It's a tough job, but somebody – or at least some dogs – have to do it.
In the Cerrado region of Brazil, four dogs have been trained to detect animal feces by scent. These canines are helping researchers monitor rare and threatened wildlife such as jaguars, tapirs, giant anteaters, and maned wolves in and around Emas National Park, a protected area with the largest concentration of threatened species in Brazil.
The researchers analyze feces found by the dogs to learn where and how the threatened mammals live. Data on the numbers, range, diet, hormonal stress, parasites, and even genetic identity contribute to a study of how the mammals use environments inside and outside the park, especially on privately owned lands of the region.
The information helps develop conservation and development strategies that meet the needs of both the animals and local farmers. But the dogs' efforts do not go unrewarded. They receive tennis balls to chase and chomp in return for their good work.
Preserving Vegetation for Species Survival
After a brief pilot study in 2004, research began in 2006 in a 3,000-square-kilometer (equivalent to 300,000 soccer fields) area in the western portion of Emas National Park and surrounding farms in Mato Grosso do Sul state and Goiás state.
Now nearing conclusion, the project's analysis of feces samples shows that the species being studied roam the forest area surrounding the park, but fewer threatened mammals frequent farms with less than 30 percent of natural vegetation cover. Jaguars, however, rarely moved outside the protected park into the more deforested surrounding farmland, as they prefer the healthy ecosystems of conserved environments.
According to Carly Vynne of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, preservation of open grasslands should be a priority for the maned wolf, giant anteater, and giant armadillo since these species prefer open areas of park. Unfortunately, there is very little open area under protection outside the park.
Vynne leads the program as part of her doctoral thesis. Conservation International (CI) Brazil is a partner in her endeavor.
"The data and results serve as a warning to develop conservation strategies for the restoration of degraded areas in the region, both to conserve healthy ecosystems and biodiversity," Vynne says.
Challenges in Cerrado
Brazil's Cerrado region, a wooded grassland that is one of the world's 34 biodiversity hotspots, already has lost 60 percent of its original area to deforestation and continues to disappear at twice the rate of the neighboring Amazon forest.
Such deforestation turns protected national parks into savanna islands surrounded by agricultural fields, noted Ricardo Machado, director of the Cerrado-Pantanal Program of CI-Brazil. Using the sniffing dogs to locate trails of threatened species is instrumental in identifying and establishing key areas as corridors to connect isolated areas of native vegetation. That means working with rural landowners to help threatened species survive.
PHOTOS: These are special dogs and they're doing important work. Explore the project in pictures.
"If we wish to speak of sustainable development, we have to establish incentives and strategies for farmers to maintain native species in agricultural landscapes," Machado said.
In addition to CI-Brazil, the project is supported by the University of Brasilia, the Jaguar Conservation Fund, and the Chico Mendes Institute for Conservation of Biodiversity, the entity responsible for management of the Emas National Park.
Old Methods, New Tricks
These dogs are trained in the same way that other dogs have been trained to sniff out drugs. When the dogs find the feces, the accompanying researcher marks the location by GPS and collects the samples. With the aid of satellite images, the sample data are correlated with the environments where the samples were found.
Professor Jader Marinho Filho of the University of Brasilia, a sponsor of the project, said sniffing dogs can collect data that otherwise would only be available through radio telemetry and other expensive and labor-intensive techniques. Perhaps one of the most important benefits: tracking dogs are non-intrusive. Using them to find data means collecting biological material without capturing or sedating animals, and the information they gather is essential.
"The levels of stress hormones in the animals’ feces are important indicators in the evaluation of their capacity to reproduce in a given environment," Marinho Filho said. "These data allow us to estimate which mammals would be able to reproduce or if they would be destined to disappear from the region."
Vynne's research has been instrumental in collecting conservation information within the Cerrado. As the project is studied more thoroughly, feces-sniffing dogs may become useful in other important conservation regions.
Learn more about the work CI supports and carries out to save threatened and endangered species and preserve their habitats:
New Discoveries in the Cerrado
Saving Congo Forest Benefits Gorillas
Reconcile with Nature: A Partnership of Science, Faith, and Media
New Elephant Shrew Species Discovered