What are 'seal-dogs' and what do they do?

Author and wildlife guide Michael Engelhard answers your wild question.

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What are 'seal-dogs' and what do they do?

A ringed seal laying on the ice © Paul Souders / Corbis Documentary / Getty

 

Dogs – namely labrador retrievers – have played an important role in ringed seal research, a challenge to carry out on the snowy wastes of Arctic sea ice. After learning about ‘seal dogs’ from an Inuit hunter, marine biologist Brendan Kelly from the University of Alaska used labradors to sniff out breathing holes and lairs (caves dug in the snowdrifts over breathing holes, which females use to rest and nurse their pups).

The dogs boasted an 80–85 per cent success rate in a search area 5–10km wide, pinpointing up to 200 lairs and holes in a month. Thanks to their canine assistants, Kelly and his team were able to secure samples of moulted skin for DNA analysis, and to attach tags to dozens of individuals to follow their annual movements.

Their research revealed that ringed seal subpopulations interbreed throughout the Arctic, reducing the species’ vulnerability to extinction; and that earlier snowmelt, driven by climate change, is exposing the pups sooner and more frequently to the elements and predators, such as polar bears and Arctic foxes.

 

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