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Projects in Sri Lanka

Catching up with Fulbright Scholar & Elephant Feces Analyst Chase LaDue

Chris Rico

Extracts from his blog Chase received some funding from AES to assist in his Fulbright Study in Sri Lanka. Chase has also attempted to expand his science communication efforts on Twitter, pre-scheduling tidbits from the field to be posted every weekday. Some of the material duplicates what is on his blog, but if you’re interested, you can follow him @ChaseLaDue.

Feb 25, 2019 extract

I’m writing this update from my hotel room in Kochi, India, where I’m attending the South-Central Asia Fulbright Research Conference over the next week... This past trip to elephant land was shorter than last time (in part because I had to make it over here to India), but it still found a way to be filled with highs and lows. The trip also brought with it challenging moments as the elephants continue to engage in crop-raiding just outside of the park boundaries. Our elephant sightings have been inconsistent: we had our lowest number of sightings on a day during this trip, with a single elephant spotted before he ran into an adjacent forest patch, but we also had a few days of sighting 40 or 50 elephants at a time. It can be difficult to stay motivated and engaged without the promise of seeing elephants, but the milestones we’ve reached help to quickly overcome these doubts. The last day of this trip marked our 40th day of fieldwork, with over 200 hours spent searching for and watching elephants. We passed our 200th elephant sighting, with now more than 50 male elephants catalogued in our database.

I’m proud of our progress on the project, but I’m always hoping to accomplish more. When I get back from India, we’ll have another trip or two to Wasgamuwa before switching field sites. It’s still the rainy season in elephant land, so most of the elephants haven’t moved on to our next parks (these areas are still heavily flooded, and there’s no reason for elephants to move away from plentiful food sources at Wasgamuwa).

Mar 6,2019 extract

At the end of this week, I will have been abroad for four months—only five months to go! This past week marked the first time I’ve left the island since arriving back in November, as the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF, the Indian equivalent to the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission [US-SLFC]) hosted the South and Central Asia Fulbright Conference in Kochi, India…

The conference was a time for about 175 student and senior scholars to share the work that we’ve been conducting in the South and Central Asia region, including Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan…

…The conference was full of eye-opening, thought-provoking presentations from around the region. I learned about agriculture, public health, economic development, religion, and even entanglement theory…

At the podium sharing my work Photo: Sandarshi Gunawardena

At the podium sharing my work Photo: Sandarshi Gunawardena

… I was a part of [a session], a panel of Fulbrighters discussing the work in the realm of environmental science. I was one of only a couple ecologists at the conference, and so I thought that a talk about elephants in Sri Lanka may not draw attention. But of course, most people cannot resist photos of elephants, and so my talk was fairly well-attended. My presentation was sandwiched between talks about other environmental issues in the region, including in Kazakhstan, India, and Sri Lanka. None of the other panelists were studying wildlife persay, but the issues facing the environment are all intertwined…

Mar 19, 2019 extract

…With the transition from the wet to the dry season, the rains have also mostly subsided, although that hasn’t seemed to have an effect on the humidity levels.

The dryer heat alters the daily movement patterns of the elephants too. We’ve noticed that elephants are almost impossible to spot before 2:00pm now, even in the morning when it’s relatively cool. We think they’re spending the heat of the day under tree cover in the forest where we can’t see them. The vegetation is so thick that most times after moving just a few meters into the forest, we completely lose an elephant. (On a related note, we’ve also noticed that elephants seem much more wary of the vehicle and more apt to move into the forest when approach, a possible result of the recent crop-raiding that has occurred.) So as we’re driving through the park, I’m sure that there are tons of elephants (…literally) that we’re missing just a little bit off the road. We sometimes hear their trumpets and rumbles, but if we can’t see them, there’s not much we can do. Decreased elephant visibility at Wasgamuwa and lowering floodplains in other parts of the island are signs that it’s about time to move to another fieldsite and meet some new elephants. Hopefully we see some old “friends” too.

… Despite the wane in elephant activity around Wasgamuwa over the past month, there remains one fact in life: everyone poops. And in fact, even when it’s hot outside, elephants will poop, and that fact is evident as we drive around the park. In the areas that they frequent, elephant poop is ubiquitous, and it’s important for proper functioning of the ecosystem. Wild adult elephants are estimated to produce over 100 pounds of poop each day, and because they are rather poor at digesting their food, all of this dung returns vital nutrients back to their environment. Whole populations of insects and other invertebrates depend on elephant dung, including some species of the infamous dung beetles in Africa, who lay their eggs in the stuff.

… And this penchant for poop isn’t due just to it’s environmental importance, nor is it a result of all of the practical uses people have found for it (for those who are curious, you can use elephant dung to make paper products and generate energy, among other things). But it’s what scientists can do with elephant poop (and poop from other species, for that matter) that really sealed the deal for me. We can learn about an animal’s life from its poop, including its diet, genetic composition, microbiome, and other things. For our project, we’re interested in measuring hormones, the body’s chemical messengers that are important regulators of behavior, helping an animal cope with its environment. And yes, we can measure hormone metabolites in elephant poop (side note: we’re measuring the metabolites, not the hormones themselves, because like many other molecules in our body, hormones get broken down so that they don’t have longlasting effects)…

Look how happy our poop team is! Last week, we collected an unprecedented four samples in one day. From L to R: Sachintha, Dhanushka, Nimal (who may not be excited, but is instead questioning his life decisions that led him to hold a piece of elephant dung in his hand), and me.

Look how happy our poop team is! Last week, we collected an unprecedented four samples in one day. From L to R: Sachintha, Dhanushka, Nimal (who may not be excited, but is instead questioning his life decisions that led him to hold a piece of elephant dung in his hand), and me.