Noninvasive Identification of Herpetofauna: Pairing Conservation Dogs and Genetic Analysis

Mark J. Statham, Deborah A. Woollett, Susan Fresquez, Jerene Pfeiffer, Jonathan Richmond, Alice Whitelaw, Ngaio L. Richards, Michael F. Westphal, Benjamin N. Sacks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Noninvasive fecal sampling combined with genetic analysis is a technique allowing the study of elusive or otherwise difficult to monitor species without the need for direct contact. Although this method is widely used in birds and mammals, it has never been successfully applied on a large scale in reptiles. The blunt-nosed leopard lizard (Gambelia sila) is an endangered species endemic to the San Joaquin Desert, California, USA. Presently, acquiring data on the species for research and management involves more traditional methods such as live capture or visual surveys, the latter of which are required for regulatory monitoring in accordance with wildlife agency protocols. We used an approach for gathering additional information that combines conservation detection dogs trained to locate blunt-nosed leopard lizard scat samples with genetic analysis for identifying and distinguishing among sympatric lizard species. We developed 2 polymerase chain reaction assays that produce fluorescently labelled amplicons of species-specific fragment length for 6 lizard species in the study area. Using these assays, we genetically identified to species 78% (255 of 327) of samples collected by dog-handler teams across 4 years. The majority of the genetically identified samples (82.4%; 210 of 255) were confirmed as originating from blunt-nosed leopard lizards. Although an assessment of the viability of detection dogs in regulatory monitoring efforts is required, our ability to recover usable DNA and to differentiate among a diverse group of lizards highlights the broad potential of our methodology for noninvasive sampling in reptiles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Wildlife Management
StateAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2019


  • blunt-nosed leopard lizard
  • conservation detection dog
  • Gambelia sila
  • genetic analysis
  • population monitoring
  • reptile
  • San Joaquin Desert
  • scat
  • species identification
  • western whiptail lizard

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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