(CNN) – Dogs and their developed sense of smell are known for locating people during search and rescue efforts, sniffing drugs and even diseases such as cancer. But the powerful canine nose can also be like a radar for other things that are hidden from our view.
Now, dogs act guard dogs for endangered species and help with conservation efforts.
Organizations such as Working Dogs for Conservation train canines to identify odors of endangered animals and their droppings, which helps scientists track down species that may be disappearing.
Tracking animal excrement, or faecal matter, can reveal where species at risk of extinction live, how many specimens of them live in a given area, and what might be threatening them. In addition, it is a less stressful way to monitor these animals compared to catching them and then releasing them.
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Conservation dogs have successfully located the desert fox (or northern fox), gray wolves, pumas, lynx, elk, river otters, American minks, skateboard ferrets and even the North Atlantic right whale, according to a new study published Wednesday in the Journal of Wildlife Management.
But in the new study, scientists trained conservation dogs to focus on a new type of animal: reptiles. They wanted to track the elusive and endangered leopard lizard with a black nose in the San Joaquin Valley. Experienced canines, which include a German shepherd female and two male collies, were trained to detect the smell of lizard droppings.
Then, scientists could recover the samples and determine the gender, population genetics, diet, hormones, parasites, habitat use and health of this species. Humans have difficulty identifying such small samples with the naked eye because they are difficult to distinguish from the environment. They can also be very similar to other droppings.
The leopard-lizard leopard lizard is a fully protected species in California. It is at risk of disappearing because its habitat has been destroyed. Examining the species and the environment they are in can help scientists understand whether existing conservation efforts bear fruit.
For four years, scientists took the dogs to the desert to detect and collect samples. The canines signaled their discovery at bedtime next to the excrement. Then, they received rewards like a toy or a game session.
Working between one and two hours a day, the dogs went out to the field with the registration teams from the end of April until the middle of May, when the lizards left the well-known hibernation of reptiles, the study detailed. The dogs were trained not to approach the lizards if they saw them.
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In those four years, the canines managed to collect 327 samples and in 82% of them it was confirmed that they belonged to the leopard lizard with a blunt nose.
Researchers believe that this tracking method has potential and now they want to refine it to test if it will work on a larger scale.
« So many reptile species have been hit so hard, » said Mark Statham, lead author of the study and associate researcher at the Mammalian Conservation and Ecology Unit at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “A large proportion of them are in danger or threatened. This is a really valuable way for people to count them. ”