2 dogs from Texas sniff out snails in Gala­pa­gos

The China Post - - LIFE - BY GON­ZALO SOLANO

When Dar­win the Labrador re­triever crashed out of a ser­vice dog pro­gram for peo­ple, con­ser­va­tion­ists found him a very dif­fer­ent sort of job: sniff­ing out gi­ant African land snails that are threat­en­ing crops on the most vis­ited of Ecuador’s Gala­pa­gos Is­lands.

The pooch even has the per­fect name. English nat­u­ral­ist Charles Dar­win stud­ied the ar­chi­pel­ago’s en­demic species dur­ing a visit in 1835 that helped de­velop his the­ory of evo­lu­tion.

The gold-colored Dar­win and his pal Neville, a black Labrador res­cued from an an­i­mal shel­ter, trav­eled in De­cem­ber from Texas to Santa Cruz, the is­land in the chain vis­ited by tourists. The dogs were se­lected to hunt the mol­lusk, which is the largest species of snail found on land and can grow to 20 cen­time­ters (7.8 inches) long.

The dogs were do­nated by a U.S. or­ga­ni­za­tion called Dogs for Con­ser­va­tion, which trains ca­nines to help peo­ple work­ing to pre­serve wildlife. Dar­win and Neville are still be­ing trained, but have al­ready be­gun their work sniff­ing out snails and their eggs, which are then re­moved by en­vi­ron­men­tal work­ers.

The Dogs for Con­ver­sa­tion web­site, which told of the un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to make Dar­win a ser­vice dog for hu­mans, said he has found new pur­pose work­ing in con­ser­va­tion. “He’s more than qual­i­fied to be a ser­vice dog to na­ture,” the site says. It says Dar­win didn’t work out as a ther­apy dog be­cause he was too hy­per­ac­tive, but his work as a snif­fer dog has helped him be­came calmer and more fo­cused.

It’s the first time dogs have been called on to help pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment in the Gala­pa­gos ar­chi­pel­ago. The 19 is­lands and the sur­round­ing marine re­serve are con­sid­ered by UNESCO, the U.N. ed­u­ca­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion, to be a World Her­itage Site in dan­ger be­cause of risks caused by hu­man devel­op­ment.

Martin Espinosa, in­terim direc­tor of the Gala­pa­gos Biose­cu­rity Agency, said the snails are among the most in­va­sive species in the world, can harm other species and the ecosys­tem, and trans­mit dis­eases to hu­mans.

In the past, work­ers for his agency ven­tured out in the rain at night to hunt for the snails with limited suc­cess.

The plague cur­rently af­fects some 20 hectares (about 50 acres) on Santa Cruz, in­clud­ing ba­nana, pineap­ple, car­rot, tomato, pep­per, cas­sava and cof­fee crops, dam­ag­ing the food sup­ply for is­land res­i­dents. The gi­ant snails are not found on the ar­chi­pel­ago’s other is­lands.

Gala­pa­gos en­vi­ron­men­tal au­thor­i­ties hope to have eight dogs work­ing in sea­ports and air­ports by 2017 to help block the ar­rival of ad­di­tional in­va­sive an­i­mal and plant species.

Ini­tia­tives us­ing snif­fer dogs to pre­vent the in­tro­duc­tion of in­va­sive species into niche ecosys­tems also ex­ist in coun­tries in­clud­ing Mex­ico, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

In this Oct. 25, 2014 photo cour­tesy of Re­becca Ross, Dar­win the Labrador re­triever sniffs at a snail while be­ing trained in Texas.

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