Another “Darwin” for Galápagos: Snail-Sniffing Dog

"Darwin" checking out a giant African land snail .

Rebecca Ross / Dogs for Conservation

“Darwin” checking out a giant African land snail .

Darwin the scientist is forever associated with the Galápagos as the man who drew inspiration from the islands’ flora and fauna for his theory of evolution. Now another
“Darwin,” this one of canine origin, participates in a mission to protect local plants and animals from an invader.

“Galapagos is the best preserved tropical archipelago in the world thanks to the vigilance of government agencies responsible for their protection,” according to Johanna Barry President of the organization Galapagos Conservancy in an interview with Mother Nature Network. 

african land snail

Andrew Derksen / Fla. Land Pest Survey Pgm.

giant African land snail

But lately, with the increase in the number of residents and visitors, a greater number of introduced species threatens the endemic species with possible extinction. One such pest is the giant African snail (Lissachatina fulica). It is not known who introduced this pest to Santa Cruz island but it was first detected in 2010 and so far has ranged over an area of 50 acres (20 hectares.) These snails are voracious and threaten plants, animals, natural ecosystems and crops.

  “Experience has shown that once an invasive species becomes established, it is almost impossible to eradicate.” Johanna Barry said. “These snails pose an immediate threat to local agriculture, as well as the survival of the endemic Galápagos snail species.”

And here is where Darwin the dog comes in.

Darwin is a Labrador adopted by the organization Dogs for Conservation.  They acquired him after he flunked his training as a service dog because of hyperactive behavior.

"Darwin," "Neville," and their humans.

Rebecca Ross / Dogs for Conservation

“Darwin,” “Neville,” and their humans.

So, Dogs for Conservation tried him at another task–using his nose to track down giant African snails. It turns out Darwin was more suited to work with nature than with people. Now Darwin and another dog, “Neville,” a black Labrador adopted from a shelter and similarly trained, are working with the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency. The Galapagos Conservancy is underwriting the project.

The dogs were taken to Galapagos in December 2014 where they participated in training with their handlers, six staff members of the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency. According to the website of Galápagos Conservancy,  “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.”

Both dogs needed to acclimate to Galapagos. In the United States they were trained with dead snails but on the islands but they learned to detect live snails and their eggs.  Now Darwin and Neville are expert at detecting the invaders.

“In order to study a species, whether it be an endangered species or an invasive species, biologists need to be able to collect information,” said Rebecca Ross, executive director of Dogs for Conservation. “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!”

Before Darwin and Neville arrived in the islands, the staff of the Galápagos Biosafety Agency had to look for snails on rainy nights using flashlights, an uncomfortable, difficult and time-consuming chore. Darwin and Neville can quickly go to an area, even in high-risk places, with minimal impact and maximum effectiveness in finding snails.

Fernando Zapata with Neville

Rebecca Ross / Dogs for Conservation

Fernando Zapata with Neville

“This has been a great experience to interact with this super intelligent dog who is doing a critical job to conserve the Galapagos,” said Fernando Zapata, Neville’s principal handler.

And as an added bonus, Darwin is keeping his hyperactivity at bay.  The Mother Nature Network article reports that since he’s started his work as a tracker dog, he’s become more focused and calm, playing ball and relaxing when he’s not working.

 Darwin and Neville are part of the first canine detection program for invasive species in the Galapagos Islands, but the Biosafety Agency eventually wants sniffing dogs to work at the docks and at airports on the mainland of Ecuador to check cargo headed for  the Galápagos Islands. 

 It seems Dogs for Conservation,  the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency and Galápagos Conservancy found a pair of ideal allies in Neville and Darwin.