Why Primatologists Love Collecting Poop

There’s intel inside monkey feces — in the form of DNA

Sri Lakan Slender Loris
Sri Lakan Slender Loris Alex Pyron via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Apparently, it’s much easier to get fecal samples from a squirrel monkey than from a slow loris — so when primatologist Mary Blair sees a loris poop, she gets excited. Blair, of the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation writes for the museum's blog:

These primates poop maybe once a day, are mostly solitary, and are nocturnal! So, we are extremely lucky to get any loris fecal samples in the wild. Every sample is precious, and collecting it feels like striking gold.

In contrast, squirrel monkeys are "veritable poop machines" that travel in large groups. Getting the goods from them is simple.

But why is Blair so excited about primate poop? It's all about what's inside. The leavings are rich with genetic material, something that researchers need when cataloging biodiversity. DNA tells them what animal is doing its business where, which in turn can lead to a better understanding of populations and whether or not they need conservation help. In 2013, Blair worked hard to collect loris poop in Vietnam. She will soon leave for another expedition — hence the blog post. 

A good method is never passed up in conservation research. Elephant poop carries DNA that scientists can match with seized ivory to help catch poachers. Scat-detection dogs are also helping find and track endangered animals where they roam. Flying foxes are leaving clues for researchers to follow in their droppings.  So are Bengal tigers. Even fossilized feces — coprolites — are helping. So for a good handful of scientists, waste isn’t wasted.

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