Post-Guatemala Fieldwork Discussions with PhD student Ellen Dymit

In this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla is back with Ellen Dymit to talk about their experience with the fieldwork in Guatemala.

Science Highlight: None

Links Mentioned in the Episode:

Where to find Ellen: Ellen’s Twitter | Taal’s Twitter

You can support the K9 Conservationists Podcast by joining our Patreon at patreon.com/k9conservationists.

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Summary

By Maddie L.

Podcast Introduction:

  • Kayla Fratt and her friend, Ellen Dymit, are in Guatemala conducting fieldwork for a research project.

Research Goals and Project:

  • Ellen Dymit is conducting her PhD research at Oregon State University in wildlife sciences.
  • The project involves meta barcoding of scats from large carnivores in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala.
  • The study aims to analyze the diets of carnivores like jaguars, ocelots, and pumas using DNA sequencing technology.
  • Meta barcoding identifies prey species within predator scats by reading a 100-base pair sequence of their genome, allowing differentiation of species.
  • This approach is novel in the Neotropics and aims to provide a better understanding of tropical carnivore diets.

Impacts of Research:

  • Understanding carnivore diets is essential for effective conservation measures, particularly for flagship species like jaguars.
  • The project also reveals the ecological complexity and food web assemblages in threatened areas like Laguna del Tigre National Park.
  • The research contributes to protecting the unique wildlife of the region, including the endangered scarlet macaw subspecies.

Fieldwork and Wildlife Sightings:

  • The detection dogs, Barley and Niffler, have been highly effective in finding scats, particularly those of meso-carnivores.
  • Recent findings include evidence of smaller prey species not previously identified through mechanical sorting methods.
  • The podcast highlights various wildlife encounters, including a rare sighting of a jaguar and other unique species in the area.
  • The team shares stories of dealing with bugs, ticks, venomous snakes, and challenging field conditions.

Unexpected Challenges:

  • The team faced a unique challenge when Barley became overly interested in and started alerting to Chico sapote fruits.
  • They had to manage Barley’s behavior to prevent him from getting sidetracked by the fruit during surveys.

Acknowledgment and Thanks:

  • The speakers express gratitude for the support and teamwork from partners at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and local park staff.
  • They give special thanks to their mentor and mention that their project wouldn’t be possible without the support of various individuals and Tylenol PM

Project Preview:

  • They hint at the potential for future discussions about the project, especially once they have more data and results to share.
  • The podcast reflects on the excitement of finding scats but notes that they may not be the most thrilling stories to share.

Transcript (AI-Generated)

Kayla Fratt 

Hello and welcome to the K9 Conservationists podcast where we’re positively obsessed with conservation detection dogs. Join us every week to discuss ecology, odor dynamics, dog behavior and everything in between. I’m your host, Kayla Fratt, one of the cofounders of canine conservationists, where we trained dogs to detect data for land managers, researchers, agencies, and NGOs. Today, I’m coming to you from a hammock in the northern reaches of Guatemala along with my friend, Ellen Dymit. We’re just wrapping up our second to last survey day here in Guatemala and wanted to give you all an update on our project here. As we don’t have laptops or internet or anything here, we will not have a research highlight or review highlight today. But welcome back on the podcast, Ellen.

Ellen Dymit 

Thank you. It’s good to be back.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, we’ve had quite a couple of weeks together. So why don’t we start out I think during our last interview, we didn’t dive as deeply into kind of the nitty gritty of your research and of your project as I would like. So why don’t we start out with talking a little bit about the goals of the study that you’re conducting down here and some of the impacts you’re really hoping for it to have.

Ellen Dymit 

For anyone who is just tuning in now I am in the second year of my PhD research at Oregon State University in the wildlife sciences program. And a part of my dissertation work is meta barcoding of large carnivores scouts, particularly felid scouts, so jaguar, ocelot, puma. Yeah, we’re under whatever we can find in the Maya biosphere reserve of Guatemala. And this project actually started with just a sub sample of 30 scouts that were sent to us by Roni from the Wildlife Conservation Society of Guatemala for us to analyze in our lab, but has now grown into a multi year multi Park scat collection and meta barcoding analysis of several different predator species.

Kayla Fratt 

So what exactly is meta barcoding for someone who’s not getting a PhD related to genetics? And is it is this new? Is this something that’s been around for a while and we’re doing this with scat, obviously, so. So take us through some of the basics of meta barcoding and Diet Analysis.

Ellen Dymit 

Yeah, so with the advances in DNA sequencing technology that have occurred over the past decade or so, we are now able to identify two species, the prey that are present within a predators scat by reading a specific in our case, a 100 base pair sequence of their genome that acts as a sort of barcode or genetic fingerprint that allows us to actually differentiate individual species by the differences in that sequence.

Ellen Dymit 

Meta barcoding has been used sort of all across the world now in different studies of not just carnivore diets, but the diets of all sorts of creatures as well as characterizing ecological communities through Edna and things like soil and water. But in this system, in particular, and actually across the entire Neotropics. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a meta barcoding study will be employed to study your tropical carnivore diet. In the Maya Biosphere Reserve. In particular, there have been previous diet studies of Jaguar and Puma that have used mechanical sorting of scats. So that looks like rinsing the scats in a seat to pick out the bones and fur that’s left behind and using that to try and guess what they ate.

Ellen Dymit 

But evidence suggests now that these mechanical sorting methods actually miss a lot, especially smaller species that could be present in the diets. So basically, the objective of our study is to refine and hopefully broaden our understanding of what things like Pumas and jaguars are eating in this part of the world.

Kayla Fratt 

Gotcha. Thank you for that. So yeah, mechanical sorting seems relatively clearly to be something that wouldn’t be nearly as precise, potentially, especially for some of these smaller fields. But is that true for jaguars and pumas as well?

Ellen Dymit 

So yeah, based on my results, so I already have some initial results from around 100 scats that were collected here last year, by me, and those already indicate that there are some prey species like small parrots like amphibians and reptiles, a lot of smaller mammals, especially arboreal rodents, that are showing up in puma and jaguar diets that have not been previously identified in these mechanical sorting studies. We’re also seeing that the proportional contribution or proportional occurrence of species like monkeys in Puma diet, for example, maybe higher than what has been previously estimated by mechanical sorting methods.

Kayla Fratt 

Gotcha. That’s really interesting. So, you know, this is, this is such a science 101 sort of question, but what are some of the kind of potential impacts of this research? Like, I can see how it’s really cool and interesting, but I’m curious what, you know, what was Roni potentially hoping for when he contacted you? And what are you hoping to maybe see as a long term impact of this research?

Ellen Dymit 

Well, Roni, and WCS Guatemala in general, are very interested in Jaguar conservation in particular, given that Jaguars have been a flagship species for the conservation of this Mesoamerican forest for a long time now. But given you know, it’s interesting, considering how heavily studied jaguars are, we still have a pretty poor understanding of their diet in these areas. And for effectively targeting conservation measures, it’s important for us to understand what resources are essential for habitat for large carnivores. So understanding what they eat, besides being you know, an interesting gap in our natural history, understanding of these animals, is also important for effectively targeting conservation measures for the animals themselves, as well as their habitat.

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Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, that makes perfect sense, it would be pretty challenging to figure out what kind of constitutes an intact, healthy Jaguar supporting ecosystem without having a really good understanding of what they’re eating. And I would imagine that it may also vary quite a bit from the I mean, jaguars are such a wide ranging species that hopefully, this is just the sort of thing that is going to get the ball rolling and get started here. And you know, maybe we’ll learn more about some of the Jaguars that are up in the Mexican, you know, in northern Mexico went all the way down to central South America. One day, I know you, you already have enough projects for your PhD. So that’s just a free idea for someone else. So why don’t we pivot a little bit unless there’s Is there anything else you want to bring up about your research or WCS are your work here that we haven’t talked about yet?

Ellen Dymit 

Yeah, I did want to mention that the park that we’re in right now, in particular Laguna del Tigray is a really unique instance of conservation need. It’s very threatened by Narco deforestation, which is a complicated issue, but essentially involves the intentional setting of wire wildfires to clear land Parkland illegally to move in communities for cattle ranching operations that end up being money laundering or tangentially associated with narco trafficking activities, cocaine, specifically in this part of the world. So our data collection is happening right along what they call the limit. It’s sort of the last frontier of intact forest here, abutting the range land that has been encroaching with Narco deforestation progression from the west. So understanding the ecological complexity, and sort of reconstructing foodweb assemblages, for this part of the forest is particularly important given that this area is the frontline of conservation for the ecosystem.

Kayla Fratt 

And we’ve also got a pretty special bird that still uses this place to nest you want to talk to us a little bit about the guaca.

Ellen Dymit 

Yeah, so this subspecies of scarlet Macaw that lives in southern Mexico, northern Guatemala, and Belize only nests as far as we know, in the Laguna del t gray National Park where we are, and there’s estimated to be around 250 to 300 individuals remaining in the wild here, which is obviously not very many and sort of the main driver, drivers of the population declines for these macaws have been loss of habitat through this Narco deforestation, as well as poaching of nests for the illegal wildlife trade, which is mainly supporting a market and the United States of pet Scarlet macaws.

Kayla Fratt 

Gotcha. Yeah, thank you. And we’ve had the privilege of getting to see some of these these macaws over pretty much every day we’ve been here and it’s been a real treat. There’s such such cool birds and it’s a real you know, it’s a real shame to to know that they’re under threat pretty much you know, here as well. There’s a really good book if anyone’s interested in Scrum, because that I just love recommending people called the last flight of the scarlet Macaw, which is about the loss of I assume this subspecies last nesting area in Belize. So these these poor poor birds are really struggling and anyway, it’s been a real privilege to see them. So why don’t we they pivot now a little bit to talking about the dogs now that we have maybe one short survey day left before we hop back on the boat and back in the car and make our pilgrimage back to civilization. What have been some of your impressions or observations of working with the detection dogs so far?

Ellen Dymit 

Well, I’ll start by saying that I’m really pleased with how much scat they have found, Barley in particular, and I wish that they were staying for my whole field season because I know we would get a ridiculous amount of staff that way. But even so just in our seven or so days of sampling with them, we’ve managed to find 60 scats, which is incredible. It’s way more than I would ever find by myself or have ever found by myself here before. In fact, I think 60 scats is about what I would collect in two months of on foot searches by myself here. So the fact that we got that done in seven days is very exciting for me.

Ellen Dymit 

Something I’m also really stoked about is that the dogs found a lot of meso-carnivores scats, scats that I anticipate being from Ocelot or even something more exciting like a Tyra which is a mustelid species that sort of elusive here or maybe even Mar gay, which is conjure of ocelots that are more arboreal. And those because of their size are a lot harder for me to find. They’re just less conspicuous, continuous conspicuous, yeah, less conspicuous on the ground so that we’ve been able to add a larger sample size of those to our overall analysis. Thanks to the dogs is a sort of unexpected and really exciting result of our work here.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, it’s definitely been cool to see especially today was kind of unofficially dubbed me so carnivore day. We didn’t plan on that. We didn’t tell barley to do that. But we actually, to our knowledge, didn’t find any Jaguar Puma scat today and all of our samples were tiny and there were several that you didn’t want to collect and then we got a little bit closer and saw that there was hair or bone in them and it’s gonna be really cool to hear what those turnouts are.

Kayla Fratt 

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Kayla Fratt 

You know, we’ve talked in the past on this show about having dogs that generalize really easily as a little bit of a double edged sword. And I’ve talked in the past about Bartley being one of those dogs who does very easily kind of ask questions about things that he’s found. And there are definitely downsides to that. But one of the upsides for a project like this is that he does tend to bring us to some of these tiny interesting scats that as long as we can determine to be carnivore are collectible, and therefore rewardable For barley, so it’s been fun to see.

Ellen Dymit 

It’s also exciting because I don’t I don’t think that we have any idea what a lot of these meso-carnivores here eat i, to my knowledge, there is no comprehensive study of Ocelot diet that’s been published, there is no even inkling of an understanding of what the mustelids species here eat. And given the size and hairiness and some of the scats we saw today, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we end up having some smaller weasels showing up as the desiccators of these scouts. So even if you know, it’s just a couple of data points from them, it would be exciting and that we are the first ones to catch such a in depth glimpse into the diets of these new tropical mustelids.

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Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, some of those scats were really nice and fresh. So we’re hoping they amplify really beautifully for you. And you know, we’re praying to the the meta barcoding gods. But a lot of those scats today looked really, really nice for you. So yeah, is there what else is kind of come up as you’ve been working with a working with and behind the boys.

Ellen Dymit 

I think that watching the alerts that Barley and Niffler have both had on what we assumed to be urine spots where cats had urinated. Some of them were actually so obviously, latrines because they wreaked of cat pee smell. I think that’s been really interesting because it really shows how present these cats are on the landscape, even though you don’t see them often. I mean, in some spots, they were alerting every 100 meters or so to a urine spot that you know, was obviously fresh enough for them to detect. It’s really cool to see them alerting to these urine spots that we would never pick up on otherwise. And how that reflects the activity of these cats across the landscape.

Ellen Dymit 

Even with so relatively so many people here, I think we have a group of maybe 10, 15 people working and these cats are really all among us. We actually found a dead possum at the entrance to our camp area yesterday that had been disassembled pretty obviously be by a cat. And it hadn’t been there on Kayla’s morning walk. So it clearly happened in during the morning hours when we were eating breakfast or out on our first survey or something. So just to have more evidence for, you know, the species, amazing cats that we’re sharing this system with right now. It’s been exciting and cool.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, it’s been a real treat. And I’m, I can’t remember whether or not we spilled the beans on this during our first episode. But we also had the incredible privilege of getting to see a Jaguar on our first day of surveys on one of our sites. So I don’t know if you want to tell the story, because I actually was in the middle of rewarding Niffler for one of his finds. Didn’t get a great look at it.

Ellen Dymit 

Yeah, well, I’ll start by saying that I was here for four months last year and didn’t see a single cat. So to see one on my first week in the field this time, clearly speaks to the good luck that having dogs from the field. But also, I know that there are people who have worked here for, you know, 10, 15 years, and I’ve still never seen a wild Jaguar. So I just feel incredibly privileged to have gotten to see that. But anyway, we were on a trail. And we’re bent down and looking at a scout that niffler had alerted to and one of the guys in our group told us, Jaguar and pointed and we looked up and there was a young Jaguar I actually initially thought that it must have been a puma just based on its size or even Yeah, I guess a puma. But then Toni saw it through the binoculars and was like, No, it has spots, and we watched it kind of casually saunter across the walking path, maybe 100 feet from us at about 2pm in broad daylight. So very special sighting for us.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, it’s certainly been something we’ve been really spluttering over and just overjoyed with it’s yeah, it’s such a privilege to get to see some of these cats and especially kind of contrasting with my time in Kenya last year where I did fully expect to get to see lions, and cheetahs while I was there and was hoping to see a leopard but got got got screwed on that one. Or didn’t have the luck to see a leopard I suppose. And certainly coming here did not expect to get to see one.

Kayla Fratt 

We’ve had a couple of other pretty cool wildlife sightings and encounters. So I think now might be a good time to just pivot into some storytime, we can go back and forth on some of our favorite or maybe least favorite moments of the field. It might be worth sharing some some of the messier says the field work as well. So I’ll go I’ll go next week, we had a really nice little peccary sighting as we were in the car on our way home from one of Barley’s first really, really good surveys of the trip. And just kind of we all looked up and there was four packers darting across the road and again, they’re one of those animals that you just don’t get to see very often when we know they’re here but um, the the phrase coming from our driver at the time was quest of air loss, which means it you know, it’s hard or it’s costly to see them so that was really nice.

Ellen Dymit 

Today on the trail, Barley continue to streak of finding interesting dead things and surprised us with a prehensile tailed porcupine that had decomposed into a skeleton and pile of very interesting quills. So that was really cool to see. I’ve seen them on my camera traps here before but never gotten to get up close. And it was interesting. They were smaller than I expected them to be. So that was an unexpected treat.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, that was a good one. And that was a funny one, too. I’ve actually got it on video because I saw his change of behavior and thought he was going to alert something and then it turned out to be a dead porcupine.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, so I guess maybe on the on the real side of fieldwork. Our bug situation has been pretty, pretty gnarly here as one would expect in the tropics. Ellen and I both got hit pretty hard by a type of mite that actually ended up filling my my baits which were pretty dense in kind of by sock and bikini area, all ended up filling with a really nice clear liquid and then bursting eventually. So it’s been real gnarly. And then we’ve been getting quite a few ticks. Barley had one day where he had about 30 ticks. So his post search routine is definitely as much massage and stretching as tick check at this point. Luckily, you can kind of do all three of those at the same time.

Ellen Dymit 

Today, when I was in my hammock, I got bit or stung by something that made half of my hand turned white, turn white, and swells and it’s still white and swollen and I’m still not sure what it is. So that’s always exciting, is one way of putting it, but I’ve spent enough time down here now to know that those things aren’t worth panicking about it’s just part of research in the tropics.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, just on the note of rough fieldwork things, I’ve got a fun story that I’ll share as well. My first two nights here, I think. Both nights I had pretty gnarly nightmares about the dogs having some sort of horrific wildlife interaction. I had one dream where Barley was eaten by hippos, or murdered by hippos, I suppose. And then another were Niffler was eaten by a crocodile.

Kayla Fratt 

So anxiety, yeah, lots of lots of subconscious anxiety. But actually, I think it’s almost safe to say this now, we have not seen any venomous snakes so far, which is that we’re alive that we’re alive. We did see yes. A dead shirtless Yeah, we did see a dead fertile lands one day which barley showed some interest in and then kind of got told pretty sternly to back up and leave it. And we had a really good boa shed the day before that as well that he actually did again show a pretty significant change of behavior but didn’t alert to.

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Kayla Fratt 

And that’s always an interesting thing, as I’ve said, with Barley who’s so in tune with me, when we find things that we don’t want him to find, I have to be kind of careful to bring him away and distract him as we all you know, take pictures or pick up the bone scan or whatever, because he is so in tune with these sorts of things and so desperate for his ball that if we shows too much interest in something that we don’t want him to find whether that’s high risk or not, he is liable to go on and find that which brings us to brings us to the sorry, I was pretty excited to share.

Kayla Fratt 

So on our first day in one of these study sites that we were at our our compadres over from WCS shared some forest fruit with us, it was called a Chico supposed to see which one we are Oh Chico, Chico support, they were just kind of like an apricot. It’s delicious. They shared a little bit with us and I shared a little bit with barley let him eat a little bit. Didn’t think any of it anything of it, we finished the rest of our survey. The next day, we went out on a trail that was pretty lightly trafficked. And I think over the course of the entire survey, he only found two scats. And on that same day, he found us somewhere between eight and 12 Chico suppose, it was awful.

Kayla Fratt 

So it went from kind of like the first couple like walking over and checking what he had and being like, Oh God, it’s a Chico to very quickly realizing that we had a problem. To starting to try, you know, I was then sending Ellen over to look at them because for barley, even me walking over to check what he’s got, starts the process of that dopamine dump. You know, research has shown that dopamine peaks before the reward and in anticipation. So he’s actually on a neurochemical level, getting rewarded, in a lot of ways whether or not he gets the ball. So I had to send Elon over to look and then tell him to go on and search. And by the end of the day, he was starting to show a change of behavior around the Chico’s and not alerting to them.

Kayla Fratt 

And then luckily, the next day, he didn’t find any and we haven’t had a problem since but one of those kind of classic conservation dog hiccups that would be challenging to rectify, if you were really inexperienced handler and not saying that to toot my own horn or anything, just that. It just goes to show how easy it is to send these these really amazing dogs sideways and kind of ruin them as a survey tool. I don’t know if you’ve got another story or anything you wanted to add about that chicos story.

Ellen Dymit 

Well, right now, as we’re sitting in this hammock watching fireflies light up over the field, and the stars start to come out. Just makes me feel really amazed and grateful that we get to be out here for our work. And every morning we’ve met we’ve had fantastic weather all day, and every morning, we have woken up to the most incredible quality of light as the sun rises over the rain forest and turns the low fog, sort of bright orange. And it makes me think every morning as I’m waking up about how people pay, you know 1000s of dollars to come out here on ecotourism trips just to see a scene like that. And we are fortunate enough to get to see it as a part of our job and it makes all of the bug bites and long field days and sweat and scraped knees worth it. Way worth it.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, absolutely. It’s been an absolute pleasure to be here and just we’re so grateful for are our partners at WCS and all these parks and all the Garda parquets that are coming out and helping us machete our way through some of these trails. They’ve been cooking for us. They’re currently singing in the over in the kitchen area. We’ve been told that there will be a dance tonight.

Ellen Dymit 

I did. I did commit us to a dance party tonight. So I think that that’s happening, whether we’re up for it or not.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, so we’re all going to put on our finest bug spray. Go enjoy. But yeah, and again, it’s just been we’ve been so grateful for all the help and support from the teams out here. And I guess one of the things that I’ve been really grateful for, this has been Niffler’s first time sleeping in a tent. And he has been a perfect angel he was little spoon most of last night. Hasn’t been fussing too much over any of the forest sounds or anything like that, which I was worried about. Because I really, really struggled to work well, if I’m not sleeping well. And it is so hot here during kind of our downtime in between surveys that it’s pretty hard to sleep, so it’d be challenging. If we weren’t getting good sleep overnight.

Ellen Dymit 

I’d like to give another shout out to Roni and Christy at WCS, Guatemala for making all of this possible. I know that Christy has been working her butt off in particular, to get all the logistics figured out for us to get the animals out here. And to get the whole field crew out here. We’ve been super supported by people this entire time, the company and the food in the spirit of everyone has just been great. I’m also extremely grateful, as always, for my mentor tall. Because this project and all of the incredible opportunities I’ve had wouldn’t be possible without him. And last, but certainly not least, I’d like to thank Tylenol PM, for coming through for me in my time of need.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, well, and with that, I think we’ll wrap it up here. We may have more to say at some point about this project, we’ll probably try to get Ellen back on when we get some of this data published. And hopefully when we have some interesting results about what some of these scats turned out to be.

Kayla Fratt 

I keep wanting to tell stories about some of the scats we found but honestly, they’re just not very good stories because it’s basically, you know, Barley was sniffing and then he started sniffing harder and circling and crabbing and bracketing. And then he alerted and then it was something weird that we decided to collect because it looked, it looked right, but not something that we would have expected humans to find. And there’s just been a lot of really cool, exciting stuff like that, but they’re just not very good stories. So with all that, I hope that everyone at home is feeling inspired to get outside and be a canine conservationist in whatever way suits your passions and your skill set. I hope you’re you enjoyed this episode. And we’ll be back in your earbuds next week to talk about more things, conservation detection dogs. Thanks for coming on, Ellen.

Ellen Dymit 

Thanks for having me. And thanks for being out here. And thanks for bringing the dogs it’s been great.

Kayla Fratt 

Yeah, I mean, Thanks for Thanks for having me. This has been a real a real treat in a lot of ways. So. All right, well let y’all go. Have a good rest of your week. Yeah, and we’re gonna go eat hopefully beans and tortillas and cheese. Because there’s literally nothing else in this world that I want more.