The Dung Collectors
I promised I would have some news about what the Serengeti team has been up to recently in the field. Our beloved camera-trap grid is still being cared for, cards downloaded, batteries replaced and cameras given the once over. So all is well on that front but what is the latest question being asked by the team.
Well thanks to the spatial occupancy modelling of the Snapshot Serengeti camera-trap grid we have learned a lot about how the animals share the environment. What we can’t derive from the camera trap images is the details of what the different species are doing when they are in those spaces and how so many large herbivores can exist together. It could be that they simply facilitate each others foraging or maybe they are using different resources. Scientists have identified what is known as niche partitioning, a mechanism that sees different species specialising in eating different proportions of grasses verses non-grasses; pure grazers and pure browsers and a sliding scale between the two. A second mechanism sees different species eating different parts of the same plant.
These two mechanisms seem to make perfect sense but it is not understood to what extent these two truly affect coexistence of large herbivores. This is where the Snapshot Serengeti team research comes in.
Under our own Dr Michael Anderson they have teamed up with Dr Rob Pringle and researchers at Princeton University in using a revolutionary new analysis method known as DNA metabarcoding to see what exactly each animal is eating.
Up until recently scientists studying herbivore diet had two choices, they could watch their subjects and try to identify what they were eating or they could use microhistology, whereby plant parts in faeces are visually identified. As you can imagine these methods are fine for differentiating between, say, grasses and trees but don’t allow scientists to classify down to individual plant species. With DNA metabarcoding they now have that ability and it should tell us a whole lot more about how the animals divide their resources in space and time.
So that’s the science but how does the team collect this data. Well as with microhistology it involves dung. Our intrepid scientists are roaming the Serengeti collecting poop from as many different herbivores as they can and then it all has to be shipped back to the labs for analysis.
If you are thinking that our team must be highly skilled detectives able to identify a wide variety of brown pellets in the savannah grasses then think again. That’s not to say they can’t but this work relies on 100% knowing which species produced said dung its sex and age as well as a sample that has not been contaminated in anyway. The method of collection relies then, on stealthy observation waiting for an individual to lift its tail and sprinkle the ground with brown pellets before running in with your sample jar at the ready to collect the freshly deposited “clean” offerings. I have some experience with this work and believe me it does feel slightly odd to be observing animals in this way, willing them on to have a bowel movement so you can move on to the next species. It is also a little risky as you can get so engrossed at watching your target animal that you forget there are predators there watching and waiting. At least in this project it is only herbivores the team are interested in, to do the same with predator’s faeces, that’s a whole lot more smelly.
The study is still in its early stages but the team reports they are already seeing some noteworthy things.
Spoiler alert, early results suggest that there are only two ‘pure’ grazers in Serengeti (zebra and warthog) and lots of variation between wet and dry season.
We will bring you further updates once the team has finished their analysis work and have the full results. It promises to be exciting stuff. In the meantime you can think on the glamorous job a field scientist has whilst you stay clean at home helping with the job of classification.