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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: All the Poop on Rarely Seen Animals

Northern Arizona University

For wildlife biologists, animal droppings are like nuggets of gold, packed with what they value most: information. Rather than spending weeks lurking in bushes hoping to dart an elusive animal with a tranquilizer gun, setting traps, or trying to catch it in a net, researchers have become poop detectives.

Arizona wolf biologists have even used specially trained tracking dogs to sniff out the information left behind by these secretive animals.

In the lab, the feces are ground up and mixed with chemicals to extract DNA from cells that are shed by the intestines. This lets scientists positively identify the species of animal that made the dropping.

Using math, even a species’ population size can then be determined. Other DNA signatures from droppings can reveal exactly what an animal has been eating, and even viruses or other diseases it may have.

At Northern Arizona University, biologist Carol Chambers and other researchers are embarking on a project they call Species from Feces. Using DNA from bat droppings, the project team is learning exactly which species of bats use a particular cave.

The researchers will use what they learn to help the National Park Service, mining companies and conservationists protect endangered bats and their caves.

White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that is decimating bats in other parts of the U.S., has not yet arrived in the Southwest. If and when it gets here, the baseline data provided by the Species from Feces project will be crucial in fighting the disease.

Earth Notes is produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

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