Sniffing out a solution to protecting wild canines

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endangered canines pheromones
Damien Paris, Pia Riddell, Carolynne Joone and dingo. Image: Isabella Negus

Researchers at James Cook University may have a better way to protect endangered canines such as dingoes, wolves and African wild dogs by using naturally occurring pheromones to minimise their stress.

JCU scientist A/Prof Damien Paris said that ‘appeasing’ pheromones are chemical messages normally excreted from the mammary gland of lactating female dogs, and are known to have a calming effect when smelled by both puppies and other adult dogs.

Of the 36 species of wild canids globally, two are critically endangered (Darwin’s fox, red wolf); three are endangered (Ethiopian wolf, African wild dog, dhole); five are near threatened (bush dog, maned wolf, Sechuran fox, short-eared dog, island fox); and many others are locally rare with populations in decline.

“The largest threat to wild canids is human-wildlife conflict, caused by ever-decreasing habitat. This exposes them to threats that include persecution, illegal poaching, vehicle collisions, and exposure to domestic dog diseases, which can cause whole populations to collapse,” JCU PhD student Pia Riddell said.

Current conservation strategies involve helping animals to move between fragmented natural habitats to avoid human conflict. However, such translocation can cause stress to wild canids that can have longer-term ramifications for their health and reproduction.

A/Prof Paris and Riddell from JCU’s Gamete and Embryology (GAME) Laboratory and Dr Carolynne Joone from JCU’s Discipline of Veterinary Science, in collaboration with international experts, propose that species-specific appeasing pheromones could be a new way to minimise stress and stress-related aggression in these animals during translocation and other conservation interventions—and have published their theory in Animals.

Previous work conducted by the team has shown that domestic dog appeasing pheromones can reduce stress-related aggression in captive African wild dog packs. 

However, a species-specific pheromone should have a greater beneficial effect, leading the researchers to start isolating an African wild dog-specific appeasing pheromone in the coming months.

“If we succeed in showing that African wild dog-specific appeasing pheromones effectively reduce stress and aggression during their translocation, this could pave the way for the isolation and use of species-specific pheromones to manage stress in other canid species, or perhaps even primates and humans,” A/Prof Paris said.

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