So, why do I get so excited about non-invasive methods of collecting genetic samples? Because they can tell you a ton.
You’re probably used to thinking about genetics in terms of an individual–perhaps genetic tests for susceptibility to certain diseases, the potential for gene therapy, or of course as a convenient scapegoat for one’s height (or lack thereof).
But genetics also happen at the level of a population, of course. If you’ve ever taken a biology class, “population genetics” may give you hazy flashbacks to some guys named Hardy and Weinberg and their equilibrium, which is nice and all except for the bit where you have to assume several things that don’t really happen in real life ever (large populations with only two “flavors” of a gene that has no effect on reproductive success and can’t mutate). Where’s the fun in that?
But there are real reasons to care about a population’s genetics, and if you can get enough data from, say, a scat survey, you can look at some interesting questions, particularly if you’re thinking with species conservation in mind.
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.