Fancy Science Blog

How Changing What You Eat Can Help the Planet

Everyone has to eat, but what you eat actually has huge impacts on the planet. It often feels like

I do most of my regular grocery shopping at the farmers market. They taste better too!

environmental impacts are outside your control and made by big corporations, but changing our diet actually makes a huge difference. Here’s what you can do to help protect the wildlife in our planet:

  1. Eat less meat. While vegetarian/vegan is best, don’t let perfection be the enemy of action. Try to have one meatless meal a day or meatless days of the week. It’s not black and white.
  2. Shop local. I buy almost all of my produce at farmer’s markets. I love this because I love supporting local farmers (especially as the daughter of a small business owner) and the carbon footprint is MUCH smaller than most produce at the grocery store.
  3. If you eat meat, choose pasture-raised products or hunt. You can buy this meat at farmers markets, but also Whole Foods. These animals spend their lives in pastures. Since the quality of their diet is improved (e.g. not grain for cows, naturally occurring insects for chickens), the quality of the meat is better. So even if you don’t care about the planet, this meat is better for you and does not come with antibiotics, hormones, etc. Toxins accumulate in fat, so eating non-pasteurized fatty products like pork is not good for your body. Also, the animals here at least have humane lives, where as in factory farms animals live in appalling conditions. With hunting, there are obviously no additives and all of the animals are free range to the fullest extent.
  4. If you eat fish, choose products that are sustainable. Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app to know what to buy.
  5. Avoid products that contain unsustainable palm oil. Palm oil is found in SO MANY THINGS. Palm oil plantations are destroying habitat for endangered organutans. Download the Palm Oil app by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to know which products are friendly for these amazing apes.

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Take a Child Outside to Create Future Conservation Advocates

Catching and releasing wildlife like frogs played a strong role in developing my conservation ethic.

It might not seem like you are doing anything, especially something for the planet, but one of the best things you can do for biodiversity conservation is to actually take a child outside. Over the past few decades, people are spending more and more time indoors, and connecting less with nature. As television, malls, smart phones, and social media compete with nature, the latter frequently loses. So what’s the big deal? And how does this help conservation? Experiences with nature at a young age are a huge predictorof attitudes towards conservation and natural resource stewardship. Ask myself or any other ecologist how they got started in this field and its always the same thing – exploring and playing outdoors as a child. Whether it was turning over rocks to look inside insect worlds or blowing dandelion seeds, these experiences are imperative to form an emotional bond with nature and a strong sense of place that motivates people to protect natural places. Remove these experiences and you are left with a generation of people unable to make these connections and therefore apathetic towards nature. Who will give money to World Wildlife Fund when they have not seen wildlife? Who will vote for protected areas? This “extinction of experience” is a great and often underestimated threat to biodiversity.

One of my favorite things to do as a girl was explore creeks. I still do that today when I get the chance.

These experiences with nature need not be pristine or profound. Talk to those same ecologists and a lot will muster up memories of backyards and gardens in addition to national parks. These experiences can occur in the most urbanized areas. In New York City and Chicago, there are wild enough areas for coyotes to re-colonize, although the typical landscaped city parks will also do. Don’t think the biodiversity of urban areas is subpar either. Urban parks, gardens, and your yards yield a surprisingly high amount of biodiversity, are important for conservation, and even hold discoveries waiting to be made like new species.

To bring your experiences in nature to the next level for children and biodiversity, use observations as a learning opportunity. See trash? Explain why it’s important not to litter and that animals frequently eat and choke on discarded balloons, straws, and wrappers. Also, pick up the trash to not only project good conservation attitudes, but also good conservation ethic through behavior (double environmental points if it’s recyclable!).

Even if you don’t care about nature, you should get outside (and take a young one too) because it’s good for you! There are selfish reasons to go out in nature that are still effective on your health even if you lacked in nature experiences as a child. Researchers are just beginning to scratch the surface on the mental health benefits of going outside including implications on ADHD, depression, aggression, and even play. For instance, children engage in twice as much play and more creative play in areas of high vegetation, and even views of dense vegetation can improve self-discipline.

Although long-term, one of the biggest things that you can do for biodiversity is ensure this planet still has advocates. Take a child outside this weekend, even if it’s only in your backyard. `

Nature is everywhere – even in the biggest cities in the world. This photo of NYC was taken by Ed Bourdon and can be found here.

This blog was originally published on the Wildlife SNPits.

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Upgrade Your Yard for Wildlife by Letting it Go

The word biodiversity congers up visuals of far away places – the Amazonian rainforests or The Great Barrier coral reef. Having an impact can seem insurmountable, but is in fact it is within your reach. Biodiversity is as close as your own backyard. Traditional conservation models separate people and animals through protected areas, putting and saving biodiversity “over there” in areas seemingly untouched by people. Human development is not slowing down and we rarely gain more land to set aside for nature. To sustain wildlife, developed areas are needed as corridors and even permanent habitat. This means you can have a direct impact on wildlife by improving (or letting go of) your yard. Here’s some easy ways how.

Monarch butterfly. Photo from http://americanlivewire.com/2014-09-07-monarch-butterfly-thriving-milkweed-plant/

Landscape with native plants. Urban areas can actually have higher plant biodiversitythan natural areas because of invasive species of ornamental value of used in landscaping, but native plants are important for wildlife. They have evolved in that ecosystem with those species and therefore host higher species richness and are essential for other species, some of conservation concern. For example, monarch butterflies, which been in decline for decades, need milkweed to lay their eggs. Plant some milkweed and you directly help monarch populations. Native plants require less water, no pesticides, and as an added bonus are low maintenance. Natives are especially important in arid areas as the plants have evolved with little water and can handle stressful droughts. Planting native flowering plants provides food sources for pollinators, which are vital to our economy, as they pollinate our food supply.

Don’t use pesticides. Pesticides obviously kill insects and other pests, which means they directly reduce insect biodiversity, but also other species by reducing food sources.  Pesticides are highly toxic to humans and animals, and spread throughout the environment as runoff, which can also affect animals and us in the form of endocrine disruption, interfering with reproduction.

Make your yard certified by the National Wildlife Foundation. Photo from https://libertyhydebailey.org/2010/07/02/museum-becomes-a-certified-wildlife-habitat/

Or don’t landscape at all.When I was little, we were not allowed to walk on my next door neighbor’s lawn. I could not understand this concept. How could someone care about grass so much? He was so obsessed about getting it perfectly green and manicured, dumping tons of pesticides and fertilizers on it, that now I am happy that I didn’t walk on it for my health. Mowed lawns are actually terrible for wildlife. They are severely monocultured and do not provide any dimension for habitat structure. Therefore, there is less food and shelter in yards with large, manicured lawns. Even if you can’t get away with, or can bear the thought of not having a lawn, at least let parts of your yard go. Piles of brush, logs, and unraked leaves all provide macro and microhabitat that a range of wildlife can enjoy. The best part about this tip is that you can be super lazy and still do it.

Put up a bird house and a bat house. With the sprawl of houses and monocultured lawns, animals like birds and bats lose the types of complex structures such as tree cavities that they live in. Building these houses creates shelter in these difficult, developed landscapes. Setting up bat houses can reduce human-wildlife conflict (bats will choose bat houses over your house) and can make your yard more enjoyable by eating mosquitos.

Keep cats indoors. This one is huge. I love cats (I have four), but they are cute, little wildlife murderers. While they don’t discriminate, killing reptiles, birds, and mammals, their impacts are particularly damaging to bird populations. One study found they kill at least one bird per month (that was only what they brought back). Multiply that by all the cats, both owned and unowned, and you could have impacts in the billions.

Don’t be fooled. They look cute and innocent, but they are supreme hunters. Which is why they stay indoors.

If you follow these guidelines, you may consider certifying your yard as wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. Beyond these recommendations, there are only a few more things to do such as providing water sources.

The weather is warming up and everyone is getting ready for some backyard recreation. When outside at your grill or mowing the lawn, look around and see if there are some small tweaks you can make to make your yard more wildlife friendly. Better yet, involve your children to create conservation stewards for the future. You won’t just help wildlife, but you’ll also save time and money.

This post was originally posted on the Wildlife SNPits.

On camera traps, we find lots of wildlife on let-go areas of school yards. Some even have higher detections than nearby protected areas.

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Pollinators: Fashion forward, but in Decline

Bees on the Chanel 2016 runway

Spring is in the air! Flowers are blooming in real life and in prints of your favorite designers. With flowers come the buzzing of bees, flies, and butterflies – important pollinators. When visiting flowers to forage on nectar and pollen, pollinators move pollen that gets stuck to their bodies from the anthers (male part of the plant) of one flower to the stigma (female part) of another, allowing for fertilization and therefore reproduction to occur. Without pollinators, many plants cannot reproduce meaning that pollinators are critical for our food supply, worth at least tens of billions of dollars for this ecosystem service.

The pollinator that usually first comes to mind is the bee. Saying “the” bee is a huge understatement, considering there are 20,000 known species and considering many are either undiscovered or undescribed, probably thousands more. The bee we are most familiar with is the honey bee, which collects nectar to make honey stored in hives to help bees survive through the winter when there are no flowering plants. Bees are really cool animals as some species have a highly evolved and complex eusocial system. In this system, there is one reproducing individual (the queen) in which all other adult members care for her and her offspring. Eusociality has been explained by kin selection for years, where individuals benefit by helping others raise young as they share genes and contribute to fitness indirectly, but more recently, scientists have proposed this system has evolved through the defense of a nest and extreme evolution.

Butterflies on the Versace runway

Bees were seen in the Chanel couture and Christian Dior Spring 2016 collections as embroidered detailing, earrings, and broaches (I cannot even tell you how much I love these looks!). Unfortunately, bees are in great need of help. The have been in decline for years due to habitat loss (see below how you can help), climate change, pesticides, and disease.

Butterflies are another well-known pollinator and also well-used by designers, especially for spring. The most iconic butterfly in the United States is the monarch butterfly, known for its incredible migration from the US to Mexico, and similar to bees, in decline. This butterfly also suffers from loss of habitat, and milkweed specifically, in which the caterpillar exclusively eats and the butterflies lay their eggs upon. Really cool citizen science (meaning you can participate in real science) opportunities exist in monarch butterfly research, resulting in peer-reviewed publications advancing the knowledge of monarchs.

Most people think of invertebrate insects when it comes to pollinators, but there are also vertebrate pollinators. Hummingbirds in the New World and similar-looking sunbirds in the Old World both feed on nectar and pollinate. Dolce & Gabbana feature a scene of these birds foraging in their spring collections (and who wouldn’t want their man in a sunbird suit?).

Dolce & Gabbana suit

My favorite pollinator is also a vertebrate, and a pretty unexpected one, the lesser long-nosed bat. You are also probably a fan of this pollinator because this bat is responsible for pollinating blue agave, which is the plant used for making tequila. Despite their importance in a drink many people love, bats tend to be hated (undeservedly so) by people. This bat has therefore suffered because of it and was endangered for years in Mexico. However, due to the amazing dedication of “Bat Man” scientist Dr. Rodrigo Medellin, the endangered species designation of this species was reversed, making a conservation success story for this unlikely pollinator. Medellin is a true conservationist and worked hard to educate the public on the importance of this bat to Mexico’s economy and heritage, find new roosts, and restore habitat. His story is told in the BBC documentary “Natural World: The Batman of Mexico,” which I highly recommend. The lesser long-nosed bat is back to pollinating blue agaves and making sure there is plenty of tequila for Mexicans and the world to enjoy. Fashion designers need to take note of the Bat Man’s ability to promote this flagship species and create some cool bat-inspired fashions (I could only find one, a gothic bat dress by Giles).

Bat dress from Giles 2014

There are far too many pollinators for one blog post, which truly showcases their importance worldwide. Others include monkeys, lemurs, possums rodents, wasps, ants, flies, moths, beetles, lizards and snakes. However, the unfashionable trend of pollinators is that most are in decline. Even if you don’t care about conservation, you should care about your food supply. One way you can have an impact is by creating pollinator-friendly habitat where you live, and don’t underestimate your neighborhood. A recent study found that bees actually preferred foraging in urban gardens over forests. This is especially important for migrating pollinators so they can have food sources when they stop along their long journey. On your next stop to your home or garden store, make sure to pick up some native plants that please pollinators to help support their conservation.

Visiting a tequila factory in Guadalajara, Mexico. Agaves behind me!

This post was originally featured on The Wildlife SNPits. All photos are courtesy of Vogue.

Why I Use Instagram for Science Outreach

Lots of people have been asking for my response to the recent Science magazine opinion piece “Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach,” so here it is. I never felt like wildlife biology (my field of science) was for people like me. As a young girl, wildlife content was geared towards hunters or whimsical (e.g. unicorns, ponies). My first years in grad school, I came in as “me” with make-up on and business casual clothes – not even that fancy, but I increasingly felt like I didn’t belong. Almost no one wore make-up, and Chakos and field clothes (REI, Columbia) were worn even though people did not go to the field. It was implied that any moment I would spend on myself, doing things that were not related to science (e.g. putting on makeup, shopping) was a sign that I was not a serious scientist. It was made very clear to me that almost every waking moment should be spent on science. So I conformed. I limited my makeup and wore yoga pants to show I was so busy doing my research that I couldn’t possibly have the time to put on pants with a zipper (even though it took me longer to pick out a yoga pants outfit). But I felt awful. I felt sad. I didn’t feel like me. So then I rebelled. I honestly also had so much eyeshadow that I figured it would take me forever to get through it if I didn’t wear it every day, lol. So I started wearing it again. And I felt better. I felt like me and when I feel good, I am more productive. It’s kind of like when you dress up for a job interview in a suit, you start to feel more powerful. Clothes have meaning. I’ve been giving talks to classrooms for 8 years now. Every time I enter a classroom, including this last Friday, the students tell me they thought I was a student teacher or a mom. They are SHOCKED when I tell them I an the scientist. I first changed my handle to @FancyScientist for Twitter because the teachers I worked with kept calling me fancy and I felt it reflected my personality. I started doing #FancyFriday to show that I am not the only #FancyScientist. That there are lots of us out there – to show young girls that they don’t have to choose between liking fancy, frivolous things and liking serious things like science (and to show those in academia too). Because society often casts us into stereotypes, we feel like we have to choose one. It was never my intention to show one type of scientist, or to tell scientists that they have to be feminine or frilly. In fact I have gone out of my way to show diversity in people and diversity in fanciness. But I also get that Instagram can be TOXIC for women, scientists included. That we only post when we look and feel our best (myself included). Remember it’s a highlights real – and that we usually just show our best selves. In fact, for my body, I had to unfollow any account that made me feel like I needed to sculpt my abs and started following women who love their bodies. So today I’m showing my  unfancy self. And a reminder that science is for everyone!

 

The Ajay Bruno Show – Stephanie Schuttler Interview

How did I become a scientist? How do YOU become a scientist? What was my scariest animal encounter? What was it like to be on What on Earth? Find out the answers to these questions and more in my interview with Ajay Bruno.

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Misidentified Spots: You’re Really Wearing Jaguar Print

Previous fashion files talked feline prints leopard and cheetah, both commonly heard and used in fashion chat. But what about jaguar print? This phrase doesn’t quite roll of the tongue, but actually a lot (maybe even most) of the prints we wear give leopards credit, but are really inspired by jaguars.

Jaguars (Panthera onca) are the biggest cat species of the new world, ranging from South America to the most southern points of the US near the Mexican border. Jaguars are in the genus Panthera, and therefore most closely related to lions and leopards. Similar to the leopard, jaguars have rosette “spots”, but inside the rosettes, you will also see another black spot. Variation occurs in these big cats, so in some individuals, the difference will be more prominent (you will see the dot easily), while in others it may be more difficult to see. Also, within a jaguar coat, not all of the rosettes will have spots inside, and this will also vary between individuals; some will have a lot of rosettes with black spots, while others will have mostly empty rosettes. Like leopards, there can be melanistic jaguars, making them appear all black (colloquially “black panther”).

Jaguar on left, leopard on right. Photos from eMammal.

Jaguars are extremely elusive. If you go on safari in Africa, your chances of seeing a cheetah are pretty good. A leopard, is more difficult to spot, but many tourists still see them. Jaguars, on the other hand, are hardly ever seen, even by those who study them intensely. I recently attended a talk by Dr. Marcella Kelly at Virginia Tech, who studies these cats with camera traps, and despite spending years in jaguar habitat, has only seen them several times. This largely has to do with their forested habitat and secretive behavior.

Studying Jaguars

Camera traps, specialized cameras triggered by heat and motion, are one of the few and best ways to study these elusive animals. If your camera trap is set up in a jaguar’s home range and the individual passes by (some scientists use Calvin Klein Obsession to lure them), it will snap a photo of it stamped with the time and date. In another method, non-invasive genetics, the scientist tries to find jaguar scat (poop) to be used as a source of DNA. Finding jaguar scat in a rainforest is the quintessential needle in a haystack, which is why researchers like Dr. Karen DeMatteo, use canine companions to find the scat. These dogs can be trained to not only find jaguar scat, but also other cats and carnivores (ocelots, bush dogs, pumas). Given that dogs can walk a lot more than humans, they can also cover more ground.

Camera trap photo of jaguar from eMammal.

Through camera trapping and genetic methods, you can identify individuals. In camera traps, capturing a clear image of the spots lets you be able to tell the individual because each jaguar has a unique spot pattern. Genetic methods also allow you to identify individuals because each jaguar has unique DNA. According to Kelly, camera traps are better for capturing more individuals in the population. However, genetic methods offer advantages that camera traps do not. For example, you can infer patterns of dispersal and connectivity, which has important implications for conservation, especially since jaguar habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented.

Conservation

The jaguar is near threatened on the IUCN Redlist and inhabits only 46% of its original range. One of the largest threats to jaguars is deforestation, which not only removes habitat for this large-ranging species, but also exposes individuals more to humans, making them more susceptible to poaching. Due to the success of anti-fur campaigns in the United States and the initiation of CITES, poaching for fur is no longer a large incentive. Rather competition for prey species (leopards and people hunt the same animals) and retaliation for or the fear of them killing livestock are the main drivers. As deforestation increases, it will be more difficult for individuals to move between protected areas due to poaching and other barriers such as roads, and therefore populations will become more vulnerable to the effects of genetic isolation like inbreeding.

Fashion

Like leopard print, jaguar print is extremely versatile. If you want a bolder, more dramatic look, wear a large garment (e.g. coat, dress, pants) and for extra drama, add high contrast colors. If you are more demure, have the jaguar print be in a scarf, bag, or your shoes. Also similar to leopard print, you can combine jaguar with a range of colors. If you are not as adventurous, you can wear mostly neutrals (tans, black and white), or combine with pops of colors; red always is a great addition, but don’t forget about green, blue, purple. You want to choose brighter, stronger colors when combining with jaguar print because the print acts as a neutral and you don’t want the other colors to get washed in with the look.

Jaguar print was strong on the 2017-18 runway, Dolce & Gabbana. Photos from Vogue.

This post was originally created on the Wildlife SNPits.

 

 

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Whose Spots are You Wearing? Species Identifications of Animal Prints

Leopard print on the runway, Badly Mischka, Photos from Vogue Magazine

I have a pet peeve. About a year ago, I was scrolling through Pinterest and came across a Diane Von Furstenburg pin of a print used in her collection. The print resembled a clouded leopard, but when I clicked on the photo, it took me to a snow leopard photo, with natural history and conservation information about that species. I was so excited to see this connection to the animal itself, but was disappointed that the information was wrong.

All spotted prints are not the same! Being a fashionista, but also a scientist (especially a mammalogist), I actually care if people get the animal right. Even better, if they know something about the animal. Combining my love of fashion and animals, fellow blogger Emily Puckett and I are both writing a series of blogs focused on the animals behind the apparel you wear.

This first post is on the most classic print. So classic, some call it a neutral: leopard print. Leopards (Panthera pardus) and jaguars look very similar, and if you were to see one of these cats in the wild, you could immediately tell them apart be location. If you see a large, stocky, spotted cat in Central/South America, it’s a jaguar, but if you are in Africa or Asia, it’s a leopard. Fashion, however, has no geographic limitations and therefore you have to look closely at the spots to tell them apart. Leopard coats are tawny with black rosettes (spots). The insides of the rosettes are a darker shade of the coat, and closer to the legs and head the rosettes are filled in completely. There are some leopards that are melanastic, meaning they have high levels of melanin in their pigment from a mutation, creating the illusion of a completely black cat (“black panther”). This is not a different species, and they still have black rosettes albeit against a near-black coat, making it difficult to see the rosettes. If you look closely and have good light, you can make them out.

Regular (left) and melanistic leopard (right). Note you can still make out the rosettes. 

Despite their coats looking similar to, and often being confused with jaguars and cheetahs (to be covered in future posts), leopards are most closely related to lions, which obviously have no spots. Leopards are one of the five big cat species in the genus Panthera along with lions, tiger, jaguar, and snow leopard. These cats underwent an early, rapid radiation about ∼3-4 million years ago with the split of lions and leopards in the Pleistocene era, and split of jaguars from lion/leopards near the Plio-Pleistocene boundary. Note that cheetahs, Acinonyx jubatus, which also look similar to leopards in terms of their coat are not even in the genus as leopards meaning they are much more distantly related.

Maximum likelihood tree of Panthera with clouded leopard as an outgrip. From Davis et al. 2010

Leopards have the largest range of all of the big cat species, spanning across Africa and southern Asia. Although locally common in areas, as a species, they are declining (status is near threatened on the IUCN Red List). Leopards suffer from habitat loss due to human development, but unlike most big cats and even large mammals, can actually live alongside even pretty large human populations if there are enough hiding spots and prey. This close proximity to humans though brings leopards one of their largest threats, conflict. Leopards can predate upon livestock, and therefore are directly targeted by humans to prevent these losses. Some of the ways people kill leopards is through poisoning carcasses.

Despite all of the gorgeous faux prints designers create, leopards surprisingly are still targeted for skins. This is a serious a threat, as they are traded in central and West African countries and used in traditional rituals such as those in South Africa. The rise of leopard print was largely in response to a real leopard coat worn by First Lady Jackie Kennedy. When other women wanted to copy this exotic ensemble, leopard and other spotted cat populations plummeted. The initiation of organizations like the Endangered Species Act and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) help protect these animals from being killed and traded on such a large scale. And as Jackie O’s look was ultra chic despite the negative conservation and ethical connotations, it was a win-win for designers to turn to faux prints for fashion. The prints worn today are representations of the actual furs that people used to wear, and to continue this trend of faking it to help leopard populations, visit IFakeIt.org and snap a photo of yourself wearing leopard print with the hashtag #IFakeIt.

You really can wear leopard print with almost anything, which is why it is considered a neutral. I love pairing it with bright colors, especially red. If you are not sure, the best bets are blacks, tans, or browns that will match parts of the print. If you are not used to wearing prints, leopard can feel overwhelming. To get started with leopard, try using it in a small accessory, like a scarf or shoes. Even these small flashes of leopard will have maximum fashion impact.

Scientists typically aren’t thought of as being fashionistas, but as you will find from my future posts that fashion actually finds a lot of inspiration from nature, especially animals. If you wear it, why not know about the animal behind your print?

*This post was originally posted on the Wildlife SNPits.

Leopard print on the runway, Badly Mischka, Photos from Vogue Magazine

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The ABC’s of Elephant DNA

My previous blog brought up how difficult forest elephants are to see, and therefore study. Much of the research on forest elephants has actually been on their dung to obtain information about the elephant.

Forest elephants defecate roughly 17-20 times a day, making it an accessible source of information. Traditionally, dung has been used to study diet. Forest elephants consume hundreds of species of plants, either as fruits, bark, or leaves, and sorting through dung piles gives scientists’ detailed information on what they are eating. More recently, scientists have used dung to obtain DNA. But how do scientists get DNA from dung?

DNA is found in nearly every cell in an individual’s body. The best sources of DNA come from tissue and fluids. Scientists who study amphibians will often cut off a portion of an individual’s toes (“toe clipping”) to get a DNA sample. For many species (forest elephants included), sampling body parts simply will not work. Tissue can be accessed though from dead animals, which is important in forensics cases to combat poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Collecting blood, although less invasive than tissue collection, still requires capture, which is stressful, and for many species, anesthesia, which is costly, and a risk to the individual. Within the past few decades, methods have been developed that allow researchers to collect DNA samples without ever even coming into contact with the animal. This is called non-invasive genetic sampling and uses sources such as hair, feathers, shed skin, egg shells, and feces to obtain DNA. It is more difficult to obtain DNA from non-invasive samples than tissue or blood, but it is worth it because it has no impact on the animal you are studying.

For elephants, the best way to get DNA is from their dung (feces). As mentioned before, they defecate often, making it easier to collect a large number of samples. We obtain DNA from dung samples, but the DNA is not in the dung per say. Rather, the DNA is located in the cells that have been sloughed off onto the dung. When the dung passes through the intestines inside the elephant’s body, it scrapes along the walls. When the elephant defecates, some of these cells will be stuck to the dung bolus and fall off with it. That is why it is best to have fresh dung (we use look for dung that is 24 hours old or less). When scientists find fresh dung, they put a small portion of the dung inside a collection tube. It’s easy to tell fresh dung apart from older ones; it has a stronger smell, sheen around it, and is usually intact as a bolus (unless an animal stepped on it or went through it; insects can break it apart and red river hogs will go through it). For importation into the U.S., the sample needs to be boiled within the tube in a bath of hot water to make sure that any pathogens are killed. To preserve the DNA for long-term storage, a liquid buffer is added, turning it into “dung slurry.” These samples are stored in a cooler, dark area of the field station for the duration of the trip.

Once the samples make their way through customs and into the lab, they need to be turned from dung into just the DNA. This involves an extraction process that takes several hours. Briefly, the samples go through a series of steps that involve breaking open the cells (the DNA is inside the cell) and removing the parts of the cells and the sample that are not needed. The sample contains large non-DNA parts including grasses or seeds from fruits the elephant has eaten, and also insects that may have been on or inside the sample when it was collected. The extraction process removes all of this. People often think it’s gross to work with dung samples, but after extractions, you are only working with the DNA, which is basically colorless, odorless liquid that resembles water inside a tiny tube.

In my research, I was able to use dung to identify patterns of sociality in forest elephants. When I found more than one dung pile together and of the same freshness, the elephants were likely part of the same group. The DNA from the dung allowed me to uniquely identify each individual. Therefore, I could keep track of who was hanging out together without ever even seeing them. I found that forest elephants were mostly in groups of individuals of the same matriline (their mother’s ancestry), which is also seen in African savanna elephants. Also they have larger associations than what is observed just from their group sizes – a hidden social network.

The diagram above is a network of forest elephant associations collected from dung samples. Individuals (symbols) are connected to one another by lines if their dung samples were ever collected together. Darker lines mean they were collected together more often. The symbols are a circle if the elephant is a female, and a square if a male. Each color represents what matriline (mother’s ancestry) the elephant belongs to.

DNA is a powerful tool and allows you to answer questions about animals without ever even seeing them. Some of the ways that scientists use non-invasive DNA include species identifications (finding new species or detecting if a species is present in a certain area), population estimates, the connectivity of populations across the landscape (are animals moving between populations?), and inbreeding. These findings are not only important contributions to science, but often critical in the management and conservation of threatened species.

*This post was originally featured on the African Wildlife Foundation

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Windows into the Forest

Elephants are the largest land animals, so it comes as a great surprise that for one species, we really don’t know that much. How can an animal so large be studied so little? Despite their size, African forest elephants are actually very difficult to see.

As their name suggests, they live in the forests of Central and West Africa, and can be easily hidden by vegetation (see photos for proof!). You can spend a whole day walking through the forest and never see them (although they probably see you). The canopy of forest trees also prevents viewing from overhead, making aerial surveys ineffective. Their dense habitat, large ranges, and overall difficult access for humans in the forest make it very difficult to study this species, and are the reasons why we know so little about their basic biology.

 

Despite these difficulties, there is one way to see this species and much of our knowledge about forest elephants comes from these types of observations. Within the forest, there are places called bais, a word from the Mbuti pygmy people, which describes a natural clearing in the forest with large deposits of minerals. Similar to a natural salt lick, the minerals attract all types of wildlife for consumption. The clearings are created and maintained by the heavy foot traffic from animals such as gorillas, sitatunga, and bongo in addition to elephants. Some bais, such as Dzanga Bai in the Central African Republic and Langoue Bai in Gabon are very large and attracted tens, and in Dzanga’s case, hundreds of elephants at a single time. Researchers have set up viewing platforms to observe elephants safely as they come into the bai and forage for minerals.

For my research in Lopé National Park, Gabon, I initially set up a platform at a saline, which is similar to a bai, but runs along a water bed. Although I saw some elephants, I quickly realized that the best place to see forest elephants was in the savanna clearings in the northeastern part of the park. Although Lopé is deep within the forest zone, there are patches of savannas, which are remnant from the Pleistocene Epoch and have been maintained by humans for thousands of years through prescribed burns. These savannas attract elephants as they forage for savanna fruits and grass, which is especially palatable after the burns.

At first, all of the elephants look similar, but once you start watching them, you will start to notice individual differences between them. The first elephant identification projects took place in Kenya, and researchers used the tears elephants get on their ears to identify individuals. Savanna elephants live in drier habitats with more thorny vegetation and therefore have prominent ear tears. Forest elephants tend to have far fewer ear tears than savanna elephants, and for many, no ear tears at all. Therefore, it takes a keen eye and plenty of photographs to be able to tell individuals apart. There are a series of steps that one must go through to deduce which individual is which:

  • First, it is essential to identify the sex of the elephant. The easiest and most obvious cue is behavioral. If the elephant has calves around it, it is very likely a female, especially if it is the only adult in the area. Females are hardly ever seen alone, while males are almost exclusively seen alone. If the individual is seen solitarily, it is probably a male, but look at the overall body and tusk size to make sure. Males are larger and have more girth with thicker tusks.
  • The most obvious difference and the best place to start identifications are with the tusks. Tusks vary from short to long, thick to thin, crooked to straight, and some individuals are even tuskless. Forest elephants tend to have straighter tusks, but variation still does exist and you can find individuals with more curvy tusks similar to savanna elephants.
  • Next is locating ear tears if they are present. Individuals may get ear tears from vegetation, but also predators (this mostly applies to calves, which can be predated on by leopards), and from fighting with each other. Ear tears can range from very small to large, and individuals can also have holes through their ear.
  • If individuals have no ear tears, you can start comparing the ears themselves. Just like humans, elephants have differences in their bodies. Some ears are very large, small, or circular, with prominent to non-existent ear lobes. You can also look at the vein patterns on their ears to help. This requires good photographs and light, and also depends on the elephant. Some individuals have prominent ear vein patterns that can be seen in almost any light and from a far distance.
  • ​Finally tailbrushes can be used to help separate similar-looking individuals. Individuals will have a varying amount of hair on their tailbrush from sparse to full. Some individual lack a tailbrush completely and there are even individuals in the population that have had their tail damaged or cut-off.

Each unique individual is entered into database program called Portfolio (by Extensis), which is actually used by art galleries to sort paintings, sculptures, and other artwork. The reason why it works so well for animals is because it provides a photo for each individual and allows you to input a code that can be used to sort individuals by their characteristics. For example, an elephant coded “FEHLETXRECGTL2F5GTB” would be female (FE), have a high tear in its left ear (HLET), no tear in its right ear (XREC, right ear “clean”), have a longer right tusk than left tusk (GTL, right tusk longer) with a left tusk in the range of 11-20 cm (2F) and a right tusk in the range of 41-50 cm (5G), and a thin tailbrush (TB). These codes allow you to search photos of individuals quickly for certain characteristics. Since 1999, 177 unique adult females and 53 males have been identified in the park.

Studying forest elephants, as in any elephant species takes time. Elephants are long-lived animals (about 60 years) and even studying them for years can only be a snapshot into their lives. Because of the nature of bai and savanna clearing observations, you can’t choose who you study, and you may only see an individual elephant once, and therefore we are still limited on the data collected. Therefore, long-term studies, and complementary, but different approaches, such as genetics and satellite telemetry, are needed to more fully understand this elusive species.

*This blog was originally posted on the African Wildlife Foundation.

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