Meet Ernie and Betty White: Two Conservation Dogs Sniffing Out Invasive Species in Wisconsin

These aren’t the only Labradors using their powerful sense of smell to aid in wildlife preservation efforts

C-K9 Betty White, a black Labrador retriever, sniffs the ground while training to detect bumble bee nests
Seen here, conservation canine Betty White sniffs the ground while she trains to search for bumble bee nests. Lindsay Hayward/Midwest Conservation Dogs, Inc. (MCDI)

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell that is 10,000 to 100,000 times better than humans, giving them a nose up on the competition. That’s why they are often tapped to aid police work by sniffing out missing persons, explosives, and stolen items. Increasingly, canines' powerful snouts are used in conservation work as well, searching for both endangered and invasive species.

Now, two Milwaukee Labrador retrievers, Ernie, and Betty White, are using their schnozzes to search for New Zealand mud snails, an invasive species that has plagued Wisconsin waterways for the last decade, reports Ashley Stimpson for Atlas Obscura.

New Zealand mud snails were first discovered in the United States in Idaho in 1987, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These snails are highly adaptable to various environments, and a single female mud snail and its offspring can produce 40 million snails in one year. The snails’ impressive ability to multiply creates populations so large they consume half of the available food in streams, outcompeting native species for sustenence.

The New Zealand mud snail is extremely small and hard to detect at one-eighth of an inch long, reports Atlas Obscura. Before Ernie and Betty White could sniff out the invasive snails and present their skills to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), they underwent rigorous training.

After two months of smelling snails, Ernie and Betty White were ready to dazzle WDNR officials with their skills with a final test. Using 30 jars filled with sediment, some with snail DNA and some without, Ernie and Betty White showed off their impressive precision—both pups boasted close to 75 percent accuracy.

"I have to tell you, I was really skeptical," admitted Maureen Ferry, a WDNR aquatic invasive species expert, to Atlas Obscura.

Midwest Conservation Dogs, Scent Detectives

The dogs couldn’t have accomplished their skill without their trainer Laura Holder, the executive director of Midwest Conservation Dogs, Inc. Holder trained Wisconsin’s first on-staff conservation dog, Tilia, a 3-year old chocolate Labrador, as Chelsey Lewis reported for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2019. Now, Tilia patrols a nature preserve in southeast Wisconsin sniffing for invasive plants, like wild parsnip and garlic mustard.

While Tilia was the first conservation dog hired in Wisconsin, dogs have been recruited for conservation efforts as early as the 1890s, when canines were used to track down two endangered birds, the kiwi and the kākāpō, in New Zealand, according to a 2016 paper published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Medicine.

Today, there are also canine conservation programs throughout the U.S. For example, Tucker, a ten-year-old male Labrador, tracks orcas off the Canadian coast by searching for the scent of whale poop from the deck of a research boat. Researchers are using canines to detect huanglongbing, which is also called citrus greening, a bacterial disease that can wipe out orange fields.

Even more recently, dogs have lent a helping paw in combating Covid-19. Last fall in Finland, four dogs were used to detect Covid-19 at the Helsinki Airport with almost 100 percent accuracy.

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