Canadian Press Fargo
the whale-sniffing dog works in the Bay of Fundy. The dog has been trained to
detect the right whale. 'It's a wild idea, but it's amazing how well it works,'
says scientist Roz Rolland.
Tracking dog helps
scientists understand fragile whale population
the Rottweiler works in the Bay of Fundy, tracking right whales by their
BY ALISON AULD
Peering out over
the bow of a motorboat, Fargo points his snout into the wind and wags his
stubby tail as he locks onto a scent far out in the Bay of Fundy.
The black and tan Rottweiler stiffens and his ears press
forward when he homes in on his catch, giving scientists on board a clear path
to the foul prey bobbing in the water.
As he draws near,
the burly dog hooks his paws onto the edge of the boat and sticks his
hindquarters up in the air, indicating he's tracked what has become a critical
piece of the puzzle surrounding the health of the endangered right whale - its
"It's a wild idea, but it's amazing how well it
works and there's something so satisfying about using the skills of a dog to
learn more about an animal like a right whale," said Roz Rolland, a senior
whale scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston.
"It's a big game of hide-and-seek for him. He loves it."
For the fourth year in a row, Fargo will steer Rolland
and her crew to fields of whale dung as part of an oddball science that is
yielding important clues as to why there are only 350 North Atlantic right
whales left in the world.
Rolland says Fargo and Bob,
another former drug-detection pooch who has since retired from the research
project, have allowed her to collect much more whale scat than before, when she
had to rely on happenstance and her own nose to find it.
And for scientists, the brown, orange and neon red feces
known for its "uniquely horrible odour" could unlock mysteries about the
whales' reproductive health, its eating habits and what diseases are affecting
the fragile population.
"We are getting amazing results,"
Rolland said, adding that the samples are so pungent she's been tempted to burn
her clothes after coming in contact with them. "We've got access now to all
this information about the physiology of these animals and about threats to
their health and reproduction that five years ago we didn't have. All we knew
was that they weren't reproducing and we didn't have a clue what was going on."
Hormones in the feces can reveal everything from whether
a whale is pregnant or lactating and if it's reached sexual maturity to whether
it has been affected by a slew of biotoxins, like red tide, that have killed
and been found to cause abortions in other marine mammals.
In a new project, Rolland says the unseemly stuff is
being used to identify specific whales through DNA matching that will add to
the growing databank on the entire North Atlantic right whale population.
Scientists are hoping the data will help explain why
right whales aren't reproducing as well as their southern cousins, whose
population is booming with a reproduction rate of about eight per cent a year.
If North Atlantic right whales were reproducing at the same rate, there would
be about 30 new calves a year rather than the current annual average of 12.
Rolland said she came up with the idea of enlisting dogs
to find the samples at a time when whale reproduction was crashing, with only
one calf being born in 2000. Desperate to find out what was happening to the
slow-moving giants, she talked to Sam Wasser, a researcher based in Washington
who had been using canines to find scat samples on land.
Wasser came to her research station in Lubec, Maine, in
2001 and suggested the dogs would be perfect for the work since they have a
sense of smell that is possibly a million times stronger than humans'.
"I said, `Are you out of your mind, people already think
I'm crazy for collecting right whale scat,"' she said. "But it made sense
because they're just amazingly acute in terms of their sense of smell and so
accurate that they can take us right to that spot in this huge body of water.
"They live in a world of scent that we can only imagine."
Rolland, who receives funding from the National Marine
Fisheries Service in the US., estimates Fargo can smell samples at least two
kilometres away, even if there are only a few flecks left after the bulk of it
The feces samples have provided a whole new
repository of information that only years ago, when scientists were relying on
blubber samples that yielded little data on DNA, were not available. Necropsies
on dead whales were also limited because the animals and their organs were so
decomposed by the time researchers found them.
purebred Rottweiler, was trained as a drug dog, but Rolland says when that
didn't work out he was sent to the Rockies to track grizzlies. His handlers,
however, found that the husky beast overheated on the job and he had to look
for other work.
His trainer and owner, Barbara Davenport
of Washington, thought the ocean climate would suit the middle-aged mutt
better. She got in touch with Rolland, who outfitted the dog with a special
harness and life-jacket, and then trained him by floating jars of scat on the
water and getting the dog to find them.
beginning, that was a little challenging because we had to make sure they
didn't leap off the boat," she said, laughing. "It's kind of funny - the
stronger the scent, the faster his tail wags and then we steer by his nose."
And Fargo's reward for leading the team to a field of
their prized scientific catch?
A plain yellow tennis ball
he plays with until another whiff of the fetid muck comes his way.