Bennett, instead, is working to develop a far less invasive solution: dogs trained to track down the tiger quolls’ scat, which can be analyzed to determine sex, diet, and information about the quolls’ distribution. Bennett’s strategy is just one example of how researchers studying endangered species are coming up with unorthodox solutions to the logistical challenges of tracking or observing organisms that are few and far between.
She recently partnered with a search-and-rescue dog trainer to teach volunteer conservation dogs how to locate quoll scat in Great Otway National Park in Victoria. Paul Evangelista, a research ecologist at Colorado State University, came up with his own approach while working in Somaliland, a small breakaway region of Somalia and self-declared state in the Horn of Africa.
“It’s quite a specific microhabitat that some of these animals rely on,” says Scheele, “and even just searching for animals can be really damaging.” The resulting quandary of whether or not to publish data on endangered species’ locations pits science’s fundamental need for transparency against the risk of sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.
Evangelista says he and his colleagues have sometimes kept sightings of rare organisms “under wraps” because of their concerns about blowing a species’ cover.
“Now, you put camera traps out in remote places and that’s how you see all this imagery of snow leopards and tigers and all sorts of wonderful animals that you would never see any other way,” says Pimm.
This is filling in gaps in our knowledge of the distribution of these elusive species, he says. In 2016, for example, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used drones to study the health of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales (.
Somaliland has remote, hazardous regions where directly observing animal populations is very difficult. “I hold a lot of value towards indigenous knowledge, and I was trying to figure out how I could use some of that information to integrate into some of these more computer-based geospatial models,” he says.
Evangelista’s team surveyed citizens of Somaliland in 20, asking them whether any of 25 species occurred in their local areas.
“Only a few species really need the assessment,” he says.
The argument grabbed the attention of a number of other conservation biologists.