Doing the dirty job – part 1

Tracking rare and elusive wild carnivores can be challenging as there are not that many of them to begin with and they are mostly shy and tend to move about a lot. Fortunately, there is an easier way to study these animals as they tend to leave behind clues of their presence which tend to be more permanent. One important clue I seek out is scat, i.e. their droppings.

Other than a sign post that says “I was here”, scats are after all, the end products of digestion and can reveal what an animal has been eating. Although it is not as as clear as looking at stomach contents like what I did in my previous post, undigested remains such as bones, hair and feathers can still be used to identify the food items. Furthermore, the surface of each piece of scat may have rubbed off an animal’s digestive tract and picked up cells on the way out. These cells contain DNA which when extracted and analysed, can be used to identify species (with an algorithm called BLAST) and individuals.

Fuzzy bits of fur can be seen coming off the scat.

It is not difficult to identify leopard cat scats in the field as they tend to lay them along the trails, possibly for scent/territorial marking purposes. Like domestic cat droppings, they are typically about 1.5 to 2 cm in diameter and around 10 to 15 cm long, sometimes in fragmented pieces. One end is usually rounded, and the other ends in a pointy twirl, often with some hair.

There are usually no plant parts, but sometimes a bit of grass are present.

Fresh leopard cat scat usually appears to be in various shades of brown and have a distinctive musky smell. Old scats turn white due to the amount of calcium present.

Aged white scat.

Scat that is found is collected in a sealable plastic bag and then frozen at -80o C to preserve the DNA. I cannot wait to start analysis on the 33 pieces of scat that I have amassed since the start of the project.

Other researchers in Singapore who have been successful with finding out more about diet or genetics with scat are those done on the common palm civetsmooth-coated otter and banded leaf monkey.