Brain Food: Bat-Sniffing Dogs

Mar 3, 2016

Dogs have long been used to sniff out bombs, drugs and bodies. Now, a forest ecologist at Northern Arizona University is enlisting the help of scent-detecting dogs to locate bat colonies. Carol Chambers is testing the idea in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, working with dogs trained to pick up the scent of bat guano. 

Chambers says she had to get used to working in 3-D because the dogs are picking up scent that's drifting down from a source in a tree. "The bats are under the loose bark in the tree. So, depending on the weather, that affects the way the scent moves. You have to be aware of that so you can direct the dog at all times."

The dogs were accurate at least 75% of the time in sniffing out roosts. Chambers says that's about as effective as the long-standing location method of radio telemetry. That requires catching bats and attaching small transmitters to their backs. which can track them to their habitat. Chambers believes using scent-detecting dogs is less stressful and intrusive for the tiny creatures. 

"If they think they've found the scent, they'll sit next to it and look at you and tell you with their eyes that this is the spot. They're trained to sit down and be quiet and remain near it."

Chambers says the dogs are so sensitive to smell, they can distinguish between individual bat species. She plans to expand her research to wildfire burn areas where the dogs can help identify stressed populations of bats and threatened habitat.

Brain Food is produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio