Oct 11, 2022 - News

Dogs are helping researchers find endangered orchids in Arizona

A dog sniffing something next to a man in a field.

Scent dog Muon alerts a researcher during an expedition in southern Arizona this summer. Photo: Eirini Pajak

The Desert Botanical Garden and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have teamed up with two specially trained dogs to use their super sniffers to locate endangered orchids.

What's happening: Trained scent dogs Circe and Muon helped researchers locate several orchids known as Canelo Hills ladies’-tresses during their first expedition in southern Arizona this summer.

  • The orchid grows in extremely dense vegetation, making it hard for humans to spot, DBG conservation collections manager Steven Blackwell tells us.
  • The dogs are part of a California-based program called K9inScentive that trains them to detect specific plants and wildlife.

Why it matters: The orchids are an important part of the desert ecosystem, but they grow in ciénegas — a type of desert wetland that is disappearing because of the western megadrought.

  • The plant has been endangered since 1997 and has been found in only two places in Arizona since 2016.
  • When DBG researchers find them, they can collect some of their seeds so they can grow and reintroduce them.

How it works: Because this plant is so rare, Muon and Circe had to learn how to track them by practicing with a similar orchid that grows in Nevada, Blackwell says.

  • Their trainer taught them to identify different parts of the plant, from the root to the flower.

What happened: Blackwell says the researchers were unsure whether the plant they practiced with would smell the same as the endangered one, but within 10 minutes of their first outing in Arizona, Muon and Circe alerted handlers that they'd found something.

  • At first, researchers didn't see anything, but after digging into the wetland, lo and behold, there was an orchid.
  • "They knew where it was and we had to look around all over the place," he said.

What's next: Muon and Circe are back in California now but will continue practicing with the orchids ahead of next summer's trip to southern Arizona.

  • Blackwell says he'd also love to use the pups to locate endangered cacti in the future.

Parting shot: "If it takes dogs to get people interested in plants, then whatever it takes," he said.


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