ARIT 2017 Poster Session Feature: Claudia Wultsch

Going beyond pure text, bridges will feature Austrian scientists from a new perspective in 2018, taking creative cues to communicate their science in a different light, tone, and color.

Discover the work of Claudia Wultsch, our seventh scientist featured in the ARIT 2017 Poster Session Showcase.  

What do I want to achieve with my research?

Rather than with text, our scientists, answer this essential question using an image, emoji, cartoon or limerick.

"How does my research make others feel?"

Our scientists mimics speak stronger than words! 

Photo credits: Christina Karliczek (Wultsch and detector dog Bruiser); Claudia Wultsch (landscape and selfie)

Your Science in Action:  Belize-ing the Cat – new insights into carnivore ecology

Have you ever told a cat to “Scat!” [Scher dich! Scram! Verschwinde!] ?

The dual meanings of “scat” can get lost in translation, but Claudia Wultsch has studied “cat scat” for years: She is currently a research fellow at the Bioinformatics Core Infrastructure Laboratory at Weill Cornell Medicine/Hunter College City University of New York and is also associated with the American Museum of Natural History and Panthera, a conservation organization dedicated to studying wild cat species. In that context, “scat” refers to feces. And the “cats” discussed on her ARIT poster are jaguars in the forests of Belize, in Central America.

Wultsch has studied threatened carnivore species – such as jaguars, grizzly bears, snow leopards, tigers, and others – around the world for 15 years, leading research programs in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. “Many of these species have suffered massive population declines and are at risk of extinction in the not so distant future,” Wultsch said. Her goal, and that of her colleagues, is to conserve carnivores, which play critical roles in regulating and maintaining ecosystem health.

Jaguars, the biggest cat native to the Americas, have been eradicated from over 40% of their historic range. Now classified as a Near Threatened species, they are found in 18 countries across Central and South America, ranging from Mexico to Argentina. Sadly, human land use has fragmented the forests of Central America, limiting jaguars’ gene flow across some areas (as revealed by Wultsch’s earlier research) and weakening the cats’ gene pool and long-term ability to adapt. Over the past decade, sophisticated genetics techniques such as noninvasive genetic sampling (i.e., collecting forensic-style DNA samples such as feces or hair, without harming animals) and next-generation sequencing (NGS; millions to billions of DNA strands can be sequenced in parallel) have joined conservation biologists’ repertoire. Examining the DNA of “cat scat” enables researchers not only to assess genetic connectivity of difficult-to-study species such as jaguars, but also to examine their feeding ecology by identifying prey DNA in the scats. After Wultsch collected scat samples in Belize with invaluable assistance from professional scat-detector dogs (formerly trained to sniff out explosives), she used NGS in the laboratory to identify the prey species that constitute jaguars’ diet across different regions. The analytical technique known as DNA metabarcoding (i.e., DNA-based identification of biological samples coupled with next-generation sequencing) is a rapid method of assessing biodiversity, which enables researchers to examine complex environmental samples (such as animal scats) that contain mixtures of DNA, with high precision. “Genetic identification of prey in scats also enables us to study dietary habits of animals without relying on morphological analysis of undigested prey remains (e.g., hair, bone fragments, feathers), which can be challenging and labor-intensive for some taxa,” Wultsch said.

The Belize study found 18 different prey species, mostly medium-sized mammals, although jaguars’ prey ranged from large-bodied Baird’s tapirs (150–400 kg) to small freshwater turtles. Chief among prey species was the nine-banded armadillo: which was most abundant at pristine forest areas in Belize. By contrast, jaguars at a small, protected area in northern Belize surrounded by human settlements, more commonly fed on birds. “DNA metabarcoding is a very powerful approach to study biodiversity,” Wultsch said. “It allowed us to quickly process large amounts of samples and generate thousands of DNA reads for each scat to profile diverse dietary patterns of these big cats. We were also able to identify new prey species for jaguars, which were undetected in previous studies mainly due to limitations of traditional morphological analysis.” Wultsch and her colleagues also use the results of their feeding ecology study to identify areas of conservation concern for carnivores. “The detection of livestock species in carnivore scats, for example, helps us to pinpoint hotspots of human-wildlife conflict. Retaliatory killing of carnivores by humans in response to livestock depredation is another serious threat to the survival of these species,” explained Wultsch.

Wultsch also applies NGS technologies to study the microbiomes (i.e., collective genomes of thousands of microbial species that live in and on animals) of big cats and other carnivores, providing an alternative perspective on wildlife biology. These bacterial communities, which profoundly affect the health, physiology, immunity, and behavior of their hosts, are understudied in wild animal populations. “Carnivores facing habitat loss, human pressure, and disease may experience a shift in their microbiomes (dysbiosis), which could negatively impact their health and fitness,” Wultsch said. “There is still much we do not know. With human populations expanding into natural habitats and climate change posing a fundamental threat to the long-time survival of these species, monitoring wild animal populations and their habitats with these novel and powerful techniques opens up new possibilities and applications. This has great potential to enhance on-the-ground conservation and management efforts and help us save these species.”

My favorite scientist: 

Jane Goodall!  

If you read one science website/ blog/ book, it should be:

I highly recommend checking out science twitter. My favorite hashtags are #poopscience, #Tech4Wildlife, #FieldworkFail, #ActualLivingScientist, #BestSpots  #WomenInScience, #carnivorepapersbywomen, #365papers and #mammalwatching.                                                                                     

Hope to see you there – my twitter handle is @claudiawultsch                                                 

Without science, I would be:

an organic farmer, sommelier, cheese maker, or horse breeder.                                                                    

My Eureka moment was when:

....I saw a grizzly bear in the wild in Montana and started understanding the ecological importance of carnivores for ecosystem health and functioning.

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ABOUT THE SERIES

The ARIT 2017 Poster Session Showcase will highlight select Austrian scientists of the Research and Innovation Network Austria. These scientists all participated in the coveted ARIT 2017 Poster Session, after having been selected by an expert jury from the ASCINA network and the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation

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ARIT 2017 Poster Session Feature: Tibor Wladimir
 

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Tuesday, 18 September 2018