Have you ever heard the myth that new-born deer fawns don't have a scent? Well, I can tell you that it just isn't true. How do I know? A team of colleagues and I have trained bomb detection dogs to find new-born deer fawns.....sort of. The dogs definitely recognize the scent of new-born fawns, but they do have some difficulty locating fawns in the wild. In the project we are proposing herein, we want to find out why.
The EcoDogs program at Auburn University is a project with the goal of training bomb detection dogs to find organisms in the wild or their sign (http://ecodogs.auburn.edu). The dogs have been used to find scat from rare and endangered species, an invasive root fungus that is killing pines in the southeastern U.S., and Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park. So far, we've had success with every target we've attempted to train the dogs to find, with one exception. This past fall we tried to train the dogs to find white-tail deer fawns (which appear to have really high mortality rates from coyotes here in Alabama), but the dogs couldn't seem to pick up the scent of the fawns until they were really close, and even then the dogs couldn't pinpoint the exact location of the fawn. Again, it's not that the fawns didn't produce a scent, but instead it seemed that the scent appeared to be super concentrated in a very small area. These initial results led us to hypothesize that deer fawns are choosing locations that trap in their scent to minimize risk of predation. This fall we want to test this hypothesis by comparing the ability of scent detection dogs to find targets in locations where deer fawns have hid to that of random locations in the environment.
As visual creatures, we humans often assume that prey animals hide where it’s hard for predators to see them. However, many predators hunt using other senses than sight. Thus, prey animals may instead select hiding spots where it’s hard for predators to smell them. Yet, few scientists have studied the scent characteristics of prey hiding spots, probably due to the difficulty in doing so. Demonstrating that prey choose hiding spots with particular scent characteristics would be very interesting to scientists who study evolution and predator-prey relationships. However, in addition to the purely academic potential in this study, understanding how deer fawns select hiding spots will enable wildlife and habitat managers to better create habitats that protect these animals when they are at their most vulnerable to predation.
Funding collected through Petridish.org will be used to cover the cost of the use of the EcoDogs for this project, which includes training and maintenance of the dogs and salaries for the dog handlers. Other research costs, such as the costs of finding deer fawns, are already covered by another project studying deer reproductive success (http://deerlab.auburn.edu).
Dr. Todd Steury is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Auburn University. His area of expertise is carnivore ecology (wolves, bears, coyotes, etc.) and predator-prey relationships. He is a co-founder of the EcoDogs program at Auburn University, which trains detection dogs to find ecological samples for the purposes of research, management, or conservation. Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff is a full professor of wildlife ecology at Auburn University. His area of expertise is deer ecology, especially the factors that influence reproductive success of deer. Dr. Craig Angle is the associate director of the Veterinary Sports Medicine Program in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University, another co-founder of the EcoDogs program, and in charge of operations of the EcoDogs. Terry Fischer is the head trainer for the EcoDogs program, and has trained and handled dogs for over 30 years in locations all over the world.
Hi everbody! Thanks to the intial backers of our project. We're off to a good start and we hope to continue the momentum to the end in order to fund this project. If you know of anyone that might be interested in personally supporting scientific research, let them know about Petridish!