Scientists trying to determine why killer whales are dying off are getting help from dogs; specifically, their keen sense of smell. In Washington State’s Puget Sound, scientists are examining the feces of killer whales to determine if factors such as pollution, boat traffic, and eating habits are to blame for the mammals’ declining population. The droppings also supply DNA and reveal a host of other valuable information like the mammal’s sex and toxin levels.
To help find the orca waste, researchers have been using dogs that can smell it from over a mile away. For instance, researchers at the Center for Conversation Biology at the University of Washington, use a black Lab mix named Tucker. Driving across the waters in their boat, researchers look for cues from the dog leashed onboard the vessel; when the dog wags its tail and gets excited, it’s a signal there may be whale feces nearby.
By collecting fecal samples, researchers have been able to determine that whales stress levels are related to high craft traffic, and if they are undernourished.