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Are Poop-Sniffing Dogs The Key To Saving These Rare Gorillas?

When it comes to finding fresh gorilla feces, no one does it better than Fido.

image via (cc) flickr user rod_waddington

It’s estimated there are somewhere between 200-300 Cross River Gorillas left in the world, making them one of the planet’s most endangered primates. The Western Gorilla subspecies, so named for their habitat at the source of Nigeria’s Cross River, are elusive to the point where simply finding—to say nothing of actually studying—them has become an exceptional challenge. To better understand, and ultimately conserve, these great apes, a team of researchers have turned recruited detection dogs to sniff out the best source of biological info on their evasive subjects: Gorilla shit.

Primatologists rely on fecal samples to not only help track gorillas, but also as a source of valuable DNA and hormones. By analyzing the poop, researches can more accurately extrapolate a troop’s size, inter-relatedness, migration patterns, and general biology. The challenge, then, is to find fresh gorilla feces in an expansive, bio-diverse habitat, before the poop, er...goes bad after a few days. Until now, that’s been a job for human researchers, but a report published this month in Royal Society Open Science indicates that dogs, with their well-documented olfactory advantages, can be trained to sniff out gorilla poop much more effectively over large terrain.

In the report, “Detection dog efficacy for collecting faecal samples from the critically endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) for genetic censusing,” researchers from the United States and Germany describe the methodology used to train, and test a team of dogs to sniff out gorilla feces, first in a controlled environment, and later during a field test in Cameroon. There, the poop-sniffing pooches worked parallel to a team of human researchers to determine which could find more of the best poop, faster. The results, according to Scientific American, were decisive:

While the dog teams struggled with some of the most difficult and rugged terrain—held back by their less-nimble handlers, it must be said—they still came out on top, with 43 fresh samples and 288 old samples found over 44 days. Those 43 useable samples equate to 0.97 samples a day, which is not too shabby, when you consider that the human teams could only manage 75 fresh samples over 175 days, equating to 0.43 samples a team.

The participating canines came from Working Dogs for Conservation, a U.S.-based group which trains shelter-dogs to work alongside wildlife experts. Unfortunately, the researchers were only able to use three dogs, as the overall costs involved are surprisingly—perhaps prohibitively—high. As the study reports:

The cost of using detection dogs, at least as applied in the current project, was significant when compared with more traditional methods. Total costs for the project were over $98?000 USD. When just field expenses are considered (i.e. no PI or other supervisory salaries, office costs, indirect costs, etc.), the dog-detected samples cost $1,479 USD per sample to collect. Even though human-directed searches returned fewer samples, the cost per sample was only $224 USD.

At nearly $100,000 for only a few weeks of research, it’s unlikely the use of detection dogs will become the widespread norm for gorilla conservation efforts anytime soon. Still, the primatologists argue that since many of the costs involved were for the handling, training, and international shipping of the dogs in question, the establishment of regional dog training centers would help mitigate much of that expense.

That’s probably a ways off, if it happens at all. In the meantime, conservationists working to save the Cross River gorillas are going to have to do things the old fashioned way: By finding primate poop, themselves.

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