Sunday, 13 October 2013

Specially trained dogs help researchers sniff out salamanders – via Herp Digest

9/23/13, By Chris Quintana, The New Mexican

Like most dogs, Sampson excels at finding poop, but he does so with a higher purpose.

He’s usually searching for the waste of endangered animals, the discovery of which allows researchers to learn more about the critters without disturbing the animals or their habitats, explains his handler, Julianne Ubigau.

And while Sampson has found scat from animals ranging from mice to moose, he and Ubigau — who are with Conservation Canines, a subdivision of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology — most recently have been in Northern New Mexico searching for the endangered Jemez Mountain salamander.

On a recent chilly morning in the Jemez Mountains near the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area outside Los Alamos, Sampson at first is a quiet dog. He’s not the type of creature that licks people or seeks a pat on the head. But when Ubigau puts him in his red working vest, the dog’s personality suddenly changes. Ubigau pulls out a red rubber ball, and Sampson barks for a moment before rushing into the thick forest. Ubigau follows closely behind, directing the dog to inspect a rotted log or to ignore others.

Sampson paws into the wet dirt when he tracks down a scent, and if the scent is strong, he sits down and waits for Ubigau. As she catches up, his tails starts wagging. After years of training, Sampson knows that Ubigau will toss the ball if he has found a good scent. Usually, two field researchers follow behind the dog and handler, inspecting the creature’s potential finds.

This time the scent is good, and Ubigau, who has worked with Conservation Canines as a handler since 2007, launches the red ball. Sampson leaps from his squatting position, bounds after the ball, scoops it up in his mouth and then drops the slobbery toy at Ubigau’s feet. Without wiping it off, she tosses the ball again and playtime continues until Ubigau redirects Sampson.

Last week’s run was merely an exercise, and Sampson didn’t track down any new salamanders. The population of the Jemez Mountain Salamander has declined rapidly in recent years thanks to a combination of wildfires and drought.

The amphibians are tiny — between 2 and 4 1/2 inches in length and less than an inch wide. The creature’s large eyes make up a quarter of its head. Brown skin helps the salamanders blend into their wooded surroundings, and, accordingly, makes them hard to find.

That’s part of the reason Conservation Canines was brought in, said Anne Bradley with The Nature Conservancy, one of the groups looking for the Jemez Mountain salamander.

Bradley said the amphibian’s habitat is rapidly shrinking because of recent wildfires. The goal, she said, is to find where they live to learn more about the secretive creatures.

Last year, crews found only one salamander. This year, they have managed to track down 13 of the critters since July. That increase is partially due to increased rains and accompanying humidity — ideal conditions for the salamanders to emerge from rotten logs or cavernous rocks.
Sampson has certainly helped this year’s expedition, too, but it should be noted Conservation Canines sent Sampson and another dog in 2012 as well.

Before he was searching for salamanders, Sampson was trained to find excrement from wolverines, lynx, moose and gray wolves, to name a few. The black Labrador mix also can find live animals, as he did when he tracked sea turtles’ nests off the coast of Alabama.

The working dog first joined Conservation Canines in 2008. When Sampson was only 4 years old, he was discovered at The Humane Society for Seattle/King County, where he had been passed over because his nearly indefatigable energy turned off many potential families. But that boundless desire to play was useful for Conservation Canines’ purposes, Ubigau said.

Ubigau said most dogs used by the program are Labrador mixes or cattle dogs — canines that could work for eight hours straight, if necessary. But the main criteria, she said, include high energy levels and singular focus on playing. Those traits translate to a dog willing to do what’s asked of it.

The training process, Ubigau said, is fairly simple. The dogs enter a field where there is wolverine excrement, and when the canine finds and sniffs the waste, a trainer immediately presents the dog with a ball to fetch. That process is repeated until the four-legged creature understands that finding the right scat equals playtime.

Now 9 years old, Sampson can’t work like he used to and is nearing retirement, Ubigau said. When he retires from field work, he’ll likely have a home with Ubigau. The handler explained that most, if not all, of the dogs that go through the Conservation Canines program are adopted by one of the many handlers, who have experience with high-energy dogs. Each handler usually has a favorite, and Ubigau’s is Sampson. Ubigau has already adopted another dog that retired from the program, a Jack Russell terrier named Casey.

With a job, most of these dogs end up doing great in the end,” Ubigau said.

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