So one of the reasons I’m here is to collect scat, poop, feces, dung – whatever word you use it is still stinky. However we can find out a lot of information from poop. One of my areas of expertise is in developing techniques to measure hormones in the feces and I develop these techniques working with animals in zoos all over North America. We can measure reproductive hormones in the feces to do a pregnancy check which we do in many zoo animals so we can give the mother a quiet secure place to move into before she gives birth. We can also assess stress levels in an animal by measuring stress hormones in the poop and we do this to optimize animals’ welfare in zoos and aquariums. The project I’m working on here in South Africa is taking those techniques I developed in zoo animals and using them to measure stress levels in their wild cousins. The rangers and I are collecting fresh scat samples from a variety of species so I can look at how stressed they are by natural occurrences (drought, fire, predation) and human-caused disturbance (tourism, hunting, poaching). In the picture below we are collecting a fresh sample from a leopard. I have to say, carnivore poop smells the worst! But just so you aren’t too grossed out also below is a picture of the beautiful animal it likely came from:). More on these leopards we are seeing regularly next time.
Another great day in South Africa. Beautiful sunny day which was very much appreciated at 7am when we started our first game transect. This is where we drive along a predetermined path (transect) and record the mammal species, sex, number, GPS coordinates and distance from the transect. The data can then be used to estimate number and density of the different species in the reserve. Today’s mammal species list includes kudu, impala, zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, giraffe, reedbuck and scrub hare. There are also very impressive bird species here. We saw ostrich, white-backed vulture, helmeted guinea fowl, bearded woodpecker (see picture), yellow-billed hornbill (see picture), an African fish eagle (see picture) and a Martial eagle (see picture).
Oh yeah – I nearly forgot. A LEOPARD!!!!!! ……..mic drop
So the students have arrived yesterday and we are all getting settled and focused on what we each need to accomplish. I have decided I’m going to try to keep a daily list of all the species we observe while out and about. I will not be mentioning anything about large gray things as poachers search the web looking for locations. Today’s species list includes the following mammals: reedbuck, cape buffalo, wildebeest, impala, kudu, duiker, giraffe and vervet monkey. The birds were as follows: secretary bird, cattle egret (following the buffalo), yellow-billed hornbill, batis, hoopoe, mousebird, ostrich and Marshall eagle. And I mustn’t forget Boris who is the Cape porcupine that visits us every evening. It is my mission in life to get a good picture of him!
With the students having arrived it is time to start them on the vegetation surveys. This requires the use of a GPS, compass and an identification key in a plant book. This is new to most of the students but they are learning and will be experts by the time the 6 weeks is up!
Yesterday was a VERY long day. The flight arrived at Jo’burg with no issues (meaning my baggage arrived with me. Then Vicky (another Operation Wallacea supervisor) and I drove to one of the other research sites to pick up kit (supplies) and then drove to Pongola (>6 hour drive). It was dark when we arrived so I was unable to get much of an impression of the Loose Mongoose Research Station but I love the name. By the time we got there I had been travelling for 48 hours so there was just enough time for a pasta a dinner and short meeting with the rest of the OpWall and WEI team and then I Had to crash. I woke up at 6am and it wasn’t too cold at all. I was expecting colder because although it was the summer solstice at home it was the winter solstice here. It was nice and peaceful at that time of the morning except for the guinea fowl cawing and the cat meowing. Actually, the cat joining me as I worked on the computer in the early morning in the patio area made me feel right at home! Most of the morning was spent going over various due diligence (safety/liability) aspects of supervising undergraduate students in a field situation. That chore remains constant regardless of the location of the ‘field work’ – be it at a zoo or in a South African game reserve. The afternoon was spent training on the vegetation analyses which is part of a very long term habitat assessment study being done on the reserve that the visiting students add to each summer. I didn’t see any of the big gray things (elephants, hippos, etc) but we did see giraffe as well as some other hoofstock, warthogs, monkeys and many birds that I will have to get to know better. Then we had a braai (South African barbeque) in the evening under the incredible stars which I will also have to get to know better. My partner in crime at the site is Madel who is a young woman who is training as a field guide. Luckily she is very knowledgeable after having worked in Hluhluwe Imfolozi which is a very big and popular game reserve. I talked to the powers that be about getting me a microscope for the gamete rescue study so hopefully that can happen. Tomorrow will be another day of getting ready for the students who arrive Friday afternoon.
Today I was in Zurich Switzerland for a 12 hour layover on my way to Johannesburg. I was too tired and jet-lagged to go into the city and it is 30C so it was too hot as well. But I discovered that I’m not too old to spread over three chairs and take a nap in the airport like a student. The shopping was very expensive so I passed on doing any. And why is Lindt chocolate twice as expensive here as it is in Canada? That seems illogical. And here I was making fun of myself for packing a giant Lindt chocolate bar when I was doing a layover in Switzerland. Now I’m very glad I packed it! While standing in line in one of the interminable passport checks between concourses I let a couple of Americans ahead of me since they were very late for their connection. The older gentleman said thank you and ‘there will always be Canada’. I thought that was very nice and a testament to the Canadian reputation. However then he said ‘But what about Canadian hockey???? It used to be the Montreal Canadians were like the New York Yankees and now it’s like they don’t even play in the same league!’ I couldn’t come up with a response to that……
So this is my first blog so be kind. I’m not going to write much today as I’m still learning the ropes. I’m sitting in Toronto Airport hoping I haven’t forgotten anything:p It takes a lot of organization to pack for a 6 week trip. Particularly a trip where access to stores is very limited – as in once per week we go into the tiny town of Pongola for supplies. Taking advice from others that have stayed at the Loose Mongoose research site I have an entire suitcase devoted just to snacks:) Holding my breath and hoping that my luggage with my lab equipment arrives in South Africa with me!
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