Center for Conservation Biology

Research programs

Dr. Wasser, Rebecca and Celia in the lab

Our combined field and laboratory techniques enable us to non-invasively acquire essential biological information from numerous individuals and populations over large geographic areas. We continually expand our measures to acquire the most comprehensive estimates of wildlife population health and trafficking. Most of our studies rely on collection of animal feces (scat).

Why scat?

Scat (feces) is the most abundant and accessible wildlife product in nature and it contains an enormous amount of genetic, physiological, and dietary information about an animal that can be temporally tied to environmental change. Our Center pioneered the development and application of many of the fecal-based hormone and genetic techniques widely used today. DNA from scat is used to determine species, sex, and even individual identities, allowing us to estimate population size and distribution of wildlife over a landscape. DNA and other products from ingested food can also be used to determine diet. Hormone measures provide estimates of stress, nutritional status, and reproductive health; immunoglobulins in scat reveal immune system competence; and toxins reflect degree and types of exposure to different toxicants. All of this information can be obtained from the same sample – providing a comprehensive health profile over time – without ever seeing the study subject.

Our noninvasive methods

African elephant tusks lined up against a short wall

African elephant ivory

Our center has two major research areas, wildlife forensic science and wildlife monitoring. Virtually all of our approaches to these problems are totally non-invasive. While noninvasive methods are preferred because they do not harm the animal, they can also be far more powerful than more invasive methods because of their accessibility. Many research questions require sample collections from multiple individuals and/or species, over large remote areas, often collected in a time sensitive manner that can track concurrent environmental pressures. Noninvasive methods are the best way to meet these objectives.

The ability to acquire DNA from scat enabled us to assemble a comprehensive DNA reference map of elephants across the entire African continent. We compare this map to DNA from ivory confiscated in large seizures to determine where the elephants were poached and where the most major poaching hotspots are located across Africa. Similar methods are being developed for other species, such as tigers and leopards.

Read more about tracking poached ivory

Casey, a Jack Russell terrier, wears a hiking vest and dog booties and lays down in a field with a ball beside him

Our monitoring programs also take advantage of these tools, in combination with our detection dog program. Detection dogs permit simultaneous sample collection from multiple species, on fine temporal scales, over huge remote areas. Combining such tools with digitized sample locations collected by a geographical positioning system (GPS) that can be layered onto geographic information system (GIS) maps that include habitat features, provides a comprehensive suite of measures that reflect change in animal well-being in relation to temporal changes in environmental pressures. Few other measures offer this ability.

Read more about our canine program

We have even trained dogs to match samples collected from the same individual, reducing the need for more time and cost intensive DNA analyses to determine individual identities.