If you study cheetahs, as Dr. Sarah Durant has been doing for more than two decades, poop is important. From it, you can learn about diet or even extract DNA, which can tell you a lot about the animals' behavior. We asked Durant, a Senior Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London and WCS, about this less-than-glamorous aspect of her work.
Wildlife Conservation Society:What are some of the ways you've been able to use poop in your research?
Dr. Sarah Durant: We did a study on paternity in cheetahs. By getting poop samples from mothers and cubs and then male cheetahs, we could see who was fathering which cubs. And that showed that there was a very high proportion of multiple paternity within litters. Forty-three percent of the litters we studied with multiple cubs were fathered by more than one male, which is unusual. It's rarely documented in cats actually.
The other thing we've used it for, we did a survey in the Algerian Sahara where we analyzed the poop that was detected. We managed to find cheetah DNA and leopard DNA, which actually identified leopards in an area that they hadn't been recorded before.
WCS: What are some of the challenges with collecting cheetah poop?
SD: When you are observing a cheetah family—a mom with lots of cubs—and waiting for samples, there tends to be a synchronized poop. They all spread out and poop at once. You have to be very adept at that point. You have to photograph each one. Work out exactly where they all are so you can collect the samples. Then you have to go back and map them all out, make sure you can actually assign the right poop sample to the right cheetah. It can be challenging. We've gotten quite good at it over the years. You have to be very focused at that point.
The other thing, I haven't stepped in it fortunately, but I have almost driven over it. We are very careful not to step out of the car where the cheetah can see us. Although they're habituated to our vehicles, they're very timid if they see you out of the vehicle. So, if the cheetah is still near, you have to drive up pretty close to the fecal sample so you can get out on the other side of the car where it can't see you. So you're actually trying to locate it as you're driving towards it. And it's quite easy to actually drive over it. I've driven over it to where it was between the wheels and then couldn't find it right away. Thank goodness I haven't actually driven the wheel over it yet, though.
WCS: How important is poop to researching these animals? Is there any viable alternative, like a blood sample?
SD: If you wanted a blood sample, you'd have to immobilize the cheetah, which is possible in the Serengeti when cheetahs are well habituated. But we can get a lot of the information we need from fecal samples, which also means we can sample less habituated cheetahs, and avoid any small additional risks from immobilization. In the Sahara, it would be impossible. You never see a cheetah in the Sahara, so the only way is to use this noninvasive monitoring.
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