News Source: 
The Daily
May 1, 2013

To try to save the environment, UW conservation scientists made use of one key ingredient in their research: poop.

By examining whale excrement found between Washington state mainland and San Juan Islands, researchers in UW’s Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) have found that the population of killer whales living in the area are declining. To find the fecal matter, researchers use specially trained dogs from Conservation Canine (CK9), the CCB’s program that trains dogs to find animal scat for research samples.

The researchers said that for an already small population of 86 whales — called southern resident killer whales (SRKW) — the population decline is particularly alarming.

Jessica Lundin, fourth-year graduate student and the primary graduate student working on the SRKW research, said the whales do not have enough of a population to be able to handle too many pressures at once. If the killer whale species — a predator at the top of the food chain ­— were to disappear, it could cause an overpopulation of the whale’s prey or other ecosystem imbalances, Lundin said.

“If the right combination of pressures were to occur, the whales will likely struggle to get past it,” Lundin said, “so it’s really scary.”

Based on the scat data collected, researchers said they were able to find possible causes for the decline of the population: exposure to high levels of toxicants stored in the whales’ fat and their primary prey; disturbance from increased water traffic by both commercial and private vessels; and most importantly, the decline in the whale’s primary prey, the endangered Chinook salmon species.

Researchers said they could not have found the results without the help of Tucker, an 8-year-old black labrador from the CK9 program that worked on the SRKW research. Tucker comes along for the researchers’ fieldwork and looks for whale scat with one premise in mind: getting to play with his ball.