Scientists turn to canines (and their noses) in fight to save endangered species

Scientists turn to canines (and their noses) in fight to save endangered species
Kyoko and her dog, Solo, surveys the lo'i at Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. (Image: Johnson Photography)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Man’s best friend could be Hawaii’s newest weapon in the fight against invasive species.

Wildlife biologists are training dogs to sniff out some of the biggest threats to endangered species in Hawaii. The science is new, but it’s showing promising results.

In one small study, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center partnered with Country Canines to train four dogs to detect avian botulism.

Solo was trained to sniff out avian botulism as part of a study with the USGS. (Image: Johnson Photography)
Solo was trained to sniff out avian botulism as part of a study with the USGS. (Image: Johnson Photography)

The disease has significantly decreased the population of koloa maoli, a native duck, in Hawaii.

The idea behind the study: To determine whether the dogs would be able to sniff out birds that had died from avian botulism so scientists could remove them, lowering the risk of the sickness spreading to other birds through water.

Country Canine founder Kyoko Johnson said the 2017 training at Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge went well and that the overall results of the study were “very promising."

“By finding and removing the initial carcass or carcasses that are affected by botulism, the spread is prevented,” she said.

Scientists say the next step in their research could include training dogs to find birds with avian botulism that are alive so that they could be treated.

Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge has also started training their own volunteer dog handler team for avian botulism surveys at the site.

Conservationists say that dogs could be the newest weapon to fight invasive species in Hawaii. (Image: Johnson Photography)
Conservationists say that dogs could be the newest weapon to fight invasive species in Hawaii. (Image: Johnson Photography)

And Johnson is interested in training dogs to detect a whole host of invasive species, from devil weed to the coconut rhinoceros beetle to yellow crazy ants.

Conservationists are also trying to determine whether dogs could help in Hawaii’s fight against Rapid Ohia Death.

Kealohanuiopuna Kinney, research ecologist at the USDA Forest Service and lead researcher in a study that trained dogs to sniff out the fungus that causes Rapid Ohia Death, said he hopes to help develop a conservation canine detection center on the Big Island “to train scent-discriminating canines and their handlers to reliably and rapidly detect the presence of ROD-infected Ohia.”

Kinney said the dogs could be a strong preventative measure, helping conservationists detect the signs of Rapid Ohia Death before it spreads.

“If we assume that ROD will eventually impact the other islands in the state, this approach ... could save federal and state agencies millions of dollars," he said.

The takeaway from the science, the experts say: Humans have been using dogs for their noses for decades, having them sniff out everything from drugs at the airport to cancer in patients. But canine detecting in ecosystem protection is relatively new ― and potentially groundbreaking.

“We see this investment in the first cohort of canine handlers as a seed to break ground on a new and emerging conservation career path that will create opportunities and support for handlers and canines in the future,” Kinney said.

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