Wild About Whale Research, Scatologically Speaking

Wasser 1 Wasser 2

Have you heard the story about the rescue dog that is helping scientists understand why killer whales are struggling to reproduce in Puget Sound? If you were at the 2015 NWABR IACUC Conference, then you got to hear conservation biologist Dr. Samuel K. Wasser share an amazing story of hope.

Sam Wasser and his team identify dogs with intense ball-drive. They train the dogs to identify a variety of scat (yes, that’s poo) by scent from endangered animals in the animal’s native environment. For killer whales, this means the dogs like “Tucker” learn to track whale scat for scientists from boats on Puget Sound, braving the environmental challenges of wind, currents, and a 30 minute window to collect the sample before the whale scat breaks apart and sinks.

Collecting and analyzing samples enables Sam Wasser and his team to build robust, individual health profiles about endangered animals without ever seeing them, touching them, or disturbing their environment. Through these profiles, Sam and his team are able to understand the underlying nutritional, reproductive, and environmental factors that are impacting endangered species.

The dogs bring positive attention to research. Tourists on the whale boats ask their guides what the dogs are doing, and the guides help educate the public about how dogs provide scientists a better understanding of the environmental challenges facing the whales.

But the story is bigger than whales, if that’s even possible. The rescue dogs are helping to determine patterns in other threatened animals.  I came away inspired by Dr. Wasser’s creative, insightful, and practical approach to research, and the wonderful potential that exists when sound science and animal welfare intersect.

Institutional Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) like ones at the University of Washington take part in reviewing how these field animals will be used in research, and make recommendations for safety and compliance. Kind thanks to Shannon R., Regulatory Compliance Specialist at the Allen Institute for her thoughts and blog entry, and Sam Wasser for his ongoing important work!

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