Invasive Snail Detection Dogs

Invasive Snail Detection Dogs
PAST

PROJECT:

Invasive Snail Detection Dogs in the Galapagos Islands

PARTNERS:   

Dogs for Conservation; Island Conservation; Galapagos Agency for the Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine

STATUS:

Funded by GC in 2014; Galapagos Biosecurity Agency is now continuing with the project

 

Yellow labrador "Darwin" identifies a Giant African Snail

“Darwin” learning to detect a Giant African Land Snail (© Rebecca Ross)

 

Background

Giant African Land Snail

Giant African Land Snail

In Galapagos, native species are threatened by introduced, invasive species such as goats, rats, pigs, and cats, among many others. While much has been accomplished in the management of existing invasive species, the Islands are constantly at risk of new unwanted species arriving each day. The Giant African Land Snail (GALS) — the largest species of snail found on land, growing to nearly 8 inches in length — is one such new invasive that has taken up residence in Galapagos. Known to consume at least 500 different types of plants, scientists consider the GALS to be one of the most destructive snail species in the world, specifically in tropical and subtropical environments. It now poses a serious threat to the native snails and plants of Galapagos.

Invasive Giant African Land Snails were first detected on Santa Cruz Island in 2010, and currently less than 20 hectares (50 acres) are infested — but the snails are expanding their range every wet season and can produce 100-300 eggs per month. Once an invasive species becomes established, it is almost impossible to remove, and costs can be extremely high in attempting to do so. At this point in time, it is still possible to eradicate the GALS from Galapagos if additional management techniques are integrated into current activities.

Previously, staff from the Galapagos Agency for the Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine (ABG) had to search for and collect GALS on rainy nights using headlamps — an extremely challenging solution to the permanent eradication of the snails. Dogs, on the other hand, have an incredible sense of smell and can be trained to detect scents imperceptible to the human nose, making them ideal for the detection of the GALS. Detection dogs have been used for finding contraband drugs and shark fins in Galapagos, but not for other purposes. This project entails utilizing two scent detection dogs to detect GALS in order to help clear currently affected areas and search for previously undetected populations in the Islands.

Phase I

Detection dog Neville with Galapagos handler

“Neville” with a GALS handler

During the first phase of the project, which took place in the fall of 2014, two detection dogs were trained by Dogs for Conservation (DFC) in the United States to specifically detect GALS. Darwin, a golden Labrador retriever, was rescued after he was unable to successfully complete a service dog training program, and Neville, a black Labrador retriever, was saved from a shelter. Darwin and Neville were selected for this project based on their detection abilities and temperament for working with multiple handlers, in preparation for work with new handlers in Galapagos. In December of 2014, the dogs were brought to Galapagos where six ABG staff were trained as handlers for this and future detection projects. Many had never worked with dogs before and had to learn the basics of canine behavior, learning theory, scent theory, training methods, and handling skills. New kennels were built by ABG personnel with materials funded through this project in order to house the dogs.

Both dogs required a period of acclimation to Galapagos and to their new roles. The dogs could only be trained on dead snails in the US due to biosecurity risks for this highly invasive species, so additional training was needed upon their arrival in Galapagos to transition them to live snails and snail eggs. Darwin and Neville have now been fully trained to detect the invasive snails, and the dogs will be regularly assisting with GALS eradication and monitoring on Santa Cruz.

DFC continues to provide guidance and support to the GALS K9 team, with whom they are in weekly communication. Future updates to the project will be posted to this page as they occur. This project is also serving as a pilot to establish a permanent canine detection program in the Galapagos. Expertly trained dogs and experienced handlers will be a highly cost effective detection tool for ongoing biosecurity programs aimed at eliminating targeted invasive species that threaten the unique and fragile ecosystems of Galapagos.

Read the blog by Dogs for Conservation founder Rebecca Ross with an update on the dogs.