Killer whales, also known as Orca whales, are not doing very well in Puget Sound. In fact, in 2005 they were added to the endangered species list. There's hope however in the form of a black lab mix who's helping researchers try and save the whales.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service wildlife biologist Brad Hanson told MSNBC"We're losing animals and we don't exactly understand why."
That is why researchers from the University of Washington, Global Research and Rescue and The Center for Whale Research have begun intensive studies into what is causing the decline in the Orca population.
The Global Research and Rescue team search out whales, ride along side them and capture air droplets from the whale's blowholes using petri dishes attached to poles. The samples are then studied for presence of any potentially harmful organisms according to a NSNBC report. Teams from the San Juan Island's Center for Whale Research are planning on tagging Orcas in the area and following their winter migration to determine where they go and what they eat when they leave the Puget Sound.
It is the research team from the University of Washington that may have the most unique research tool however, a boat riding, whale scat sniffing dog named Tucker. Tucker is "ball-obsessed" and will do anything for a chance to play fetch with his favorite ball, even if it means sniffing out whale scat floating on the surface of the ocean. The scat, or whale feces, is used by researchers to try and determine if lack of food, boat traffic or pollution is to blame for the whales decline. Sam Wasser, researcher and director of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, tells NPR"We can measure the diet of the animal. We can get toxins from the feces, DNA so we can tell the individual's identity, its species, its sex — and all of this is in feces. So it's literally a treasure trove of information."
Finding the scat is not an easy task. Scat can sink or disperse into the water in 30 minutes or less and it does not have a pungent odor. Tucker however has become a pro at sniffing out the scat, sometimes from a mile away a New York Times report says. Riding in the front of the boat, Tucker stands ready, nose in the air trying to catch the scent of scat. Once he gets the scent, he signals researchers. Deborah A. Giles, a University of Washington researcher tells the New York Times“Sometimes he’d just turn around and sit down and stare at me, waiting for me to figure it out. He’s very subtle.” Elizabeth Seely, a trainer with Conservation Canines, a non-profit group that
Tucker trying to pick up the scent of whale scat.
specializes in dog-assisted research on behalf of endangered species, says “The slightest twitch of his [Tucker] ear is important. When he gets excited, he'll start standing up on the bow, wagging his tail, getting really animated” That is when researchers know Tucker has picked up on a scent. Tucker also knows that if the researchers are able to collect a scat sample, he will be rewarded with, what is in his mind the best thing a dog could ever get; a fun game fetch. As an added bonus, he also gets to do his part to help save the whales.
To learn more about the work Tucker does, watch this New York Times video.