SEATTLE -- A local dog named Tucker has a very special talent for tracking, and scientists say he's helping save wildlife -- including killer whales -- all over the world.
Tucker's special skill is his ability to smell feces, or scat, from orca whales up to a mile away. While that might seem like an odd talent, scientists from the University of Washington say it is already helping protect wildlife across the globe.
Even though local orca whales are perhaps the most studied marine mammals in the world, their teetering fate lies in unlocking their secrets.
"Researchers that have been studying these whales for 25 years said 'you're crazy. We could count on one hand the number of times we've found killer whale scat.' We have a single dog gets 150 samples," said Sam Wasser of the UW Center for Conservation Biology.
Wasser's team has rewritten the book on extracting information from animal feces. They get DNA identifying individual animals, gender, eating habits and important stress levels. They can also detect pregnancy data, all major chemical toxins from oil products, flame retardants, pesticides and industrial pollution.
And it all comes from poop. Wasser's work refrigerator is full of poop from around the world.
There are currently scores of dogs around the world trained just like Tucker to find enormous amounts of really important information about wildlife and how to protect it.
"And the stuff that we are revealing is really unprecedented. So, it's exciting," Wasser said.
And thanks to Tucker and other similarly trained dogs, the orca scat helped settle an argument about what's most harming orca, tourist boats, lack of salmon or industrial toxins. Wasser and his team found it was by far the lack of salmon, and specifically Chinook salmon.
Lots of fish also suppress those toxins already in orca blubber, so conservation managers know which protections can save one of the world's most beloved sea creatures.
Tucker was trained by Wasser's non-profit organization Conservation Canines. The next project may be Washington's controversial wolf population.
Visit the Conservation Canines Facebook page.