The Southern Resident killer whale scat project, led by the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology Endowed Chair Dr. Sam Wasser, utilizes a scat detection dog on the front of the research boat to sniff out fecal samples, sometimes from as far away as a nautical mile. Giles, who has been at the helm of the research boat since 2009, along with seasoned dog handler Collette Yee and CK9 Dio, work as a team to find orca scat in the highly dynamic waters of the Salish Sea.
Non-invasively collected scat samples can be used to answer myriad questions about the health of the whales by analyzing stress, nutrition and pregnancy hormones, as well as levels of different toxic chemicals such as PCBs, DDT, and PBDE's, which are flame retardants.
Recent findings from this project showed that up to 70% of pregnancies are spontaneously miscarried, some in late stages of pregnancy which is particularly dangerous for the female whales. These pregnancy losses are believed to be a result of nutritional stress brought on by lack of food. Another recently released study by former graduate student - now Dr. Jessica Lundin, showed that evidence of exhaust from vessels declined in the whale scat samples after vessels started staying farther away from the whales in 2012.
Upcoming research questions will focus on analyzing the orca scat samples for micro-plastics and parasites.