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Tucker is a 9-year old black Lab mix and the world’s only canine marine biologist. Formerly a stray on the streets of Seattle, this special dog now spends his time sniffing out and tracking orca, also known as killer whales, off the coast of Washington.
You see, Tucker is the only dog in the world that is able to find and track the scent of orca scat, or feces, in open ocean water — up to a mile away, even in the smallest of specks.
The New York Times reported on Tucker and his amazing job,
Scat can sink or disperse in 30 minutes or less. But it is crucial in monitoring the health of the whales here, an endangered group that is probably among the most studied animal populations in the world. Most of the 85 or so orcas, or killer whales, that frequent the San Juans, about two hours northwest of Seattle, have been genotyped and tracked for decades, down to their birth years and number of offspring. And none of this could happen as easily as it does without Tucker and his wet, black nose.
However, unlike bomb and drug-sniffing dogs that can lead their human partners right to the source of the scent, interpreting Tucker’s signals is a full time job in itself. “The slightest twitch of his ear is important,” said Elizabeth Seely, a trainer who has worked with Tucker for four years at a nonprofit group called the Conservation Canines, which specializes in dog-assisted research on behalf of endangered species.
The boat, in this case, is Tucker’s leash, and the using subtle leans, the captain can determine which way to steer the ship. Using his posture, stance, and level of interest, Seely can determine where the boat should be headed.
So how is Tucker rewarded for his hard work? With his ball! He is so utterly ball-driven, that he’ll work for play time. That’s why Conservation Canines is confident in training a second canine marine biologist, a flat-coated retriever named Sadie whose owner donated the dog to the program after being unable to break her of her ball fixation.
In frustration, the owner put Sadie’s ball on top of the fridge. Eight hours or so later, she returned and found Sadie still sitting there, staring up at the object of her desires.
So how does sniffing out scat and tracking orcas help to save this endangered species? Prof. Samuel K. Wasser, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington and the director of the orca scat research project, said the team can determine whale stress levels by measuring stress hormones in their scat. He originally set out to determine if boat activity was causing the whales to be stressed, but with this important research, learned that a low food supply is a bigger stressor.
Knowing to focus on fish supply, he said, means knowing where to focus public policy efforts on the animals’ behalf.
As for Tucker, despite his hundreds of hours spent sniffing out orca scat on boats, this is one dog that refuses to get wet!
Here’s a video of Tucker, on dry land, clearly having a blast with his ball toy!