In the world of wildlife biologists, turd is treasure “almost like gold”, says Dr Uma Ramakrishnan. Along with her colleagues and students, Uma has traversed thousands of kilometres of forests and protected areas across India to collect and then analyse the biological materials tigers typically leave – usually faecal samples – but could also include hair scraped from scratch marks etched on trees or traces of saliva carefully retrieved from prey. This is part and parcel of Uma’s job as a molecular ecologist at NCBS, where she works on wildlife genetics and biogeography using molecular methods to understand the ecology of endangered species.
But “Why poop?” is a question she is often asked. Data collection for rare, elusive species is a challenge: wild animals lead secretive lives and are shy of people. Observing, say, the rarely sighted and nocturnal pangolin is difficult, so is counting tigers in forests that hide and camouflage them. For instance, Uma and her colleagues did not see a single tiger in two months of fieldwork in Similipal (Odisha) in 2018! Yet, understanding animals and knowing about their food preferences, genetic diversity, health and habitat are crucial to their conservation.
The key to all this information lies in one of the most basic of nature’s products – poop. Scat is plentiful in the forest and has the added advantage of being non-invasive; it does not stress or disturb the animal, unlike drawing blood which requires capture and immobilisation which could potentially be harmful. Like blood, scat contains DNA that scientists decipher to understand tiger (and other wildlife) populations. Genetic materials, in addition to containing clues about the individual identity of a tiger, also help answer questions such as where is this tiger from? What is it eating? Is it healthy?
A tiger’s history, how far it travels, its society and mating patterns can also be inferred from its DNA without actually seeing the animal. Scats are also useful to estimate the number of tigers. In fact, the first study Uma conducted when she returned to India after wrapping up her PhD in the United States was to help estimate tiger populations. So what led Uma to this unusual profession?
As a child, Uma loved animals. “I still do!”, she corrects. Her mother was not keen on pets, so Uma made do with visiting the wild animals of New York’s Bronx Zoo, a short trip from Princeton University in New Jersey where her father taught physics. She also visited the Everglades Park in Florida and when the family returned to Bengaluru, they often travelled to various parts of India, especially the Himalayas, with which her father had a special affinity. This inculcated in her a passion to travel, to explore new places. Her years in Bengaluru were spent on the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) campus, which was open, green and had pockets of forests. Pythons and other snake species would occasionally turn up in her backyard and on a few momentous occasions, she spotted the secretive slender loris, a tiny nocturnal and endangered primate.
It was fortuitous that she had as her classmate and best friend Gauri, the daughter of one of India’s prominent ecologists, Dr Madhav Gadgil. Uma was privy to environment debates at their dining table, and impromptu biology lessons when Dr Gadgil took to the blackboard that hung in Gauri’s room. Soon, Uma began to drop in regularly at Dr Gadgil’s Centre for Ecological Studies at the IISc. Here, she seized every opportunity to pursue her budding interest in animals, tagging along with students on birding and herpetology surveys. But simply watching animals wasn’t enough – Uma was curious about their lives. Why do animals do what they do? For instance, why do monkeys live in troops? What kinship determines the composition of a troop? Do wasps land on a particular part of their nests? If so, why so? How do they know where to land? And so on.
Another turning point was reading American geneticist and conservationist John Avise’s Molecular Markers, Natural History and Evolution, which opened her eyes to how genetic tools open a window into the ecological and behavioural lives of animals. From early on it was the road less travelled for Uma. On finishing school she took a gap year, a concept unheard of at the time. Her father was then on a research sabbatical at Princeton, and she used the opportunities this provided, taking up a variety of courses, including one on modern dance.
“Very liberating,” she says when asked about the latter, making an arch comment about the repressive nature of our society, especially concerning a woman’s demeanour and role. During that year, she also assisted in a molecular ecology laboratory and was part of a study that used DNA to investigate the relationships between lemur troops using samples obtained from field studies in Madagascar. Uma was – again – blown away by the possibilities that DNA and the use of molecular methods offered. “I mean, the samples were collected across oceans, from the island of Madagascar. And here we were, sitting in a lab in the US, figuring out the social lives of lemurs!”
Back in India, Uma set about arming herself with practical experience during her graduation and master’s. She interned with Dr Lalji Singh at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, who was one of the few scientists then working on DNA fingerprinting in India. Perhaps foxed by what task to hand to this persistent young woman, Dr Lalji asked her to collect buffalo dung from the nearby doodhwallon ki basti. “Didn’t you feel weird or embarrassed?” I asked. But Uma was made of sterner stuff. “Oh, they were amused with this madam politely requesting, ‘Nīvu nanage svalpa sagan. i kod. abahudē? Could I have some dung please?’ No doubt they thought I was crazy.” She shrugs. It didn’t matter. What mattered was what the dung would reveal.
Excerpted with permission from “India’s Wildlife Detective” in Women in the Wild: Stories of India’s Most Brilliant Women Wildlife Biologists, edited by Anita Mani, Juggernaut Books.