Tuesday 2 June 2015

Search Dogs Essential to Galapagos Efforts to Keep Out Harmful Invasive Species

African Snail from Freerepublic.com
Once Galapagos was pure and unspoiled. And, it remains the most protected and environmentally conscious area in the world thanks to strict rules and regulations. But, that does not mean that we are isolated. Far from it. From the earliest landings by pirates until today with the influx of tourists, species that are not in sync with the ecosystem and natural environment have been a problem. We are forever being threatened by species that are neither endemic nor natural to Galapagos. So, the Galapagos National Park and Marine Services, the Charles Darwin Research Center and myriads of other organizations and academic institutions are working hard to assure our environment remains stable and free from dangerous outside forces.

I love reporting to you about the wonderful conservation work being done throughout the Galapagos Islands to secure this beautiful paradise and keep it from harm. Rats have been conquered by human intervention, as have goats and feral cats. When it comes to insects that threaten certain plants, researchers take exceptional steps to find exactly the right antidote while safeguarding surrounding foliage. Penguins are helped with nesting; baby mangrove finches are protected from invideous insect eggs. It seems that even the giant tortoises are helping with preservation by absorbing certain invasive plants into their diet and thus preventing them from spreading. 

Rescue Dog Sniffing Out a Snail
Photo by Rebecca Ross, Dogs for Conservation
Recently an ingeneous plan was initiated to help with the invasion of African snails which are, so far, contained in a small portion of Santa Cruz Island. These snails are one of the leading threats to our unique and important wildlife and flora. Actually these disgusting snails (how else do you characterize a rat-sized creature that leaves a trail of slime in its wake?) are a problem not only in Galapagos but in other parts of the world, such as Florida. Florida reports having hundreds of thousands of these creatures, which are prodigious breeders and lay more than 1000 eggs at a time, with an incubation period of just 11 days. The adults and soon their offspring eat all different types of plants to devastating effect. So, finding and eliminating them is a high priority matter.

According to Johanna Barry, President of The Galapagos Conservancy, “Galapagos is the best preserved tropical archipelago in the world, thanks to the vigilance of government agencies responsible for its protection. Experience has shown that once an invasive species becomes established, it is almost impossible to remove. These snails pose an immediate threat to local agriculture as well as the survival of endemic Galapagos snail species."

It's hard to believe that a snail could do much harm, but this species wreaks havoc on native plants and animals, destroying crops, spreading parasites and threatening native ecosystems. In the Galapagos, if the species is allowed to spread outside of the 50 acres on Santa Cruz Island where it was first detected in 2010, it could have a serious impact on both farms and the delicate flora and fauna native to the islands.

But, dogs like Darwin and Neville, both adopted by Dogs for Conservation, pave the way to eradicate the snails. They have been trained specifically to sniff out the giant African snails and work  with the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency and Island Conservation as well.  For now, their work is restricted to the area of Santa Cruz Island which the snails are breeding, but ultimately they will be dispatched to airports and other points of embarkation to help keep this and other invasive species out of the Galapagos Islands.

Mother Nature Network has done an excellent job of explaining how dogs are used not only in Galapagos, but in other geographic locations for conservation purposes.  MNN reports the following:

"Using dogs as assistants for conservation is a concept picking up steam around the world. They make the job of researchers and biologists far easier. And finding high-energy dogs from shelters is a perfect starting place. In 2012, we reported on Conservation Canines, another organization using the same strategy of adopting dogs whose energy and obsessive tendencies make them a poor match as family pets, but it's what makes them ideal for work in the field. Their scent-detection abilities can dramatically cut down the amount of time researchers have to spend searching for scat or other signs of the species they're studying."
Photo from Repeatingislands.com

“In order to study a species, whether it be an endangered species or an invasive species, biologists need to be able to collect information. Unfortunately, it is often extremely difficult or even impossible to properly survey for specific species due to limitations in technology and/or human eyesight,” said Rebecca Ross, executive director of Dogs for Conservation. “There is a reason the U.S. military has spent so much money investing in their dogs, and that is because no one has found a tool or machine that can compete with a dog’s nose!”

"For the giant snails in the Galapagos, Darwin and Neville are making the job far easier for the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency. Staff used to have to search for the snails on rainy nights using headlamps, something that was difficult, time-consuming, and simply not a viable permanent solution. Instead, the agency enlisted the help of Dogs for Conservation, who worked with six agency staff members to learn canine behavior, handling skills, scent theory and other essentials to working with the two dogs."

"Darwin and Neville can quickly go into an area, even high-risk areas, with minimal impact and maximum effectiveness at finding the snails."

It seems that Dogs for Conservation, the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency and Island Conservation have found the perfect win-win situation with Neville and Darwin.

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