17 February 2011

The nose knows: ace canine sniffers now environmental conservationists

Some possess such a heightened sense of smell that their noses enable them to secure incredibly unusual jobs that are well off the beaten path. Among the organizations that covet those endowed with heightened olfactory perception, NASA offers choice individuals the opportunity to assess ‘smell hazards’ within the confines of space shuttles while Procter & Gamble is always on the lookout for fragrance formulation experts (as are countless other perfume and body product companies). While that’s all fine and good, organizations keen on locating the cream of the nasal crop would be wise to turn to Canis lupus familiaris for all their serious sniffing needs.

Just how extraordinary is a dog’s sense of smell? Compared to human beings, our best buddies possess up to one million times the sniffing prowess of our apparently inept schnozzolas. They are indeed so remarkably skilled that they can identify the seemingly nonexistent odor of malignant cancers (think lung, bladder, skin, breast and ovarian) plus clue us in when diabetics experience blood sugar spikes or epileptics should anticipate their next seizure. Impressive, yes, but their latest and equally greatest eye-opening talent is just beginning to pick up steam thanks to Wagtail UK.

While the Wales-based organization has employed their fleet of ace-canines to identify explosives, drugs and illegal immigrants on an international basis since 2003, they are now shifting gears by training certain furry staff members to aid environmental conservationists. Capitalizing on their greatest attribute – a sharp sense of smell – Wagtail UK’s diverse pup patrol (Belgian Shepherds, Daschunds, Black Labradors, etc.) can distinguish the difference between the excrement of a wide range of endangered species with 96% accuracy in as little as 16 weeks training, using an ‘alert’ or ‘indication’ when they’ve identified something of interest out in the field. Their resulting discoveries ultimately help researchers assess accurate population counts and, ideally, surmise reasons why animals are becoming endangered in the first place.

This service has become especially handy with regard to tracking down elusive South African cheetahs as well as solving the mystery behind the sustained mortality rate of birds and bats in the vicinity of wind farms. Due to the findings of Wagtail UK’s wet-nosed workers, we now know that ill-fated creatures flying around massive wind turbines – particularly bats – suffer from barotrauma (a rapid drop in air pressure that triggers fatal internal hemorrhaging) rather than death from physical turbine impact.

Keen canine sniffers may also prove to be invaluable for nipping hotel bed bug infestations in the bud or determining precisely where rodents enter/exit public buildings. Land developers might also even be inclined to take advantage of Wagtail UK’s staff in the event that they want to humanely relocate threatened species. And for the true eco-utopian dreamer, wouldn't it be lovely if we could train able-nosed doggies to determine the legitimacy of certified organic products or, conversely, blow the whistle on genetically modified goods (especially in America where labeling isn't required)? How do I love thee doggy? Let me count the ways....

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit: video screen capture