This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work post is by MSU graduate student Andy Booms.
For the past few months I’ve been searching Kenyan protected areas for spotted hyenas and their poop, which I collect. Each time I arrive at a new site I take a drive around and listen for the hyena’s characteristic whoop. Once I get a rough idea of where they are hanging out I can start searching for individual animals or the dens and other areas where they are likely to poop. When I find some poop worth collecting I put on my gloves, prepare my storage tubes, snap a popsicle stick in half (the perfect tool for this job), scrape the surface of the sample with the popsicle stick to collect sloughed-off cells, and place the scrapings in a tube. Once this is done I pack up and continue the search for samples from other individuals. The rest of the process – DNA extraction and genetic analysis – takes place back in the lab. This probably sounds like some sort of punishment, the work detail that nobody else wanted. I could take my dog for a walk at home, bring along some plastic baggies, and have a much easier time collecting samples. So why am I here?
As unglamorous as they may seem, fecal samples are actually a great, non-invasive way to collect DNA from wild animals. As the children’s book suggests, everybody (animals included) poops. I don’t have to tranquilize the hyenas. I don’t have to poke, prod, or handle them in any way. All I have to do is find them, follow them from a comfortable distance, and wait for nature to take its course. Using fecal samples as a source of DNA saves the hyenas from the potential stress of difficult dartings, especially in areas where the animals are unused to people and their vehicles. It also saves me from stress of sedating animals and taking their well-being into my hands, which primarily means finding a safe spot to put them where they can sleep off the effects of the drugs without being harassed by lions.
Okay, so poop is an easy way to get DNA. But why do I want hyena DNA? First, let me address hyenas. Spotted hyenas are common throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, both inside and outside of protected areas. They are also relatively resilient to various forms of human disturbance. I can even lie in bed at night in suburban Nairobi and hear hyenas whooping on occasion. Other large carnivore species, such as cheetahs and lions, don’t seem to fare as well under such human pressure. And the difficulty for a developing country like Kenya is that it’s these more sensitive species, not the spotted hyena, that draw the tourists (and their money). My goal in embarking on this great poop patrol in Kenya has been to collect hyena DNA from protected areas across the southern half of Kenya, which I can then use to look at the genetic health of the hyena populations within each protected area. I want to know whether hyenas from a given area are being isolated, both physically and genetically, from hyenas in other areas by things such as towns, fences, and active persecution by local livestock herders. If such barriers are isolating spotted hyenas, they are almost surely negatively impacting the more sensitive, and economically important, species like cheetahs and lions. For the sake of both wildlife conservation and a healthy tourism industry, management steps will then need to be taken in order to ensure the maintenance of healthy carnivore populations in Kenya’s parks and other protected areas, if not outside of them as well.
Now, why is it that I would travel thousands of miles to personally pick up hyena poop? First and foremost, I strongly believe in conservation efforts, especially in areas like Kenya where there is still much wildlife and the battle is not quite so uphill. Many Kenyans, whether directly tied to conservation or not, are both proud of and passionate about their country and its wildlife. Kenya is filled with national parks, national reserves, private wildlife conservancies, and group ranches, all dedicated to providing wildlife with places to roam. Kenyans are increasingly coming to the realization that improving the situation for wildlife can benefit the economy, from the local level all the way to the national level. Over the long-term, I hope this spells success for much of Kenya’s wildlife and its habitats.
On a less idealistic level, I also like the adventure of this sort of research. The DNA that I extract from poop is the valuable part of this sample collection process, but being in the field and actually collecting the samples is where the excitement is. I get to travel from park to park, see species that I’ve never seen before in my life, sleep in the middle of the wilderness with only the thin fabric of a tent wall separating me from any creature that comes my way in the night, and call it research. Sure, there are low points too: having car trouble, getting stuck in the middle of the bush at night and having to walk to get help (while imagining every shadow to be one of the lions or hyenas that I heard vocalizing in the distance), finding less-than-cooperative hyenas. It’s all part of the adventure, though. A person can’t help but gain a greater sense of independence after spending time over here. And I’ll leave, hopefully in one piece, with lots of stories to tell my kids someday.
For more information about Andy’s work, you can contact him at boomsan1 at msu dot edu.