Dung glorious dung
People could be forgiven for thinking I have a fascination with dung. Dung, scat, faeces or droppings, whatever you want to call it, is sometimes the closest we can hope to get to our rare focal species in Southeast Asia, where wildlife is often elusive and wary of humans as a consequence of hunting and overexploitation.
In fact, dung can tell us many invaluable things:
It can tell us whether a species is present in an area
The unique dung and footprints of hog deer found on our surveys in 2013, told us that this globally Endangered animal was still clinging to survival in Cambodia.
It can tell us about the taxonomic status of the animal
It is unclear whether the Indochinese hog deer warrants subspecies or species status, which has important implications for its conservation. Cambodia holds the only known remaining wild populations of this subspecies/species where it is on the brink of extinction. Dung and skin samples have been sent to a lab for further and immediate analysis.
It can tell us more about a species’ diet
Studies of the contents of crocodile dung by the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme have shown that the Siamese crocodile feeds on a wide variety of prey, including snakes, frogs, birds, inverterbrates and small mammals. We will be studying the dung of the crocodiles we have released, to understand how well they have adapted back to life in the wild.
It can give us an estimate of how many individuals there are…
Over the last 10 years we have been counting, measuring and classifying crocodile dung to provide us with an index of population number and an understanding of population structure (how many adults/juveniles/sub-adults in a population). We also obtained the first ever estimate of Asian elephant numbers in the Cardamom Mountains via a dung-DNA survey in 2008.
…and it can help us to monitor populations over time
We have recently come back from Veal Veaeng Marsh where we collected 37 crocodile dung samples, to send for genotyping. Genotyping determines differences in the genetic make-up of individuals and can therefore tell us more accurately than other methods how many individuals of a species occur in a particular area. We also plan to set up a dung-DNA based monitoring system for elephants in the Cardamom Mountains in the next couple of years because we need to better understand how these populations are faring over time.
It can also tell us how healthy an individual is
Dung can be analysed to look at levels of stress hormones to determine whether stress may be having a detrimental impact on wild animal populations. Biologists also study the levels of reproductive hormones in the dung of many species, like rhinos, to determine the right time for mating, investigate reproductive cycles and thereby enhance conservation breeding programmes.
All of this information gleaned from dung helps us to better understand our target species and populations, and enable us to conserve them more effectively. So for now, there is no getting away from dung, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.