The bush dogs of South America know how not to be seen.
Camera traps miss them. Local indigenous people hear but don’t see them. Weighing in at about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) and resembling little bears, they’re among the cutest ninjas in the wild world.
“The biggest problem with studying them is that they spend almost half their day underground in burrows … You can be walking right over a bush dog and not know it,” said Karen DeMatteo, a National Geographic grantee and biologist at the Washington University in St. Louis and the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute. She has been studying bush dogs since 1998.
“There are people who have camera traps out—hundreds of camera traps. Out of thousands of thousands of photos, they might get one photo of a bush dog,” DeMatteo said. One colleague of hers has had camera traps set up for over a decade and has never gotten a picture of one. (See a rare picture of bush dogs taken in 2008.)
Elusive though it may be, the bush dog is considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and vulnerable in Brazil—and this has spurred some to act.
Various Brazilian agencies have just started a program to breed bush dogs in captivity at the Park Zoobotânico Parauapebas in Carajás National Forest.
The bush dog is also being bred in international zoos, including Twycross Zoo in England, where three pups were born in August—the first litter at the zoo in nearly a decade.
Though the bush dog is protected by most local governments and native groups, their biggest threat is domestic dogs.
Bush dogs have partially webbed feet, excellent for digging for prey such as armadillos, which they do in teams, with one bush dog doing the tunneling and the another clearing the dug dirt away.
But they also like to use old dens dug by either armadillos or large rodents called paca. Hunting dogs trained by their owners to look for paca will come to those dens. Sometimes the bush dog and the domestic dog will get into fights—and sometimes the hunter kills the bush dog.
In addition to direct conflict, “domestic dog diseases will kill bush dog groups pretty quickly,” DeMatteo said.
“We experienced that in Brazil with mange: A little mange knocked out an entire group of bush dogs.” (Also see “Dog Disease Infecting Tigers, Making Them Fearless.”)
Add to this that bush dogs are social with each other, if not with us: They live in extended family groups with no dominant member or pecking order, and families share everything from food to parenting duties to disease.
“That’s the bad thing about being a social canid. If one gets mange you all get mange. If one get distemper you all get distemper.”
Bush dog habitat, including the protected areas where DeMatteo studies them in Argentina, is very fragmented, making bush dog groups increasingly isolated from each other and exposed to risks.
DeMatteo’s main goal is to identify corridors through the habitat that allow bush dogs to roam without getting into conflict with domestic dogs.
Fortunately, she has an ally poised to help bush dogs—and ironically, he’s a domestic dog.
Train, a rescued Chesapeake Bay retriever, knows how to sniff out the scat of various species in the wild, samples of which provide huge amounts of information other research methods can’t. (Related: “Train the Scat-Sniffing Dog.”)
He can search off trails and find evidence under the grass that people might not see with the naked eye. He’s like a detective that’s able to trace a suspect from credit card transactions—the bush dogs are just leaving him a different kind of trail.
On the first comprehensive survey of bush dogs in Misiones, Argentina, in 2011, for example, Train located 34 scat samples representing 22 individual bush dogs.
That may not seem like much, but it’s a gold mine to researchers of this secretive animal, providing a ton of information about how to build those biological corridors, including a baseline number of individuals and which lands they were using.
“Those samples were our first piece of the puzzle for that species in the region,” DeMatteo said. (Watch a video of Train at work.)
Making connections between wild bush dogs is important, but making love connections between captive bush dogs is equally so.
“With bush dogs we’re lucky in that they’re a species that seem to breed very well in captivity, unlike a lot of carnivores,” said DeMatteo, who has done a lot of research with captive bush dogs, including working with captive-breeding programs internationally.
“With bush dogs you can pretty much put a male in with a female and they’re happy. They love to breed! They are compulsively social and hate to be alone.”
Don’t get her wrong: These are definitely not casual hookups. The efforts that go into maintaining a healthy population of captive bush dogs probably make human matchmaking services look like a coin toss.
“There’s an international studbook as well as regional studbooks in Brazil, Japan, and the U.S. that work together to maximize the genetic diversity among the populations. That’s key to keeping the population as healthy as it is”—an especially important element because it’s hard to get new animals from the wild.
Captive facilities also provide genetic resources for studying how these elusive animals fit evolutionarily with other canids in the world, which is information crucial to controlling disease, for instance.
The captive population in zoos and other facilities also allows the public to learn about a species they may never see in the wild. Even Train, whose remarkable nose has helped gather so much information about them, has never “met” a bush dog.
Maybe someday he’ll get to find more than their receipts.