In this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla speaks with Rachel Curtis-Robles and Devin Christopher about dogs detecting insects carrying diseases.
Science Highlight: Dogs can sense weak thermal radiation
Where to find Rachel: Website
Where to find Devin: Linked in
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
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Kayla Fratt 00:09
Hello and welcome to the K9Conservationists podcast where we’re positively obsessed with conservation detection dogs join us every week to discuss detection, training, canine welfare, conservation, biology and everything in between. I’m Kayla Fratt, one of the cofounders of canine conservationists, where we trained dogs to detect data for land managers, researchers, agencies, and NGOs. Today, I’m super excited to be talking to Rachel and Devin about a really cool topic that we’re gonna get into. We are going to be talking about diseases and dogs finding bugs and all sorts of cool stuff. But why don’t we start out Rachel, can you give everyone a quick rundown of who you are, and what your role was in this project? And then Devin, same question.
Rachel Curtis-Robles 00:50
Yeah. Hi, my name is Rachel Curtis-Robles. I am an assistant research scientists at Texas a&m University in the lab of Dr. Sarah Hamer. The lab is located in the veterinary school and so we definitely have a one Howell really interested in animal and human health. And my role in this project was really support from afar, making sure we had a lot of sites for the the team to visit and also then managing the data afterwards and helping that manuscript come to fruition and go through the publication process.
Kayla Fratt 01:22
And that’s no small feat. So Devin, yeah. What was your role here?
Devin Christopher 01:27
I’m Devin Christopher. I am so I did my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in the gene therapy and vaccines program. And since graduate from my PhD, I’ve been self employed working on various projects, one of which is something we’re talking about today. I have been involved with detection dogs for gosh, you know, since I was an undergrad, so that’s been a long time ago, probably 15 years ago. So my role was I’m the one that trained and handled the dog, went out to the field, collected all the samples, and then helped Rachel a little bit she headed up the manuscript department. But I did contribute to that as well. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Kayla Fratt 02:15
Yeah, I’m super excited to get into this. And we will tell people everything that that you guys are actually doing very shortly here, but first, we’ve got our science highlight to get to, which was prepared by our amazing volunteer Heidi Benson. This article is titled dogs can sense weak thermal radiation and it was published in 2020 in Scientific Reports, by Anna blunt, Attila Andechs, Marta galaxy, Anna gabber comments ibert Chelsea Luce, Adam Miller cosi and Ronald H Kroger. So, several animal species are known to have the ability to send weak thermal radiation including insects, reptiles, and one species a bat. Given that wild canids pro prey largely largely on endothermic animals, the ability of canines descend since week thermal radiation could prove advantageous in hunting. The coldness of a dog’s nose may also make them particularly sensitive to radiating heat. Hence, the authors of the study wanted to determine if domestic dogs had the ability to sense a weak thermal radiation. First, the authors conducted a behavioral experiment to determine if the dogs could locate weak thermal radiation. Three pet dogs that were Mizo cephalic, and a varying bottle body sizes were used. The dogs were presented with two stimuli one warmth, which was 11 to 13 degrees Celsius above room temperature, and one neutral which was just one to two degrees above ambient temperature, and we’re trained to choose the warm stimuli. Once trained at the trials took place in a temperature controlled room and the temperature of the dog’s nose and the stimuli were closely monitored. All three dogs detected a week thermal radiation at higher rates and chance. The percent correct was about 80% in 40 trials for the dog named Kevin 68%, over 65 trials for the dog named Delphi, and 76% of the 89 trials that Charlie Park token. Secondly, the dogs conducted fMRI on 13 pet dogs to determine which areas of the brain were activated by weak thermal radiation. Dogs were trained to lay down in the FMRI and were randomly presented with either warm or neutral stimuli. The fMRI experiments revealed a significant left hemisphere bias when the dogs were introduced to weak thermal radiation. The left hemisphere has previously been associated with feeding responses and previous vertebrate studies. And specifically the activity was seen in the summit somatosensory Association cortex, which quote may suggest that heat signal has been perceived as part of a complex environmental stimulus, eliciting the neuro planning of oriented goal directed actions and quote, as always, we do have some limitations. The study only use three dogs for the behavioral component, although it’s probably pretty unlikely that they randomly chose the three dogs on the planet that can do this sort of thing. And this study does not really address how the dogs tend to transduce thermal thermal radiation via their Rene Reum the news, only that they can More research is needed to determine the underlying mechanisms of this ability. And similarly, this study does not address variables that could influence a dog’s ability to detect thermal radiation, such as thresholds at various ambient temperatures with various run Areum temperatures for different stimuli distances and temperatures, which would require further research. So, definitely a cool introductory study here, something I never would have really expected to look at. But with that, we’re gonna go and get into our episode. So why don’t we start out with the bare basics we were having our dog, your dog, Devon, look for the insects that carry Chagas disease. So what is Chagas disease and what are Triatoma and insects? Do I have that right?
Rachel Curtis-Robles 05:44
Yeah, most this is Rachel. So Chagas disease is a disease that can affect people and dogs and some other animals. It’s caused just by a tiny parasite. And this parasite is spread by Triana mean insects and we use a common name for Triana means because it’s kind of tricky to pronounce, we just call them kissing bugs or CO nose bugs. So you’ll hear me today talk to them talk about them as kissing bugs. kissing bugs, feed on blood from mammals and other animals. And when they feed on infected mammals, mammals that have this little parasite in them, they can get it into their body, and then the the way they spread it to other animals, is by pooping out or deprecating out this parasite in their feces. So say for example, you’re a person you’re sleeping at night, these kissing bugs tend to be active more active at night, because we’re much easier to feed our blood from when we’re sleeping. And so the bug will feed. Sometimes while it’s feeding, it will be very rude and defecate on you. And if you scratch the feces into that bug bite, you know your reaction to a bug bite to itch. If you scratch those feces into the bite, they can enter the wound. And in fact, you Chang disease is a disease, it’s a neglected tropical disease, it doesn’t receive a lot of funding compared to other diseases. But it is estimated that about 6 million people are infected with Chagas disease. By and large, most of these people are people who are living in Central and South America and Mexico. These kissing bugs are really associated with certain kinds of housing materials, maybe in very rural areas. And some of these people don’t have access to health care and Chagas disease, sometimes you don’t know you haven’t until many decades after your initial infection. But ultimately, it causes a decline in your heart function. So your heart is not able to pump and a, there’s a lot of effects in your body from that. And then in dogs, and dogs are infected, we know that some dogs can just like people can live a long, healthy life with no signs that they’re infected. Whereas similar to people, some dogs can be very severely affected. Dogs can have also heart issues, sometimes dogs can also just suddenly die due to the strain on their heart from these little parasites being in their heart muscles. So that is not a very happy way to start the pod. Yeah,
Kayla Fratt 08:19
well, but I think we have to start somewhere. And I think that leads us really nicely into our next question. So obviously, this is something that we do not want, we are not interested in having Chagas disease be part of really anyone’s life history. And so what are some of the challenges faced by those who want to control study and or eradicate this disease? You know, I know it’s neglected. So it seems like funding is certainly part of the problem. But what are some of the other issues when we’re looking at trying to mitigate chakras?
Rachel Curtis-Robles 08:48
Yeah, that’s a great question. So some of the other issues is many people don’t know they’re infected until decades later, at which point, there’s only a small handful of drugs that are available to treat an infection and they don’t care, they cannot reverse the damage done to the heart. So what we really like to focus on is just preventing the infection in the first place. And that means we have to go back to the source of the infection, the bugs. And I wanted to mention to I forgot to mention just a minute ago, that besides the bugs feeding on you and defecate on you and the parasite being spread that way, we think that a way that a lot of animals, including dogs, especially dogs that love to eat bugs, the way that they could become infected is actually by eating a whole bug that they encounter in nature. And so that would be another way to be infected, especially if your dog or an animal. Back to this question was, what we would really like to do is stop transmission in the first place. And so for people and dogs that means we need to learn more about these bugs. He’s kissing bugs, where they live, what sorts of places they live, when they are babies, what sorts of blood sources what sorts of animals are in in what we call sylvatic habitats or outdoor habitats, where these bugs are existing before then they encounter a person or a domestic dog. And it is really difficult to find these bugs because they’re fairly elusive. They’re found in small numbers here, and there tend to be found in the nests of, of wildlife. When the bugs are babies, when they’re nymphs, they don’t have wings, so they could not fly, they can just walk around to their next bloodmeal source. And so it seems like based on previous research, that these bugs tend to be found, for example, in a woodrat nest in nature, where the woodrat is living in the nest going in and out. But is there enough of the time that these bugs can sort of sit there and wait for the rat to come back and feed on their blood? But this is really difficult for us to go out in the field and and find these sources to better understand, is it just wood rats? Or are there other wildlife that are really supporting the growth of these populations of bugs? One way we tried to do this, when we started doing research, I started my graduate research. Many years ago, in 2012, we were having a terribly difficult time finding these bugs to study. And so eventually, somebody from the public reached out to us and said, Hey, I have a bunch of these bugs, would you like them? And we said, yes, yes, please, like very eagerly. And they sent us their bugs. And that was sort of the birth of our what has now grown into our nationwide community science project, where people who find bugs around their homes or around their kennels can send us those bugs, and we will identify the bugs, we will test a portion of the bugs for the parasite. And then through those submissions, we’ve learned a lot about the bugs. And I especially want to do a call out to any listeners who might be living anywhere in the Americas where these bugs can be found sort of the mid and southern us all the way down into throughout the south, throughout southern America that you can find us on on the web. It’s our if you just Google kissing bug, and taxes, you will find our website will probably be the top hit. And you can always send us a photo of a bug if you’re worried it might be an kissing bug. If it is a kissing bug, we can help with any questions you have about that. And this was a great way to get mostly adult kissing bugs. But we were still really struggling with how to find rare these baby bugs. These notes are existing in nature, which is very relevant to our conversation today.
Kayla Fratt 12:31
Yeah, definitely. So yeah, it’s kind of classic thing, but we can’t really control or study it if we can’t even find the critters that are involved here. So how did the idea for getting dogs or a dog involved in this? Who came up with that?
Rachel Curtis-Robles 12:47
I think I’ll start the I’ll start the answer. But then I think it will, then we’ll transition to Devin. I’m not from the dog world. I grew up very rural, we had a farm dog, but I have no background in dog training or anything like that. But so when I started my graduate studies in 2012, and I started meeting all these kennel owners who were finding bugs in their kennels. And I was able to go throughout Texas and just be super impressed with all the things that dogs and their noses can do. And all the really wonderful things that trainers can do in collaboration with their dogs, and just being like regularly blown away by dogs that were trained to do certain different things, and going to one kennel in particular. And the kennel owner said, you know, these, these dogs can be trained for so many things, have you considered to train a dog to smell for bugs. And I hadn’t. But then when I started to look in the literature, there was a publication maybe in like 2000, just a few years before that, from a team in Paraguay that had changed a dog to smell for kissing bugs in the forests there. And I started to get really excited like, oh, maybe someday we could, like have a dog and then I was like I I’m not home enough. I don’t have the background to train a dog. And so it’s just like, living rent free in my mind this like, like this would be such a wonderful thing. And but knowing that I couldn’t do it. And then I think it was a few years after that when Devin and maybe you can share like I can’t even remember how you got in contact with Sara did you reach out to her?
Devin Christopher 14:30
I did my PhD in gene therapy and vaccines at University of Pennsylvania. And while I was there, I did a certificate program in public health. And one of my advisors was Mike Levy, and he is in the department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology. And he works on Chagas disease, and he would always do these presentations in a lot of our meetings and talking about his work. They’re working on doing these sorts of eradication programs. was trying to get rid of the kissing bugs in the cities in Peru. And he talked about the issues that they’re having like trying to eradicate the bugs, being that they’re kind of like going door to door and spraying for insecticide. And tried to track down the sources of these bugs in the city. And he told me that one of the major problems is that they get these bugs, they hide their living up inside the walls and people’s houses. They just can’t find them all. And there’s this continual sources of bugs popping up in the city they just can’t find. So I had asked him one day I said, you know, like, have you guys ever thought of training a dog to find kissing dogs? And he said, Well, yeah, that would be great. Because they would be really helpful for like searching people’s homes, tracking down the bugs, you can, knowing where to spray, things like that. And he did mention at that time about the group in Paraguay that train the dog, and said has been done before. And but he and I talked about the issue of right using a healthy dog to actually sniff out kissing bugs. I believe, um, as far as I know that the dog that they used in Paraguay is a normal, healthy dog. He and I talked about it, we don’t feel right about the idea of using a healthy dog training it to find kissing bugs, right? The whole point is that we’re trying to help people help dogs by collecting these dogs learning where they live. And in the end, hopefully that can help people in dogs, it doesn’t make sense to sort of almost jeopardize the life of the dog that you’re training by continually exposing them, right, because dogs get it to not just people. So we really didn’t, we really didn’t feel comfortable with that idea. So but in any case, he told me, he said, I know somebody who might be really interested in this. And he hooked me up with Sarah Hamer at Texas a&m. And he said, Why don’t you email her and see what she has to say. That’s how I got linked up with the this crew at Texas a&m. And then I’ll just tell you briefly about about Sisa. So we we knew that we wanted to potentially find one of these dogs that had been infected, and was living, hopefully healthy, symptom free, one of these that lives for a very long time. And obviously, they’re already infected, we don’t have to worry about them being infected in the process of their work. But we really didn’t know like, where are we going to find one of those that’s going to be suitable to trade for detection work? How are we going to find a healthy living? Dog that’s already been infected? And we weren’t really sure about that. But I was talking with Dr. Leo Cropper, who was at Lackland Air Force Base. I can’t remember if Sara is the one that linked me with him. Or if it was Mike. But he was also very interested in potentially training a dog for this. And he I guess, pass the word to, to the I don’t know, department, Homeland Security, or somebody who’s at Lackland Air Force Base. And they are the ones who contacted me. So I got a phone call from the TSA adoption coordinator. Who is right so the he’s the one that when the dogs fail out of the training program for like explosive detection and TSA or whatever training programs that they have. If they fail out, they really see dogs, they put them up for adoption. They also have a small number of dogs that were put up, discharged or put up for adoption for medical reasons. And he called me he told me, Hey, we have this dog. And we heard that you might be interested in her. She has been living here in the kennels since she was she tested T cruise I positive. So she has Chagas disease. And we’ve stopped working her. She’s been put up for adoption. And nobody had showed any interest in adopting her because of her diagnosis. So they really, truly didn’t know what they were going to do with this dog. And they were like we heard of you through somebody. We heard that you might want her and I was like yes, I definitely want her. And they said you gotta come to Texas right now and get her there like like ASAP. And by coincidence, I had already had a flight actually to Texas like the week after that. I was gonna go visit a friend of mine in Houston. So I actually flew to Texas like the next week and went in and met her and I was like, she’s fantastic. I didn’t even know what kinda She wasn’t anything before he showed up. But she’s a she was a two year old German Shorthaired Pointer, her name Aziza. She was a very special girl, they were super nice enough to, to let me adopt her. And, and then that’s how the ball of volume kind of got rolling. I was like I have a dog. Let’s do this. And I went from there.
Kayla Fratt 20:22
Yeah. Wow, what a crazy sequence of events and like so much luck and good networking. So what we’re so now that we know we’ve got a dog that’s infected, is there any risk for them being exposed again and getting like reinfected or infected with different strains? Or is that just kind of a sort of thing we don’t even know necessarily about this disease?
Rachel Curtis-Robles 20:44
I can, I can answer that. So we work with quite a few different dog populations with Sarah’s lab, including I think, probably Sarah was the one that connected Devon to Dr. Cropper. With, with all the different dog populations that we work with, there’s a lot of connections. So we’re really interested in exactly that question how what happens when there’s reinfection, there’s been very few studies, historically, because you would need to have dogs that you knew when and how they were infected. So basically, you would need to have a population of dogs that were purposefully infected. To my knowledge, a study like this has not been done in the US. But there’s a study from many years ago, in in some other countries that did, in fact, and then reinfect dogs, and it does seem like they can get a little bit. They have a temporary, like increase in the parasites in their blood right after that. But we really don’t know what it means to get infected and reinfected. bugs can actually be infected with two different strains of the parasite at the same time. So even if we came across a dog that had both strains in its blood, we wouldn’t necessarily know if that was from being reinfected with a different strain or just having maybe eaten a bottle with two strains in it. So it was really on known. Devin, I don’t know if you could comment was, was he’s a dog that would like to like nibble a bug if she found a bug, or where was she? Great, Nan. Okay.
Devin Christopher 22:24
Definitely, when I was very first, like in printing her, she was very interested in them. And I was very concerned about her potential using one. So yeah, I think it’s a it’s a real risk.
Rachel Curtis-Robles 22:39
Yeah, so it definitely concerned that. It sounds like maybe as part of her training, you would have tried to discourage her from wanting to nibble them? Yeah, I’m
Devin Christopher 22:49
kind of on when we initially started. This is when I had the bugs kind of laid out in a really large container, right, I was trying to think of a way to contain the bugs, right. Like all the detection work that I had done previously, as like, human remains, or explosives, like you don’t necessarily have to have it doesn’t have to be in a container, right? And when you’re imprinting the dog, and you’re teaching them, this is what I want you to find, ideally, you don’t have it any kind of container. With the bugs, that wasn’t really the case, they had to be contained somehow. So I put them in this big under the bed like storage container, like the biggest one I could find. So that they would have room to crawl around, right? We were using nymphs, right, so they didn’t have wings couldn’t fly. And so I basically just had her on leash, and I was encouraging her sniff the bug, but I just basically held her back where she couldn’t get all the way to the bug when she’s absolutely crazy. So I was like, she’s either going to kill the bug, which I would like to return it safely to the lab, or she’s going to eat it. So I would literally hold her back on the leash where she couldn’t physically reach it. I think in the field, it was not really a problem, right? The bugs were always so so hidden. It wasn’t like they were that obvious that she was just gonna run over and like, eat one. But it was tricky in the beginning.
Kayla Fratt 24:10
Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, definitely. Well, and I find especially like, sometimes some of those non alert behaviors are more common early on before they really realized that like, oh, gosh, I just need to alert and then I go oh, yeah, once I really understand the point, a lot of that exact tends to go away with good training and the right dog and that sort of stuff. So that brings us to what were some of the things that you did with Ziza to kind of ensure accuracy and efficiency and safety in the field.
Devin Christopher 24:40
Um, accuracy. So we did only train her on one species. I think it was just simpler that way. It’s a common species in Texas. That was what we had available from the lab for me to train her with. And I really did think that she would, would probably they branch out and find other species. But it was just simpler that way. So that would be one thing that we should take into consideration is that we don’t actually know whether she would find I never tested her to see if she would actually find different species. Um, as far as ensuring accuracy, like when I trained her, I did a lot of the typical things, were proving her on containers, making sure it’s not hitting on containers and training. Using a variety of different containers, I use a lot of decoy containers, to make sure that in practice that she’s actually indicating on the book, we did eventually, in a lot of practice, we talked about inventing all different kinds of containers to put the bugs and gave talked about like making little wire cages and stuff, we never ended up doing that. But I did end up doing just simply just wrapping the little bug in gauze, you know, they kind of little legs get all tangled in the can’t move anywhere. And you can very gently kind of hide them without having to put them in any kind of plastic container or anything like that. So yeah, a lot of proving our containers, making sure she’s hitting on the right thing. I did teach her both a primary and secondary indication. So primary indication would be I, she’s worked on lead, right, so she would pull the over on the lead. Look, mom over here, I found something and that’s a sit. So that would be her primary indication, I’ve definitely found something I know it’s here, then secondary indication would be to kind of let me know, the more exact location which I used digging for her, which she’s something that she just did naturally, once she knew something was hidden underneath or behind something, she very naturally would always scratch at the source. I taught her to do that. So that I would know the exact location of the bug if you get me. And so in the field, it basically was her dragging me to a giant pile of wood. And sitting on top of it, I mean a giant pile. So that’s great. I’m glad you told me there’s something in this giant pile. But can we narrow it down a little bit. And so that’s why I taught her to narrow down the source. For more for me, work closer to the source, please scratch and tell me exactly where it is so that I don’t have to dig through the entire pile. And that worked great. I’m really glad that I taught him to do that because it worked great in the field.
Kayla Fratt 27:35
Yeah, no, that sounds like a really helpful. Yeah, having that secondary alert. That’s not something I’m not even sure if I’ve heard people talk about primary and secondary alerts before. So that’s really, really interesting. So and then as far as your actual searches, was this all setups kind of for a proof of concept? Or were you actually going out and searching kind of high likelihood high risk areas, and then using that for the paper?
Devin Christopher 28:00
So I started out with a training period, I think I so I will mention So what made my job really easy. Was that right? When so she was given to me from TSA. A lot of people asked me, they said, Well, why would you want a dog that failed out of the training program. And I was like, she didn’t feel out. She didn’t fail out. She actually passed with flying colors. She was fantastic. I was gonna move on to their advanced training program. So she did great in the training program. So I knew she was going to be quick. So they had already trained her on I don’t know how many different odors, right? They trained for explosives detection, but a lot. So it was super, super quick training period. I refreshed her I think on explosives for a six week period before I went to Texas. And then I worked in Texas for I can’t remember I think only two weeks that I actually worked with her on yeah, basically like there’s a proof of concept like, can she actually find the bug? And can I train her to do it, which I think it was no doubt in anyone’s mind, we can definitely do it. And within two weeks easily I had her doing searches in like in an area that was like owned by the lab that was basically on campus at Texas a&m. And easy peasy. It was fast. Obviously, if you’re training a dog for it with no previous history, it would take you a lot longer. But it really really lucked out on this one. So two weeks, right because she’d already trained on probably like I said, maybe like 12 More than two more than 10 different odors she’d already learned. So this is only adding one, one more. So it was very easy for her. Yeah, safety wise we did I did work her on lead. She was a runner. So she had to be worked on lead. Also, there was a lot of poisonous snakes. So that was a real thing. We worked on a lot have piles of debris like people storing things outside of their home like on their ranch. So piles of sheet metal, nails, you know, lumber junk, like everything you can possibly think of. So working on lead is definitely a must. In this situation.
Kayla Fratt 30:22
Yeah, yeah, that sounds like quite a few different hazards and different things to think about. So yeah, do you want to tell us any more kind of experiences from the field? Any highlights or lowlights, or just kind of a day in the life of this project is
Devin Christopher 30:38
sure. Um, so it was, I think, more difficult in ways that I didn’t imagine when I agreed to go out there. I think for this project. I think we did all of this in over a couple of months. It was in the fall. It was like October, November, December. Right. We were looking for nymphs. So Right. Basically, it
Rachel Curtis-Robles 30:59
was kind of just to two months, you know, seven or eight, maybe 10 weeks, no more than that. So basically, you were out a lot,
Kayla Fratt 31:07
like back to the
Devin Christopher 31:09
days or weeks. Yeah, I basically did the training period, I think I think it was two weeks at the beginning. And then I was in the field for Yeah, majority of like, yeah, about an eight to 10 week period. So it was a lot of driving traveling around Texas, everything’s really far in Texas. A lot of driving around to different sites where they were the lab, had previously had samples, right bugs that were collected, right. So basically sites that we pretty much knew that there were going to be bugs around or hoping that they’re going to be around. But we were in the fall. So we were looking we’re looking for nymphs, not for adults, right? They’ve had a lot of submissions of adults, like especially the summer season, but in the offseason, in the fall, you basically don’t see them. So we were only looking for names, which are the little guys that are like hidden in the nests. So it was a lot of a lot of digging. I know that Rachel had sent you some photos and talk briefly about right the right the collection process, right that you guys do normally, Rachel, it was still a lot of digging. But it was targeted digging, because the dog could take me right to the best area. And she always knew what she was doing. I was beyond shocked. Let me tell you the first time because I did think it take took probably two or three weeks, the first two or three weeks, we didn’t find anything. And I was really starting to like I was really
Kayla Fratt 32:37
starting to question I was like, oh, not very anxious.
Devin Christopher 32:41
And then finally I think we maybe the third week. She just you know, took me to this pile of wood. And she’s sticking her nose up in there. And she was digging like crazy weather but up in the air. And I couldn’t believe it when I just put my put my axe or whatever in there. And I pulled out a bunch of debris and there was a bug and there was bugs in there and I couldn’t believe even the I was shocked. So I was celebrated that day. I was like, okay,
Kayla Fratt 33:09
she’s doing it right.
Devin Christopher 33:10
Okay, we’re doing it. Yeah, it was amazing. The first five was absolutely amazing. I was like, Oh, thank God, I’m sorry. That’s right.
Kayla Fratt 33:21
Yeah, yeah, I’ve said this before on the show, but I feel like every time I go out on a new project, or I’m working with a new dog or whatever, it’s just like, there’s just so much down until you get that first line and they’re like, oh, okay, okay. Yeah, to know.
Devin Christopher 33:36
Once I started at the first fine, I was like, Okay, now I’m more confident like we could do this. And it was it was a little bit more complicated than like the previous work that I had done, like doing, like wilderness search and rescue, right? Like, you’re sending the dog out into a giant expanse of wilderness looking for a live person? Well, there’s your if you’re lucky, there’s one live person hanging out out there in that giant, expansive wilderness. And most of the time when you go on missions, you never find anything, right? Like, same thing with human remains detection, you go on a mission, and most of the time, you’re not finding anything. But you’re also not like worried about missing something. Right? You’re not like, oh, there’s a bunch of people here that are missing. But in this case, it was in the end quite different from the work I’d done previously. You know, I was like, I know there’s probably bugs like all over here. You don’t I mean, like the scent is probably spread out everywhere. Like if you worked about you know, set detection dogs you probably know about the way people talk about how scent moves around and how does the dog you know, actually narrow down where the bug is? Well, it was a little bit complicated because there were definitely some of the finds that we made bugs I mean, in a large across a large area. So I think it became it definitely became a lot more complicated for Aziza had a hard time we got first got in the field trying to get her to indicate even though I was very confident she led me right to it. I could tell At first, I was like, why are you not indicating for me in practice? You’re like, you’re perfect 100% And I do think it was a lot that there the scent is everywhere. And she had a hard time kind of narrowing it down. And I don’t know in the field if I’m passing up, is she passing over? You know anything? Is she missing things? You know, that was all very confusing and new for me. So but you know, she did great led me to some good finds we collected a good number. We successfully made it out without anyone getting bit by a snake in South Texas, yeah, a lot of poisonous snakes. So she did wear a snake proof vest. And I had snake guards on. Which thankfully, because we encountered a lot of snakes. So that was not something I was, that was not in my head that I was gonna be like digging through piles of debris with like, poisonous snakes hidden underneath. Like, I didn’t know that was going. So
Kayla Fratt 36:02
yeah, yeah, snakes or snakes are always on the show. So I’m so glad that nothing bad happened. Yeah, that’s, that’s good luck. And yeah, it sounds like he also had a lot of good safety measures in place to help reduce the risk. So tell us a little bit about some of the results, like what came out of this research? And if it fits in there, what, what’s next for you all?
Rachel Curtis-Robles 36:23
Yeah, can you talk a little bit about that? Well, they brought, they brought back 110 bugs, which was fantastic. And Ziza was the one who found you know, 60 of those bugs. The other 50 were that while Ziza was having a break, because it’s Texas and it’s hot and the dog needs a break. Devin was very diligently still digging around and looking for bugs was one of these it was having a break. So 110 bugs, and many of them, they were be able to bring back alive, which was important because at that time, we’re still in the very early stages of starting a kissing bug colony at the university to use for studying a lot of other aspects of trout, I mean biology, like feeding preferences and how long they feed for and if they defecate while they feed and other things that we don’t know about kissing bugs from Texas. Yes, yeah, the species that live in Texas. So we were able to pipeline a lot of those bugs that came back alive straight into the colony, which was a huge poll. And that’s part of the reason that our colony is so successful today was that we had this huge diversity of of populations of bugs to add in, in the fall of 2017. We did test the bugs to see how many were infected. And we came back with numbers that were pretty similar to what we knew from, from, from our other work with with kissing bugs that the public had submitted. So just like 27% of them are the nymphs, the baby bugs were positive for the parasite, which is about what we had seen in previous research. But even like really exciting for me was we have a method where we use PCR in the laboratory to to detect the the blood meal source in kissing bugs. And so we were able to some of these bugs that had been collected from what Devin had identified as like, this looks like little wildlife nest of something. Maybe we’re not completely sure what something it is. But we were able to dissect those bugs in the laboratory, do PCR and then blasts that DNA, there’s a program on the web to compare it to other DNA strands. And we were able to find that those bugs we did just a handful of samples in that method because we were so interested in having the live bugs support the colony. And we found that bugs had fed on a woodrat, which we expected, but also some bugs that had been collected from what appeared to be a possum nests because they had possum blood in their bellies. And then another set of bugs that had Eastern Cottontail bunny blood and their guts. And so this is really, really cool to just see like, oh, they are feeding on this diversity of hosts in the environment because some kissing bugs have a very strong host association where they’re more like way more likely to be found in woodrat nests than other nests. But the species that visa was trained to smell as her primary sent for is called tray trigger sticker. And we didn’t really have a good idea on where these bugs are spending their nymphal stages. And so this was really cool for us to see. See that little bit of data as well.
Kayla Fratt 39:41
Yeah, that’s really exciting. And yeah, I think it’s really helpful to kind of think through all of the different use cases for having found these guys. K9Conservationists is thrilled to offer a self study on class for those interested in joining the field of conservation dog professionals. This course includes 18 modules of video law your assigned reading homework and quizzes. We have lectures from 10 amazing guest instructors, including fostering motivation and joy through high displacement training with Laura Holder of Conservation Dogs Collective, safety training and assessments of dog teams with guests Fiona Jackson and Tracy Litton have Skylos Ecology, special considerations for insect and plant training samples with Arden Blumenthal of the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, and building networks acquiring clients with Paul Bunker. Our alumni group is active and supportive. And we welcome students of all levels and backgrounds. The course is priced at $750 with generous financial aid and discounts available for Patreon members, learn more and sign up at k9conservationist.org/class. So what is potentially next for you all, is there any thought for finding another dog to try to do this with? You know, it doesn’t necessarily sound like that would be the most efficient way to, you know, deal with Chagas disease, which I think is probably what some people who may see headlines are thinking is the plan here. So what maybe some potential plans in the future? And if dogs aren’t involved, that’s fine, too.
Devin Christopher 41:06
We haven’t we haven’t talked about that. I mean, I would love to train another dog. Yeah, I think we learned a lot about how it’s going to work. Yeah, I think questions would be about Yeah, what are the real world practical applications? And I certainly think that there are practical applications. Um, I would love to train another dog. But you know, as you knows he’s a died in 2020. And finding another dog is quite a challenge if you’re not willing to accept, you know, a normal, healthy dog. So I don’t know if we if someone decides that they’re interested in it, and I’d be thrilled to work on it again, but we’ll see.
Kayla Fratt 41:49
Yeah, definitely. No, it does seem like dog location for something like this is quite challenging. Well, as we’re wrapping up here, is there anything else that we didn’t get to or anything you wanted to circle back to, and tell our listeners about,
Rachel Curtis-Robles 42:02
I just like to repeat that if anyone has a bug that they’re worried of the kissing bug, they can reach out to us? I know, especially across Texas and throughout the southern US we in different areas, kennels, especially outdoor multi dog, kennels can be a place where these bugs are easily found, because they’ll come in during the night, presumably, because they can sense the the heat of the dogs and the carbon dioxide and the sense of the dogs. And so if anyone’s having an issue with with kissing bugs at their kennel, from our site at Texas a&m, we have lots of advice and helpful tips and can help identify and so if anyone’s dealing with that issue, or that we’re more than happy to be a connection for them.
Kayla Fratt 42:46
Yeah, that’s really great. And maybe then we’ll run out with what are a couple identifying characteristics for a kissing bug. If people have never heard of them or have no idea what they’re potentially looking for?
Rachel Curtis-Robles 42:57
Yeah, that’s a great question. So the easiest way is on our website, kissing bugs at ta M u.edu. We have a bunch of photos, but pretty much they’re rather large bugs. So throughout most of the USA species we have are a half an inch to an inch or longer. Big. They’re kind of a big gross. Scary, yes.
Kayla Fratt 43:19
Oh, my gosh, I know. Whoa, okay. Well, that yeah,
Rachel Curtis-Robles 43:25
we have an email address. And so we can see the timestamps on all the emails that come through when we check the next day. And I feel like I’ve answered a lot of emails that came through in the middle of the night when somebody found was really weird and just got like, really freaked out, which it’s like, keep calm and just like don’t read all the stuff on the internet because all the stuff on the internet is scary about anything, let alone Chagas disease. And a lot of the stuff about Chagas disease on the internet is focused for areas where they do have a lot of human disease cases that we have very few in the United States. And so the risk is much different for a lot of reasons, but I would
Devin Christopher 44:02
be very scared. Scared to find one. And you know, a lot of people asked me that, you know, while I was in Texas, people were like, Well, did you like have her check out the areas like where you were staying at night to like, make sure that there were no bugs there. That was like, that’s a really great idea. But I was mostly staying in a tent. So I but I was paranoid at night. I would be very scared if I found one. Thankfully, I never found one anywhere where I was sleeping. Oh, that’s good.
Rachel Curtis-Robles 44:31
I’m surprised Oh, and you were there kind of in the offseason for the adults. So I don’t think I mentioned earlier but I think Devin sprinkled it in that the adult bugs tend to be be flying more in like the maybe like July August September. And so when I used to go do field work I learned pretty early. I was very paranoid and I got a double zipper tent so like a tent that had like kind of like a zippered porch area because I wanted to be able to like decontaminate myself. But I, I remember distinctly at one of the sites where you guys went, I had been there a few years before camping overnight and the middle of the summer. And when I woke up very early in the morning, you could see the, the shadows of the bugs, there was just like maybe four or five bugs on the outside of the tent, just like trying to find their way into the tent. And with the morning light coming in, I could see the shadow, little bugs. And I was like, I really would like to sleep a little more. But I really need to go collect these off the outside of
Devin Christopher 45:34
the light traps, right? Like you’re basically like hanging a sheet and you shine a light on it. And their bugs are like attracted to it, right. And that’s how you can collect the kissing bugs. While if you’re in your tent at night. And you have a light on. You’re literally like a giant bug trap,
Rachel Curtis-Robles 45:49
like Yes, exactly. So aside from that they’re they’re mostly nocturnal. So people finding bugs sorted from dusk until dawn, although occasionally people find them in the middle of the day just and they get a weird spot. Like I said, they’re rather large, they’re primarily dark, dark brown, and or black, although they do have stripes around the very edges sort of around there, around their abdomen, or they’re kind of the belly button. And so either like sort of yellowy orange stripes, horizontal or reddish orange stripes around their edges. For most of the species in the US. I would say those are the the biggest things. And then of course, their little, their little pointy nose. The rostrum is made specifically to suck blood in a very like a bliss detectable manner possible. So if you turn over the bug, you can see it tucks its needle like mouth, under, it’s under its abdomen, under its belly when it’s not in use. But it has a very long, thin, pointed mouth sucky part thing, versus some insects that look a little bit similar, have a very thick, curved, round mouth part because they use that to actually pierce the exoskeletons of other insects and suck their juices out. So there’s a number of things that we can look at. And we have looked at 10s of 1000s of photos at this point and in our email. So any photos somebody sends in even a fuzzy one, as long as we can get the general shape, we’re 99.9% sure when we email them back and say it is or is not a kissing bug, or we’ll ask for a better photo.
Kayla Fratt 47:23
Yeah. Well, that’s great. Thank you guys so much. So remind us the website that people can check out if they think that they want to learn more about kissing bugs or think they might have found one. And anywhere else that people should check out if they want to learn more about you and your work both Rachel and Devin here.
Rachel Curtis-Robles 47:40
Yeah, the kissing bug website is kissing bug dot t mu.edu. Or if that’s too long to remember, you can Google kissing bug in Texas and will probably be the site at the very, very top, we have a map there we can see where we’ve gotten kissing bugs submitted from before and some information, some FAQ so people can learn all about, but always feel free to reach out with more questions. And then if you have more questions about what Sarah Hamer his lab at Texas a&m University is doing she has a website as well about the research and work in her lab, which at this point is very focused on vector borne diseases, including Chagas disease, but also tick borne diseases and, and other diseases.
Kayla Fratt 48:23
Excellent. Yeah. Thank you so much, Devin. Is there anywhere that people should go to check out what you’re up to? It sounds like you’re still in the in the dog world.
Devin Christopher 48:31
Yep, I’m around. If you are interested in contacting me, I think the best way these days is to check out my LinkedIn. Devin Christopher on LinkedIn. Hopefully you’ll find me. Yeah.
Kayla Fratt 48:45
All right. Well, great. Thank you guys so much for coming on. Thanks for spending a Friday evening with me talking about Chagas disease, kissing bugs. And for everyone at home. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you learned a lot and you’re feeling inspired to get outside and be a canine conservationist in whatever way suits your passions and skill set. Maybe hopefully avoiding all the Tigers bugs and other venomous snakes. All the scary stuff out there. You can find your show notes, donate to K9Conservationists and join Patreon or our class over at K9Conservationists.org. Until next time!