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  • Writer's pictureJessica Gatzow

Conservation Dogs: A Healthy Ecosystem’s Best Friend

Conservation dogs and conservation work share an incredible friendship centered around scent-detection superpowers and caring for the planet’s ecosystems. The Finders at Conservation Dogs Collective (CDCI) wag their tails at any chance to get outside for a good sniffing challenge, and conservation work benefits tremendously from the olfactory expertise of a dog’s nose. But how do CDCI and conservationists determine what facets of conservation work need help from our Finders? And why do our Finder-Keeper teams search for snails, bumble bee nests, and turtles?

The answer boils down to detection methodology: Conservation dogs help find species that pose significant challenges to other detection techniques ‒ and they can work far beyond the limitations of human sight. With their 300 million scent receptors compared to a human’s six million, dogs can learn to identify over 20 target odors. Pretty amazing, right? Let’s break it down to three species categories that CDCI works with: invasive, endangered, and elusive.

The Prolific: Invasive Species

Invasive species threaten the balance of an ecosystem by outcompeting native species for food sources and habitat. When not managed, they can displace a native species entirely, or affect the entire food chain and biodiversity of an ecosystem. Early detection is key to eradicating them from areas they don’t belong.

That’s why several of CDCI's Finders (Alva, Harriet, Ernie, Betty White, Holly, and Jesse!) are working with the River Alliance of Wisconsin and Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources to train and test their noses on finding the New Zealand Mudsnail (Potamopyrgus antipodarum). The species arrived in Wisconsin and Minnesota a few years ago, and conservationists want to prevent it from spreading into more of the Driftless Area. Population densities can reach over 500,000 individuals per square meter, and they can damage freshwater rivers or clog pipes.

These cone-shaped snails push the limits of sight-reliant detection because they only grow to the size of a grain of rice. CDCI Finders have demonstrated how they can find the mudsnail quickly, even amidst other aquatic invertebrates. (In fact, dogs can locate species invisible to the human eye.) In 2023, our Finder-Keeper teams have entered an important phase of testing the efficacy of canine scent detection of the New Zealand Mudsnail: Thanks to the Wisconsin DNR's Surface Water Grant, we'll be working on establishing the specifics of detection methodology through 2025.

Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) has persisted throughout Wisconsin’s open fields and prairies for over a century. It not only outcompetes native vegetation, but produces a watery sap that can cause dermatitis when affected skin is exposed to sunlight.

Finder Ernie alerts Keeper Laura to wild parsnip at Mequon Nature Preserve

Like clearing away buckthorn, removing wild parsnip can be a yearly chore—but the plant doesn’t produce its distinctive umbels of yellow florets until its second summer. One of our first projects with Finder Ernie included working with Mequon Nature Preserve and their on-staff conservation dog, Tilia. Both dogs mastered locating wild parsnip rosettes to make early detection possible. Removing rosettes in their early stage (before pollen production) helps mitigate its spread.

The Ecosystem Indicators: Endangered Species

Everything from habitat loss to climate change can add a species to a state or federally endangered list. Each individual counts when tracking a dwindling species, and researchers need all the data they can get to develop a conservation plan for saving them. CDCI Finders Bronty, Holly, Harriet, Alva, Jesse, Betty White, and Ernie have formed a Midwest-quest to find bumble bee nests. Bumble bees nest in a variety of habitats, often in the ground, and travel up to five miles away from home for pollination, so a bee sighting doesn’t necessarily indicate that a researcher has stumbled near the bee’s colony. Our Finders can cover territory more quickly than relying on sight alone, and their noses are better equipped than human eyes to search every nook and cranny for a hidden nest.

Finder Betty White sniffing out a bumble bee nest in Brooklyn, Wisconsin.

Conservation dogs can be trained to generalize odors across a genus, too. For our bumble bee nest program any target scent from Bombus griseocollis to Bombus impatiens is on their radar. They've even trained their noses to sniff out the federally endangered Rusty Patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). Locating nests helps researchers study habitat preference and colony behavior. CDCI has so many partners to thank for helping us continue this detection project: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Carroll University, Lynden Sculpture Garden, USDA, USFWS, Ohio State University, Illinois State University, Dupage County Forest Preserve District, and Wolf Park help us fund projects, secure sample nest material for training, and analyze detection results.

Although its common name may fool you, the Virginia sneezeweed (Helenium virginicum) is a rare flowering plant under federal protection. Dried sneezeweed flowers and leaves have been used by some Native Americans to make a sneeze-inducing snuff for treating colds or ridding the body of evil spirits. Beyond its rarity and habitat limited to seasonally inundated sinkhole ponds, the yellow-flowered virginicum species can be easily mistaken for common sneezeweed. Luckily, CDCI Keeper, Jo, trained late Finder Willow to distinguish between the scents of related species, and with a close sniff can help humans determine if a plant is a look-alike. In 2021, Finder Willow helped the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana Native Plant Society’s South Central and Central Chapters study the effectiveness of using dogs to detect Virginia sneezeweed in Indiana.

The Camouflage Masters: Elusive Species

These species are often endangered or could become endangered—and their camouflage skills and habitat preferences make them especially difficult for researchers to monitor them. But these reptiles in disguise are no match for a dog’s nose. CDCI Finder-Keeper teams have trained to find three turtle species that enjoy hiding in prairies or savannas. Finder Willow has tracked down a vulnerable species in Indiana and endangered species in Iowa and Wisconsin—the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) and Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata), respectively. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, Finder Ernie has helped both states’ DNRs and the Minnesota Zoo find the threatened Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Accurate monitoring of exactly where these reptiles tend to hang out helps conservationists protect them.

Conservation dogs also help monitor projects for species reintroduction into a particular environment. Finder Ernie helped Mequon Nature Preserve reintroduce the Blue-Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale) and Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), both indicator species of wetland health, into their ephemeral wetlands. These endangered species spend half of their life mostly out of sight in vernal pools and otherwise tend to blend in with the forest. Keeping a close eye on indicator species helps track the overall health of a habitat, especially during land restoration efforts.

Blue-spotted salamander

What do snails, turtles, and bees all have in common?

Our Finders’ super-sniffing expertise is leading conservation scientists right to their source! Help us advance research, one wet nose at a time, by making a donation.

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