Sniffing Out Salamanders

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Jemez >Dog helps researchers locate endangered species

By The Staff

The Nature Conservancy is doing its part in trying to find the endangered Jemez Mountain salamander and at the same time do some research on climate change.


The researchers also have a little help.

Helping out the conservancy is Sampson, a black lab, who has the ability to sniff out the salamander.

“The research will help both people and nature,” Conservancy spokesperson Tracey Stone said. “Land managers will be able to develop plans that will protect the salamanders’ habitat and the forests that provide clean water and air and a place for us to play.”

The Nature Conservancy created the Southwest Climate Change Initiative in 2008 to provide guidance to conservation practitioners and land managers in climate change adaptation planning and implementation on more local scales.

This project specifically aims to: (1) further develop and expand impacts assessment protocol to adjacent states in the Southwest (Arizona, Colorado and Utah), and (2) apply a vulnerability assessment tool being developed by the U.S. Forest Service and an adaptation planning framework developed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) working group to a series of case-study sites in the four states.

The Initiative released a regional assessment in January 2011 that examines the impacts of temperature change from 1951-2006 on natural resources in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

Sampson, meanwhile, has a history of finding animals.

He has searched for sea turtle eggs, martens and scat from the tiny Pacific pocket mouse as well as salamanders.

So how does Sampson know he has found a salamander?

“Sampson has been giving us lots of signals in the right places, and is accurate when we already know there is a salamander in a location. The challenge has been genuine cause and effect — if he signals, do we always find a salamander?” handler Julie Ibagau said.

“This has been difficult because the sals may move, or the human hunters may not be digging in exactly the right spot. For a test, the dog team went to the Sacramento Mountains over the weekend.

“The Sacramento Mountains salamander is the other NM endemic, but there are a lot more of them around. Sampson was trained to their scent, and had the direct experience of having Sampson signal, then finding a salamander which was under 2-inches of soil.

“This is very good news. I believe that the signaling Sampson has done in the Jemez is for true salamander scent. As a negative test, they went to the Sangres and he did not give false signals in habitat that we know doesn’t have salamanders.

Ibagau then described what happens when Sampson is on to a salamander scent.

“He digs his nose around until he is satisfied he’s found the source. Then he looks up at me to tell me he’s found it... and then he usually sits.

“They are trained to sit at the target but sometimes in the field, the dog develops his/her own style... but it’s always pretty clear to the handler.

“One thing I like about Sampson is that his tail wags faster as he gets closer to the target. It’s just a way to observe his excitement and anticipation of finding the target.”