OK, yes, this is a pile of poop. But a valuable one.
Ecologists led by Tyler Kartzinel from Brown University in the US (pictured) have collected and examined more than 1000 faecal samples from conservation areas in Kenya then used DNA analysis to try to learn more about the relationship between diet, the microbiome, the environment and ultimately animal behaviour.
They collected deposits from 33 different herbivore species, ranging from diminutive dwarf antelopes to gigantic giraffes and elephants.
“A faecal sample provides an amazing window into the biology of a wild animal, from what it eats to what bacteria live in its gut to what kinds of parasites it has,” says Robert Pringle, from Princeton University, a co-author of a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We’re just starting to tap into the potential of what forensic DNA-based approaches to wildlife ecology can teach us about these things that have historically been very difficult if not impossible to investigate.”
The key to this approach, Kartzinel says, is the ability to do two things at once.
Normally researchers conduct “between-species” research, examining the microbiomes of a few animals representing different species, or “within-species research”, comparing the microbiomes of animals from the same species across, say, different seasons.
By using DNA to measure diet from individual samples collected from many different species in the same environment, the team could conduct between-species and within-species research simultaneously.