Oh, some moss? That's no problem for Train!
Photo: Karen DeMatteo

When Train wanders into the forests of Argentina, he’s on a mission. This 12-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever is a trained detective, but he’s not looking for illegal narcotics growing among the bamboo and vines. Train is using his big black nose to sniff out poop. And not just any poop, but the feces of some of the country’s most threatened big cats.

He has one goal: Find as many scat samples as possible so that researchers working with Argentina’s Ministry of Ecology can better map out wildlife habitats in the northeastern Misiones Province’s Atlantic Forest ecosystem, tucked between the Paraguay and Brazil borders. The ultimate goal is to expand to expand Argentina’s only multispecies wildlife corridor, which was formally established in 1999.

Research scientist Karen DeMatteo’s obsession with the near-threatened bush dog helped fuel this entire project.
Photo: Tambako The Jaguar (Flickr)

The expansion of the Green Corridor of the Province of Misiones—from some 1.2 million acres to 2.2 million—will create protections for one of the country’s most vulnerable forest ecosystems where pumas, jaguars, ocelots, oncillas, and bush dogs live. Those are the animals whose poop Train looks for and the ones he’s trying to save from deforestation and poaching.

Train, who some call the Big Brown Monster or T for short, became a conservation detection dog in 2009, when he was about 2 years old. Back then, he moved in with his owner and partner Karen DeMatteo, a research scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who’s spearheading much of this work in partnership with the Argentine ministry. They’ve stuck together ever since. Every other summer, the pair heads to Argentina for four months to scout for some shit.

“He goes with me, and I go with him,” DeMatteo told Earther. “He doesn’t get frequent flier miles or the marks on a passport, but he travels with me,” she laughs.

Train knows how to sniff out some poop.
Photo: Karen DeMatteo

In addition to seeking the poop of big cats, Train’s also smelling for the excrement of their prey, including tapirs, white-collared peccaries, collared peccaries, and pacas, a ground-dwelling rodent. He learned to pick up their scent in 2016 because, well, predators will need food to eat if they’re gonna be saved. Train is a busy guy and covers more ground than even a team of humans could. Some days, he might find nothing; other days, his nose will turn up at least a dozen samples. Over his five summers in the field, Train has managed to identify almost a thousand scat samples total.

The data gathered from the scat helps the team learn how many of the animals are male or female, which they combine with GPS coordinates to learn how the species are moving. All this is then plugged into a model to help select the optimal location for a biological corridor.

“Working with T is really amazing as he collects a number of samples that we alone could never collect,” said Carina Argüelles, a genetics professor and researcher at the National University of Misiones’ Subtropical Biology Institute who works with DeMatteo, to Earther. “Train helps us understand how the wildlife is moving among protected areas.”

The team’s days in the field vary. When they hit the outdoors, DeMatteo, field assistants, and collaborators (including Argüelles) are typically up by 4 a.m. to quickly have some breakfast at the provincial park guard stations where they stay during their science excursions.

They put on their boots and fill their backpacks and fanny packs with snacks, water, dog food, tennis balls, a GPS, gloves, swabs, and tubes to collect the feces samples. Then, they drive to their field site, which can take up two hours if the dirt roads slow them down enough.

Once the team’s in the Atlantic Forest, Train leads the way. He usually runs off with a sheep bell attached to his neck to let DeMatteo know where he is—and let the wild critters of the forest know they have visitors.

“So while we’d love to walk across and see a jaguar, we don’t really want to walk across and see a jaguar when Train is there,” DeMatteo joked. “Dogs are attacked by jaguars in that region.”

When Train finds something, he stands next to it and cocks his head. His ears will perk, and he’ll wag his tail to alert DeMatteo of his success. She’ll confirm by asking him, “Did you find it?” Then, he’ll wag his tail some more, look over to where the sample is hiding, and look back at her. He won’t bark or scratch at the sample, though. Train knows better.

Behold, the oncilla, one of the vulnerable species the group is monitoring.
Photo: Tambako The Jaguar (Flickr)

“He always gets it,” DeMatteo said. “The crazy thing is if we’re walking in an area where there are no animals. Maybe there’s been a lot of poaching in that area, and there’s no evidence of animals. That’s when he’ll find the tiny pieces of hair that used to belong to a jaguar scat that is buried in the dirt.”

After Train finds samples, he’s gets some playtime as a reward. After that, DeMatteo needs to collect the poop while Train rests. First, she first marks its location on her GPS device. Then, she swabs the outside of the scat to collect DNA originating in the animal’s intestinal mucus. From there, the entire sample goes into a bag. It serves not only as a backup DNA sample, but also as a sample to test the animal for any parasites or viruses and learn more about its diet.

When the team gets back to camp, DeMatteo has to be quick to type up all her notes to ensure every GPS coordinate has details attached. Those coordinates include not just the locations of scat samples, but sometimes poacher camps or illegal homes the team came across.

“It’s not just about tracking the animals and where they live,” said Nicole Selleski, a former field assistant to DeMatteo who spent two summers studying with her and Train, to Earther, “but also conservation in a broader way.”

Photo: Karen DeMatteo

All these steps are key in developing the corridor. And the process has come a long way. The team finished mapping the habitat the animals use in 2015; a mix of protected areas and private land. Now, the group is working on surveys with local landowners and forestry companies to develop a conservation plan for these big cats and DeMatteo’s favorite animal, the bush dog. The country is proposing to offer landowners tax incentives if they agree to manage their land as a corridor. That means no cutting of trees and managed development that’ll keep livestock from destroying the forest’s understory and spreading disease, for instance.

The South American country has lost 14 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2017, according to Global Forest Watch, an online tool that tracks this data. Tucked between those giant trees and roots are animals threatened with extinction. Only about 10,000 oncillas are estimated to roam the wild. As for bush dogs, sightings are so rare the researchers are uncertain how threatened it is. In Misiones, it’s estimated there may be about 100 bush dogs left.

Somewhere in the forest in the warm summer months, however, another dog scurries through the forest understory. There’s only one Train, and he’s a damn good boy.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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