Category — Conservation
Over the past two weeks, Elvis the pregnancy diagnosing beagle, has been hard at work smelling fecal samples (yes, fecal samples) collected from 17 female polar bears, including the Cincinnati Zoo’s own female, Berit. Currently, there is no definitive test for pregnancy in polar bears, so Elvis has been trained to identify samples that originated from pregnant females in an effort to predict which females are due to have cubs in a few weeks. Last week, Elvis demonstrated an impressive 100% accuracy on the known ‘test’ samples he had never smelled before, signaling appropriately on the pregnant samples while ignoring those that came from non-pregnant individuals.
We humans don’t yet know exactly what Elvis is smelling that enables him to identify the samples from pregnant bears. In his early training, he was exposed only to samples that came from pregnant bears. Over time, other samples, such as those from males and from juveniles were introduced, but he was only rewarded when he signaled on the pregnant samples. Eventually, samples from females in estrus and females known not to be pregnant were thrown in the mix. After months of training, Elvis has seemingly figured out what makes the samples from pregnant females different from all others.
A dog’s sense of smell is incredibly powerful- Elvis possesses around 225 million olfactory (smell) receptors in his nose, compared to just 5 million in a human’s. Dogs also make better use of another olfactory organ, Jacobson’s organ, allowing them to detect pheromones which are other chemical communicators of physiology (and possibly pregnancy?). Additionally, the part of a dog’s brain dedicated to analyzing smells is 40 times greater than ours. As a result, a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times better than that of humans.
“If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well” said James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University.
Put another way, while we would probably notice if our coffee has a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth, according to Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher and author of Inside of a Dog.
Because their noses are so sensitive, precautions need to be taken so we don’t inadvertently compromise the results. Samples are double-bagged and stored separately to make sure scent cross-contamination doesn’t occur and the tubes that hold the samples on the training boards are thoroughly washed between samples- a time consuming process. Currently, Elvis is working through two-to-three samples, in replicates, from each of the 17 possibly pregnant bears to ensure his predictions are consistent for the same individual. Each institution will be notified of the results for its bears within the week.
So while it might sound like a terrible job to us, we joke that Elvis is the envy of his peers at Iron Heart High Performance Working Dogs. While the other detection-dogs-in-training are smelling bed bugs, explosives, drugs, or toxic mold, Elvis gets to smell poop and is even rewarded for it- isn’t that every dog’s dream?
November 8, 2013 No Comments
Guest blogger: Sophie Williams, Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) student and consultant on the Passenger Pigeon Memorial renovation
Despite once numbering in the billions and traveling in flocks that blotted out the sun, the entire passenger pigeon species was diminished to a single bird by the early 1900s. Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, and with her death, the passenger pigeon went extinct.
Once an inexhaustible resource, the passenger pigeon’s numbers were quickly reduced. A range of human actions—overhunting and commercial-scale harvesting of the birds, along with deforestation associated with advances in technology as rail and telegraph lines spread across the country—had an insurmountable impact on the species. Though few believed the passenger pigeon could ever be eliminated, by the dawn of the 20th century, only a handful of captive birds remained.
Martha, the last of her kind, was one of these few, an aged bird who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo from 1902 until her death in 1914. During her time in Cincinnati, many attempts were made to breed Martha, including with two male passenger pigeons also housed at the Zoo. These breeding attempts failed, perhaps due to the gregarious nature of the passenger pigeon; they typically mated in huge breeding flocks. By 1910, each of the males had died. A reward of $1,000 was offered to anyone who could supply a mate for Martha, but none was found.
In the early 1900s, a concerted effort was made to protect the passenger pigeons that remained. Despite these breeding and protection efforts, it was simply too late to make a difference. Those who had been concerned about the fate of the passenger pigeon had not been heeded in time, and by the time it was obvious the species was to go extinct, it was too late to save it. The “thoughtlessness and insatiable greed of man” had driven one of the most abundant species on the planet to extinction (Schorger, as cited in A Passing in Cincinnati, 1976).
In this year before the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction, the unimaginable loss of one of the most common bird species in the world weighs heavy on our minds. During this year, we recognize the importance of this story as an impetus for positive change in the world of wildlife conservation. In the years immediately following Martha’s death, great strides were made to protect species in the United States and beyond, and these efforts continue today.
We at the Zoo are proud of our place in the history of the passenger pigeon and mankind’s last efforts to save them, and recognize our responsibility to honor not only Martha’s memory, but also her role as a catalyst in the protection of other species. We look forward to a future in which we as humans are aware of our power, both for bad and for good, and are able to add more success stories of wildlife conservation to the ranks of the white-tailed deer and American bison. For more on these species conservation success stories, tune in next month!
November 1, 2013 No Comments
Learn from business professionals and other experts about how to green your business. It does not have to be expensive and overwhelming. This networking event brought to you by the Regional Storm Water Collaborative (RSWC) will illustrate how helping the environment will help your business. Little changes can make a big difference and small investments can go a long way. By going green your business can develop a whole new clientele. Learn how you can cater to this growing market from speakers, panel discussions, and networking opportunities from experts within the Tri-State area.
Speakers are local leaders that have saved money, resources, and increased business by going green, including yours truly from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden – the greenest zoo in America!
The RSWC created the savelocalwaters.org campaign to utilize mass media and shared resources in order to better raise awareness concerning environmental quality issues in the Ohio River Valley. By leveraging joint resources, the RSWC alliance is capable of reaching regional audiences with a consistent message in the most economical and efficient manner possible. Together we all work to keep our environment clean and safe! All contributions made to RSWC fund environmental education and advocacy.
The event takes place Wednesday, October 16 from 1pm-3pm. It will be at the Union Township Civic Center at 4350 Aicholtz Road, Cincinnati, OH 45245. Cost is free to members of the Regional Storm Water Collaborative, and $10 for non members. CLICK HERE TO REGISTER NOW!
October 15, 2013 No Comments