Faecal sampling using detection dogs to study reproduction and health in North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis)

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Rosalind M. Rolland
Philip K. Hamilton
Scott D. Kraus
Barbara Davenport
Roxanne M. Gillett
Samuel K. Wasser


Conservation and management of many cetaceans is hindered by the difficulty of acquiring samples from free-swimming individuals to obtain essential data on health, diet, reproduction and physiological impacts of environmental and anthropogenic stressors. This is particularly true for large whales, which are logistically difficult to live-capture for sampling. In North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), a significant decline in reproduction and health in the 1990s led to the application of faecal-based analyses to study stress and reproductive endocrinology, marine biotoxin exposure and prevalence of disease-causing protozoa. However, this approach was limited by low sample acquisition rates with opportunistic faecal (scat) collection methods. The work presented here evaluates the relative sampling efficiency of scent detection dogs trained to locate North Atlantic right whale scat versus opportunistic scat collection during photoidentification surveys. Three years of sample collection using both detection dogs and opportunistic methods are summarised. Faecal sample collection rates using detection dogs were over four times higher than opportunistic methods. The use of detection dogs for scat collection from free-swimming right whales has for the first time provided adequate numbers of samples for statistical analyses. The endocrine, disease, genetic and biotoxin studies currently being performed on these samples markedly improve the ability to address fundamental questions vital to effective conservation and management of highly endangered right whales.

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