Poo, droppings, faeces or scats: whatever you call it, an animal’s waste can be very informative to the keen ecologist! I remember a colleague of mine at Durham University making this very clear when he described his work on the declining Brown Beers in Greece: despite a lot of effort, he’d never actually seen the animals themselves, but was still able to work out much of their day-to-day lives by studying their droppings! We are using this approach to study some of the more elusive mammals in The Howe of Cromar.
Since April, I have been walking a number of set routes around the MacRobert Trust and Auchnerran sites, staring at the ground in search of scats – not the most enjoyable pastime but still extremely important! The main species in the area that are of interest are Fox, Pine Marten and hybrid Wild Cats. The routes are all relatively quiet tracks and paths that run through areas of farmland or woodland. Importantly these are routes that hopefully won’t become choked with vegetation in summer and so will be equally likely to be used by animals year-round, and which I can check approximately monthly.
But what can this actually tell us? Well, firstly whenever I find a scat I log it using a very helpful app on my smartphone called Epicollect+. This allows me to record some very basic information very quickly such as date, time and habitat, but most importantly location: by logging my position relative to GPS satellites (just like a Sat Nav for example) I can effortlessly record where the scat was found to a high degree of accuracy. Over time I can build up a picture of which species are most likely hanging out in each of my sample areas.
Now, this is all dependent upon being able to tell which animal has left each scat behind – not as easy as you may think. In fact a recent study by SNH showed that even experts misidentified Pine Marten scats around 75% of the time! We are trying to overcome this by developing genetic tools that will tell us indisputably which species it is, so each scat is bagged and later deposited with Dave Martin at Dundee University (who is a bit of a genetic whizz!) who will hopefully be able to develop tests we can use to identify the species. With luck, we may even be able to do all this in the field which will greatly speed things up and simplify matters. Watch this space!
Dave Parish, firstname.lastname@example.org, 07889 891956.