After I wrapped up my undergraduate career, I landed a job at Virginia Tech as a full time scatologist. As I explained in my last post, I got my start in research at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences sorting coyote scat samples for a research project. With my new job, I earned the added responsibilities of washing and identifying coyote, black bear, and bobcat scat contents for a new project.
The goals of this study were similar to the North Carolina project. We wanted to determine diet for coyotes, black bears, and bobcats, the three dominant predators in western Virginia. Because this study included three predators, we could take it a step further than the North Carolina study and actually compare the predator diets. This comparison allows us to get a sense of how the three predators are interacting on the landscape.
The first step in this project was to determine whether our samples belonged to a coyote, a bobcat, or a bear. We used size, shape, odor, and associated tracks to identify samples in the field, and then corroborated those identifications using a species identification multiplex in the lab. That’s fancy terminology that really just means we used the DNA left behind by the predator on the outside of the scat to determine which predator pooped the sample.
After we verified our identifications, we washed, sorted, and identified the scat contents. We used species-specific patterns on hairs and teeth to confidently identify mammalian prey. For example, deer hairs have a honeycomb pattern, vole hairs have rows of dark ovals, and rabbit hairs resemble corn-on-the-cob. A reference bank of seeds helped us identify fruits and we left some categories like insects and birds broad.
It’s fascinating to think that these predators might be influencing diet options for the others. We have the raw data collected from this study and are working on organizing and publishing it. I will follow-up on this post when those publications are out. In the meantime, stick around to learn more about why researchers collect so much scat and check out some of my favorite finds from the Virginia study in the photo gallery below!