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November 2021 − Exploring Life



Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors. Dogs’ sensitive noses can assist biologists in the conservation of species, as they are much better at detecting traces of otter, crested newt or hedgehog than humans – or even technology.


Leipzig Riverside Forest: the search begins! Zammy directs his moist black nose into the air and eagerly awaits the sign from his companion. Biologist Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth lifts her arm and points to a small parcel of forest. Instantly, the border collie darts off and begins to search through the grass, branches and leaves. He stops abruptly before a piece of dead wood - Zammy has picked up a scent. He then merely stares at his prey – a tiny trace of feces from a crested newt.

This is one of the YouTube videos that biologist Grimm-Seyfarth of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig (UFZ) regularly uploads to her channel “Monitoring Dogs” It shows how dogs can become useful assistants in the conservation effort by tracking down minute traces of endangered species – traces that humans would have to search for in painstaking ways, using binoculars or camera traps.

Ten years ago, during a practicum, Grimm-Seyfarth had the idea of training her cattle dog Foxy to locate endangered otters – a cumbersome task. According to genetic analysis, 30 percent of the feces collected by humans was prone to error. Once trained on the otter scent, Foxy’s work proved to be much more thorough and accurate. Even during the search for crested newts – amphibians barely the size of a finger – her current border collie Zammy is quick, reliable and extremely accurate.


1,220 publications from 60 countries

Animal assistants like Zammy are becoming increasingly important in the global fight against the loss of species; today, one million animal and plant species are in danger of extinction. “In order to be able to protect their habitats and implement measures, we must first know where they can still be found”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. It is therefore an important goal of field biologists to advance the effective search for their traces.

In order to be able to better assess the potential of species tracking using sniffer dogs, Grimm-Seyfarth and her UFZ colleague Wiebke Harms, together with Dr. Anne Berger of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, conducted extensive research and found 1,220 scientific publications employing dogs in the search for species from a total of 60 countries.

They discovered that the use of dogs has been a common approach for decades – mainly in the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In fact, many university research groups keep their own tracking dog teams. In their overview study they show that to date, dogs have helped track down 400 different species – mostly cat, dog, bear or marten, but also 42 plant species, 26 fungal species and six bacterial species were listed on the global list of species detected by scent. The animal detectives found up to 4.7 times more black bears, fishers (Marten pennanti) and bobcats than camera traps.

Grimm-Seyfarth suspects that dogs were first enlisted in conservation efforts in New Zealand in the 1890s. At that time, conservationists trained hunting dogs to search for the nocturnal kiwi. The population of these flightless birds was severely threatened by rats, marten and foxes which had been introduced to the islands by humans. In order to save these rare birds, preservationists collected the kiwis and brought them to an island that had not yet been invaded by their predators.


Dogs are smart

Herding dogs, in particular, are well suited to conservation work – they like to co-operate with humans, and they possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors which allow them to detect minute concentrations of scent molecules. In addition, cognitive scientist Juliane Bräuer demonstrated that dogs construct an exact internal image when they follow a scent. They therefore actively and effectively contribute to conservation. Moreover, when Grimm-Seyfarth’s five-year-old male border collie searches for otters and crested newts in the Leipzig Riverside Forest, his involvement is considered “non-invasive” as his quests constitute only a minimal interference with nature.

Nowadays, dogs are also employed by planning and advisory offices in their search for birds and bats injured or killed by wind turbines, or when burrows of field hamsters or nests of the rare dormouse need to be located on agricultural land. “The German railway company Deutsche Bahn is currently determining whether the deployment of trained dog squadrons could possibly replace the existing external consultants for the detection of endangered animal species near railway tracks”, says Dr. Anne Berger, biologist and co-author of the UFZ overview study.

The researchers are presently experiencing a high demand for the project “Igamon Dogs”, a collaboration between the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the UFZ. This project enlists the help of private dog owners from the states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt or Berlin who, along with their companions are interested in joining the search for traces of endangered species. “We are looking for animals who are highly motivated by toys or food”, states the advertisement. Once selected, the dog owners will be responsible for monitoring, i.e., they will go into the field perform documentation. The results will then be scientifically analyzed. The project aims to test the extent to which the “citizen scientists” may be able to help expedite the conservation of species.


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