs can be up to 40 times more efficient than human searchers at developing population and habitat data: they can cover large areas and rough terrain, detect cryptic species and scents hidden in deep vegetation, and do it with virtually limitless eagerness and energy,’ states the WD4C website.

WD4C trains high-energy rescue dogs that aren’t likely to be adopted from shelters and are at risk of euthanasia, putting them to work on behalf of other animals and the planet.

‘Great conservation detection dogs have an obsessive play drive and unrelenting toy focus. Their never-quit attitude makes them nearly impossible to keep in a family home, but perfect members of the WD4C family,’ they say.

So far, according to a new study in the Journal of Wildlife Management, conservation canines have succeeded in leading scientists to the North Atlantic right whale, black-footed ferrets, American minks, grey wolves, bobcats and moose (to name a few).

Recently diverting their focus to reptiles, they are now being used to track the scat of the elusive and endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Scientists are then able to retrieve samples and determine population genetics, hormones, gender, diet, parasites, habitat use, and the lizards’ overall health. Amazing right?

The blunt-nosed leopard lizard is a fully protected species, endangered because its habitat has been destroyed and the dogs have been invaluable in helping us understand whether or not existing conservation efforts are actually working.

‘So many reptilian species have been hit so hard,’ said Mark Statham, associate researcher with the Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. ‘A large proportion of them are threatened and this is a really valuable way for people to be able to survey them.’

Given the vast contributions that these canines have already made to science, it’ll be interesting to see how their role in saving endangered species develops in the future as they gradually become conservation’s new best friend.