It's poop to us, but Santa Barbara County researchers say it's a feast of info about carnivores
Researchers use specially trained dogs to find wildlife scat. They want to see if carnivores are venturing from the mountains to the coast to eat.
We’re with a dog which is putting its nose to work for a very unusual mission.
Barley is a border collie which is trained, and rewarded for finding poo. Yes, poo. Barley is one of two special dogs on assignment at the Nature Conservancy’s 24,000 acre Dangermond Preserve, in Santa Barbara County. The dog is searching for some very specific poo, technically known as wildlife scat, in the name of science.
"The dogs are looking for carnivore scat, so the poop from mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and fox," said Hillary Young, who is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at U-C Santa Barbara.
The research project is focused on an interesting theory: That carnivores like mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and even bears are making their way down from the mountains, and foothills of the preserve to the coast, to feast on marine mammals.
"We want to know how important having access to coastal ecosystems is for for carnivore communities," said Young.
So, here we are on the coastline near Point Conception, as Barley searches for wildlife scat. You’ve probably noticed dogs are naturally curious about poo they encounter. It allows them to ID other dogs which might be in the area. But, it takes special training for them to detect specific wildlife scat.
Kayla Fratt is Barley’s trainer, and one of the founders of K9 Conservationists. It’s a Montana-based non-profit which trains dogs to help with conservation projects like this.
"What we do is we look for dogs which absolutely, over the top crazy about toys. We teach them if they find this specific thing we are looking for...in most cases it is poop...we give them their ball," said Fratt. "They go to work...and they get paid with play."
Barley spots some poo. "Barley is loving it out here...there's lots of scat to find...he's finding tons and tons for us."
It means not just looking at, and examining what they find, but taking samples for testing. The research team members pull out plastic baggies to collect bits of the poo for DNA testing back at UCSB’s lab. Researcher Grace Lewin has one of the samples.
"It looks a little bit dry...but I am still going to collect it, in hopes I can get some DNA of whatever it ate to get the diet." said Lewin.
Young said all poop samples aren’t the same. Some are better for testing. "I've got a poop right here in my bag, with me...we think this is a fox poop, that we just found, freshness level one."
There are freshness levels?
"We score all are poops from one to three, based on the freshness, because we can asked different questions based on the quality of the DNA," said Young.
They hope to get samples less than 24 hours old.
Barley finds more scat, some that has the research team excited. They think it's from a mountain lion.
Young said they will run the poo for the DNA to tell what they ate, so we can say how frequently do they eat marine resources, and what specifically they ate.
And, it’s possible they may be even able to use the DNA samples to identify specific animals. It could tell them whether it’s the same bunch carnivores frequenting coastal areas for food, or whether it’s a widespread thing among the animals like mountain lions and bobcats.