current issue web exclusives blog multimedia archive subscribe advertisers
Feature Articles
Editor's Note
Audubon in Action
Audubon Living
One Picture
Bookmark and Share

Field Notes
New Stories
Endangered Species: Wolf Pact
Interview: Life Guard
Wildlife: Sniff Test
Green Guru: Flight Height

Ant invasion; sleep-deprived bees; flamingo makeup; more.

Sniff Test
Man’s best friend has become a major force in conservation science.

When researchers at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge wanted to locate more threatened ornate box turtles, they went to the dogs. For 10 days in May, five Boykin spaniels sniffed out and gently fetched 97 turtles for tagging in the refuge’s radio-tracking study. That haul was more than a typical summer’s worth, says refuge manager Ed Britton, who credits the dogs’ remarkable sense of smell. “Their noses go down to the ground, their tails go into the air, and they mean business,” he says. 

Across the country, canines are aiding researchers, from locating grizzly bear scat in Montana to sniffing out invasive wolf snails in Oahu, Hawaii. Dogs have an estimated 200 million scent receptors (some breeds have more) compared with a mere five million for humans, so it’s no wonder canines are now crucial members of scientific teams. “The idea of utilizing a dog’s nose is not that unique,” says Alice Whitelaw, programs director and cofounder of Working Dogs for Conservation. “Expanding on the amazing ability they have—a much more heightened sense of smell—to increase sample size just makes sense.” In the right conditions, she adds, dogs turn up seven times more specimens than people.

Such determined focus typically produces solid results, like the 41 scats of Asiatic black bears a dog-handler team discovered on four reserves in China. Because the droppings contain specific identifying markers, the research helped pinpoint individuals of this vulnerable species. For their part, the scientists at Britton’s refuge plan to use their new data to better understand box turtle behavior and more appropriately schedule prairie burning and mowing.

Whitelaw’s canines train for two to four months, then repeat cycles of three days on, one day off, two days on, one day off. On a typical workday they might cover 15 or more miles in four hours. “They’re looking for that target and nothing else,” Whitelaw says. “They’re tired after that.” Dog tired.
Back to Top