I found out just five days after I had arrived at camp. An onslaught of rain made safely driving out into the sticky, muddy landscape an impossibility. Quite conveniently, this day had already been set aside as a “DNA day” at Talek camp. One might ask, what is a DNA day? It refers to an annual day where we extract DNA from the many samples of hyena blood collected during fieldwork. This is done so the DNA can be shipped back to the US for further analysis. Why would we want to look at hyena DNA? One of the most important aspects of studying behavior and interactions between individuals is knowing who is who and who is related to who. Since male hyenas do not provide any obvious parental care, even the best sleuths would have a hard time knowing who the father of each hyena cub is without the help of DNA. By knowing the family relationships between the hyenas, we can better understand the dynamics of their complicated lives.
Extracting DNA from blood is one of the easier tasks done in a standard laboratory setting. I’ve done it before, both in Omaha and at the lab in the Grand Tetons. However, something I have not done before is live in the African bush. As expected, field work is the bread and butter of our days here. But as it turns out, we can and must do a certain amount of traditional lab work as well. While the goal and techniques of this lab work are the same as at home, the details are far from traditional.
One of the biggest differences between this kind of lab work at home and in Kenya is the amount of teamwork involved. In the USA, taking a vile of hyena blood and extracting its genetic information would be a one person job, but here in the bush, it was a nine-person assembly line.
After finishing the last savory bites of our eggs and toast at 9am, we pulled out a large tank of liquid nitrogen that contained the blood samples. For those who do not know, nitrogen is very cold in its liquid state and is very good at preserving blood and many other things that originate from a living creatures.
While birds chirped and vervet monkeys scurried around in the background, our team spent hours passing plastic tubes back and forth in a style that would make for a good episode of MacGyver (the 80’s fix-anything-with-a-pair-of-tweezers-and-tape TV show). In true MacGyver style, a scenario of constraints led to a steady supply of humor and some decent innovation to the tone of using a cardboard box as a test tube holder when there wasn’t any more room in the styrofoam racks.
As far as I could tell, our efforts were mostly a success. A few days later, the extracted DNA flew over 10,000 miles away from its original home to Michigan State University. Personally, it evokes a bit of awe to think that the molecules of genetic code used to transcribe and translate thousands of proteins while flowing in the blood of a hyena running across the plains of Africa has flown across the Atlantic Ocean frozen inside a tiny plastic tube. It will be exciting to learn what the information revealed can tell us about the relationships among the hyenas from which it came.