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Brain Food: Species From Feces

KNAU/Bonnie Stevens

For many years, Flagstaff researchers have been able to locate rare and endangered bats by casting nets over water at night. But now a more accurate way of knowing where they live is by finding and studying their guano.

Colin Sobek, a research technician at the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics, says their cutting edge project is called Species from Feces. "So we take this poop", Sobek says, "and we extract all the DNA out of it and we're using a very small segment of DNA that's specific to bats. That's called a bar code - much like the bar codes in a grocery store that mean what you're buying. This genetic bar code identifies a bat."

Sobek and other Northern Arizona University researchers analyze bat droppings found in caves and mines by using the same state-of-the-art genetic sequencing tools used to identify deadly strains of diseases, like anthrax.

Research technician Dan Sanchez says this highly specialized technology will radically change what we know about these cryptic creatures. "Before this," Sanchez says, "bats were almost scientifically intractable. They fly, they're nocturnal, so they're hard to catch. They're hard to study". Sanchez goes on to say, "They're also one of the most diverse mammalian groups, yet we know nothing about them. The ability to take their guano, their droppings, and get information from that, harvest, say, their species identity is a huge step forward in research."

Bats are considered a keystone species - an indication of an intact, healthy ecosystem. Researchers hope their Species from Feces experiment will go global, helping wildlife managers better protect bats and their habitat worldwide.