What secret does anteater poop hide?

Scientists are examining anteaters' poop for surprising reasons. “Dung hunters” believe that examining the droppings of these animals can provide important information about climate change.

How does climate change affect anteaters?

To answer this question, a team of scientists from Oregon State University began a rather unique study in sub-Saharan Africa: they studied their feces to discover how they adapted to their environments that continue to change due to climate change afflicting the planet. This is a unique study.

"Everyone has heard of the anteater (Orycteropus afer) and they are considered very important ecologically, but very little research has been done on them”. "We wanted to see if we could gather enough data to begin to understand it.".

Anteaters are nocturnal mammals that build large underground tunnels, and these burrows can provide shelter for other animals. They are the only representatives of the order Tubulidentata. Their closest living relatives are golden moles, manatees and elephants.

These animals eat termites and are as good ecosystem engineers as beavers themselves. It turns out that their droppings may provide clues about the impact of climate change on this elusive species.

A habitat in constant change

anteater

In the current study, researchers examined eight protected areas and four privately owned areas in South Africa, two protected areas in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and one in Kenya. In just a few months, the team collected 253 stool samples, 104 of which were used for genetic analysis.

Thanks to this information it was possible to verify the movement and distribution patterns of some specimens. It turns out that the dry landscape is isolating them, which they say could have consequences on their longevity and survival.

Crowhurst, co-author of the study published in the journal Diversity and Distribution, said: "In times of rapid environmental change, assessing and describing changes in the landscape in which a species occurs is essential for informed conservation and management decision making.".

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List includes this species as Least Concern, in part due to the wide range of ecosystems it can inhabit. However, little is known about current population trends or their actual distribution in the landscape, hence the importance of this pioneering research.

"I wanted to work in an understudied system where everything I learned could be truly new to the scientific community."said Epps. “I also wanted to work in large areas, on foot, alone, or with a friend, with guards if necessary, in protected areas, with minimal logistical support and at low cost.”

The results

In South Africa, results showed three distinct groups of anteaters in the region, indicating a degree of isolation between populations in the western, central and eastern regions. Additionally, they discovered that anteaters can travel up to 55 km from their birthplace and that family relationships extend up to 44 km.

The study found greater genetic diversity in anteaters living in drier regions, suggesting that dry conditions may hinder their ability to move and therefore affect genetic pattern diversity within a species.

Epps concludes: "Our preliminary results indicate that climate change will increase habitat fragmentation and reduce gene flow in anteaters, especially where precipitation is expected to decrease and temperatures to increase."."Since aridity is expected to increase in most climate change In the southern tip of Africa, the need for more research is clear".

In the future, the team plans to expand this research to include comprehensive genomic studies and large-scale field studies across a broader range of sub-Saharan Africa.

References: 

  • Clinton W. Epps et al, Influence of climate and landscape on genetic differentiation of aardvarks (Orycteropus afer), Diversity and Distributions (2023). DOI: 10.1111/ddi.13792
  • Atreya, S., Hofstadter, M., In, J., Mousis, O., Reh, K., & Wong, M. (2020). Deep Atmosphere Composition, Structure, Origin, and Exploration, with Particular Focus on Critical in situ Science at the Icy Giants. Space Science Reviews, 216. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11214-020-0640-8.
  • Helled, R., Nettelmann, N., & Guillot, T. (2019). Uranus and Neptune: Origin, Evolution and Internal Structure. Space Science Reviews, 216, 1-26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11214-020-00660-3.
  • Reinhardt, C., Chau, A., Stadel, J., & Helled, R. (2019). Bifurcation in the history of Uranus and Neptune: the role of giant impacts. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/stz3271.
  • Vorburger, A., Wurz, P., & Waite, H. (2020). Chemical and Isotopic Composition Measurements on Atmospheric Probes Exploring Uranus and Neptune. Space Science Reviews, 216, 1-31. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11214-020-00684-9.

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