Orca poop only floats for a few minutes before it sinks, so the dogs tasked with tracking it down don’t have any time to waste.
They position themselves on the hull of a speed boat, stick their snouts in the air, the wind and water whipping their faces, and guide their human handlers toward the floating feces, CNN reports.
These pups are known as conservation canines and they’re trained by scientists from the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. The dogs have been taught how to detect feces from dozens of different animals, including black bears, cheetahs, and mice, and have learned how to track down chemical waste and different types of endangered plants.
Once a sample is collected, scientists can extract its secrets in the lab, learning all about the particular animal’s health, diet, levels of stress, genetic markers, and more. When it comes to orca whales, the poop samples help scientists better understand the threats they face. This, in turn, can inform strategies for helping them.
"I can take an individual sample and use it the same way that a doctor uses your blood samples when you go in for a physical," Samuel Wasser, the scientist who started the Conservation Canines program, told CNN.
"You have the ability to look at how environmental pressures are changing over space and time and closely track it with the physiological changes that the animal is going through," he added.
It's almost whale season! Handler Collette along with CK9s Jack and Dio will be heading up to the island soon to begin this year's season of monitoring the southern resident killer whales. Wish them luck and fair weather! PC: Jeff Semple pic.twitter.com/fuHx2FcpEm— Conservation Canines @UW (@ConservationK9) May 31, 2018
Orcas, also known as killer whales, can be found in waters around the world. Over the past few centuries, human activity has caused many of these populations to plummet. The orcas found off the western coast of the US and Canada, known as southern resident whales, are especially endangered. There are just 72 of these whales left in the wild.
Wasser’s team discovered through fecal samples that a surge in whale miscarriages was due largely to malnutrition and the accumulation of toxic pollutants from human activities.
"When it's sequestered in the fat, these toxins don't appear to do much damage, but when they start to starve, they metabolize their fat. And when they metabolize the fat, they dump the toxins into circulation, where it can do the most damage," Wasser told CNN.
The threats facing whales are emblematic of the larger ecological crisis engulfing the planet.
The ocean, home to more than 1 million species, has been filled with plastic and toxic chemicals. The delicate soundscape of the ocean that animals use for echolocation has been inundated with abrasive sounds from ocean vessels and drilling operations. The ocean has absorbed the majority of excess heat that has accumulated in the atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions, warming in ways that threaten countless species. It has also become more acidic from excess carbon dioxide.
The ocean, in its vast remoteness, is out of sight and out of mind for many people. But closer to home, climate change and excess resource extraction are destroying the terrestrial world as well. Forests are declining, deserts are expanding, sources of water are disappearing.
Pups saving #pangolins: Our #wildlifetech winner @UW worked with @ConservationK9 and their rescue dogs to find pangolin scat and identify poaching hotspots. #WorldPangolinDayhttps://t.co/2hYZ22YXAupic.twitter.com/pjlmsvTQgw— USAIDEnvironment (@USAIDEnviro) February 16, 2019
In the process, countries are facing heat waves, extreme storms, coastal erosion, and droughts. These environmental crises are apparent in the samples tracked down by the dogs — the poop shows that the orcas' sources of food have been diminished by warming waters.
With the physical threats surfacing all around us, do we really need poop to spell it out for us before we take action?