GUY RAZ, HOST:
Killer whales in Puget Sound aren't doing very well. They've been on the endangered species list since 2005, and there are several theories as to why they're not recovering. It could be a lack of food, increased boat traffic or pollution. So in order to get a better idea, a team of researchers is relying on a secret weapon with a killer nose, to get to the bottom of the mystery.
From the public media collaboration EarthFix, Ashley Ahearn reports.
ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: Sam Wasser likes to talk about poop. And he's especially excited about killer-whale poop.
SAM WASSER: It looks kind of like a combination of algae and snot. It varies in color, but it's very mucusy.
AHEARN: Wasser is the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. He and his team conduct research on killer whales out of Snug Harbor, on San Juan Island. But they've developed techniques to analyze feces from all over the world. Wasser says it's not gross; it's scientific gold.
WASSER: We can measure the diet of the animal. We can get toxins from the feces; DNA so we can cull the individual's identity, its species, its sex - and all of this is in feces. So it's literally, a treasure trove of information.
AHEARN: With that information, Wasser has been able to help prosecute ivory poachers in Africa, track wolverines in the Rockies, and better understand interactions between wolves and caribou in Canada. But finding wild animal poop, especially whale poop, isn't easy. So Wasser has taken a creative approach to staffing his organization.
WASSER: This is Tucker, our scat-detection dog. Say hi, Tucker.
AHEARN: Tucker is an 8-year-old black Lab mix. He's what those in the dog world call ball obsessed. He'll do anything for a game of fetch - even if that means sniffing out floating whale scat from a mile away because he knows that when he finds the scat, he gets to play with his ball.
(SOUNDBITE OF KISS)
WASSER: Such a good boy.
AHEARN: Killer whales have been found to have the highest concentrations of toxic substances, like pesticides and flame retardants, of any creature on the planet. If scientists can understand more about the contaminants in these animals, they may be able to explain why they're not recovering.
AHEARN: Tucker and the team are heading out of the harbor when another researcher radios in with the identification numbers of a pod of killer whales spotted nearby.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. You ready?
LIZ SEALY: Yep.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, it's P10, P10B, P10C, P26 and P26A.
AHEARN: White caps slap at the bow of the research boat as we head out into some pretty rough water. And then off to our left, black dorsal fins emerge.
SEALY: There they are. They're at 11.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. Looks like they're making a beeline for the...
AHEARN: Liz Sealy is Tucker's trainer. She has him on a leash in the bow of the boat as we crisscross the waters where the whales just surfaced.
SEALY: What he'll do if he doesn't have anything is, he'll come back and settle down and sit right next to me. When he gets excited, he'll start standing up on the bow, wagging his tail, getting really animated. So for now, he's just checking the scene.
AHEARN: The team spends about 20 minutes bobbing along after the whales but alas, Tucker comes up empty-snouted. The winds are too strong, and the water's too rough, for him to lock onto a scent.
SEALY: No poop.
AHEARN: Despite this unlucky mission, the team's quest for whale feces is a worthy one. In the past, they've been able to show that during periods of high vessel traffic - say, Fourth of July weekend, for example - the whales have higher levels of stress hormones in their feces. They can also tell when the whales are undernourished, and connect that to lower fertility rates. With orca populations in Puget Sound still disturbingly low, researchers believe the answers may lie in these floating globules of data. After all, a sample of whale poop is kind of like a snapshot of pollution levels in coastal waters. And that's a photograph worth looking at.
For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.
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