The admittedly acquired pleasures of poo

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Sept. 21, 2016

Thomas Connor is a PhD student studying with Jack Liu. He's doing field work in and around Wolong, China.

If you asked me a couple of years ago if I would ever experience waves of pleasure at the sight of fresh feces, I would have probably answered “maybe.” I can now give a definitive “yes” to that question if anyone was wondering, as my fall field work in Sichuan Province, China, kicks off the ground. I am now in the north of Wolong Nature Reserve, staying in the village of Genda. From there it is a 20-minute drive and a couple hour hike into the mountains to reach the edge of the reserve, where it borders Caopo Nature Reserve to the north. The quest for panda poo is not easy at this time of year – it is the tail end of the rainy season, which leaves ground slippery and muddy and the bamboo understory soaking wet even on clear days. The pandas in the area are also currently eating the leaves of arrow bamboo, a species that occurs at high elevations above 2700 meters. This means a long climb every day, usually with the threat of rain, and without the promise of success.Thomas bags a panda feces sample

Before our first expedition into Caopo, my main guide expressed doubt we would find panda traces there. He has lots of experience in the region and I trust his judgment, so it was with some apprehension that I and the team crossed the border for the first time. And so it was, presented with a couple fresh, leafy, panda pellets merely meters into Caopo, that I was overcome with relief and joy. I was especially happy due to my failure to find good samples at a different border area of Wolong earlier this year (see blog post 4 for more details).

I am visiting the edges of Wolong to try and determine habitat connectivity, panda movements, and population dynamics at the border of Wolong, other reserves and unprotected areas. The idea is to “capture” individual pandas via genetics analyses of their feces. The same panda can then be “recaptured” in a different location to asses movement patterns and come up with an estimate of the density and thus number of pandas living in that area.

My field season is just starting, and should get better and better as the temperature drops and the rain tapers off. Snow is in fact a blessing for this work, as it is much easier to find fecal samples by following panda tracks and the DNA stays preserved for much longer in the wild. I will soon likely start sampling for a different aspect of my research (don’t worry I still need poo) – a landscape genetics analysis of panda populations, but I will save an explanation of that for another post.

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