There is a new Darwin in the Galapagos Islands. No, he’s not a descendant of the famous 19th century naturalist who made the islands (and himself) famous with his Galapagos-inspired, world-changing theory of evolution by natural selection. He’s actually a Labrador retriever and, when he’s not chasing tennis balls, he’s got an unusual and important job to do; sniffing out invasive giant African snails.
The invasive snail was first detected on the island of Santa Cruz in 2010. No one knows exactly when or how the species got there, but it now ranges over a 50-acre area. It is an indiscriminate and voracious eater that has the potential to wreak havoc on the islands’ delicate natural ecosystems and agricultural crops. It also competes with the endangered Galapagos land snail and, left unchecked, could push that species closer to the brink of extinction.
Darwin and a fellow snail-sniffing canine named Neville were adopted and trained by the non-profit Dogs for Conservation using dead snails. They arrived in the islands in December of 2014 and began training with their new handlers from the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency (GBA) to find live snails and their eggs. The Galapagos Conservancy, which is funding the project, says on its website, “Many (of the handlers) had never worked with dogs before and had to learn the basics of canine behavior, learning theory, scent theory, training methods, and handling skills.”
In spite of their ominous sounding name, fully mature giant African snails are only a couple of inches long and can be hard to find — for humans anyway. Before Darwin and Neville showed up, GBA staffers faced the arduous and relatively ineffective task of hunting snails on rainy nights using flashlights.
Rebecca Ross, executive director of Dogs for Conservation, said, “Unfortunately, it is often extremely difficult or even impossible to properly survey for specific species due to limitations in technology and/or human eyesight. There is a reason the U.S. military has spent so much money investing in their dogs, and that is because no one has found a tool or machine that can compete with a dog’s nose!”
The snail, which is native to East African, has colonized huge swaths of territory in tropical and subtropical regions across the globe and is listed as one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. A snail reaches maturity quickly and can produce 200 to 300 eggs per month, leading to huge infestations in a short period of time.
Darwin and Neville are the first dogs to be used to detect invasive species in the islands, but the GBA eventually plans to put dogs to work checking cargo on docks and at airports on the Ecuadorian mainland in order to help prevent new species from reaching the archipelago.
Snail sniffing and life in the Galapagos has been good for Darwin it seems. According to a recent article on the website Mother Nature Network, Darwin has reportedly become calmer and more focused since he started his new job. Good boy.