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Best Nose in World Helps Canine Researcher Sniff Out Discoveries

‘Pinkerton’ surprisingly accurate at helping University of Calgary biologist find vanishing primates in China’s mountain jungle

Pinkerton is a scat detection dog used by a University of Calgary biologist to study primates. The dog's ability to detect rare specimens is outstanding, placing the Belgian Malinois in a group of elite dogs trained in the world to contribute to scientific field studies. Photo courtesty Joe Orkin
Pinkerton is a scat detection dog used by a University of Calgary biologist to study primates. The dog’s ability to detect rare specimens is outstanding, placing the Belgian Malinois in a group of elite dogs trained in the world to contribute to scientific field studies. Photo courtesty Joe Orkin

 

Meet Pinkerton. He’ll catch a ball like any other dog. But Pinkerton is far from ordinary. He’s a world expert in locating vanishing primates. He’s so darn good at what he does, Pinkerton’s success and achievement has been documented in a study published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.  

“Pinkerton is a very smart dog, but more than that, he’s a great research aid for biologists and conservationists, servicing our needs at a very low cost in our model,“ says Joseph Orkin, PhD, who led the study on cost-effective detection dogs.

Orkin is a University of Calgary biologist and postdoctoral scholar in the Faculty of Arts working in the lab of Amanda Melin, PhD. Melin is an anthropologist in the Faculty of Arts who specializes in understanding the changing environment of primates, gut bacteria and its relationship to human health.

Pinkerton and researcher Joe Orkin hike through the forest in Yunnan province searching for western black-crested gibbons, a species now on the critically endangered list. Photo courtesy Joe Orkin
Pinkerton and researcher Joe Orkin hike through the forest in Yunnan province searching for western black-crested gibbons, a species now on the critically endangered list. Photo courtesy Joe Orkin

Detection dogs shown to unleash powerful new tool for scientists

For $3,000, Pinkerton was adopted and trained as a detection dog, becoming one of a small group of elite dogs in the world to do this kind of research. The Belgian Malinois quickly learned how to help researchers in the field by finding fecal samples of specific primates. The samples provide scientists worldwide with DNA of rare populations and their gut bacteria for international health and conservation projects.

In this case, Pinkerton is a gibbon ape expert, specifically the western black-crested gibbons of Yunnan province in China. Orkin spent three years with Pinkerton working in China to track and collect the DNA from that critically endangered gibbon population in extremely difficult, mountain-top jungle. Fewer than 2,000 of these gibbons are left in the world.

Orkin found that his detection dog had a greater accuracy than his human researchers in collecting reliable samples. The detection dog had a 92-per-cent accuracy rate while the human-only team had a 76-per-cent accuracy rate. In addition, Pinkerton was shown to be highly successful in collecting samples from a gibbon population which eats a plant-based diet. Until now, most of the data on detection dogs has been gathered from identifying scat of carnivores, not herbivores.

One of the rarest species in the world, the western black-crested gibbons of Yunnan province in China are difficult to locate. Photo courtesy Fauna and Flora International
One of the rarest species in the world, the western black-crested gibbons of Yunnan province in China are difficult to locate. Photo courtesy Fauna and Flora International

Research collaboration with China and detection dogs

“We have shown that it is possible to overcome both the logistical challenge and high cost of international fieldwork with a scat detection dog,” says Orkin, who collaborated with local police and researchers in China to recruit and train his detection dog. Orkin says the data bank of gibbon DNA collected by Pinkerton could help foster dozens of studies on the potential impact on health from reduced genetic pools, restricted diets, and lack of food diversity on gut bacteria.

Orkin is giving Pinkerton a vacation for the next few months, while awaiting his next assignment. Though Pinkerton is on a holiday, apparently his nose is still at work. As Orkin is finding out during their daily walks, his reliable four-legged researcher is clearly trying to track and find gibbon ape samples in Calgary’s parks. Even the best noses at times can’t find their man.

Melin is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) at the Cumming School of Medicine. Orkin is a postdoctoral scholar in the Melin lab and is currently involved in the study of capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica and the role of bacteria on human diseases. He is also the recipient of an ACHRI training grant.

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Source: University of Calgary

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