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Sniffing Out Salamanders

When she was an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, Kelly Halloran had a professor who trained dogs to use their sense of smell to distinguish between kit fox scat and red fox scat.

“The dogs proved to be 100 percent effective,” she said. “I thought that was so cool. I love dogs and I love the idea of using dogs in conversation research.”

Kelly Halloran (holding a spotted salamander) and her dog, Ozzy. | Mitchell Pruitt, University of Arkansas

Kelly Halloran (holding a spotted salamander) and her dog, Ozzy. | Whit Pruitt, University of Arkansas

Enter Ozzy, the salamander-sniffing dog.

Halloran, a master’s student in the Department of Biological Sciences, adopted Ozzy two years ago from a local humane society. Her graduate research focuses on salamanders. She knew from the time she brought Ozzy home that she would try to train him to identify salamander scent.

“For people, salamanders don’t have a distinct smell,” Halloran said. “But a dog’s sense of smell is amazing. Dogs have up to 300 million scent receptors while people only have about 5 million. That allows Ozzy to smell the salamander.”

Halloran is a member of the research group at the U of A led by J.D. Willson, an assistant professor of biological sciences. Willson said dogs are being used more frequently in wildlife research, usually to locate animals that are very secretive and difficult to observe.

“But they have seldom been used to study amphibians,” Willson said. “Trained dogs might revolutionize our ability to find salamanders that spend 95 percent of their time hidden in underground burrows were we are typically unable to find them.”

Halloran spent the last two summers in southwest Arkansas collecting stream-associated salamanders. She took Ozzy with her but the nature of the work was too intense for a salamander-sniffing dog.

She has something different in mind.

“What he does will be great for finding terrestrial salamanders,” she said. “Salamanders hide under rocks and finding them can take a lot of time. If I’d like to know if there’s a species in a certain area, Ozzy could tell me that faster than me flipping over every rock.”

About The Author

Chris Branam writes about research and economic development at the University of Arkansas. His beats include the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of History.

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