An ecosystem out of balance | Dogs help study whales by searching out their scat in the sea

  • Wed Aug 7th, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

The massive gray back of the humpback glistened under the afternoon sun as it surfaced near Kellet Bluff, on Henry Island. Eba, an approximately 3-year-old Jack-Russell terrier mix, sniffs at the breeze. A tangy watermelon scent from nudibranchs, or sea slugs, is strong, but that is not the smell Eba and her humans are searching for.

“Eba is different than other dogs we’ve used,” Debora Giles, who has a P.h.D. in marine conservation biology, said. “She is a balance between being calm, really wanting to please her people as well as being focused and playful, or ball driven.”

Looking for whale scat involves downtime; waiting, watching and following the cetaceans, Giles explained. If the dogs are too hyper or easily distracted those downtimes can be hard on the dog.

Giles has been working with Conservation Canines for several years, a program of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology that researches animals and habitats around the world by utilizing the keen canine nose to collect scat or poop. Researchers have gleaned incredible amounts of information from their waste regarding the creature’s health including toxins ingested, what and how much they are eating. The center has been studying the Southern resident killer whales for more than a decade.

Giles adopted Eba approximately two years ago and discussed the possibility of training her for the program with Samuel Wasser, the director of the center. He and other professional dog handlers assessed Eba and decided she was up for the job.

Once her training was complete, it only took Eba two days on the water with whales to sniff out her first whale scat when Southern residents came through briefly at the beginning of July.

“We didn’t really expect to find anything,” Giles said.

Eba was relaxing with Wasser and Giles when all of a sudden the dog leapt to attention and raced to the front of the boat. Giles steered the boat in the direction on which Eba’s attention was focused. It wasn’t long before they found it.

“She sort of crab-walked along the edge of the boat as she zeroed in on the scent,” Giles said.

Thus became Eba’s first fecal find.

This year, for the first time, Conservation Canines is collecting scat from baleen whales — including minkes, greys and humpbacks. No samples had been collected yet, and Giles hoped that perhaps July 31 was the day that would change.

“We’ll find some poop for you,” Giles told Eba, patting her gently, while Sadie Youngstrum was behind the wheel. Youngsturm is a new member of the team and lives on San Juan Island. Having a local crew, Giles noted, will make it both easier and cheaper to get out on the water, and is hoping to be able to keep going out into November, even December if the weather allows.

Part of the challenge is discovering what baleen whale scat looks like, how it floats and, most importantly, how quickly it dissipates.

“We were [once] following a very elusive humpback,” Giles said, “And we knew it had pooped, but by the time we got there, it had already dissipated.”

Fecal matter varies not only in species type, changes depending on what the individual had been eating. If, for example, Giles explained, a resident orca had been eating particularly fatty salmon, the scat will dissipate faster.

“We are asking the same questions, what are the stress hormones, nutritional hormones,” Giles said.

The basic question, of course, she added, is what are they eating. According to Cascadia Research, a nonprofit that has been studying the whales on both the east and west coast, sightings of humpbacks in the Salish Sea have been gradually increasing over the last decade and jumped significantly higher since 2014. While the Cascadia website notes this a good sign that humpbacks are recovering from whaling, the animals still face threats, like ships going through the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and still there is still a lot to learn about their habits.

“These are massive animals, and one question is: are they just consuming just krill, or are they eating feeder fish; and if so, is that impacting the salmon?” Giles explained.

Giles added that while sea lions and seals are both known to eat salmon, a fecal study on both those species needs to be performed to better understand how their diet may be impacting the endangered Chinook.

“We can’t do it, but someone should,” Giles said, continuing that collecting data on pinnipeds would help researchers gain a clearer picture about the ecosystem of the Salish Sea.“You look around, and it’s really beautiful, but we know there are problems,” Giles said, citing the lack of salmon as one example.

The humpback made its way steadily toward Turn Point on Stuart, and by 3 p.m. it was swimming over the border into Canada. Conservation Canines permit does not extend into Canadian waters, to the team turned southbound. A group of transient orcas had been reported near South Beach. The increase in transient orcas is another example of ways the Salish Sea ecosystem is off.

“Transients are using this area in ways they never have before without the Southern residents around,” Giles said.

There are two types of orcas that reside in the Salish Sea. Transients usually consume marine mammals such as seals and porpoise, while the residents primarily feed on salmon, particularly Chinook. The two subspecies, according to researchers, seem to stay away from one another.

Transients were named such because they only roamed through the San Juans briefly. With the lack of salmon, residents, Giles said, have been acting more like transients over the last several years, only cruising through quickly. Transients — also referred to as Bigg’s orcas after the scientist who first began identifying individual orcas — are acting more and more like residents, hanging around frequently, according to Giles.

The crew took a short pit stop at Snug Harbor to give Eba a pee break and pick up Michael Weiss, a researcher with the Center for Whale Research. Weiss has worked in research and education around the southern residents since 2012 and received his Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in 2016, and has been using drones to study orca social structure. Realizing that CWR had drone capability but not a boat, and Conservation Canines had a boat and no drone, the two nonprofits joined together in a unique partnership. Because scientists don’t usually have to get close to the animal to collect the scat, the program tends to be a noninvasive way to study wildlife. The cetacean study, however, requires being closer to the animal.

“By just using dogs, oftentimes we have to do a close follow, which isn’t ideal,” Giles explained.

Drone capability allows the group to lag farther behind and watch the whales from above. When Weiss spots whale excrement, he can hover the drone above the sample, while the boat makes its way toward it. Through the drone’s camera, Weiss is able to capture footage of the animal’s physical state and the whales interacting.

The team eventually met up with a group of three transients, part of the T-46 family, near Pile Point off the coast of San Juan Island. It was a mother and her two calves, Weiss noted. He said he guessed the older son was approximately 3 years old, while the younger son was born earlier this year. The youngest has a light-gray skin pigmentation, although it is not considered to be albino, Weiss noted. The coloring gives the young transient a ghostly appearance.

“The two brothers are fighting over what looks like a seal,” Weiss said, looking through his drone lens. “The older one won’t let the younger one eat, and mom keeps coming over to intervene.”

As the trio of whales made their way northward hugging the shoreline along the west side of the island, Weiss said it appeared the family had caught another creature. It was too mangled to tell what it was at first.

“They dropped a piece of it,” he noted. The crew made their way to retrieve a chunk of what appeared to be harbor porpoise, teeth marks lined the edge. The chunk was put in a container to possibly be studied later by University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

The transient family continued west, but it was getting late so the crew headed back to the dock.

“The thing is, I just know in about three hours, after eating all that, they are going to be pooping,” Weiss said sadly, as the sun drew closer to the horizon.

To learn about Conservation Canine’s methodology and what scientists have learned so far about the resident orcas from their scat, visit conservationbiology.uw.edu/research-programs/killer-whales.