High-energy dogs with an incessant, inexhaustible desire to play often end up in shelters. Thanks to a Morris Animal Foundation?funded study, scientists adopted some of these energetic dogs to do what they do best?play.
That play is part of a carefully designed strategy to study wild animal populations and genetics?in this case by detecting scat. Unlike other methods of monitoring wild animal health, which can be biased or harm the animals, using scat dogs offers a noninvasive assessment method.
Recently, the dogs?under the supervision of lead researcher Dr. Samuel Wasser; Carly Vynne, an investigator and PhD candidate at the University of Washington; and seven handlers?identified scat from maned wolves in Brazil. Brazil is an ideal study location because the area near the Emas National Park preserve has been converted for agricultural use but still boasts plenty of large mammals. Vynne estimates that between 60 and 70 maned wolves live in the preserve.
In addition to determining population figures, which had not previously been charted, scientists discovered an array of data, including the fact that maned wolves are an important disperser of plant and flower seeds. Although the maned wolves are making use of agricultural areas outside the park, scat analysis shows that wolves living farther from the park have higher stress hormone levels, higher parasite loads and reduced reproductive status?all signs that could indicate future survival issues.
“We are cautiously optimistic that the species can survive amid agricultural change,” says Vynne, who intends to monitor the wolf group to assess the impacts of continued agricultural development, transformation of habitat for sugar cane development and increased usage of pesticides in the area.
Dr. Wasser, who helped pioneer the scat-detection metho in 1997, used training techniques for bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs as a model. The scat dogs are also working on projects that range from helping conduct U.S. fishery surveys to monitoring grey wolves, caribou and moose in Canada.
The maned wolf study has received much acclaim in scientific circles, and animal health experts around the world are copying its methods. Vynne recently presented her findings?with Dr. Wasser?at the Defenders of Wildlife Conference in November 2009, and a story about the scat-detection method was published in the October 2008 issue of Natural History.
“This technique has highlighted the effectiveness of a noninvasive method and demonstrated that big questions can be answered without having to trap and collar wild animals,” Vynne says. “We believe that its success is revolutionizing how researchers think about conducting their work.”