Dogs help save rare amphibians from extinction

Conservationists are always looking for new methods to protect rare species from extinction. Recently, zoologists at Salford University discovered that dogs can help conserve crested newts, rare amphibians that hide underground during the breeding season. A specially trained English springer spaniel was able to sniff out newts with 87.5 percent accuracy at two meters and even through a layer of soil with 88 percent accuracy.

The sense of smell of dogs is many times better than that of humans. That’s why these animals are often used as live chemical detectors that find human and animal traces, sniff out banned substances and even diagnose diseases by smell. And conservationists train dogs to look for rare species that are difficult to find by other means.

The crested newt is a common amphibian species in Europe. However, in many countries, including Great Britain, its numbers are declining due to habitat destruction. Studying crested newts is difficult because outside the breeding season, adults of this species hide under fallen tree trunks, in mammal burrows, soil voids and cracks among rocks during the day.

Starting in 2018, zoologists began training an English springer spaniel named Freya to sniff out crested newts. Two years later, the dog was already successfully distinguishing the scent of this species from that of all other amphibians living in the United Kingdom.

To see if Freya could find crested newts under near-natural conditions, the researchers conducted several experiments. In the first series of tests, the authors used a 0.5-meter by 12.5-meter wooden structure with eight holes spaced a meter apart. Plastic pipes departed from the holes, with newt containers at the ends. In the first stages, the length of the tubes was 0.25 meter, but it was gradually increased by 0.25 meter at a time until it reached two meters. During the experiments, the newt sat in only one of the eight containers – and Freya, who was guided along a series of holes, had to find out which one by smell. She succeeded in the task 87.5 percent of the time.

A few months later, scientists conducted an additional experiment. The researchers chose four plots of four by ten meters and dug eight holes in each of them. Then in each hole inserted a structure consisting of a two-meter plastic pipe, a container for newts on its end and a mesh partition between them. To mimic the shelters in which newts hide in the wild, the scientists plugged the tube with a plug of clay or sandy soil, and in half of the cases they left a ventilation channel for air to escape.

In the experiment, the dog was able to sniff out the crested newts through the soil layer with 88 percent accuracy. These results are encouraging for those who care about preserving rare animal species.

Thus, the use of detection dogs could be an effective method of protecting rare animals from extinction. This method has already been used successfully in North America and Australia to find and study endangered amphibians. It is hoped that in the future it will become widespread and help save many species from extinction.

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