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Biologist Looks to the Ground for Animal Clues









 

Biologist Looks to the Ground for Animal Clues

Elizabeth Archie, Ph.D., presents research on dung analysis to undergraduate science majors studying at the Calder Center.
Photo by Michael Dames

By Janet Sassi

In researching the secrets of animal behavior, Elizabeth Archie, Ph.D., lets nothing go to waste.

Archie, assistant professor of biology, gave a keynote speech on her research using animal dung to track species’ genetics and the spread of parasites between species. Her research focused primarily on Kenyan elephants’ social behavior and how bisons and other species spread disease among shared habitats.

“Dung is full of information,” said Archie, speaking Aug. 14 at Fordham University’s Calder Summer Undergraduate Research Program (CSUR) 2008 symposium. “It’s a great way to study animals because it’s not invasive. A lot of this type of information—genetics, hormones, parasites—is taken from blood, but if you get it from dung you don’t have to disturb the animal. That’s important if it’s an endangered or threatened animal.”

Working with some 250 dung samples from individual elephants in southern Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, Archie measured how often elephants with similar DNA kept company together. Data showed that mothers and daughters, and maternal siblings, spent the most time together.

Such behavioral patterns, Archie said, tend to support the theory of kin selection, which suggests that interactions between related individuals will promote survival of the gene pool.

“If the goal of evolution is to get your genes into the next generation, you can do that two ways—by having kids yourself, or by helping your relatives,” Archie said.

In 2007, Archie did further research from some 600 dung samples taken from six animal species living at the National Bison Range in Montana, to test whether parasites found in one species move into another.

The parasites actually move through the dung, Archie said, as nematode eggs. They hatch and attach themselves to grass eaten by other animals. The parasites moved from bison to sheep, antelope, and through other species, with the strongest factor being the shared habitat, she said.

Collecting the samples can require patience. “I’ve spent a lot of time watching the back end of an animal . . . waiting,” she said.

Archie’s keynote kicked off the presentation of individual student research projects by the 10 CSUR participants. The CSUR program, which is funded by a four-year, $324,471 grant from the National Science Foundation, enables undergraduates to conduct hands-on research at the Calder Center and surrounding sites, such as the Black Rock Forest and area rivers and reservoirs, under the supervision of faculty mentors.

One of this year’s student projects included a study on e-coli growth in various media, titled “Fast Food Makes Genes Jumpy,” by Patricia Libby, a junior at Rochester Institute of Technology majoring in biotechnology. Libby found the Calder program, which picks ten students among more than 100 applicants, a challenge.

“At first I felt the research was a little bit above my level,” Libby said, “But then, suddenly, you fall into it, and you realize your full potential.”


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