Collaboration for Conservation

Written by: Thomas Connor

Primary Source: Human+Nature Blog

I pick up the story of my PhD from Nanchong, China, where I have traveled to take a brief break from lab work to have meetings and an interview with representatives from the China Science and Technology Exchange Center (CSTEC).

This summer I am here in China on an East Asia and Pacific Institute Summer Institute, which is a joint program run by the National Science Foundation and CSTEC to fund American graduate students to conduct research in China. Nearly 30 other students traveled to China on this fellowship, and one of them, Abbey Wilson, is also studying giant pandas. Our host advisors, Jindong Zhang and Zejun Zhang (no relation), also work at the same institution – China West Normal University. We decided this summer was a great opportunity to collaborate in the field and in later analyses (and blog!). Since the two of us are based in Nanchong, CSTEC decided it would be worthwhile to make the trip and learn how the EAPSI program has been for us. Here on my last day in the city, it is my great pleasure to introduce Abbey Wilson, PhD candidate at Mississippi State University.

Abbey Wilson, with a pandaAbbey: I am currently finishing up my fourth year investigating how giant pandas use scents to communicate with one another. My research focuses on identifying pheromones in captive giant panda urine, secretions, and the environment that help giant pandas locate mates during the breeding season. In addition to improving captive reproductive success, I aim to use the techniques we have developed with our captive research to locate free ranging giant pandas and understand how this species communicates across fractured habitats. This is what brings me to China this summer!

Thomas: It has been fascinating for me to learn about a whole other realm of ecology and its application to very similar issues in conservation – specifically habitat fragmentation and the dispersal of animals across these fragmented landscapes. Our respective research also has the advantage of requiring similar field sites, so we were able to work together in the bamboo forests of Wolong. Any repeat readers will know that I am on the search for panda feces (specifically the DNA they contain) to study their movement and the effect of different landscape features and habitat fragmentation on gene flow, and I will let Abbey explain the details of her field work.

Abbey: Cross discipline conservation research has been a goal of mine since I began my graduate work. I am thrilled to be able to collaborate with such an excellent field biologist and his team of giant panda specialists. One aspect of my doctoral research investigates the possibility of collecting pheromones produced by giant pandas in the air. We know that giant pandas are able to track each other by scent, so we thought that we should give it a try! Giant pandas will scent mark and urinate on particular trees in the bamboo forest, leaving chemical cues for other individuals. We use solid phase microextraction fibers (SPME) to collect air samples from these popular scent-marking trees. These fibers act like sponges, soaking up any and all chemicals that are present in the air. We then use a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer to identify the potential pheromones giant pandas are leaving behind. By identifying these pheromones, our team hopes to provide novel methods for population census, tracking of movements, identification of reproductive status, and relocation of giant pandas.

Thomas: Novelty in science is a really cool thing, I think. At best, I can say that I am using established methods to attempt novel analyses or at least make novel insights. Abbey’s version of novel is on a bit of another level – no one else has attempted this method with pandas, or any other wildlife for that matter. It has been very cool for me to be there for that quest for new methods and data, on the edge of discovery. I’m not exaggerating terribly, right?

Abbey: The use of SPME fibers to extract chemical compounds from different matrices has been aroundsince the 1990s. So, it is still a relatively new technique. SPME fibers were initially used to detectThomas Connor and Abbey Wilson use SPME technology pollutants in water and agriculture samples, but are now often used to extract volatile compounds from animal secretions like urine, feces, and gland mucus. SPME fibers are typically placed in the headspace of a material (ie the space above the sample in an enclosed container) or immersed in the sample. We are trying to use these fibers in a completely new way to collect odors produced by animals from the air. My advisor at Mississippi State University successfully identified the Asian lady beetle pheromone using this technique and we hope to do the same in giant pandas.

Thomas: A brief and fascinating history of this technique! As we near the end of our summer fellowship, I imagine the application of this research to wild environments is not the only novelty you have experienced this summer. What do you think of life in such a foreign and unique environment? For myself, working with another American has actually been the unique aspect of my summer – and very welcome. To date, my trips here have been fairly independent, and It is nice to face the more alienating and isolating parts of research in China with a comrade. Also, working with someone who had no background in Chinese made me realize how much I have actually learned and can function.

Abbey: Your understanding of the Chinese language, culture and scientific environment was greatly appreciated this summer. I firmly believe that I would not have been able to accomplish all that we did without your expertise. I have thoroughly enjoyed living in China this summer and experiencing the language, food, and people. The language barrier was the most difficult aspect for me this summer. Can you imagine trying to explain “extraction of chemosensory molecules” in another language? We used lots of hand gestures and pictures to try to get our point across! I much prefer living in the mountains and conducting field work rather than living in the big cities. However, the time that I have spent in the city performing the lab analysis has provided an amazing opportunity to generate collaborations and friendships with other graduate students. The willingness to learn and attention to detail is a welcomed change from teaching students back home. Everyone here keeps an open mind and wants to learn as much as they can from a visiting scholar.

Thomas: Agreed in full! I am sure we could go on and on about researching and living in China, but in the interest of space perhaps we should bring this post to a close. To a successful summer and continued collaboration!

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Thomas Connor
Thomas Connor is a PhD student studying with Jack Liu. He's spending his summer doing field work in and around Wolong, China.
Thomas Connor

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