Can Archeology Dogs Smell Fossils?

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Introduction

When Elvis Presley sang “you ain't nothing but a hound dog”, even the King couldn’t have known the secrets that lay beneath those floppy ears. This century has to be titled “The Era of Dogs” as we found out our Foxy, Akita, and Pointer are wolf prodigies. 

It’s been anything from 15 – 40,000 years (as the crow flies) since the transition began and pooches took over the planet, moving into our homes. We now have millions of mutts sitting on our sofas while others defend our nation and put the bad guys in their place. 

Sniffer-dogs stop drugs from getting to our kids while Archeology dogs probe into history with their powerful noses. These canine paleontologists go hunting for old bones. This has to be a dream job for a pooch, getting to do something they love!

Signs a Dog Can Sense Petrified Fossils

Cadaver dogs are the new breed of forensic pooches that aid police in finding folks they believe may be dead. These dogs pick up on chemicals being emitted from decomposing bodies and have solved endless cases where the police had their suspect, but no bodies to prove their case.

Archeology dogs go back further and un-earth graves and sites from ancient times. Handlers like Andrea Pinter, who featured on Ann Marie Ackermann, saw the potential for dogs to aid archeologists in their quest for answers to the past. Pinter has over 15 years experience training search-and-rescue dogs and cadaver dogs. Her archeology pooches were involved in a site dig in Karlobag, Croatia, that dates back to 700 BC! Pinter is intrigued to know the "depth of vision" a dog's nose has.

 Her dogs alert a find either by barking or passively lying down and pushing their noses into the area defined. Climatic conditions play their part in the dog being able to pick up the scent. The reward will be a toy, tennis ball, or treat. Watching a video of Pinter’s archeology dog, a Belgian Malinois called Mali, in action is intriguing, as she pants and paces around a hillside of rough terrain, her tail wagging and nose sniffing out antiquity.

Cadaver dogs are tuned to the smell of death and trained on synthetic cadaver chemicals that emulate a decomposing body. Archeology dogs checking out historical remains of humans need to know the scent of old bones.

In a living person, bones are comprised of collagen, a form of protein. Science ABC tells us in a warm, humid climate, a buried person's bones could decay within ten years while in a dry climate (good news for archeologists), the bones can stay intact for thousands of years! 

Amounts of collagen can also survive depending on climate and environment. Some petrified fossils have been known to still have living remains - especially in cold places like Alaska, but in general, there is nothing left but dry bone and rock. What the dog can smell baffles science, but the mystery of our dogs is still unfolding.

Body Language

Signs a dog has detected ancient human remains include:

  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Panting
  • Wag tail
  • Pacing
  • Sniffing

Other Signs

More signs a dog will give upon making a find are:
  • Pawing
  • Sitting near the bones
  • Lying down or barking to alert their handler

History of Archeology Dogs

Dogs have inherited an off-the-charts sense of smell from their ancestor, the wolf. They can not only pick up the scent of drugs well concealed, but can also sniff the adrenaline hormone that reacts to us feeling stress. Dogs could make you feel undressed as they sense changes in your heart-rate and blood pressure, plus hone in on your state of overall health. According to Wired, the Pentagon has spent vast amounts of cash inventing gadgets to detect make-shift bombs - only to find dogs are better at it.

Meet Migaloo, a black Labrador cross and possibly the first trained Archeology dog. An Australian named Gary Jackson who had previously trained bomb detection, cadaver, and drug-sniffer pooches, taught Migaloo with 250-year-old bones on loan from a local museum.

This remarkable Lab was able to detect bones dating back 600 years from an Aboriginal burial ground, offering a faster and more cost-effective way to detect sites of archeological interest. Digging up the past is an expensive venture and Migaloo proved her worth finding one of four burial sites within a minute. She also found a few fossils around 2 and 5 million years old.

The Mirror brings the story of Crystal, a Beagle owned and trained by two paleontologists in the hope she'll sniff out dinosaur fossils. So far, Crystal has found very old shark teeth and some bones from an extinct Rhinoceros roaming the earth around the time of the Ice Age. Crystal's pet-parents are confident she can sniff a dinosaur fossil from a time frame of 66 to 247 million years during the Mesozoic Era; a while before we decided Planet Earth looked like a cool place to live.

The Science of Dogs Detecting Fossils

When Mother Nature asked, "who would like to have the best sense of smell?", our awesome woofers must have raised their paw. Watching sniffer-dogs at work tells how astronomical that ability really is. When a canine gets a whiff of something, they can sift through the layers of that scent, identifying every single part. That’s how they smell marijuana hidden in a container of dog food or peanut butter.

New Scientist talks about a dog-cognition researcher at Columbia University, New York, who has a lot to say about how dogs perceive a world of scent. Alexandra Horowitz opens our mind to the bewildering ability of dogs to smell the impossible.

He explains that when a dog smells a flower, they will get the individual scent of the petals and perhaps a butterfly perched on a leaf. Their scent-o-vision is spectacular and infuses the finest details of an object, letting them know the smell of a person that might have touched it and how long ago. This is how Bloodhounds detect missing people and possibly how archeology dogs are sensing buried bones. The canine olfactory system is designed perfectly, leaving nowhere to hide when a dog picks up a scent.

According to Institute Creation Research, fossils are usually found in sedimentary rock including sandstone, shale, and lime. These rocks can originate from deposits of human, plant, or animal remains. We know dogs can smell changes in barometric pressure during storms and detect cancer, so why not ancient bones or fossils?

Training Archeology Dogs

The guide to training an archeology dog might be a manual put out by Indiana Jones on the hunt for lost treasure. There’s an air of mystery to this dog's vocation, that has the knack of unearthing remains of our ancestors and an insight into how they lived. It’s fascinating stuff and dogs are right in the middle, using their talents to dig up the past.

All dogs love to sniff, whether it is a lamp-post they may have visited or the new kid at the dog park. When you train a dog to sniff drugs, whale poop, or million-year-old bones, the principle is the same. From a young age, dogs specializing in sniffing for a living are put through basic obedience and then they spend time learning how to choose the right scent.

The reward is either a small, white towel (used by the police and military) or a toy the dog loves. The aim is to let the dog equate their reward with the appropriate scent. If the pooch has a strong play or prey drive, they’ll soon learn that finding the ancient bones gets fun time with their toy. It’s training by association and since dogs negotiate their surroundings mainly by smell, their natural instincts quickly kick in.

Dogs like Migaloo love their work and have the X-Factor needed to sniff out those hard-to-find remains. There’s clearly a lot more to learn about dogs and their sniffing genius, as petrified fossils way down in the earth are hard enough for archeologists to find, let alone a dog with no university degree or skill in locating lost civilizations

Cadaver dogs may smell the chemicals associated with death but archeology dogs are tracking fossils with little or no original content. The same has been said about gold-digging dogs, as this precious metal has no smell. It’s likely the ore rocks gold are found in is the key to the scent and this could well be the same way archeology dogs detect petrified fossils.

How to React if Your Dog Finds a Fossil:

  • Praise them.
  • Take the fossil to an expert.
  • Read stories about archeology dogs.
  • Share your own story and what you found.
  • Look at training to pursue your dog's talent.
  • Have fun with your dog searching for archeological sites.

We Want to Know if Your Pooch Could be an Archeology Dog!