In the summer of 2010, Jennifer Day, a University of Washington graduate student, and “Scooby the Conservation Canine,” an energetic black Labrador, were invited to spend four days in Jalisco’s Primavera Forest hunting for the scat of wild animals that roam the woods.
Now they are gearing up for a new project in the unsurveyed wilds of Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the Lacandon rainforest of Chiapas, which has the highest abundance of terrestrial mammal species per hectare in all of Mexico.
Day and Scooby are members of the Center for Conservation Biology in Seattle, Washington, whose founder, Dr. Sam Wasser, pioneered techniques for extracting DNA and hormone levels from animal scat, which allow researchers not only to identify species and sex, but also to pinpoint the identity of an individual animal. In addition, they can tell whether that animal is undernourished, healthy, pregnant and even whether or not they are stressed.
Although he had proven the value of droppings for studying animals, finding those droppings in a forest or jungle proved a daunting task for Wasser until he thought of using dogs to do the job for him. This was the origin of the Conservation Canines, which can adroitly detect the dung of giant armadillos, spotted owls and even sea dwellers like orca whales, demanding for payment nothing more than a few minutes of fun, playing with a bright red rubber ball.