Friday, March 7, 2014

Plop goes the pachyderm

There are many reasons researchers study poop and, yes, I have stumbled upon another one! American postdoctoral fellow Stephanie Schuttler of the University of Missouri in Columbia wrote her dissertation on identifying the social structure in elusive African forest elephants. She obtained her raw data through "non-invasive genetic sampling." In other words, she collected elephant poop, which is coated with skin cells that have sloughed off from the intestinal tract and from which DNA can be extracted (IMAGE ABOVE, MORE PHOTOS HERE). Because forest elephants defecate roughly 17 to 20 times a day, their dung is not hard to find, but the trick is to get it while it's fresh. Schuttler looked for piles that had a stronger smell, a sheen, and bolus that were intact (unless they had been stepped on by an animal, broken apart by insects, or investigated by red river hogs). She was grateful for these recent techniques that allow the poop to be analyzed for more than the elephants' diet and writes, "...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."

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