What can you learn from studying an animal’s scat?



A bear leaving its calling card.
Dean Harvey/Flickr, CC BY

Verity Mathis, University of Florida

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.


What can you learn from studying an animal’s scat? – Cora, age 9, Brookline, Massachusetts


Everybody poops. There are even whole books written about it. And we can learn a lot about animals from what they leave behind.

Scientists study animal poop, also called scat, to learn about the hidden lives of animals. We can find scat in the wild and know what type of animal left it based on its shape, size and contents.

I study mammals, so I know that a pile of brown pellet-shaped scat that’s about the size of chocolate-covered raisins could be a sign that there are white-tailed deer in the area. Bigger, tube-shaped scat with hair and bones in it might be from a coyote.

The Smithsonian National Zoo uses scat to assess lions’ health.

Scat can tell us a lot about an animal’s diet, habits and movement, so scientists like to study it both in nature and in the lab. Outdoors, scat can identify what animals are present in an area. Then researchers take it to a lab, dry it out and dissect it for clues about the animal’s diet.

Some mammal poop is full of seeds, which shows that the animal eats fruit or berries. Or it might contain bones and fur, which scientists can identify to learn what species that animal is eating.

Animal scat also contains DNA – molecules inside the cells of organisms that carry genetic information. Extracting DNA from scat is a non-invasive way to study animals, since scientists don’t need to handle the animals to learn about them.

DNA from scat can tell scientists about the genetic health of a species, who is occupying what territory, and the relationships of groups of animals in a particular area. For example, DNA from the scat of rare Bengal tigers in India helped scientists estimate how many tigers were in an area, see where individual animals were traveling and better understand their genetic relationships.

Studying animal scat can also support conservation. Some researchers have trained dogs to sniff out the scat of endangered species, such as the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, which is found only in a few grasslands in central California. By locating an endangered animal’s scat, scientists can estimate how many of that species are left in an area, analyze its diet and do DNA testing without having to disturb it.

It’s not hard to find scat if you know where to look. Some mammals, such as coyotes and bobcats, like to poop in the middle of trails or trail crossings. Others, like porcupines, do their business at the bases of trees. Guidebooks and websites can tell you what kinds of scat you’re likely to find in your area.

It is important never to pick up scat with bare hands, since you don’t know what kind of diseases might be present. But you can use a stick to look at it and see if you can figure out what the animal was eating, or take pictures and look in a guide to identify the creature that left it behind.


Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.The Conversation

Verity Mathis, Mammal Collections Manager, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What Australia can learn from Victoria’s shocking biodiversity record



File 20190320 93057 1dzh716.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The endangered Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby is one of Victoria’s threatened species.
TARONGA ZOO/AAP

Geoffrey Wescott, Deakin University

Victoria is struggling with biodiversity conservation, according to a State of the Environment report tabled in parliament this week. While the scorecard is bleak – not one of the state’s key biodiversity indicators ranks as “good” – the report itself gives some hope.

For the first time the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, who prepared the report, offers proactive recommendations to the Victorian government for improving its performance, and has linked these goals to international sustainability targets. It’s an comprehensive and ambitious effort, and offers some good lessons to the rest of Australia.




Read more:
Australia among the world’s worst on biodiversity conservation


Alarming results

Victoria is the most densely populated state in Australia, the most cleared of native vegetation, and has the smallest percentage of public land.

The State of the Environment report uses a traffic light method to summarise the status, trend and data quality of 170 indicators spread over 12 scientific assessment areas (everything from general air and water quality to specific environments such as marine and coasts, plus issues such as waste and energy).

The indicators paint a picture that does not look good for biodiversity. None of these indicators are rated “good”; seven are “fair”, 21 “poor”, and seven “unknown”. In terms of trends, just one is improving, seven are stable, and 18 are deteriorating (nine are unclear).

National park declarations have slowed substantially on land in recent years – the first Andrews government (2014-18) was the first Victorian government in a quarter of a century not to increase national parks. Not a single additional marine area has been protected since 2002.

In contrast, conservation on private land is fair and trending upward according to the report card (probably largely due to the efforts of Trust for Nature). A substantial cash injection for the trust from Victoria’s rolling fund would likely see outsized results, although this is not a specific recommendation in the report.

The reports offers two critical recommendations for improving biodiversity:

  • increase private land conservation and invest in local government capability to enforce existing protective guidelines, and

  • appoint a Chief Biodiversity Scientist to counsel the Secretary and Environment Minister to improve the impact of biodiversity research.

Creating a Chief Biodiversity Scientist is a good starting point for an area that has received decreasing effort, over the past decade in particular. However, it must be only the first step in raising the lowly position of biodiversity conservation, not only in the environment department but across the entire government.

Beyond passive reporting

This years report moves beyond simply relaying data in two ways: first, with 20 specific recommendations to the government, and secondly by using the United Nation’s framework of environmental accounting to tie the report to the global Sustainable Development Goals.

The report claims this is the first attempt to apply the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to a sub-national environmental report. Given the number of federated nations around the world (the United States, Brazil and Canada, for a start), putting the spotlight on state or provincial environmental responsibilities is a significant and laudable step.

In the more immediate future, the report gives the Victorian government 20 recommendations linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, across a range of categories: Traditional Owner leadership, climate change, air and water quality, land, forests, fire, marine and coastal environments, water resources, waste and resource recovery, energy, transport, and “megatrends”.

The 20 recommendations are solidly based on the findings across the 12 assessment areas. These show that only 11% of status indicators are “good”, whereas 32% are “poor”, with the trend demonstrating only 10% are improving, 30% stable and 30% deteriorating.




Read more:
Why biodiversity is key to our survival


While the State of the Environment report naturally focuses on Victoria, there are plenty of lessons and ideas here for the rest of the country.

Now the onus is firmly on the self-proclaimed “most progressive government in Australia” to act.The Conversation

Geoffrey Wescott, Honorary Research Fellow, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Keep it in the ground’: what we can learn from anti-fossil fuel campaigns


Fergus Green, London School of Economics and Political Science

From the fossil fuel divestment movement to the Stop Adani campaign, in recent years we’ve seen a wave of climate activism that directly targets fossil fuels — both the infrastructure used to produce, transport and consume them, and the corporations that finance, own and operate that infrastructure.

What makes targeting fossil fuels so attractive for activists, and can we learn anything from them?




Read more:
The fossil fuel divestment game is getting bigger, thanks to the smaller players


Failure to launch

Climate change became a topic of mainstream international concern in the early 1990s. For the first two decades of international climate cooperation, until the failed Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, the international environment movement embraced a more “technocratic” approach. Professionally-staffed environment groups made technical arguments aimed at persuading politicians and the public to adopt global climate treaties, national greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, and complex market-based policy mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes.




Read more:
The too hard basket: a short history of Australia’s aborted climate policies


All of these things, if sufficiently stringent, would have been great if they were politically possible. But the groups advocating them were politically weak; they had few political resources. Consequently, in the competition to influence policy they were systematically outgunned by the fossil fuel industry.

Not only did the environment movement lack money and power over the economy, they lacked public support for their policy agenda. While public concern for climate change throughout this period was widespread, it was shallow. It was a political priority for few people, and fewer still were willing to take to the streets to demand strong, urgent action.

A protestor at the coal port in Newcastle.
BREAK FREE NEWCASTLE

Why fossil fuels resonate

Compared with such ineffective climate activism, the present wave of anti-fossil fuel politics has an important advantage: it resonates better with ordinary people.

First, fossil fuels and associated infrastructure are readily understood by lay audiences. In contrast, concepts such as greenhouse gases, “2°C average warming”, and “350 ppm” are abstract, technical constructions not readily grasped by laypersons.




Read more:
A matter of degrees: why 2C warming is officially unsafe


Second, whereas the harms caused by climate change are hard to understand and (perceived to be) remote from their cause in time and space, the production, transport and consumption of fossil fuels cause and are popularly associated with a range of other harms on top of climate change.

These include: local environmental, health and other socio-economic impacts, as well as corruption, repression, human rights abuses and other injustices along the supply chain. Most of these affect people living or working close to fossil fuel infrastructure such as mines, pipelines and coal-fired power stations.

Local communities faced health problems when the Hazelwood coal mine caught fire in 2014.
COUNTRY FIRE AUTHORITY

Surveys about energy sources in the US and Australia, for example, support the claim that fossil fuels are unpopular. In China, local air pollution caused by fossil fuels is one of the biggest public concerns. And case studies from various countries indicate the potential for proposed fossil fuel infrastructure to generate strong local opposition, social conflict, and wider media attention.

Third, targeting fossil fuels helps to personalize the causes of climate change. One of the reasons climate change is not psychologically salient to most people is that it is typically perceived to be an unintentional side-effect of the everyday actions of billions of people. This makes it hard for us to attribute blame.




Read more:
Unburnable carbon: why we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground


But the fossil fuel industry is disproportionately responsible for our dependence on emissions-intensive energy. Targeting the industry helps to concentrate moral pressure on these more culpable agents and stokes the indignation that fuels climate activism.

Among anti-fossil fuel campaigns, the fossil fuel divestment movement aims most directly and explicitly to delegitemise the fossil fuel industry.
Studies show that the divestment movement has, in a very short time, had a revitalising effect on climate activism through the mobilisation of young people, and improved wider public discourse toward climate change action, among other beneficial effects.

Divestment protesters at UNSW in Sydney.
DANNY CASEY

Targeting fossil fuels also has advantages when it comes to the other elements of successful social movement activism — resource accumulation, alliance-building, and sustaining participants’ enthusiasm over time.

A necessary part of climate politics

Targeting fossil fuels is not the only way to build more successful movements around climate action. Campaigns providing a more positive vision around renewable energy, for example, have also been successful in mobilising grassroots support, and are a crucial component in contemporary climate activism. And successful grassroots mobilisation is not everything: elite politics and international relations also greatly affect climate policy.

But building wide and deep social movements committed to urgent climate action is a necessary element of the political task before us. As the rising tide of anti-fossil fuel activism shows, if campaigners work with the grain of ordinary human motivation, drawing on what we know about the psychology and sociology of social movements, then they are in with a fighting political chance.The Conversation

Fergus Green, PhD Candidate in Political Theory, Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.