Intrepid dogs’ breakfasts probed

Dr Jill Haley holds a Spratt’s dog cake fragment from the Canterbury Museum collection. PHOTO:...
Dr Jill Haley holds a Spratt’s dog cake fragment from the Canterbury Museum collection. PHOTO: JOHANNES VAN KAN
Dunedin researchers have used a laser microscope to shed new light on a century-old dog biscuit used to feed sledge dogs in early Antarctic exploration.

Canterbury Museum curator human history Jill Haley was lead author of the study to which Dr Sara Fraser-Miller, Jeremy Rooney and Prof Keith Gordon, of the University of Otago chemistry department, also contributed.

Associate Prof Craig Bunt, of Lincoln University, who is married to Dr Haley,contributed information about the biscuit’s calorie content.

Dr Haley, who has researched the lives of dogs in the Antarctic, said this week that in early Antarctic exploration, the heroic explorer was often depicted as sledging across the icy wastes, towed by his trusty dog team.

The dog cake.
The dog cake.
However, new research analysing the century-old dog biscuit suggested the dogs were probably surviving on half-empty stomachs, and early British Antarctic expeditions underfed their dogs, she said.

In a paper just published in online publication Polar Record, researchers from the museum, Lincoln, and Otago analysed the history and contents of Spratt’s dog cakes, a key element of the food provided for dogs in early Antarctic expeditions.

Early explorers valued their dogs, for pulling sledges and for their ‘‘companionship in the bleak isolation of Antarctica’’, she said.

Their analysis of a partially crumbled Spratt’s dog cake, one of four held at the museum, found its contents ‘‘weren’t that different to modern dog biscuits’’.

However, the overall volume of food provided for the dogs ‘‘didn’t provide enough fuel for their high-energy activities’’, she said.

Prof Gordon said it was ‘‘very pleasing’’ to contribute a rich set of data about the biscuit’s make-up, thanks to Raman microscopy.

Prof Bunt will take up a new post at Otago later this year.

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