The species of the Galapagos Islands may have once evolved in isolation, but that isn't the case anymore. Invasive species are now one of the leading threats to the unique wildlife of the islands, many of which are endangered. One of these invasive species is the giant African snail. In fact, it's considered one of the world's most invasive species — and one of the most destructive.

It's hard to believe that a snail could do much harm, but this species wreaks havoc on native plants and animals, destroying crops, spreading parasites and threatening native ecosystems. In the Galapagos, if the species is allowed to spread outside of the 50 acres on Santa Cruz Island where it was first detected in 2010, it could have a serious impact on both farms and the delicate flora and fauna native to the islands.

“Galapagos is the best preserved tropical archipelago in the world, thanks to the vigilance of government agencies responsible for its protection. Experience has shown that once an invasive species becomes established, it is almost impossible to remove. These snails pose an immediate threat to local agriculture as well as the survival of endemic Galapagos snail species,” said Johannah Barry, president of the Galapagos Conservancy.

But that threat won't come to anything if Darwin and Neville have anything to say about it.

No, not that Darwin; this Darwin:

conservation dog Darwin sniffs out giant snails

This project is also serving as a pilot to establish a permanent canine detection program in the Galapagos. Expertly trained dogs and experienced handlers will be a highly cost effective detection tool for ongoing biosecurity programs

Darwin is a Labrador retriever adopted by Dogs for Conservation after failing out of a service dog training program. He wasn't up for being a service dog to people, but he's more than qualified to be a service dog to nature. He was trained to sniff out giant African snails and is working with the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency, Island Conservation, alongside his buddy Neville, a black Labrador adopted from a shelter and also trained to be a sniffer dog detecting the snails.

Darwin and Neville are part of the first canine detection program for invasive species in the Galapagos. Not only will they work to help eradicate the invasive giant African snail, but the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency ultimately wants to have detection dogs checking out organic imports at all airports and ports servicing the Galapagos to avoid any other invasive species sneaking their way onto the islands.

Staff from Dogs for Conservation and Galapagos Biosecurity Agency with detection dogs Darwin and Neville.

Staff from Dogs for Conservation and Galapagos Biosecurity Agency with detection dogs Darwin and Neville.

Using dogs as assistants for conservation is a concept picking up steam around the world. They make the job of researchers and biologists far easier. And finding high-energy dogs from shelters is a perfect starting place. In 2012, we reported on Conservation Canines, another organization using the same strategy of adopting dogs whose energy and obsessive tendencies make them a poor match as family pets, but it's what makes them ideal for work in the field. Their scent-detection abilities can dramatically cut down the amount of time researchers have to spend searching for scat or other signs of the species they're studying.

“In order to study a species, whether it be an endangered species or an invasive species, biologists need to be able to collect information. Unfortunately, it is often extremely difficult or even impossible to properly survey for specific species due to limitations in technology and/or human eyesight,” said Rebecca Ross, executive director of Dogs for Conservation. “There is a reason the U.S. military has spent so much money investing in their dogs, and that is because no one has found a tool or machine that can compete with a dog’s nose!”

For the giant snails in the Galapagos, Darwin and Neville are making the job far easier for the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency. Staff used to have to search for the snails on rainy nights using headlamps, something that was difficult, time-consuming, and simply not a viable permanent solution. Instead, the agency enlisted the help of Dogs for Conservation, who worked with six agency staff members to learn canine behavior, handling skills, scent theory and other essentials to working with the two dogs. 

Darwin and Neville can quickly go into an area, even high-risk areas, with minimal impact and maximum effectiveness at finding the snails.

While these two dogs make life easier for the biologists, the job makes life easier for the dogs. Many dogs thrive only when they're working. They need a task as a way to focus their physical and mental energy. Darwin is a perfect example; he was too hyperactive to be trained for tasks as a therapy dog. But since starting work as a sniffer dog, he has become a more calm and focused dog who loves to play fetch and relax when he isn't working.

“This has been a great experience to interact with this super intelligent dog who is doing a critical job to conserve the Galapagos,” said Fernando Zapata, principal handler for Neville for the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency.

It seems that Dogs for Conservation, the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency and Island Conservation have found the perfect win-win situation with Neville and Darwin.

Neville the dog has been trained to sniff out the invasive snails so they can be removed.

Darwin and Neville have now been trained to sniff out the invasive snails so they can be removed. This allows areas to be cleared of these pests faster than before, and high-risk areas can be checked quickly for invasive giant African snails.

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.