Dogs That Sniff Out Orca Poo?

File this under “Are you serious? That really works?!” Mental Floss is reporting a wide variety of uses for the canine olfactory system from drug detection to bootleg DVDs to tracking whale waste for researchers attempting to study killer whale diet and potential health by way of poo. Mental Floss says, “Slimy green whale droppings can be tough to find, though, so specially trained dogs are used. The pups sit in the front of a boat and bark like crazy when there’s whale excrement nearby. It’s a strange system, but it works for researchers at the University of Washington.”

So I moseyed on over to the UW website and came across Dr. Sam Wasser’s Conservation Canines program. Incredibly enough Wasser is using the same sort of operant training techniques used to develop behaviors in other animals (ahem, even marine mammals) to teach dogs to signal out whale waste in what he calls “large remote landscapes” giving them further opportunities to sample excrement and gain data for the research. Its honestly pretty fascinating stuff!

National Wildlife Magazine‘s Phil McKenna also picked up a story this month about the link between dogs and cetaceans – particularly threatened populations of right whales and southern resident killer whales – which is definitely worth a looksee.

What I can’t really wrap my head around is the fact that cetacean waste – by and large – is not exactly solid matter. When the researchers note that orca waste is greenish and slimey they aren’t kidding. Whale poo is a liquified mash of waste that forms dense clouds that slowly dissipate. Its incredible to me not only that the canines can smell this target but that the researchers are also able to gather it for study.