CO-HOST: CYLITA GUY, PHD, ECOLOGIST, DATA SCIENTIST, SCIENCE COMMUNICATOR GUEST: GABI FLEURY, CONSERVATIONIST, TECHNOLOGIST, RESEARCHER
- DR. ESKE WILLERSLEV
Most of us have a hard-enough time looking for our cell phone chargers in the dark. So imagine trying to find something that’s hidden high in building rafters, deep in muddy bogs, or scattered across endless savannahs. And now, imagine the thing you’re looking for has fangs… and sharp claws.
Dr. Kaylee Byers and her wing-woman Dr. Cylita Guy, call-in wildlife conservationist Gabi Fleury to assist in answering, ‘How do you find that which doesn’t want to be found? And should you?’ Globally speaking, does our need to turn over every rock to find vulnerable species really intersect with conservation? Rats, bats, and cheetahs weasel their way into this exciting conversation on how the study of genomics may be the “hopping off point” into a more sustainable future.
Also joining us is world famous DNA scientist, professor and globe-trotting adventurer Eske Willerslev, sharing the secret weapon he pioneered to find some of the world’s most elusive creatures.
Listen to Nice Genes! wherever you get your podcasts, brought to you by Genome British Columbia.
“Dr. Byers and Dr. Guy try to spot elusive species.”
“The half hazard hopes of tracking and finding wild animals with Gabi Fleury.”
“The genomic secret weapon to find sneaky critters, eDNA.”
Dr. Kaylee Byers 0:03
Today, we’re searching for something.
Gabi Fleury 0:05
We’re gonna walk through some tall grass here, hold on, you might hear some scraping as I’m walking through.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 0:11
We’re in Central Africa with conservation biologists Gabi Fleury, who’s looking for one particular animal.
Gabi Fleury 0:19
This is Gabi from the field. Today, I’m going to try to spot something that’s very difficult to be spotted, and also happens to be spotted. A cheetah.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 0:32
But cheetahs are quick and timid too. And together, that makes them really hard to find in the wild.
Gabi Fleury 0:39
So here, I see a track. Alright, so what I’m looking at here is not a cheetah’s track. So, this is actually a jackals track. It’s quite small. And the difference between a cheetah’s track, which kind of has the claw marks in the dirt, but it also has kind of a wavy back to the pad. This one has a straight pad and nails. And because of its small size, you can tell here that this would probably be a black-backed jackal track. So, as you can see, it can sometimes be a bit of a challenge to try to figure out where cheetahs are.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 1:21
And it’s really important that scientists find where cheetahs are going because it could mean the difference between a thriving ecosystem of wildlife, and some ecological imbalance.
Gabi Fleury 1:33
It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, and the birds are singing. And I’ve got a lot more hiking to do, so I will catch you all later.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 1:49
You’re listening to Nice Genes! a show all about unravelling the fascinating world of genomics sponsored by Genome British Columbia. I’m your host, Dr. Kaylee Byers, here to wade with you through the murky scientific waters of genomes. So, how do you locate what doesn’t want to be found? And I’m not talking about that elusive set of car keys that always seems to be on the lam. I’m talking about wild animals. Coy cats, smooth salamanders, beautiful bugs and all the critters in between. Humans have cataloged over 1.7 million species. And that might sound like a lot, but it’s just a drop in the bucket of the approximately 8.7 million that scurry, crawl, hop or fly across the globe. And that doesn’t even get into bacteria which gets things to be a little bit wild. A lot of these organisms are tough to find, invisible to see and super stealthy. For now, I’ve enlisted the help of a second set of scientific eyes for my personal ambition to find them all. Dr. Cylita Guy will be my wing woman on this episode Cylita, thanks for joining me.
Dr. Cylita Guy 3:14
Well, thanks for having me along, Kaylee and of course, introducing me as your ‘wing woman’. It’s very it’s very fitting.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 3:21
So here are the deets Cylita, you’re an ecologist and data scientist.
Dr. Cylita Guy 3:25
Dr. Kaylee Byers 3:26
And also a children’s book author, like all the things
Dr. Cylita Guy 3:29
Dr. Kaylee Byers 3:30
But I want to employ a particular set of your skills. As you know, and by now, our listeners know too, I am a bit of a rat detective. And you study a second set of mammals that also gets a bad rap. Bats. Can you tell us about that? What kind of research you’ve done with them?
Dr. Cylita Guy 3:50
Yes, of course. So, as you mentioned, I studied bats, which are not rats with wings. They’re their own separate group of mammals. And I study bats as carriers of what we call ‘zoonotic diseases’, or species jumping pathogens. These are diseases that can leap from wildlife into humans. So, I studied them globally is kind of carriers of disease. But then I also spent time studying them very locally, within my own city, the city of Toronto.
I had a very hard time finding bats in the city of Toronto, I would go out into the field with these very large nets, I would go out, I would set up these huge nets, and then I would just sit in the dark and wait. And if I was lucky, maybe in a single night, I might be able to catch five bats, and then I would take some of them, let them go and hope that I didn’t get interference, and I was actually able to track those tags through the landscape. So, it was totally worth it for what we learned about bats that live in our cities.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 4:54
Yeah, I feel like a lot of my life, too, is sitting there hoping to catch an animal and then put a tag on and then hoping that tag would stay on. Just a lot of hoping.
Dr. Cylita Guy 5:03
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of good vibes that go into doing field research really like maybe if I just think really positively about this a bat will fly in my net.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 5:15
Just putting good vibes out in the universe, hoping the animals pick them up and then send them back our way.
Given our respective rat-bat detective skills, I thought we could track some elusive wildlife together today and pool those detective skills together. What do you think?
Gabi Fleury 5:32
I mean, I can’t think of a better way to spend my morning, so… We’re gonna pull up some photos of species that blend so well into their environments that you would have to be, I don’t know, Kaylee two crack shot ecologists (can we call ourselves that?) to spot them so, we’re gonna have 10 seconds each to look at a photo and then try to name the species hidden in plain sight.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 5:58
And for listeners who want to play along, there’s a link in our show description and landing page so you can spot elusive critters with us.
Dr. Cylita Guy 6:06
Kaylee, are you ready?
Dr. Kaylee Byers 6:08
Rat Woman and Bat Girl assemble! That’s not trademarked…
Dr. Cylita Guy 6:20
I am seeing a weird white blob. Could that be…?
Dr. Kaylee Byers 6:27
No, it was not a snow leopard!
Dr. Cylita Guy 6:29
Snow Leopard?! There was not a snow leopard in there! Where?
Dr. Kaylee Byers: 6:33
Okay, this one is cruel…
Dr. Cylita Guy 6:35
This looks like a caterpillar. There’s a caterpillar there. I see a caterpillar!
Dr. Kaylee Byers 6:38
Dr. Cylita Guy 6:42
Dr. Kaylee Byers 6:43
Good for you, Cylita.
Dr. Cylita Guy 6:46
And a..? Oh, and here’s where my roll ends.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 6:48
Is there a… adorable little puffer fish or something sitting there in that rock?
Dr. Cylita Guy 6:53
I feel like it’s gotta be a type of type of fish. This looks like a stream bed?
Dr. Kaylee Byers 6:58
Looks like a kind of looks like a cute little puffer fish… Wolf Spider?! Oh, no!
Dr. Cylita Guy 7:05
Very wrong. That was, that was not underwater at all… Oh, flat fish? There’s a flat fish.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 7:11
Dr. Cylita Guy 7:14
Okay, I feel like we’re redeeming. It’s a flounder, were redeeming ourselves.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 7:18
Wide-eyed flounder fish… Oh! In the left, also, cheetah or dog?
Dr. Cylita Guy 7:27
Oh yeah, cheetah! Yeah, I saw it!
Dr. Kaylee Byers 7:34
Just some random dog that somebody let out? Running the countryside?
Dr. Cylita Guy 7:38
I like how I got a ‘great job’ and then I’m like ‘hmmm?’.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 7:40
You did so good! You did so good.
Dr Cylita Guy 7:47
All right now, from you listening to us fumble through that activity, I think it’s pretty clear that some species are really difficult to spot, even for your resident Canadian superheroes, Rat Woman and Bat Girl.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 8:00
So Cylita, and I have brought in some practice hands for this episode. And it’s my distinct pleasure to introduce Gabi Fleury. But can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Gabi Fleury 8:12
Certainly. So, I guess I get a superhero name, right? I’m the Cat Kid!
Dr. Kaylee Byers 8:16
Yeah, nice. I love it.
Gabi Fleury 8:19
So basically, I’m a conservation biologist. And I study mostly carnivores but also how carnivores interact with people. So, what I look at is something called human-wildlife interactions. So, you know, there can be positive interactions, there can be neutral interactions, and there can also be negative interactions. And I look on the more the negative side. So, carnivores sometimes will eat farmer’s livestock, farmers understandably don’t like it when carnivores eat their livestock, and it creates this kind of conflict. So, I look at kind of where the ecological and the social factors that drive that conflict and what are some ways to mitigate it.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 8:54
Amazing. And all of that sounds like really important work. But I want to start with the most important question of all of them, which is, what did you think of Cylita, and my incredible detective skills in that activity?
Gabi Fleury 9:06
I think there were some really hard ones in there. So, I think you did a pretty good job.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 9:13
That is so diplomatic. Really generous of you. Is it, is it like that at all, when you’re out spotting critters in the wild yourself?
Gabi Fleury 9:18
Absolutely. Especially in tall grass, it’s almost impossible to see them sometimes. And the thing about carnivores is that it depends what ecosystem you’re in. So if you’re in somewhere called like the, like the Maasai Mara, a lot of carnivores will be in kind of more out in the open and easier to see. If you’re somewhere like Amboseli, which is Southern Kenya, which is like a place that I’ve worked, you know, they’ve been in that environment and hunted by the Maasai, which are the local people, for a long time. So, carnivores [there] are very, very, very shy, and it’s even harder to see them. So, I have a friend who did her Ph.D. in the Northern Cape of South Africa. She spent nine years up there and saw three leopards and her Ph.D. was on leopards, so you can get a sense of how difficult it can be.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 9:57
Gabi, I mean, given that we’ve got Rat Woman, Bat Girl and now Cat Kid here today, I have to ask, can you give us your origin story? Like, where did this inspiration to track animals and become a conservation biologist come from?
Gabi Fleury 10:12
Well, it doesn’t start in a alleyway and Gotham unfortunately, that would be a lot cooler. I wanted to be a conservation that’s ever since I was about three years old. My mom blames the ‘Lion King’, I blame the fact that my dad is of an Angolan descent, and he told me stories about Southern African conservation my whole life. But I always knew it was something that I wanted to do. And I’m actually an osteosarcoma survivor. So, when I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, which is bone cancer. And a lot of kids actually got into conservation because they were out running around and able to be in nature. And I was basically bed-bound for several years. So, what I did was read. I read about every animal book I could get my hands on, I studied, and it just kind of made me want to go into conservation even more. And when I hit college, I actually learned that there’s actually a small contingent of Maasai who had moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, of all places, where I went to my undergrad. And they were telling me about kind of the opportunity costs that they go through, you know, dealing with carnivore livestock conflict, how it affects people’s mental health, how it affects their livelihood, how it impacts them, culturally. And I became really interested in this idea of, you know, it’s not just carnivores, it’s actively impacting people. And how you find that balance?
Dr. Kaylee Byers 11:34
Here we are talking about how to find creatures today, creatures like cheetahs. And so, you know, I think one of the biggest questions I have for you as a biologist and a conservationist is, why is it so important to find these species? Like, why can’t they just stay lost? And wouldn’t it be potentially better for them and potentially better for people?
Gabi Fleury 11:54
Yeah, so that’s a great question. I think the importance of knowing what the population is, and things like that is because we need to know what’s there to be able to conserve it. So, we need to know what the population is, how it’s doing, what the structure is. So, you know, is it a healthy population, and also how animals move through a landscape. So, as we continue on, you know, into the future, and there’s so much more development, it gets harder for animals to move. So, knowing how they’re utilizing a landscape is really important. For example, 80% of carnivores in Africa exist outside of protected areas. So, they’re in these multi-use landscapes, where you have livestock farmers, you have people, you know, with small businesses, you just have a lot of things going on. So, knowing how they function in those multi-use landscapes is really important to be able to conserve them.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 12:42
So, sort of speaking of multi-use landscapes and following animals, you’ve also done a lot of research in many other places. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what those spaces look like.
Gabi Fleury 12:54
So, I tend to work in kind of semi-arid areas that are fairly rural. So, you know, there might be communities that have a small village. So, a lot of the time it’s dry, it’s either grasslands or kind of desert-y. And, you know, there’s not a lot of cars going around, there’s like, you know, field vehicles, or I’ve been in places where people use donkey carts. So, it’s kind of a little further out there. And usually, you have to go over a bunch of really bad dirt roads. So, I got really good at learning how to swerve around potholes and things like that.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 13:28
I would love to chat a little bit about your experience with cheetahs. And so, they are these majestic animals. But as majestic as they are, I’m guessing you probably don’t want to get up too close to them, generally. And there’s one story we’d really like to chat with you about, which is the first time you got to touch a cheetah. And can you tell us about that day?
Gabi Fleury 13:51
Yeah, so one thing I wanted to kind of like be clear is that I didn’t just go up to a wild cheetah and just like pat it on the head. It was actually it was a cat that had been caught up in the human-wildlife conflict incident. So basically, the farmer live-trapped it and then called the place where I was working, which was Cheetah Conservation Fund, and we went to be got the cat, and we brought it back to the center gently, gently knocked out for a little bit so we could kind of check you know how they’re doing. So the vets are looking over them, kind of checking their general health. But what was really cool was I was able to listen to his heartbeat. I’ve been obsessed with cheetahs since I was three, right? And when I was in the hospital, I really loved them because they could run really fast. They’ve always kind of been like my really special, emotionally attached to animal. Um, so I got to hear what a cheetah’s heartbeat sounded like. I cried, a lot. You know it slow cause he was he was asleep. But hearing that cat’s heartbeat, I realized how fragile they are and how easily that could stop. Because the thing with cheetahs is that they are quite fragile because they’ve put all of their evolutionary focus into being fast. So, they don’t really defend themselves that well. So yeah, so it’s just kind of the sense of extreme fragility. And I’m like, ‘I will do whatever it takes to make this animal be able to survive in the wild’.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 15:18
Okay, so this episode is all about how to find animals like elusive cheetahs. My case has been rats, Cylita, bats for you, right? So between the three of us, we have our methods. Maybe we could go, and maybe some of those methods are the same, we could go in a circle and talk a little bit about some of these methods we use? So, I’ll start: trap, mark, recapture. So, you catch the animal, you put a little tag on them, you release them back into the field.
Dr. Cylita Guy 15:45
Yeah, I’m pretty much… when we were doing our fieldwork, it was the same: trap, mark, hopefully, hopefully, recapture. Not a lot of recaptures, I will say that.
Gabi Fleury 15:55
A big thing that’s used for carnivores is also collaring. So collars, like VHF [Very High Frequency] collars on animals and being able to kind of track where they go over time.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 16:04
And so those VHF collars are like radio-tagged, and so you’re also standing in the field with one of those antennae, hey? Trying to find out how close they are to you, or in what direction?
Gabi Fleury 16:12
Yeah, and you know, you’re also looking at it, you know, on the computer, and you’re able to actually see how the animals are moving. Which is really, really cool. Because you can kind of see like, Okay, this particular cat that was released, has been sitting in this one place, and then these other ones are kind of far away. Another technique that’s used for carnivores is camera trapping. It’s like a little camera that basically you put out in the field and usually tie it to a post or to a tree. And it is motion activated. So, when something moves in front of it, it takes a picture, you take your cameras down, and then you have to spend literally weeks going through every single picture trying to find ones that are helpful and like classifying it by the species that you’re seeing.
Dr Cylita Guy 16:52
When we were out radio tracking our bats, every bat that we put a radio tag on, we give them a little name, mostly to amuse ourselves at 3am. Because what else do you do that early in the morning? Do you have a particular story of a very like elusive creature and I’m kind of wondering if you can take us through one of your own kinds of nature detective stories?
Gabi Fleury 17:11
Yeah, so when I was working in Amboseli, so Southern Kenya, there was this one renowned crop raider. His name was Tim. So, Tim had been like one of the long-term studies in Amboseli National Park. He would cross out of the National Park and just basically go into people’s gardens and eat all their maize for funsies, he had plenty of food. So the organization that I was helping out, that was kind of my first internship ever was with Big Life Foundation. So they would go out in the middle of the night, in these cars, to basically like, go see Tim and see what Tim was doing, because Tim was always doing something horrible. And essentially, what he would do is like, they’d go out to Tim, they’d make a loud noise, they’d like, you know, hammer on pots and pans. They’d be like ‘get out of here Tim!’ and Tim would literally, just because he was so used to people yelling at him, he would just kind of very quietly go behind the line of cars, and then just go into the next person’s garden and start eating their maize.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 18:08
And the kicker, this sly creature named Tim was an elephant.
Gabi Fleury 18:16
He was an extremely, extremely naughty elephant, and he actually died of natural causes a couple of years ago. So, for an animal that had that amount of ivory on him that he was able to die of natural causes, of old age, was incredible. So, when I think of just kind of like an elusive kind of tricksy extremely intelligent animal, like the first thing that pops in my head is Tim.
Dr. Cylita Guy 18:37
I want to take a step back here. And I think this story of Tim, you know, going in and reading farmer’s crops is a nice kind of stepping point. I want to build out this bigger story of conflict between, you know, wild animals and us humans, and how do you navigate those difficult, you know, relationships and conversations and interests between governments, local communities and the wildlife themselves?
Gabi Fleury 19:00
Yeah, that’s really, really difficult. I like to call myself kind of like an ‘interspecies diplomat’, right? So, there are the needs of the animal to be able to use landscape. But then there’s also the need of the community to have their livelihood taken care of. And the big thing that I’ve learned, you know, working in different communities is that you can’t really assume you have the same goals. Yeah, I love cheetahs. They’re not eating my goats. I don’t have to worry about the safety of my kids walking to school. So I can’t, I will never be able to fully understand that. But trying to think from their perspective is really important.
So, for example, in Namibia, we had this farmer that was shooting jackals. He was like the top jackal shooter guy in the area. And of course, like we didn’t want him to shoot jackals, but we can’t just walk up to him and be like, “I’m a conservationist, see the cute little cheetah on my shirt. Please don’t shoot jackals. They’re cute.” Like, they’re not gonna care, right? They’re like “they’re eating my sheep, they gotta go”. So how I spoke to him was using the biology and like what I knew about how animals functioned and telling him the truth, which is if you shoot jackals, jackals breed faster. Jackals make more jackals; you’ll get twice as many jackals. And then he goes, “Oh, I don’t want to do that!”
But also trying to understand, kind of like, where does the animosity come from? Does it come from the fact that they’re eating their livestock, maybe a little? But that’s not really as simple as it seems. It could come from experiences they’ve had in the past. It could come from kind of that political ecology aspect. It could come from how culturally they see different carnivore species. So understanding kind of like how people perceive carnivores, and how the perception of threat doesn’t always equal the actual reality. But it doesn’t really matter if that’s what the belief is. So that’s kind of the really complex space where I work.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 20:50
Gabi, the interspecies diplomat. While in many places around the world, Gabi works between locals whose livelihood depends on their land and livestock, and the big cats and other predators like hyenas and jackals with large ranges throughout Africa, the stakes are high; lives are literally on the line. Navigating how to balance conservation with local safety and the economy of a region, as well as the various interests of local governments… That’s not a simple task. But it’s a really important one.
Dr. Cylita Guy 21:26
And honestly, clearly, you know, this task is made, I think, far more difficult by the fact that a lot of these creatures don’t like to be found. But luckily, you know, researchers like Gabi carry a particular genomic secret weapon up their sleeve.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 21:45
You’re listening to Nice Genes! A podcast all about the fascinating world of genomics and the evolving science behind it, brought to you by Genome British Columbia. I’m Dr. Kaylee Byers, your host, and I have a quick favour to ask you. If you’re liking the show, hit follow on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your shows. And stick with me as I continue this genomic journey. Leave a review and tell a friend about us. It really helps the show make a scientific splash.
So what’s one way to find big cats, bats and even rats without actually seeing them? Well, to begin answering that, we’re going to have to get our hands a little bit dirty and talk about scat. Gabi, what the scat is that?
Gabi Fleury 22:32
Yeah, so scat is poop. And it’s something that biologists, especially carnivore biologists, we get incredibly excited about. Like you’ll never see a bunch of biologists more happy when we see scat of animal that we haven’t seen for a while. We’re like, oh, we drop to our knees, and we’re like, “look at this!”
Dr. Kaylee Byers 22:46
Yeah, I love that. You mentioned being excited by it because I was quite literally surrounded by rat scat. So it was never like, wow, I finally have some. I was like, I have so much all the time.
Gabi Fleury 22:57
Yeah, we call it black gold, cheetah poop.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 22:59
So scat, it’s a yep, it’s feces, excrement, numero deux. Everybody poops, even our sneaky furry critters. But there’s more to it than just following a scat track straight to a leopard or cheetah. Gabi’s work takes us into this really fascinating field of science called ‘eDNA’, which is short for environmental DNA. Scientists can take samples from an ecosystem, whether that be soil or water, and observe the microscopic genetic material sitting in their sample. And they can use that to identify a whole suite of species that have been using that habitat, from bacteria to bugs to bats and even people. To explain how scientists go about doing that, I’ve brought in an early pioneer of eDNA, Dr. Eske Willerslev.
Dr. Eske Willerslev 23:52
[I’m a] Professor of ecology and evolution, here at University of Cambridge.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 23:55
Who is a world famous scientist and adventurer…
Dr. Eske Willerslev 23:58
But I do, to be honest, think it’s really the same thing. Science is adventurous.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 24:03
And one of the first people to use eDNA.
Dr. Eske Willerslev 24:06
Yeah, I mean, it’s actually interesting because it was an idea coming out of, you can say necessity, because I was a poor student. I didn’t have any grants or anything, and I wasn’t famous either. So I couldn’t get access to, you can say, interesting fossil remains. So this was obviously a problem. But I very much enjoyed the wilderness, so you can say I wanted to become an adventurer, and I went to Siberia for a number of expeditions in the early 90s. So then I remember I was sitting, it was in autumn, and I saw you know, leaves falling down from the trees and I saw a dog taking a crap on the street. And I kind of thought, you know, well, we know that there’s DNA in these things, right. But we also know that after next rainfall, the dark feces is kind of gone, dissolved. And after a few years, the leaves are gone. The question is, could the DNA be preserved, you know, in the sediments? And I remember I went to my supervisor, I went into the coffee room and said, “Well, I have this idea, maybe you know, the DNA from animals and plants can survive in the soil”. And he said, “Well, I’ve never heard anything as stupid”, and everybody in the room were laughing.
Because of my time in Siberia, right? I knew the permafrost, you know, the frozen ground. And we knew that, that if things are frozen, chemical processes slows down. So when I contacted a Russian guy called David Gilichinsky, but who worked actually in those areas where I was doing my expeditions in my early days, I asked him, “Could you come to Copenhagen and bring some of this permafrost with you?” And he said, “Yeah, I can do that”, so he came. And I thought, to be honest, I thought you needed very large amount of soil. Because I mean, what is the chance of an animal just walking on, you can see this tiny piece of soil, right? So first, I tried to freeze dry the soil to make it smaller, right, bringing out all the water, and it totally failed, it was a disaster. And at the end of the day, I just said, “Okay, let’s just try, you know, two grams of soil.” And I remember it was Christmas Day, and everybody had left, you know, the lab. I tried to amplify DNA with ‘universal mammalian primers’ and then ‘universal plant primers’. What it does is you are targeting a specific piece of DNA that, in principle, you should be able to get from all mammals and be able to distinguish them from each other. And the same for plants.
Now, I got the sequencing results. I put them into the gene bank while comparing your read to everything known in the database right at that time. And it just came out, bang, woolly mammoth, bang, horse, bison, lemming, hare, and various types of plants. It was incredible. I mean, it worked right? The question is, could it survive outside the permafrost? And I got some cave soil samples from New Zealand. And it just banged out with moa birds with these giant birds, like ostriches that got, that went extinct, you know, 1000s of years ago. We didn’t call it environmental DNA. We didn’t call it anything fancy like that. But the principle was shown, right? And then, after ten years, it kind of exploded, and, and it’s something that people are using, both in ancient settings and modern settings and so forth.
Yeah, who’s laughing now? Exactly.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 28:11
And so eDNA gives valuable insight into hard-to-find animals, even ones that aren’t around anymore. One of the applications that I’m especially excited about comes from a recent study that used eDNA to reveal the ‘richness’ of an ecosystem. And ‘richness’? Well, that’s the number of species in an area.
In February 2022, scientists published a study in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. It compared how many species were recorded in tall eelgrass beds using two techniques. The scientists used either traditional netting techniques to catch species, or eDNA, which involves sequencing genetic samples from the water. When they tested those samples, they found that the eDNA identified nearly twice as many species living in those waters. That’s 129 species instead of just 59 found through the netting. And eDNA is also much less invasive. It shows the potential power of this sneaky way of identifying species without disrupting them and without even having to see them.
Okay, so I want to throw it back to both of you. How has this use of eDNA crept into your work? Gabi? Can we start with you? How have you used eDNA?
Gabi Fleury 29:54
Yeah, so I’m not a geneticist. I’m a conservation biologist, so I don’t actually do the analysis myself. But it’s important for, you know, getting a sense of what’s out there in the population and how healthy it is. So yeah, we use scat a lot. And the reason why it’s important is because, so animal poop passes through an animal and picks up genetic material along the way, and then it’s deposited somewhere. So a lot of the time, you know, we’re not able to see these animals, you know, and it’s, it’s a way to kind of also not interfere with them, right? It’s a way to not have to handle them. So by able, being able to find this scat and then being able to do genetic analysis on it, you can figure out the kind of individuals and start getting an idea of population, and population structure, as well as the health of the population.
So, cheetahs are actually really sensitive to inbreeding because she does actually went through a ‘genetic bottleneck’, you know, 1000s and 1000s. And 1000s. And 1000s of years ago, their population got so small, and then kind of had to build up from that point that they already are very sensitive to inbreeding, right? So, because of that kind of knowing what cats are in the area, not only can you kind of get a sense of the individuals, you can get a sense of how many animals are in there, and then extrapolate from that population structure, how many males? How many females? You know, things like that and get a sense of, is this a healthy population, right? And can this population continue to propagate without having those genetic issues?
Dr. Kaylee Byers 31:17
So you can see who’s there but also how well they’re doing or how healthy they are? And Cylita, I believe you have a story to share about eDNA and bats. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Dr. Cylita Guy 31:27
Yeah, and just start us off. I’m going to take us down to Brazil near the federal capital of Brasilia. Now, bats have a bad rep in Brazil; they’re everywhere. In a few locations, they even make up half of all the mammalian species in that location. Some folks relate to them as carriers of diseases like rabies. They’re hunted and can often die from consuming doses of pesticides sprayed on crops. But a couple of researchers weren’t convinced of the broad, villainous reputation over these bats was true. So, they decided to look into five distinct species of bats that were roosting in local city buildings. They had a hunch that the DNA samples from them, specifically from their poop, would help prove their innocence.
So, they set out a couple of nets and caught some bats, collected some samples and sequenced the material from their feces. Now, believe me, that’s an oversimplification of catching bats. But after looking through the DNA, their hypothesis bore some pretty exciting fruit. Forty-one different insect species were found in their stool, many of whom were nefarious pests in the surrounding farmland. Altogether, researchers estimate that these bats were eating enough bugs that every hectare of farmland was saving about 94 US dollars a year. Crunch a few numbers, and that adds up to Brazil annually saving $390.6 million? That’s enough money to make the cape crusader himself blush.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 33:04
That is a lot of dollars.
Gabi Fleury 33:06
Dr. Cylita Guy 33:07
And beyond just eating bad bugs, they were also helping with pollination and dispersing seeds. They’re like little agricultural workers just with wings.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 33:17
So what we really need is like a rebranding here for bats.
Dr. Cylita Guy 33:20
Bats, rats all those good creatures.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 33:23
As I mentioned earlier, finding these animals is really just one component to a much larger issue. Humans don’t always get along with the creatures wandering or flapping about this planet we all share. Gabi mentioned earlier how human-wildlife conflict management is really at the heart of their work.
Dr. Cylita Guy 33:42
And so, Gabi, I want to throw this back to you. Because this is really your world, you’ve expressed this kind of difficult position you’re in and having to be an advocate for the animals, but also the welfare of locals and their livelihood. And so, can you articulate the challenges you come across in this kind of human-wildlife conflict management space?
Gabi Fleury 34:02
Yeah, I think the biggest challenge is these people wanting to kill these carnivores, to be honest, or just wanting them off their land or not wanting to have much to do with them. And I think, you know, it’s an understandable thing. So, it’s trying to kind of come in not telling people how to manage their livestock, not coming in very heavy-handed, but kind of saying, like, “Look, I’m here to learn. I’m not from this community. You guys are the experts here about your land and your farming system and how things work. I’m just here to understand, to try to do some testing of different things that could potentially reduce the amount of livestock you lose”. Because the last thing I want to do is be a ‘parachute scientist’. And what essentially that means is, you know, you drop in somewhere, you collect your data you leave that isn’t helping them in any way. It’s me essentially utilizing their problem for my own personal gain, and that’s something I feel very ethically against. So by working with these on-the-ground organizations and collaborating with them, it’s important not to have an attitude of superiority going into these communities like “Oh, you know, like I have degrees, and I’m a scientist!” I tried to go into it thinking we’re all tools in the toolbox. I’m a wrench, I do wrench things, but sometimes you need a can opener. And then the wrench is useless, right? So it’s not better than anything else. So kind of going in knowing what you know, and knowing what you don’t know and knowing when you should step back and let other people speak.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 35:32
Through their research, Gabby was able to come up with a really clever way to help reduce conflict between humans and wildlife. So, Gabi, you created a video game to help locals identify predator attacks? What was its origin story?
Gabi Fleury 35:50
Yeah, so that was a really quirky project. So, the idea behind the video game came out where we know through anecdotally that interactive activity is a lot more engaging and important for people than you know, just kind of speaking to them about a problem. You’re engaging them interactively, is really important. So, we wanted it to be like anyone could play it and be able to understand it. One is, basically, there’s a livestock enclosure, and there’s something wrong with it. And you have a timer, and you have to identify what’s wrong with the livestock enclosure, because if you don’t in time, there’s actually a consequence. So, if the door is on its hinges, a hyena gets in, if it’s underneath a tree, and there’s no covering, a leopard jumps down, so you can kind of see iteratively, you know, how to make a good life second closure.
And the other is I call CSI like Carnivores, CSI Savanna, where essentially, you see like a cartoon, cow or sheep that’s had, you know, a couple of bites taken out of it. And you have scat, and then you have tracks, and you have to identify out of a lineup of carnivores, which is the one that did it. And as you get them right over time, you start to identify, “Oh, if it’s this kind of scat, it’s this animal”. And the reason why that’s important is that you know, for example, for farmers calling in about a conflict instance, a lot of the time what will happen is they’ll be like, “I had this cheetah that leapt out of this tree and ate my calf”. And I’m like, “That absolutely did not happen. No way!” You know, because it’s just not something that cheetahs do. So, if they know they have a leopard, then we now know we’re dealing with a leopard problem. Now that cheetah problem and it’s you can adjust to that.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 37:34
Where do you think the path forward is into building those relationships between us and the wild animals around us?
Dr. Cylita Guy 37:39
I will say that I like thinking specifically about that city landscape, and again, my own work with bats, but also, that education piece, I think is really important. And that understanding helping people to understand the value of these creatures, especially ones like bats that are misunderstood. I think that’s a really big, big part of that, right? And Gabi hearing about your video game, and that kind of unintended consequences that, you know, we don’t always anticipate when we take a certain action, I think helping people understand and see that bigger picture and appreciate even though they may be annoyed by some of the wildlife that they encounter, which again, I think that education is a really important component and can go a very long way to help.
Gabi Fleury 38:24
And also, just coming from a practical perspective is that we can’t expect communities to just accept dangerous animals on their land by telling them they’re cool. So, a lot of is also kind of the instrumental aspect of reducing conflict from a very kind of basic, actually reducing conflict instances is really important. Because only once we start doing that can we start to kind of heal that perception? But again, I always think education is fantastic. But if it’s like a life or death situation or a livelihood situation, I do think, you know, that very practical aspect has to also be dealt with. So it’s also it’s the emotional aspect that you’re dealing with and the practical aspect. And there’s never going to be a silver bullet for human-wildlife conflict. It’s never going to be something that’s going to be 100% solved.
Dr. Cylita Guy 39:10
Gabi, you are clearly super passionate about what you do, which I think is amazing. But I know becoming a conservationist, and you know, becoming a scientist, can be a very daunting and overwhelming task. So, do you have any kind of practical tips for how someone who’s interested in this line of work can get started and kind of make their own space?
Gabi Fleury 39:29
Yeah, there’s so many different paths you can take in conservation. So, one thing I always, I tell people quite early is research a lot of different people that have jobs that you’re interested in. And that’s something I did as an undergrad, I looked at the literature for carnivore conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa. And there were like 13 names that kept popping up again and again and again. I’m like, I will become best friends with all of those people and figure out exactly how they got into that field.
But another thing I’d like to stress is that A lot of people think in terms of conservation as you have to be a scientist. And yeah, we always need great biologists. I’m a biologist, I love biology, but we need really good graphic designers. We need really good environmental attorneys. We need really good people in government and advocacy. We need people who are good fundraisers. We need entertainers and journalists; we need all these people who care about conservation in their fields. So I think I always will tell people, you know, if you’re not into science, it’s okay. If you care about wildlife, you can apply whatever you want to do for a profession to wildlife. So don’t feel limited kind of by thinking you have to go that very traditional path, if that’s not for you.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 40:39
So, Gabi Fleury, what a treat, what a treasure. Thank you for joining Cylita and I today.
Gabi Fleury 40:50
Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I had a wonderful conversation with you all.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 41:23
Hopefully, with tools like eDNA and other genomic tricks, we’ll be better able to understand all of the species that we share our planet with and how we can be better interspecies community members.
Dr. Cylita Guy 41:34
Yeah. And I feel like talking to Gabi really puts into perspective why that is so important, not just to preserve all these wonderful and beautiful species. But you know that preservation has benefits to our ecosystems as a whole. So it’s good to have them around all the time.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 41:50
So Cylita, would you do me the honours of ending us off for today?
Dr. Cylita Guy 41:54
Oh, it would be my pleasure, Kaylee. You’ve been listening to Nice Genes! A podcast brought to you by Genome British Columbia. If you liked this episode, go check out some of the previous ones and also follow the show to catch new episodes coming up. You can also message the show by direct messaging @GenomeBC on Twitter.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 42:14
And I just wanted to add that the education team at Genome BC have put together some learn-a-longs so you can dive into all the fun topics we cover and explore the world of genomics for yourself. You can find them in our show notes, not just for this episode but all our episodes. And thanks for being with us today. Dr. Cylita Guy. We mentioned you have a book early in the episode, so if listeners are interested in learning more about urban ecology, go check out ‘Chasing Bats and Tracking Rats: Urban Ecology, Community Science and How We Share Our Cities’. Thanks again for joining me.
Dr. Cylita Guy 42:48
Oh, it was my pleasure. And you know that I’m always looking for more opportunities to reunite Rat Woman and Bat Girl.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 42:56
We’re in a book, we’re on a podcast. What’s next?
Dr. Cylita Guy 42:59
Dr. Kaylee Byers 42:59
Dr. Cylita Guy 43:00
Deep sea exploration.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 43:00
Deep sea exploration.
Dr. Cylita Guy 43:01
Let’s put a pin in that one.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 43:03
It sounds great.
Join us on our next episode discussing the science behind our genes and ancestry. What’s fact? What’s myth?
Shawn Hercules 43:18
Are our genomic portraits really so different from each other when it comes to things like race?
Dr. Janina Jeff 43:18
Yeah, so this is my favourite bar to drop like on any stage. If I’m with kindergarteners, I’m saying it. If I with Ph.D. students, I’m saying it, which is that genetically we are 99.9% the same.
Dr Kaylee Byers 43:42
Follow us on Apple podcast or wherever you get your shows. And until then, thanks for listening!
DID YOU LIKE THIS EPISODE? THEN YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO…
DECODING ANCESTRY: RACE IS NOT GENETIC
CO-HOST: DR. SHAWN HERCULES, POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCHER AT MCMASTER UNIVERSITY GUEST: DR. JANINA M. JEFF, AMERICAN GENETICIST AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF ‘IN THOSE GENES’
What exactly is the relationship between race and genetics? And where do concepts of ancestry and identity enter the conversation? In the realm of genomics, these are myths waiting to be busted.
“What does the information stored in our genomes tell us about our past and our present?” Dr. Kaylee Byers and Co-host Dr. Shawn Hercules join forces to break into this fundamental question of science, ancestry and race. First, they speak with “Genet-SIS” and Executive Producer of the podcast In Those Genes, Dr. Janina Jeff (A.K.A. “Dr.J²”) about how race is really a social construct. Together, they delve into the important distinctions we must make between ancestry and race in order to better understand our biology.