A dog is man’s best friend, even though it doesn’t stop the man from cheating on his wife, it has no tips when it comes to gambling, and it can’t pour a pint of black and tan to save its life. But that’s not why we love them. We love them because they’re loyal, because petting them has therapeutic values, and because they share our love of bacon. Also, the sensory power of their noses is one of humanity’s most utilized tools of the animal kingdom. Aside from pelicans being used as washing machines anyway.
It’s been a big year for dog noses, as the underlying science behind them is steps closer to being understood. For a recent interview in National Geographic, Gary Jackson was asked about another surprising talent that canines’ noses offer them: finding ancient corpses. Dogs are often brought into ongoing police investigations to search wide expanses of land faster and more efficiently than humans can, but it’s another thing entirely to expect your pup to stumble upon Tutankhamen’s grave.
Jackson, of Multinational K9, having already trained dogs to find cane toads and koalas, has trained a black lab mix named Migaloo to lock onto the scent of human bones, rather than decomposing flesh, for its searches. By only giving her a toy ball when she finds the pre-placed bones, Jackson’s training was rather simplistic one would think.
For its largest test, Jackson got permission from Aboriginal tribal elders to use ancestral bones from the South Australian Museum’s collection. A graveyard was recreated, and bones were scattered. Migaloo found buried bones from ten feet away, even those as small as a fingernail. She even went crazy upon passing by the spot of an Aboriginal burial tree that was knocked over during the building of a golf course in 1970, which revealed a human skull.
For the strongest concept of proof, Jackson explains.
“The big test was at an Aboriginal burial ground in South Australia, where a 600-year-old grave had been found a few years ago. We were given about an acre (0.4 hectare) to search. Museum officials and tribal elders were there—they knew where the graves were, but not us. Within two minutes, Migaloo was circling this one spot.She stayed on top of it, started digging, laid down, and jumped back up. So then I asked: Is there something here? And they said yes: exactly where the dog was, is that 600-year-old grave. That was remarkable, because you know bones that old don’t have any flesh on them, they’re completely dry, yet she still smells something.”
Though the options he could utilize must appear endless, Jackson will focus his future on attempting to train Migaloo to find pottery and fossils, as well as getting many more dogs trained for this kind of hunting. Everybody better drag out those “Where’s Jimmy Hoffa?” office pool sheets.