Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finding Feces

Jambo! My name is Chase and I’m the newest RA situated at the beautiful Talek camp. As I’m sure you can gather from reading these blog entries, there is a lot to learn out here in Fisi camp. However, there are some natural processes that everyone can recognize.

One such activity is waste excretion. Also known as pooping. Prepare yourself for a digestion digression.

When I first arrived I was presented with a new area to do my personal business, known to us lovingly as “The Choo” (Pronounced: Cho). The hyenas we study, on the other hand, use a large plot of land known as the Mara. It is a vital part of our job, when recording observations on aggressions, to also be aware of when a hyena has to excrete some fecal matter.

The infamous Choo

Why does the matter matter to us?

Kenna Lehman sporting a hefty poop bag and a can-do attitude!
Although poop can be used to analyze DNA and determine paternity for cubs, back at the lab they also look at hormones. The amount of a hormone in an individual’s excrement represents the level in the body. In fact, one intrepid researcher Sarah Jones uses poop to look at the hormonal basis of sex reversal in hyenas. So, why are females more aggressive and socially dominant to male hyenas? (Future Dr.) Jones looks specifically at the hormone androstenedione, which can act similarly to testosterone, but doesn’t usually have the same side effects that would be bad for females (reducing fertility or parental care.) In fact, female spotted hyenas exhibit higher levels than males till they’re at least five years old! The largest difference between sexes is actually when they are born, suggesting why most females assert dominance over their brothers at a very early age. Jones is looking at whether androstenedione concentrations in poop are related to female aggressive behavior and their rank. Do higher ranked, more aggressive females have higher levels of androstenedione? Stay tuned for that dissertation!
Wilson Kilong thinks poop is just the best thing.
Two poops in one obs session? It's my lucky day!
Additionally, Tracy Montgomery examines poop with a passion. She’s curious about male dispersal and what hormones play a role in that process. Adult natal males actually have lower testosterone than immigrant males, even though both are reproductively mature. Why might that be? What hormonal changes occur during the dispersal process? But, Montgomery doesn’t stop there. She’s also looking at the hormone progesterone and how it may be associated with affiliative and cooperative behavior.

Ashlei Tinsley handling hyena excrement with class.

As you can see, there’s a lot to gather from examining stool samples.

But, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “How can I do this at home? I want to analyze my bowel movements!” 
Here is my advice:

1.   A keen eye is important. When we see a hyena get into that well-known position (the squat) we use our binoculars to assess whether the bomb has been dropped or if it is simply urination. Once we decide the poop is indeed a poop, we drive over and scoop it up using a plastic bag (a large one if you’re lucky.) On the bag, we write the time it was collected, the location, and which hyena did the deed.
Chase O'Neil, aka expert poop collector, does her job.
We see a variety of colors like above: pale banana cream pie.
A typical sample complete with white hairs from a tasty wildebeest dinner. But look, your expert eyes are right! BONUS: there are worms.
2.    A poor sense of smell is helpful. If you place the plastic bag within the car or whatever transportation device you use, it may exude fumes. Once we arrive, back at camp, we firstly describe the poop. What’s the color? What’s the texture: firm, squishy, soupy (these are the worst)? Are there hairs (wildebeest for lunch)? Are there worms? Then we proceed to smash up the poop (a well-muscled foot does the job) while still in the bag. This is to make sure the contents of the feces will be mixed around and our tubes will have an accurate measurement of what exactly is in the droppings. Again a poor sense of smell will be helpful when you open the bag for the next steps.

Foot-smashing time! Socks with sandals recommended.
3.    Steady hands are key. Once the bag is open, we use a popsicle stick to scrape/scoop the mashed up poop into a tube. Once full, we seal it up tight, and place in a big container of liquid nitrogen, so around -200º C.

A researcher with steady hands shoves pieces of the droppings into a tube.
This is known as the icing technique. Sometimes a hyena has a soupy poop (hey, we've all been there.) In this case, we cut a hole in the bag and squeeze out the future data. Just like icing a cake.
It’s that simple! (Note: gloves are also recommended. Even if you have the above 1-3 traits, gloves are a necessary precaution.)

So far, I have been lucky enough to see many hyena feces and participate in the collection. Everyday is an adventure here, but even more so when we have to scoop poop into tubes!

If you have a lab at home to analyze your poop, Julie did a wonderfully detailed post about poop processing in the lab that will give you step-by-step instructions (

). Good luck!


dee said...

Ahhhhhh hyena poop, the great equalizer. Great post. I can't imagine how you are gonna top this one!

Jordan said...

Holy crap (ha, ha!) this was one of the funniest posts, ever, from this blog. I've been enjoying following along since our time visiting Tracy/Steph at Fisi camp in 2010/2011. (Hi Tracy!)

Unknown said...

Thanks for reading and glad you liked it!

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