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Photo credit: Jane Cogan

With her nose in the air, sniffing the cool ocean breeze, Eba’s on the hunt for poop.

And she has a nose for it. The 5-year-old mixed-breed dog is part of an elite team called the Conservation Canines. Trained through the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology (the Center) led by Dr. Samuel Wasser, these dogs sniff out wildlife scat (feces) as a way to non-invasively monitor threatened species around the world. Eba is trained to alert to scat of the Pacific Northwest’s Southern Resident killer whales — one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the U.S. Eba and the Center’s entire staff are on a mission to help save this iconic species.

From left to right: Dr. Wasser, Dr. Giles, CK9 Eba and team member Sadie Youngstrom. Photo Credit: University of Washington

Conservation K9 Eba

Hoping to use genetic, physiological and toxicological methods pioneered by his lab, Dr. Wasser began studying what was driving the Southern Resident killer whale decline. However, getting enough samples was tough. He quickly realized that the detection dogs his lab developed to locate wildlife scat in wolves, jaguars, and even tigers could remedy that. This proved to be a game changer, greatly increasing the number of samples. Training dogs to locate whale scat took a great deal of effort. It requires the handler to be constantly aware of the speed and direction of both wind and currents relative to the whales, while simultaneously reading subtle changes in the dog’s behavior that tell the handler the dog still has the scent and the direction it’s coming from. Unfortunately, everything started to change around 2015. The persistent decline of Chinook salmon, the Southern Resident’s primary prey, caused the whales to visit the study area at very low frequency, causing long intervals in sampling opportunities.  

“This frustrated us to no end, said Dr. Wasser, Director of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology. “We had developed powerful methods to study impacts of prey decline and other pressure on these whales. Yet, the primary cause of their decline, lack of prey, was preventing us from making full use of them.” 

Their solution was Eba. Eba is the adopted dog of Dr. Deborah Giles. Dr. Giles had been the study’s boat driver since 2009 and an expert at reading wind and current, keeping the boat on course in response to the dog handler’s signals. Dr. Giles lives in the San Juan Islands year-round, enabling her and Eba to respond whenever whales were present. 

“Training Eba when the whales were here so infrequently proved to be quite a challenge. However, their hard work and dedication is paying off,” said Dr. Wasser. “Eba is also proving to be the perfect outreach tool for our program. She could not be more adorable and this combination of skills and cuteness is helping draw attention to plight of these whales.” 
A very large "pancake" of whale scat collected in 2014. Photo credit: Center for Conservation Biology

The Threats Facing Southern Resident Killer Whales

With only 72 left, the population of Southern Resident killer whales is at a 30-year low. One of the primary factors  in their decline is that they’re just not getting enough to eat. Killer whales need to eat 350 pounds or more per day to stay healthy. But their main source of food (and their favorite), Chinook salmon, are also declining. In these killer whales’ home waters, the Salish Sea, Chinook populations have dropped by 60% in the past 30 years alone. 

To make matters worse, the Chinook these whales are finding are much smaller. At the turn of the 19th Century, fishermen at the mouth of the Columbia River were regularly catching Chinook that weighed 100 pounds or more. The Chinook available today isn’t even an appetizer for the Southern Resident. In fact, according to Washington state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Chinook in the Salish Sea and along the state’s coast only average between 10 and 15 pounds. 

It isn’t just the size of the Chinook that are affecting their diet, a variety of toxins are threatening the Southern Resident killer whales. Banned in the 1970s, PCBs, an industrial lubricant, and DDTs, a pesticide, bioaccumulate in whale blubber, meaning they are still to this day being found in Southern Residents. Meanwhile, toxic flame retardants or PBDEs are having a profound impact on killer whales down to the DNA level. Even the things we flush down our toilets ultimately are ending up in the blubber of the killer whale. In 2018, researchers found an “alphabet soup of chemicals” in Puget Sound’s salmon. Scientists discovered everything from antidepressants to antibiotics, as well as illegal drugs like cocaine.

A group of SRKWs swimming in Haro Strait off San Juan Island, WA Photo Credit: Jane Cogan

“It’s the fish, specifically Chinook salmon, that’s the biggest problem,” said Dr. Giles, a research scientist with the Center. “They’re not getting enough to eat and so they are metabolizing their blubber which circulates dangerous toxicants throughout their body.” 

Most toxins are stored in blubber. These toxins are released into circulation as the killer whales metabolize their blubber in response to food stress. Scientists are concerned that the resultant rise in circulating toxins are disrupting their endocrine system and/or suppressing the whales’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to a host of diseases. This wouldn’t be as problematic if only these whales had enough to eat. If their food source wasn’t in peril they’d keep dangerous toxins locked up in their blubber.

“This is the one reason that a whale needs to get fat and stay fat,” explained Dr. Giles. “You don’t ever want to see bones on a whale and unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more Southern Residents [that are] small and thin.”

Then there’s the challenge of actually catching the Chinook. For a mammal that relies on sound to hunt these rarer and rarer fish, the presence of vessels and the roar they’re creating below the water is impeding their greatest tool. In every season, day-in and day-out, these vessels — whether they are giant cargo ships, ferries, or recreational boaters — are going back and forth through what were once Southern Resident habitats. 

Why Whale Poop?

Back on the boat, Eba stops moving, her body quickly becomes stiff. With her two front legs perched on top of the bow’s railing, she’s on the scent of a Southern Resident killer whale. Eba’s been trained to sniff out the distinct smell of floating killer whale scat, her nose cutting through all the other ocean smells. As the driver steers the boat, Dr. Giles is up front on the bow with Eba, closely watching her nose as she crab walks along the side of the boat. As the scent moves, so does Eba. It’s a dance, and this choreography between the driver, the dog and the handler must to be quick and precise because the prize they’re after, whale poop, only floats for a few minutes to a half hour. Eba zig-zags leading the team directly alongside the poop. The size of the poops is often small because much of the sample sinks before it can collected. It looks like dollops of pancake batter that can be brown, gray, green or yellow, floating on the water’s surface. With a scoop on the end of a wooden pole, Dr. Giles pulls up the sample. Each sample is extracted and analyzed, providing scientists with a wide array of information on the whale’s identity and sex, stress, nutritional and pregnancy health, as toxicant loads over time. 

To improve the collection of this critical data, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is funding the Center’s work as part of our work to preserve biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest and reduce the impact of human activity on our region’s waters. This includes the development of fecal DNA measures to analyze intestinal microbes, or gut microbiome, as an added measure of pregnancy and nutritional health, as well as new tools to measure toxin loads that require far less sample volume than traditional methods. Will Sano, a PhD student at UW Biology, is the project lead on the Center’s killer whale microbiome work.

“The communities of bacteria that inhabit the gut directly shape their hosts’ digestive, immune, and endocrine systems,” said Sano. “These microbiomes are themselves responsive to changes in host diet, stress, reproductive status, and toxicant exposure, which in turn change their relationship with the host.” 

The killer whale gut microbiome is currently understudied, and Sano hopes to leverage the Center’s archive of fecal samples from the Southern Residents to explore the consequences of nutritional stress and toxicant exposure for killer whale health and reproduction. The Center is also hard at work developing new tools to measure toxicant loads that require far less sample volume than traditional methods, which  has limited the use of more traditional toxicant measures the Center developed for whale scat.  These combined measures of gut microbiome analysis and toxicant loads are being applied to new samples, as well as to the 600 legacy samples the Center has already collected over the years.

“The importance of these combined measures, collected over time, is that they enable us to tease apart the various pressures impacting these whales,” explains Dr. Wasser. “This helps managers prioritize what pressures are most important to address first, given the urgent need to save these whales.” 

Dr. Wasser spends some quality time with CK9 Tucker. Photo credit: Center for Conservation Biology

We’re putting the science into the hands of policymakers and the public.

Dr. Deborah Giles

All of this valuable information is being sent to fisheries managers and government agencies to help inform decisions made to protect these endangered whales.

“We’re putting the science into the hands of policymakers and the public,” said Dr. Giles. “By being conscious voters and consumers, we can ensure we’re doing things that are recovering the killer whale ecosystem, not harming it.”

There’s still a lot more Dr. Wasser and his team need to uncover. The preponderance of evidence points to poor nutrition from the lack of Chinook as the most likely cause of rising miscarriages and declining birthrates among the Southern Residents. And when these killer whales manage to bring their calves to term, 50% of the babies born don’t make it past their first birthday. As these researchers continue to collect samples they’re painting a clearer picture of the crisis facing Pacific Northwest’s most iconic species. But arguably, the most important thing they’re doing is providing the public and the managers with the information and data necessary to help these whales thrive in the future.

"Advocacy is key but it has to be backed by hard science," explained Dr. Wasser. "Keeping the public informed maintains pressure on managers to put this information to use, reducing their likelihood of becoming constrained by politics."