Tales from the Field

The Scoop on Poop: Adventures in Studying Elephant Dung
Written by Chase LaDue for the International Elephant Foundation

I recently had an unfortunate ordeal while traveling, one that many of us have experienced. After landing in Washington, DC, I wearily made my way to the baggage carousel, and then I waited for what seemed like an hour. You know where this is going: my checked luggage did not appear after the carousel stopped spinning. I immediately broke into a cold sweat, thinking to myself “did this really have to happen this time?” On any other trip, I wouldn’t have been so worried; I live in the Washington area, and so I simply would’ve given the airline my contact information and address so they could drop off the luggage at my home the next day. But this item was critically important: it was a cooler filled with six months’ worth of frozen elephant dung, and without it there would be a big, irreplaceable hole in my research.

My name is Chase LaDue, and I’m a biologist that studies elephant behavior and physiology, most recently through the IEF-supported project, “Musth Variation among Asian Elephants: Applications for Conservation.” I think I have the best job in the world, one that takes me all over the world to work with some of the most dedicated people and spend time in the presence of the most amazing animals. But there’s a less glamorous side: I devote an inordinate amount of my time collecting, processing, and analyzing elephant fecal samples.

Why poop? Dung can tell us so much about wildlife: what they eat, how they’re related to each other, and even what bacteria they host in their gut. I’m particularly interested in elephant dung because it teaches us about elephant physiology. Endocrinologists often rely on blood to analyze many different hormones related to a variety of processes, including reproduction, the stress response, metabolism, and overall health. However, sometimes collecting blood samples can be logistically impossible and/or stressful for the animals involved. In my case, it’s too dangerous to approach a wild bull elephant in musth to collect blood. Fortunately, various analytical tools have been developed that allow us to measure hormone metabolites (the compounds left over after hormones have been metabolized) non-invasively in dung, urine, saliva, and even hair. For my project, dung works perfectly because elephants produce plenty of it, and they don’t seem to mind me collecting some for the lab. Compared to a matrix like blood, there are more processing steps involved with extracting hormone metabolites from something like poop. Besides finding and collecting the fecal sample itself, a lot of work goes into getting data from a pile of elephant dung!

Photo Credit: Chase LaDue – Dung sample provider..

For my project, dung works perfectly because elephants produce plenty of it, and they don’t seem to mind me collecting some for the lab. Compared to a matrix like blood, there are more processing steps involved with extracting hormone metabolites from something like poop. Besides finding and collecting the fecal sample itself, a lot of work goes into getting data from a pile of elephant dung!

Photo Credit: Chase LaDue – Dung collection in the field (Chase LaDue in the middle).

But back to the airport story. “Why were you flying with a cooler of elephant dung?” you may ask. While the ongoing pandemic has impeded a lot of my research activities, dedicated keepers from zoos around the US continue to collect fecal samples for my project, allowing me to study the physiology of elephant musth at a much finer scale than is possible with my wild elephant subjects in Sri Lanka. On a trip home to visit family in Dallas, I stopped by the nearby Fort Worth Zoo to pick up a motherlode of elephant fecal samples. Fort Worth Zoo keepers had been diligently collecting weekly samples from both of their adult bull elephants for a year, and I hadn’t cleared their stockpile since January. I gladly took the rest off of their hands, and then I used my complimentary checked bag at the airport the next day to bring the cooler on the plane.

You know how much of the rest of the story goes, so we’ll pick up after I’ve frantically circled the luggage carousel searching for my box. I approached the airline’s luggage counter, trying to maintain my composure. I calmly explained that my luggage hadn’t arrived, and I couldn’t leave the airport without it because it was perishable. I didn’t mention the contents of the cooler—I knew I had followed all the proper rules and regulations to bring the samples onboard with me, but I was worried the luggage agent wouldn’t take me seriously if I divulged why I was so adamant about finding the cooler. We confirmed that the cooler had arrived in Washington, and then the agent took me around the usual spots to find the luggage. Due to the pandemic, there were fewer staff working at the airport, and most of the luggage handlers were busy loading the plane to head back to Dallas so they weren’t too responsive over the radio. I spent a few hours at the luggage desk with the agent trying to think of any possible place the cooler could be after it had been unloaded from the plane. Finally, we got through to the cargo department: they had a cooler about the same size as mine they thought had been misrouted. After waiting another hour for a cargo representative to make it to the main terminal, I saw a glowing beacon in his hands as he walked towards me: it was my cooler! Exasperated by that point, I thanked both of the airline employees as I gathered the rest of my belongings. Just as I was walking out the door of the office, I turned and asked the luggage agent with a small grin, “So do you want to know what’s in the box?” Without even looking up from his computer, he simply replied, “No sir, I don’t need to know. Have a good day.”

This isn’t the first adventure I’ve had working with elephants. It’s not even the first one that involves elephant dung (next time I’ll tell you about when I had to avoid a few crocodiles in pursuit of a fecal sample from a particularly elusive male elephant, or the time I found myself wallowing in a mud pit after trekking 100 meters through grasses that reached up to my shoulders). But maybe this story at the Washington airport will be one of my most memorable. It’s not always so glamorous to study poop. But next time you see an elephant relieving itself at the zoo or in the field, or even when you go to clean up after your pet, think about all the scientific mysteries that can be solved by digging deeper into an otherwise unpleasant pile of dung.

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