Step 1: Acquire Data

Say you want to learn about big cats. Good choice, they’re awesome. You could spend a lifetime tramping around jungles and mountains. But, thanks to technology, you have some other options to consider.

It’s not just big cats–scientists are finding all sorts of cool ways to use technology to make learning about animals easier, cheaper, more informative, and sometimes even drier (field biologists can spend a lot of time getting stuck in the mud). Some of my favorite examples include putting satellite tags on bluefin tuna to track their transoceanic journeys, planting motion-sensor-triggered “camera traps” for still or video tallies of local wildlife (check out this cool video from four weeks in the Amazon), and studying bloodsuckers and scavengers in lieu of the animals you actually want to learn about. You no longer need to be in the field to know what’s going on at this very moment. The idea isn’t new, but it’s definitely hip (bonus points if you pull in citizen scientists, and no, it’s not a coincidence both can save you money).

Techniques like camera traps, which are non-invasive, meaning you don’t bother the animals you’re studying, can be particularly helpful. To go back to big cats, consider the fact that many are rare, nocturnal, camouflaged, and/or not necessarily friendly. You can make satellite tags and the like work, but it’s tricky.

(Complete digression: A couple months I was at a talk given by someone who used to study rhinos in Nepal, which involved sedating them. His first trip out, the sedative didn’t work. His advice for anyone in this situation is to run in a semicircle, shedding clothes, then climb a tree. Rhinos apparently have sharper noses than eyes, so the idea is to distract them into sniffing and/or tromping your clothes long enough to get away. Now you know.)

Now consider that one of the, if not the, best sources of information about individuals and populations alike is DNA. Go back to the big cat you tagged two paragraphs ago and imagine politely asking it if it would happen to mind, say, if you just draw a bit of blood…and you thought doctors’ appointments were unpleasant.

Fresh blood or tissue samples offer DNA in the best condition; let it sit or use a contaminated source and your target DNA will be in smaller pieces and mixed with other stuff you don’t care about and need to filter out. Fortunately, DNA processing techniques are getting more powerful, so lower-quality DNA is becoming more useable. That means that instead of needing blood samples, you can get similar genetic information from hair, scat, or even saliva. You’ll need to leave more room for error, but, practically speaking, a nice option to have given how much information genetic samples can offer.

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Still eating? Three off-site recommendations:

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One thought on “Step 1: Acquire Data

  1. Pingback: On Population Genetics | What's for Lunch?

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