Tag: coyote research

Gone to the Dogs: Conservation’s Star Canines

My introduction to working with dogs came fifteen years ago, on the tall grass prairie of Kansas. With the assistance of two very willing Australian shepherds and one more restrained Samoyed, the dogs’ owner and I designed and carried out an experiment to test how far canines could smell, and how their prodigious noses might be affected by changes in environmental conditions such as air temperature, wind speed, and relative humidity.

As it turned out, the dogs were able to pick up and alert us smell-challenged humans to the scent of a standard odor attractant pill up to 1 kilometer away if the winds were gentle, temperatures mild, and the relative humidity was high.

While this finding alone was amazing (I could only smell the stinky pill if it was within an arm’s length of my nose), what our study implied was even more interesting.

You see, we were using the dogs as models for their wild cousins, the coyote (Canis latrans), to better understand the population dynamics of coyotes on the prairie, and large predator ecology of the region more generally.

To study coyote population sizes at the time, wildlife ecologists typically set out an odor attractant, surrounded it with spread-out sand, and then came back later to record coyote tracks in the sand.

But this method didn’t provide a good estimate for how large of an area is sampled. The question remained: from how far away could coyotes smell the odor of the attractant pill? Because coyotes are wild animals, designing a method to allow us to judge their ability to smell would have been difficult. Domesticated and agility trained dogs (with otherwise normal smelling capabilities) provide a rough approximation of what coyotes might be observing, thereby opening a window between humans and the wild, and giving us some insight into the coyote’s sensory world.

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