BBC Wildlife Magazine
Preventing a mussel invasion
Hilo the black Labrador seeks out stowaways
Dressed in a bright orange vest, Hilo is standing on the shore of Upper Kananaskis Lake, ready to work. Nose to the ground, the black Labrador-golden retriever cross starts sniffing out the minuscule, camouflaged zebra mussel. Hilo is part of a team of three specially trained dogs that monitor Alberta’s water bodies and inspect watercraft for the presence of unwanted tiny mussels.
For Hilo and his two canine friends, detecting mussels is all fun and games, but this invasive species is one of Alberta’s greatest enemies, despite measuring just 2-2.5cm in length, on average. The mussels came from eastern Europe to the Great Lakes region of Canada in the late 1980s, catching a ride in the ballast water of cargo ships. Once the mussels colonise a water body, they multiply quickly and harm aquatic systems, disrupting food webs and outcompeting native species.
In 2014, Alberta conducted a study that compared the performance of trained canine-handler teams to human inspectors in detecting mussel-fouled boats. In the test, the dogs correctly identified 100 per cent of watercraft harbouring mussels to the humans’ 75 per cent. The canine teams also worked more quickly and averaged 3.5 minutes to inspect each boat, including reward play after detection, while it took humans more than five minutes to do the same job. Alberta remains mussel-free for now and was the first jurisdiction in Canada to employ detection canines to keep the unwelcome aquatic visitors out of the province’s water bodies.