Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Not Your Typical Scavenger Hunt: Searching for Feces and Parasites

By Kevin Marzotto
If you ever visit La Selva Biological Station, there is a very high chance that you will see white collared peccaries roaming around the station. For our program’s Faculty-Led Research Projects (FLPs), Dr. Gwen Myers -a veterinarian at Zoo Miami- proposed a study where we would look for the presence of different intestinal parasites in the feces of the peccaries. Prior to the study I had never been a part of a biological research team and had never collected data in the field. However, I remember thinking to myself, how hard could it be to just scoop up poop, I see at least ten peccaries every day. I was sadly mistaken and the data collection portion of the project quickly turned into a vigorous scavenger hunt for piles of brown droppings hidden among the leaves and deadfall on the forest floor.
On the first day of data collection I awoke to my alarm at 7:30am and hurried to my research group to start collecting samples. I was amazed at how much more difficult it was to actually find the feces than I had previously imaged. I expressed this feeling to Dr. Myers and she laughed saying that data collections are never as easy as they seem, but they are the most important part of a research project. I proceeded to spend the rest of the day scanning every nook and cranny in the field station and turning over every leaf on the forest floor in hopes of finding feces. At 5:00pm I had found two different samples of peccary feces and was actually very happy with my bounty. Similar to a scavenger hunt, this was just the first clue in my hunt and the next one led me into the microscope lab to look for the presence of intestinal parasites in my newly found samples.
            Using a microscope was more up my alley than fecal collection; however, I had never seen the larva of a parasitic worm before and the first five “parasitic larvae” I found were sadly just plant matter. I continued scanning through my slides and all of a sudden a lightly curved, banana-like structure came into my view and I could see its internal structures. I had finally found a parasitic worm and now that I knew what to look for, it was like my eyes were opened to a whole new world. My sample was infested with over fifty parasitic worms and I found myself laughing at the fact that just one hour earlier I could not find any. Certain conclusions from the data my group collected were drawn from the experience; however, I took away much more knowledge from the overall process than my actual findings. For me, the prize at the end of this crazy scavenger hunt was realizing what it really takes to construct a research question, collect data, and analyze those data in order to draw conclusions as a young scientist.  
Pic 1. Photograph taken by Steven Whitfield. A White Collared Peccary walking through the station.