You can learn a lot of things from poop.
What an animal is eating. If it’s under stress. The toxins it’s ingested.
Locating animal scat on the ground is challenging. But finding it on the sea is a whole other level.
That’s where Sam Wasser’s dogs come in.
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Wasser is director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. His team trains dogs to sniff the waters of Puget Sound for orca excrement.
Think of them as furry detectives. With boats.
SNIFFING FOR CLUES
Wasser will give a talk on his work using the dogs on Wednesday at the UW Tacoma YMCA.
“Our Toxic Orcas” will cover the canines and how they are used to study Puget Sound orcas, which have been called the most polluted marine mammals in the world.
“We’re facing a crisis now that’s been brewing for a long time, and we’ve kind of missed the boat,” Wasser said during a phone interview last week.
The Center for Conservation Biology spends part of its focus on forensic research.
They can, for instance, use DNA analysis to determine where in Africa and Asia poached ivory comes from.
The other part of the Center’s work concerns the effects humans have on the environment.
Almost all of that involves poop.
Toxins and hormones are some of the most important components in the scat the researchers collect.
Together, they show how polluted an animal’s environment and how well it is eating.
With marine mammals, as in humans, toxins are stored in higher concentrations in fat. When an animal loses fat because of poor diet, disease or other factors, toxins are released as well.
“When they are under nutritional stress they burn fat and dump toxins into circulation,” Wasser said. Those toxins can be damaging.
The hard part is finding the scat.
Picture an open sea, gentle waves and little piles of floating poop.
What’s worse, not all excrement is equal.
“A right whale has bright orange poop that smells horrible,” Wasser said. “Orca poop is colored similar to seawater and smells like salmon.”
Plus, it’s a moving target in strong currents. “If you take too long to find it, the sample has sunk,” Wasser added.
On land a detection dog can use its legs to search what it’s looking for, with a little direction from its handler.
On sea the canine needs to partner with a good handler who can read its signals and direct the boat driver to the sample.
Dogs sniff the wind and can indicate the direction of the scat by something as subtle as a single twitching left nostril.
“They all have their own way of showing this behavior,” Wasser said.
A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as a human’s, according to scientists at the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University.
And as any dog owner knows, they really like smelly things.
The dogs can smell excrement over a nautical mile away, Wasser said.
But it’s just not orca poop the Center’s dogs are trained to find.
Since its creation in 1997, more than 50 dogs have been trained to find the scat of moose, tigers, wolves, spotted owls, salamanders and even crickets.
If it poops they can find it.
“We pioneered that technology for endangered species,” Wasser said.
The dogs can also find man-made chemicals.
Seattle Public Utilities is using the Center’s dogs to help them locate sources of PCB.
The dogs, which can detect parts per trillion, are more sensitive than the utility’s instruments, he said.
“A pilot study kind of blew their minds at how good our dogs were (at finding PCB),” Wasser said.
All of the Center’s dogs are pound rescues. Their one qualifier: They must have an extreme ball drive.
“These are dogs that will do anything for their ball,” Wasser said.
Only one percent of the dog population meets the criteria, he said.
“These are dogs that are very, very difficult to have as pets because they are so obsessed with their ball they drive their owners crazy,” he said.
The ball is used as a reward during training and when they are on the job.
“They train incredibly fast (and are) unbelievably dedicated and effective workers as a result,” he said.
Wasser and his team have been collecting and studying resident orca excrement since 2007.
They can use it to determine whether an orca has undergone a spontaneous abortion or the calf died at birth.
Their data shows that orcas are losing 66 percent of their pregnancies, Wasser said.
“They are running out of food,” Wasser said. “If they don’t get enough food they have a hard time holding on to those pregnancies.”
Once home to some of the richest Chinook salmon runs in the world the Fraser and Columbia Rivers have been depleted. That’s affecting the Southern resident orca population, which currently numbers 78.
“Those salmon are critical to replenish the killer whale after the long winter,” Wasser said.
Transient orcas also visit Puget Sound. Unlike the resident population, the transients eat abundant marine mammals, including porpoise, seals and sea lions.
“(Marine mammals) are one step higher on the food chain so they have far more toxins in their fat,” Wasser said.
Wasser said the toxins have little impact on the transients’ reproduction because their diet makes them far less susceptible to the periodic food shortages the salmon-eating resident population suffers from.
Wasser is so alarmed by pollutants in Puget Sound that he rarely eats fish from Washington waters.
“And I never eat Puget Sound fish,” he said.
Our Toxic Orcas
When: June 28
Reception: 6-7 p.m. (Light food and drinks provided).
Program: 7-8 p.m.
Where: UW-Tacoma’s YMCA, 1710 Market Street, Tacoma
Tickets: $5 brownpapertickets.com/event/ 2957573