Species At Risk

In the field

What can you learn from 'bou poo?

Right now, pellets collected by ministry staff are being studied for different reasons at universities across the country.

There are lots of different ways to learn about an animal. One way to gain lots of information is looking at their "poo' – what researches call "scat' or "fecal pellets".

Caribou feces are one focus of study for biologist Jen Shuter and other Ministry of Natural Resources biologists and ecologists.

We can learn a lot about caribou from their feces! Researchers like me can get DNA samples from cells that rub off on fecal pellets as they pass through the animal. We can find out about who they are related to, what they eat and about parasites they may have.

The main advantage of collecting fecal pellets over other types of sampling is that it’s not invasive – we don’t have to disturb animals to collect the samples, and we have the potential to survey many more caribou than we could afford to using more invasive methods, such as blood samples.

Strangely enough, caribou fecal pellets look a bit like dark-chocolate-covered raisins, so they’re easy to distinguish from the fecal pellets of other members of the deer family (e.g., moose and white-tailed deer), which are generally larger, rounder and lighter in colour. The fecal pellets are collected by the same crews that go out and collar these animals, or by other ministry staff when they’re doing fieldwork. Pellets are collected, packaged and shipped to a variety of researchers who analyze them.

Researchers at Trent University’s Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre are analyzing caribou DNA from pellet samples. They’re trying to answer questions like:

  • What are the relationships between different groups of caribou?
  • Do the same individuals return to specific calving or wintering areas in multiple years?
  • How many unique individuals are sampled in a given area? (This information can be used to estimate population size.)

Researchers at the University of Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology are extracting DNA from caribou pellets to get a better understanding of the animal’s winter and summer diets.

Researchers at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine are analyzing parasitic larvae extracted from caribou pellets to better understand the levels of parasitic infection amongst caribou in Ontario.

The results of these diverse research efforts will help us gain a better understanding of caribou population structure (e.g.the level of interactions between different groups), habitat use, feeding habits and parasitic infection levels.