Peering out over the bow of a motorboat, Fargo points his snout into the wind and wags his stubby tail as he locks onto a scent far out in the Bay of Fundy.

The black and tan Rottweiler stiffens and his ears press forward when he homes in on his catch, giving scientists on board a clear path to the foul prey bobbing in the water.

As he draws near, the burly dog hooks his paws onto the edge of the boat and sticks his hindquarters up in the air, indicating he’s tracked what has become a critical piece of the puzzle surrounding the health of the endangered right whale – its poop.

“It’s a wild idea, but it’s amazing how well it works and there’s something so satisfying about using the skills of a dog to learn more about an animal like a right whale,” said Roz Rolland, a senior whale scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass.

“It’s a big game of hide and seek for him. He loves it.”

For the fourth year in a row, Fargo will steer Rolland and her crew to fields of whale dung as part of an oddball science that is yielding important clues as to why there are only 350 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.

Rolland says Fargo and Bob, another former drug-detection pooch who has since retired from the research project, have allowed her to collect much more whale scat than before, when she had to rely on happenstance and her own nose to find it.

And for scientists, the brown, orange and neon red feces known for its horrible smell could unlock mysteries about the whales’ reproductive health, its eating habits and what diseases are affecting the fragile population.

“We are getting amazing results,” Rolland said, adding that the samples are so pungent she’s been tempted to burn her clothes after coming in contact with them.

“We’ve got access now to all this information about the physiology of these animals and about threats to their health and reproduction that five years ago we didn’t have. All we knew was that they weren’t reproducing and we didn’t have a clue what was going on.”

Hormones in the feces can reveal everything from whether a whale is pregnant or lactating and if it’s reached sexual maturity to whether it has been affected by a slew of biotoxins, like red tide, that have killed and been found to cause abortions in other marine mammals.

In a new project, Rolland says the unseemly stuff is being used to identify specific whales through DNA matching that will add to the growing databank on the entire North Atlantic right whale population.

Scientists are hoping the data will help explain why right whales aren’t reproducing as well as their southern cousins, whose population is booming with a reproduction rate of about 8 percent a year. If North Atlantic right whales were reproducing at the same rate, there would be about 30 new calves a year rather than the current annual average of 12.

Rolland said she came up with the idea of enlisting dogs to find the samples at a time when whale reproduction was crashing, with only one calf being born in 2000. Desperate to find out what was happening to the slow-moving giants, she talked to Sam Wasser, a researcher based in Washington who had been using canines to find scat samples on land.

Wasser came to her research station in Lubec, Maine, in 2001 and suggested the dogs would be perfect for the work since they have a sense of smell that is possibly a million times stronger than humans’.

“I said, “Are you out of your mind, people already think I’m crazy for collecting right whale scat,”‘ she said. “But it made sense because they’re just amazingly acute in terms of their sense of smell and so accurate that they can take us right to that spot in this huge body of water.

“They live in a world of scent that we can only imagine.”

Rolland, who receives funding from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, estimates Fargo can smell samples more than a mile away, even if there are only a few flecks left after the bulk of it has sunk.

The feces samples have provided a whole new repository of information that only years ago, when scientists were relying on blubber samples that yielded little data on DNA, were not available. Necropsies on dead whales were also limited because the animals and their organs were so decomposed by the time researchers found them.

Fargo, a purebred Rottweiler, was trained as a drug dog, but Rolland says when that didn’t work out he was sent to the Rockies to track grizzlies. His handlers, however, found that the husky beast overheated on the job and he had to look for other work.

His trainer and owner, Barbara Davenport of Washington, thought the ocean climate would suit the middle-aged mutt better. She got in touch with Rolland, who outfitted the dog with a special harness and life-jacket, and then trained him by floating jars of scat on the water and getting the dog to find them.

“In the beginning, that was a little challenging because we had to make sure they didn’t leap off the boat,” she said, laughing. “It’s kind of funny – the stronger the scent, the faster his tail wags and then we steer by his nose.”

And Fargo’s reward for leading the team to a field of their prized scientific catch?

A plain yellow tennis ball he plays with until another whiff of the fetid muck comes his way.

AP-ES-08-06-06 1532EDT

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