Project milestone

The scat washing is now complete! This means that each and every scat found in the field has been scraped for DNA, aged, weighed, bagged, colour-coded, soaked, sieved under water, separated into constituent parts, dried, bones and teeth separated and, finally, packeted and labelled. Along this production line the prey items in the scat are identified and the scat catalogue updated.

Since starting in July 2016 a total of 681 samples have been washed. That’s way more than I thought there would be! There have been some hiccups along the way, mostly concerned with finding people to help me process the scat. A lot of people are happy to get involved in a project looking at wild cats, but quickly lose interest when they realise the task they need to do. They don’t realise that not all data collection is glamorous. In fact, it almost never is.

Of course, its not over yet. I’m not very good at identifying prey items by their chewed and digested remains. However, I can group them into mammal, bird or reptile without much fuss. Rodents are also pretty easy to separate. The strategy is to eliminate the low-hanging fruit: squirrel remains are quite distinctive; vlei rat teeth have become fairly familiar (I can’t tell the species apart though); and spotty guinea fowl feathers, small black and white penguin feathers, striped cape grey mongoose hair and course, reddish grysbok hair are easy. I’m given some clues from shrew teeth, mole-rat claws, snake scales, insect fragments and rock hyrax paws. Where it gets tricky are the mouse teeth, the unknown bird bones and feather fragments (almost 30% of the samples), unknown hair in samples (around 12%) and some where I have literally no idea (luckily only about 5%). Often the identification per scat gets tricky, with up to three different prey items in varying proportions in a single scat. The next step is to hopefully get some professionals from the museum to lend a hand.

There’s still plenty to do with the samples, but I’m pleased to have reached this waypoint after almost 7 months of work! I now also have an exact figure on the amount of shit my supervisors put me through. It’s 10.3kg.


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