Sniffing Poop Out at Sea

Scat detection dogs are helping scientists learn more about threats to the fish-eating orcas in Puget Sound

His name is Dio. Friends sometimes call him Ronnie James.

“Why is that?” I ask my host, Deborah Giles, research scientist with University of Washington’s (UW) Center for Conservation Biology and science and research director for Wild Orca. “Black Sabbath,” Giles replies, her matter-of-fact tone reminding me I know nothing about heavy metal — though as I peek at the scrappy little cattle dog peering back at me from within his crate, I can intuitively see how he’d evoke a metalhead persona.

a dog on a boat
Dio on his way to sniff out killer whale scats in Puget Sound. Dogs like Dio — often rescued from shelters — use their remarkable sense of smell to find wildlife feces, which in turn can speak tomes about animal health and genetics. Photo by Paula MacKay.

Dio emits a high-pitched whine, as if in deference to the singer after whom he was named. I later learn that Ronnie James, the man, was known for his high falsetto, and that he popularized the devil’s horns — index and pinky fingers raised in parallel formation — as the signature gesture for heavy metal fans. Some people believe the gesture wards off bad luck. Dio the dog’s talent, on the other hand, lies more in his nose than his vocal chords. And right now he’s anxious to use this talent to sniff out killer whale scats in Puget Sound.

Since the 1990s, scat detection dogs like Dio have been helping scientists bridge the olfaction gap between humans and canines. These energetic, eager-to-please mutts — often rescued from shelters — use their remarkable sense of smell to find wildlife feces, which in turn can speak tomes about animal health and genetics.

“We can get a huge amount of information about all of the major threats to orcas, and we do it noninvasively, which is even better,” says Giles, who has been working with UW’s Conservation Canines (CK9) program since 2009. The program is led by Dr. Samuel Wasser, also the Center’s director and scientific pioneer of using dogs to detect scat. Dog-detected orca scats have enabled Wasser’s lab to evaluate the effects of inadequate prey, vessel traffic, and toxic pollution on the Sound’s critically endangered Southern Resident orca population, which depends on declining chinook salmon for its survival.

In my own experience studying wild predators on land, I’ve witnessed the seemingly miraculous ability of detection dogs to locate raisin-sized scat remnants in the forest from hundreds of feet away. Now imagine this feat on the open water, where everything is in motion and the fecal matter of killer whales doesn’t float for very long. Add in wind, currents, and the growing rarity of the Southern Residents themselves — now numbered at only 74 individuals, a 35-year low —and you begin to see why Dio is a rock star.

This late August afternoon, I’m accompanying Giles, Dio, and CK9 handlers Collette Yee and Mairi Poisson on a training session off San Juan Island. Yee is lead handler on the orca project, while Poisson is being prepped as a back-up for the future. The Southern Residents haven’t been seen in coastal waters for almost two weeks, their long absences from summer feeding areas a disturbing trend in recent years. Giles and Yee want to be sure the crew is ready when the orcas return.

Scat detection at sea takes teamwork and patience. With Giles at the helm, Dio stands perched like a sentinel on the bow of Wasser’s 21-foot Grady-White — Poisson stationed directly beside him. Yee is situated nearby to help interpret Dio’s behavior.

orca spyhopping with a research boat in the background
Scientists are scrambling to understand the alarming decline of Southern Resident orcas. Analyses of hormones in scat samples have revealed a 69 percent pregnancy failure rate between 2004 to 2014, with an unprecedented half of these occurring “at later stages of reproduction when the energetic cost of failure and physiological risk to the mother was relatively high.” Photo by NOAA.

Giles slowly trolls transect lines perpendicular to the breeze and waits for the boat to enter the “scent cone” emanating from the scat sample— a small plastic bowl containing liquidy whale poop and dropped over the side during an earlier drive-by. Handlers must scrutinize the dog’s body language from head to tail to search for subtle cues indicating he’s onto a scent. If Dio’s actions becomes more animated, Poisson will direct Giles to steer into the wind so they can make their way toward the source. All three women will keep watching Dio carefully, reading his hot or cold movements to adjust their course as needed.

Yee explains what she’s looking for in Dio’s behavior: nose elevated, tongue licking at the air, a certain je-ne-sais-quoi expression on his face. Sometimes he gets excited about the waves lapping at the boat or a gull flying overhead; you’ve got to know your dog, says Yee. And since Dio doesn’t have a tail, she reminds us, you can only discern a wiggle. “I look at his butt as a whole. I know that sounds weird.”

The scene strikes me as an interesting twist on pin the tail on the donkey, with whale poop as the target and Dio guiding his “blindfolded” friends to the prize. But this game is high stakes for the Southern Resident orcas, as scientists scramble to understand the clan’s alarming decline. “I think what we’re seeing is the unraveling of the fabric of this population,” Giles tells me at sea. Among other measures, Wasser, Giles, and other killer whale experts have called for the removal of the Lower Snake River dams to help boost salmon runs.

Meanwhile, CK9 teams have been invaluable to the urgent pursuit of knowledge surrounding the orcas’ plight. Between 2007 and 2014, for example, they collected 348 scat samples from 79 Southern Residents — samples that have since unlocked invaluable information about the orcas’ reproductive woes. Analyses of hormones contained in these scats revealed a 69 percent pregnancy failure rate, with an unprecedented half of these occurring “at later stages of reproduction when the energetic cost of failure and physiological risk to the mother was relatively high,” stated a paper published by Wasser, Giles, and others in 2017. One tragic case in point: orca J32’s premature death in 2014, caused by the in utero loss of a nearly full-term female calf.

This summer’s images of J35 carrying her deceased calf around Puget Sound for 17 days have again brought these frightening statistics to life — and a mother’s grief is a potent portal. With all the world watching, J35, also known as Talequah, would not let us forget that her loss is a harbinger of things to come unless we figure out a way to restore vital chinook to her family’s diet. And this was not the first such trauma for J35, who, Giles informs me, likely had two consecutive failed pregnancies before the death of her calf in 2018.

Back on the water, Dio senses change in the air. He casts his twitching nose skyward and begins to pace as we enter the scent cone. Poisson signals Giles, who’s already turning into the wind. Dio leans over the edge of the bow, nose now pointing ahead like the needle of a compass, elbows resting against the fiberglass hull as he anticipates his reward. Minutes later, Poisson reaches into the Sound and picks up the little blue bowl. She hands the bowl to Giles, who swiftly passes it in front of the wiggling Dio while the team bellows “Good bu-oy! Good bu-oy!” Giles slaps the side of the Grady-White a few times in what feels like true celebration and everyone applauds — “Yay, Dio! Good boy!” A happy, once-homeless cattle dog plays with a bright green plastic ball, and at least for the moment, our hearts sing like there’s no tomorrow.

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