Andrew Luck-Baker spends a day on a motor boat with Tucker the sniffer dog and his team of zoologists in search of killer whale faeces, floating in the waters off the North American Pacific coast.
Tucker is a black Labrador. He is one of an elite team of detection dogs, trained to find the faeces of threatened animals in the cause of conservation.
A lump of faeces is packed with information about an animal’s stress levels, fertility, nutritional health and exposure to chemical pollution. There is no other way to reap this information from whales because whales spend most of their lives underwater. It is impossible to take blood samples from them. A trained dog’s nose enables researchers to find whale scat in much greater quantities than by relying on their own human senses.
Tucker’s work, currently funded by the Washington Sea Grant, means the scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle can start to piece together an explanation for why a special population of killer whales in North America is in decline and at risk from extinction.
This community of orca lives in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and the mainland US Pacific coast. They number about 90 individuals and in recent years they have suffered some terrible times. Two years ago, about one in ten died. Several years earlier, 20% of them were lost.
[Photo credit: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok]