Something that really bugs the crap out of me is how things are funded in our fabulously wealthy country, even outside the usual bureaucratic process where researchers are left fighting for scraps to advance our knowledge in many fields. I’m specifically referring to crowd funding where people will pony up millions of dollars for useless shit (IMHO) like the Veronica Mars movie or some banal video game, while intelligent, ballsy and willing biologists have to beg for a few thousand bucks to do some research in the field. One such biologist is Jennifer Day, who is doing exciting work on jaguars and she could certainly use your financial help (click here to do so). So help out the next generation of jaguar biologists by making a donation and then sit back to enjoy this Q&A. Thanks for participating, Jennifer!
- How did you become interested in wildlife?
I was one of those kids who ran around in the woods surrounding our house from dawn to dusk, looking under rocks for bugs, pulling flowers apart to see what was inside, and being an all-around science nerd from day one. In fact, I recently found my first microscope, tucked away in a keepsake box – it was the reward I requested from my parents at age 10 for not biting my nails. Over the years, my childhood ideas of become a veterinarian morphed into becoming a wildlife ecologist – particularly inspired by a study abroad experience in Ecuador during college, where I was part of a project monitoring the nocturnal behavior of dwarf caimans.
- Do you have a mentor or special instructor who inspired you?
During my study abroad with Boston University’s Tropical Ecology Program, Ecuador – I met Dr. Jesús Rivas, one of the world’s leading authorities on the green anaconda (featured in National Geographic). Jesús was an inspirational mentor, making anything seem possible, even pursuing a career studying tropical carnivores! His passion for his study organism, dedication to wildlife conservation, and ability to energize students were key in giving me the confidence to pursue a highly competitive field. I see the same energy and passion in my current advisor, Dr. Samuel K. Wasser, who has dedicated his career to wildlife conservation science, particularly in forensic approaches addressing elephant poaching (“The Ivory Trail” article in Scientific American).
- You have studied bobcats, ocelots and swift foxes. Can you tell us a little bit about those experiences?
After college, I started working as field-technician for hire, and over 5 years I worked on seven different research projects in 5 states and 3 countries.
I honed my radio-telemetry skills tracking swift-fox in southern Colorado for a research team out of Utah State, at the Piñon Canyon Maneuver site. Each technician was assigned a group of foxes to track over the three months, so we got to know their home-ranges well. Nights were spent triangulating locations (and singing at the top of my lungs while driving between home-ranges to stay awake) or spotlighting, and days were spent trapping small-mammals and monitoring track plates. It was fantastic training in the various tools available for studying wildlife ecology.
While at the STRI’s Barro Colorado Island research station in Panama, I briefly volunteered with a team that was testing novel ways of tracking ocelots, including audio-recording radio collars and an automated tower system. It was my first exposure to the challenges specific to tracking elusive carnivores in the tropical rainforest – which attracted my stubborn streak. I returned to the tropics and ocelot research a year later, this time to work for a group out of Virginia Tech at Las Cuevas Research Station, Belize. Las Cuevas is a remote research station in south-western Belize in the beautiful Chiquibul forest on the border with Guatemala. It was a privilege to live and work in such an amazing forest, which makes the ongoing illegal timber and palm extraction even more saddening. After my five months of ocelot tracking, I was firmly on the road to a career in carnivore research, yet I felt there must be a better way to gather more information on these elusive animals other than trapping a collaring a handful of individuals. That idea led me to investigate alternative, non-invasive, research methods – namely genetic analysis of hair and scat samples.
I ran my first non-invasive study of wildlife as part of my Master’s Thesis research on bobcats at Michigan State University, where we tested the use of hair snares versus detection dogs for gathering genetic samples from bobcats. I was incredibly impressed with the ability of the dogs to find wildlife scat – even in the dense bogs of the upper lower peninsula of Michigan. I knew it was the method I had been looking for to study elusive carnivores in the tropics.
Dr. Wasser’s Center for Cosnervation Biology at University of Washington has pioneered many molecular and statistical tools for noninvasive wildlife research, including DNA extraction from ivory, scat-based resource selection probability functions, toxin analysis from faecal samples, and more. The CCB has been the perfect location for me to pursue noninvasive research of tropical carnivores as part of my PhD.
- Your current research is focused upon non-invasive research of jaguars in Mexico. Where is the study area and what questions are you hoping to answer?
I have surveyed two locations in southern Mexico to date for both jaguar and puma scat, in partnership with Universty of Veracruz’s Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales (CITRO) and the Reserva Ecologica El Eden: one in the Uxpanapa Valley of Veracruz, and the other just outside of the city of Cancun, Quintana Roo. Now, we’re launching a new phase of our jaguar research program, and headed to the Lacondona region of, Chiapas, in collaboration with Dr. Rodrigo Medellín.
We will be estimating the abundance of jaguars within the various protected areas of the region, along with assessing the biodiversity of all of the cat species, and locating carnivorous bat roosts! Additionally, I am particularly interested in how landscape features impact jaguar movement and gene-flow, both within each population and between them. We are building resource selection probability functions to determine which elements in the landscape attract or repel jaguars, and to what extent. For example, are jaguars really as sensitive to human activity as we once thought? Is their attraction to water stronger than their avoidance of roads or villages? I am also looking at genetic patterns within (landscape genetics) and among (population genetics) putative populations. Since our three sites have dramatically different human pressures, levels of forest fragmentation, and connectivity with other jaguar populations, it provides an excellent comparison to look at how these factors affect genetic diversity and gene-flow between populations. The goal is to gain insight into how we might modify land-use to improve habitat connectivity.
- You use dogs to locate scat from target species. Can you tell us a bit about the dogs’ training and their lives in the field? How do they avoid the numerous potential dangers in the forest?
All of the dogs in the Conservation Canines program are rescued from shelters, where they were unable to be adopted due to their manic level of energy and bonkers obsession with a tennis ball. These characteristics don’t make for the best family pet, but they make fantastic working-dogs. The CK9s are trained just like narcotics dogs (in fact some of our CK9s came from police training programs, and some start in our program but end up being recruited into police training), where they associate a target scent with a reward. In this case, the target scent is species-specific scat odor, and the reward is play time with their favorite toy.
I’ve been a handler for Sadie May and Scooby (both black Labrador mixes) during the past two field seasons. When in the field, we stay with local villagers, hanging our hammocks (Scooby loves sleeping in his!) or pitching a cot wherever is available. Our typical survey day begins before dawn, at the edge of a village where we start our trek through ranchland to reach a forest fragment before the sun is up. We hire guides from the local communities to help us navigate the forest. The guides are almost always skeptical when they hear our request, but as the survey day progresses and they watch us work, their attitude shifts to either quiet consideration or amicable curiosity. Then, when Scooby’s tail starts to go crazy – followed by a pinpoint on the ground at a jaguar scat covered in leaf-litter, the guides can’t help but smile (with usually an accompanying “I can’t believe that worked. That’s amazing!”)
Conservation Canines wear RuffWear Web MasterTM Harnesses when working, equipped with wildlife bells and a GPS unit to track their path. Depending on the field conditions, they’ve got all sorts of great RuffWear gear, from snow booties to lifejackets and sun goggles. In Mexico, the key piece of canine gear is the Swamp CoolerTM, it works so well for keeping their temperature down that I’m frequently jealous they don’t make human versions.
Handlers maintain line-of-sight with their CK9 while they’re working, both to make sure to catch any change in behavior indicating they’re onto a scent and also to make sure they don’t stumble into any dangerous terrain. The CK9s are so obsessed with their job, that they rarely respond to wildlife. I’ve watched Sadie May gaze uninterestedly at a coati running down the road in front of her and at a caiman that ran into a pond, with no reaction – but the second my hand drifts towards my pack pocket where the ball is kept – her body goes rigid with excitement. In the tropics, one of the major dangers are venomous snakes, which is why we carry anti-venom at all times.
- You were recently the co-author of an article about something I hadn’t ever thought about: the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria among wildlife. Please tell us about your research on this topic.
When thinking of wildlife-human health interactions, we’re usually talking about the zoonotic origin of a disease impacting human health. But in this case, we were interested in the transmission of antibiotic resistant bacteria and their genes (bacteria can interchange genes from one another) between humans and wildlife. In particular, we wanted to know if there were certain characteristics of the environment or the animals’ behavior that increased this transmission. We looked at the presence and diversity of resistant bacteria in the feces of jaguar, puma, other cats (jaguarondi, ocelot, and margay), Baird’s tapir, spider monkey, and black howler monkey. The data were fairly surprising as to how much resistant bacteria were present – even the types that have only recently developed. Habitat degradation (forest fragmentation and human proximity) and the terrestrial animals had a higher prevalence of resistant bacteria – suggesting transmission routes through terrestrial domestic animals. However, arboreal primates carried bacteria resistant to antibiotics typical of a clinical setting that were not present in the terrestrial animals that we surveyed. This suggests the existence of an aerial route of transmission, possibly mediated by migratory birds or bats. This research provides a baseline assessment of antibiotic resistance in the wildlife of southern Mexico, and a rich ground for further research.
- Your research is being crowd funded. For people who aren’t familiar with the concept, please tell us how they can contribute to your research and success.
In a simple sense, crowd funding (raising money via donations from the public) began in the business world as a creative, alternative way to raise venture capital without going to a bank and getting a loan. In the sciences, this has been adapted to provide an alternative mechanism for funding research other than applying to the overwhelmed granting agencies. The platform that we’re using, Experiment.com, is like Kickstarter for science, and in the few short years that they’ve been in operation, they’ve helped raise over 1 million dollars for science!
Crowd funding is particularly exciting option for young scientists, like myself, who are just starting to build their career reputation and struggle with the chicken-and-egg dilemma of needing funding to do great science … to competitively apply for grants … to do great science. Our project was also faced with a time-crunch – we only had a few months to pursue funding between the time that we formed our collaboration with Dr. Medellin and the only suitable time of year to do field work in Lacondona. The turn-around time for grants would have left us waiting for another year to start our research, and so we thought of crowd funding as an ideal alternative!
To get involved in our jaguar research program, you can join the over 90 backers of “Dogs, Cats, and Scats – Saving Jaguars One Poop at a Time” and help us reach our $10,000 goal. We’ve raised over $5,000, but it’s an all-or-nothing deal, so we will not receive anything if we fail to reach our goal. We have 17 days [and dropping- ends 11/30/2014] left! Every dollar counts!
- Is there something about jaguars that especially interested you in studying them?
The ecologist in me is fascinated by the influence that top-predators have on the ecosystem. The geneticist in me is intrigued by how large mammals are particularly sensitive to landscape change due to their large geographic requirements. The wildlife conservation part of me is driven to combat the threats to this powerful and mysterious species.
- Please share an interesting experience you’ve had in the field.
There was a particularly remote area of Uxpanapa, Veracruz that we were dying to survey, because the satellite imagery indicated a nice big forest fragment next to a small settlement. There were no roads to the settlement and no phones to try to communicate with the people living there ahead of time. So we packed up our gear, including lots of dog food and a hammock for Scooby, and headed down the trail after parking our vehicles in the middle of a bunch of cattle. About 10km later, we crossed paths with two very young girls riding bareback together on a horse, headed in the opposite direction – they were going to school! With confusion and disbelief in their eyes as seeing a team of ‘extranjeros’ headed to their family’s property, they confirmed that the trail we were on would take us to their ranch. As dusk settled, we arrived at the settlement – one small house, a series of outbuildings, a handful of chickens, a donkey, and about 13 family members. They welcomed us warmly, regretfully telling us that the only shelter they could offer was the lean-to that sheltered the goats. After a tumultuous night of wind that rocked the rickety shelter where our hammocks were hung, we woke bleary-eyed to view the edge of a beautiful forest. We convinced the patriarch of the family to act as our guide, although he could not understand why we were willingly going into the jungle (something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary in his opinion).
There were no trails and the understory was super thick at times. By halfway through the day, our guide’s incessant grumbling about how silly this all was, and how there was no way in the world we would find jaguar poop, even made me start to doubt our ability. Just as the heat peaked, and we needed to make a decision regarding turning around or pressing on, Scooby took off up a steep incline, cresting the hill and momentarily disappearing from view as I scrambled up the slope after him. As discouraged as I was, I started calling for him to come back down to me – time to go home. But I glanced up and saw him staring at me with such intensity and such happy ears, that I knew it could only mean one thing – jaguar scat! Sure enough, I forced the team to follow me up the incline, and were rewarded with the best, freshest, biggest jaguar poop I’ve ever seen. I know Scooby wasn’t excited for the same reason, but I know he and I had a great time playing ball as a reward! Back in the lab the sample yielded the best DNA of any scat sample, and it has provided critical genetic information on this area where the lack of access had prevented any previous research.
10. What is your favorite part of working with wildlife?
I think it’s amazing that there’s still so much to be learned about the wildlife on our planet. These are living, breathing organisms that we can see with our naked eye, and yet in many regards, we still don’t know the best way to coexist with them. Every discovery is exciting. I also enjoy being out in an environment shared by wildlife. It’s rare these days to find yourself in a place where you could be part of the food-chain – but I love that feeling – it makes me feel more human.
11. What would you like to study in the future? Do you want to keep working in the Neotropics?
If I can, I will keep pursuing this research for my entire career. There’s so much to learn about jaguars in the Neotropics, and we’re creating a really formidable set of baseline data and set of collaborations. It would be a shame to leave it behind when I finish my PhD program. Yes, I would keep working in the Neotropics, and I hope to expand my work to the other carnivore species, namely the smaller cat species.