Dash Masland is a Marine Biologist and National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee, whose passion has been marine mammal conservation for practically her entire life.
Seriously. I know that poop tends to make some people squeamish. But, honestly, I think it may be one of the greatest tools for studying elusive animals. It’s not like marine mammals are easy to observe or catch or even find for that matter. And when a species is endangered we don’t want to stress them out too much. Let me tell you, having humans interfering in an animal’s life in a major way to get photos or data can be a bit stressful sometimes. That’s why we call scat collection non-invasive. Here’s how my expeditions usually go: the animal poops, I spend hours, days, even weeks of my life looking for the pile of stinky scat left behind and I barely even disturb the subject. I think it is magnificent. And anyway, didn’t you read that book when you were a kid about how everybody poops?
You couldn’t even imagine what we can learn about an animal by studying their excrement. First of all we can look through the scat and find out what they ate (if the food is still somewhat intact). We can look for parasites with a simple microscope. We can study heavy metal loads and nutrient analysis. And we haven’t even gotten into DNA yet! With DNA we can tell what species of animal a scat came from. You can even tell what individual the scat came from. We can track migrations with fecal DNA. We can look at whether or not species are hybridizing with fecal DNA. We can look at bacteria loads of an animal through DNA. And my personal favorite, we can use fecal DNA to look at the diet of an animal with incredible sensitivity. This gives us a method that is better than ever for studying the diet of elusive animals, helping put missing pieces into a very complex puzzle.
I am not going to sugar coat this job, however. It was decided in grad school that I certainly picked one of the most disgusting lines of work, ever. Poop stinks. Seal poop in particular, really stinks. It may be one of the most vile smells I have ever encountered. But for some odd reason, I keep going back for more. There is just so much information to be had in that pile of poop, that it is worth the smell, the teasing from colleagues and the utter grotesqueness. And now I get to use poop to help save a critically endangered animal (please note the sly, “vote for me” innuendo). How rad is that?