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Letter from the Field
Joe Orkin
June 20, 2012
Mt. Wuliang, China

Trainer
Trainer Yang Yu-Ming of the Kunming Police Dog Training base with Pinkerton, a detection dog

The roads torn from the slopes of Mt. Wuliang don't just lack pavement; they lack guardrails. When our driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a mud-brick farmhouse, my thoughts drifted left, tumbling down a kilometer of terraced farms that may as well have been painted by Bob Ross. After he ripped the flopping side-view mirror off the car and tossed it inside, we hopped back in the SUV and carried on; what else were we going to do? That was day one of field primatology in China. A few weeks later, halfway down a forest ravine—saved this time only by the strand of thin bamboo I befriended two meters up—I began to wonder how I'd ever find gibbon scat from a dozen sites across these mountains. Wherever those gibbons were, I'm pretty sure they were having a good chuckle at my expense. As it turns out, I shouldn't have been looking in the first place.

Given the proper motivation, dogs can sniff out pretty much anything—from bombs and drugs to bed bugs. A few people have succeeded in training them to detect scat from particular species of animals—foxes, bears, and even whales—to determine the presence or absence of rare and cryptic mammals during wildlife surveys across the world. Not just any dog can do this kind of work. Detection dogs have obsessive play drives and are extremely object-oriented. That translates to a hyperactive dog that really, really wants to play with a ball—all the time. A good trainer can manipulate that play drive to associate a reward, like 30 seconds with a tennis ball, with a smell. In so doing, these dogs will run up mountains, make it through rubble, and sniff acres of luggage all in the hope of getting a toy when they indicate presence of the associated smell. As luck would have it, a friend introduced me to Yang Yu-Ming, head trainer of the Kunming Police Dog Training Base of the Chinese Ministry of Security. For three months, Mr. Yang trained a Belgian Malinois I named Pinkerton to identify scat from the black-crested gibbons and Phayre's leaf monkeys that I am studying.

Orkin
Joe Orkin and Pinkerton (front) with the gibbon survey crew at the 3,000-meter summit of Mt. Daxueshan

Widespread anthropogenic landscape modification in southwestern China began at least 3,000 years ago, and, in the last 500 years, human population density has increased dramatically. These centuries of ubiquitous lowland- and mountainside-terraced farming in Yunnan have left primates scattered in a patchwork of mountaintop forest fragments called sky-islands. Populations of many primates have crashed to critically endangered status as a result of this farming coupled with widespread hunting for subsistence, medicinal purposes, and gift giving. These mountaintop habitats that gibbons and leaf monkeys have been locked into are further subdivided into an altitudinal layer cake of different forest types that range from evergreen broadleaf at the 1,800-meter agriculture line to rhododendron and bamboo thickets a thousand meters higher. By comparing paired species in the same habitats, I can tease apart how differences in locomotion and social structure interact with the landscape to fragment and isolate primates with different adaptive strategies. By studying how the genetic relatedness of these endangered primates is biased by their landscape, I can not only examine the causes and consequences of allopatry, but also further their conservation. For far too long, the range and scope of molecular primatology has been limited by our access to the small number of habituated groups we can follow to collect scat. Through the use of a detection dog, I have now been able to collect scat from multiple groups of primates that no one has ever studied and rarely anyone has seen.

Orkin
Collecting gibbon scat that Pinkerton identified at Mt. Wuliang

Still, it took Pinkerton and me a couple of months to get used to working together in the forest. A good handler needs to understand his dog's subtle signals—a flick of the head, wag of the tail—that can indicate whether the dog smells scat in the distance or is distracted by the far-off scent of something almost as enticing (Pinkerton loves chasing forest pigs). To be sure, working with a detection dog has its difficulties—try explaining to your field assistant why he has to carry 20 pounds of dog food when he thinks a diet of chicken bones and leftover noodles is good enough. But I would never want to do this again without Pinkerton, and not just because having a ball of furry energy ready to bolt into the forest is the best 5 a.m. motivation available. What is most remarkable about Pinkerton is not just that he finds scat, but that he finds scat we would never be able to see. No matter how good someone is at fossil hunting, humans are not always going to see a greenish-brown scat on a brownish-green forest floor. Plenty of times, when Pinkerton has identified a target scat (lying beside it with a gleefully wagging tail), my assistants and I are left staring at the ground in disbelief, until it finally becomes recognizable against the background between Pinkerton's paws.

Many months and scores of scats later, I've largely finished my work in the forests of Yunnan. There is still a lot of work in the lab ahead, but pretty soon Pinkerton and I will be back in St. Louis, where I can ease him into a well-deserved retirement.

Joe Orkin is a graduate student in physical anthropology who conducted fieldwork in China.