Monday, August 5, 2013

It's finally seen the light of day!

I never thought I'd get this paper out of the recesses of my computer. Thanks to Dr. Larry Heaney, whose encouragement never wavered, please find the link below to our paper "Survival of a native mammalian carnivore, the leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis Kerr, 1792 (Carnivora: Felidae), in
an agricultural landscape on an oceanic Philippine island".

Friday, May 20, 2011

Safety first +

The streets were empty. Not one kid can be seen playing on the streets. Then I heard their voices. They were playing inside a building being used as a chapel on Sundays. I was on my way to Transect 5.
My eyes scoured the ground. I was acutely aware of someone following me. I tried not to let this bother me. For ten months, we’ve been doing our transects alone; Jeric and I in separate transects, sometimes, not even meeting each other on our way to our next transect for the day. Now, I had to have someone walk with me. And Jeric has his walking buddy.
One would think that conducting fieldwork in a farm relatively close to the big city will not present dangers. Wrong. We’ve had our share of threats to safety as well. Never mind the usual fieldwork safety issues. The one we’re dealing with now is almost unheard of, at least when someone tries to study an animal in the ‘wild’.
About a week ago, we received news that some children have been kidnapped for organ harvest. We never really believed it until one Saturday morning, a niece of one of the farm staff was found dead next to a culvert in Brgy. San Miguel, the barangay next to Ara-al going down to La Carlota. They have gauged out her eyes, and taken her kidneys. The kidnappers, whoever they are, left PhP30,000 ($695 US). Was it supposed to pay to her parents’ grief over the loss of their child, so brutally murdered? The local police won’t move, apparently because no one has filed a complaint. Meanwhile, two unidentified vans with heavily tinted windows went inside the hacienda by way of the main road a few days ago.
Parents are terrified. So are we. But I am not calling off fieldwork, so I resorted to having us walk with someone during our transects. Safety first. +

Friday, May 13, 2011

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum...

 The men sitting outside didn’t have their shirts on, and looked like they just got off from working in the fields. Kids were everywhere. The women were peering out from their houses. We were expected.
Jeric, who speaks better Hiligaynon (the local language), went ahead with the questions—the negotiations will follow suit. The men were detrashing the cane (i.e. taking out the dried cane leaves from the stalk) when the ‘nest’ was discovered by someone’s dog. The dog gave the adult maral a chase, apparently killed it, and one of the men took the kittens and the carcass home with him about an hour before we came. The fur was seared with fire—the mother maral will go on someone’s dinner plate tonight.
He didn’t want to give up the kittens for donation. He said he’s saving them for a certain rich person in Bacolod City, who bought a couple of kittens from him last year for PhP1500 apiece (~$35 US). We never paid for any of the kittens we rescued before. We didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, so we chose to give the captor/donor a packet of cigarettes for their trouble, and our eternal gratitude. In my broken Hiligaynon, I negotiated with Jeric. We were hoping that they’ll take pity on the tiny kittens, which will surely die with them. We could feel that they were about to give in, and Jeric was going to ‘sacrifice’ his unopened pack of cigarettes, when nong Aying interfered with, “Day, maybe you should give them a bit to buy rum.” Jeric gave me a look that said, “We were so close…” I nodded so he handed them a hundred-peso bill which we had to borrow from nong Aying—neither of us had money on us.
I took the kittens home in, ironically, a used box of rum.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Noah's Ark was too small...

Biblical scholars say that Noah's Ark measured about 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. We can argue about which cubit to use but let's say Noah used the Roman cubit which is about 0.4445 m. That translates to an ark that measures 133.2 x 22.2 x 13.32 cubic meters. Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit who published Arca Noe in Tres Libros Digesta in 1675, said that the ark only has 150 kinds of birds, and roughly the same number of animals from the other vertebrate groups. This of course, did not include the fishes since they don't need a boat, or those that arose from spontaneous generation. During the 17th century then, the animals did fit snugly in Noah's Ark, not to mention his grinding mills.

By the end of the 17th century however, 500 species of birds, 150 species of quadrupeds, and roughly 10,000 species of invertebrates were recognized by science. By then, the ark is overcrowded. Now, we know that there about 5,498 species of mammals, 10,027 birds, 9,084 reptiles and 6,638 amphibians (Hoffman et al., 2010). You can tell me to exclude the marine mammals and the birds that spend most of their lives in open ocean but they still won't fit in Noah's Ark, however he calibrated his cubits. Especially if they came in pairs. Even if there were only a pair of rice-field rats in there.

Linnaeus solved this problem by saying that the Ark should be interpreted symbolically, rather than literally. He who has described, named, and catalogued about 6,000 species would know that biological reality does not reconcile with the Biblical story.

Taken literally, or metaphorically, with the way we're consuming our resources, perhaps given a few years, life on Earth will fit again in Noah's Ark.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Prison break

I was cleaning up my hard drive when I came across this photo. I realized I had neglected one blog from October last year about one of our beloved baits, and so allow me to dedicate this to her; may she rest in peace...

She was inappetent and weak for a few days—Geri (as in short for Geronima), one of our lab rats, barely touched her food, and refused to budge even when gently poked. We were worried enough to close the trap, and take her home with us where we hope she’ll recover. Hopefully nothing that some TLC won’t cure.

But now she seems to be well. Well enough to attempt to escape the trap where we’ve put her temporarily as she recovers. I put her out on the grass, thinking that the sun would be good for her. I watched her as she tries, in vain, to bite the mesh. She would try and dig through the soil through the wire mesh, again, in vain. She would make some somersaults of sorts, although I cannot understand how, for the life of me, this will help her escape. I offered her some food. I didn’t dare put my hand close to anywhere she can reach with her teeth, no sir. She grabbed at it with her hands and teeth, like she wasn’t fed earlier. We shared that moment, human and rat. One trying to figure out how the other is; what it’s like to be the other being; what goes on in its brain, and thinking, "We're going to put you back out there again. Get me a maral, ok?" The other, just trying to get some food and taking the chance for an escape to the free world. Sometimes, life should be simple.

In memoriam.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Crappy science-- literally!

My apologies for using the word; I do not intend to cuss. But please read on, for there is a lot we can learn from sh*t.

Alright, let’s be a bit more scientific. We’ve been collecting leopard cat scats (poop, sh*t, crap… call it what you want) for the last 10 months we’ve been here on field. So far, we have 50-something scats stored in 95% ethanol in little plastic bottles (plastic vials with stopper are rare and expensive here). I wasn’t intending to study diet at all, but given our failure to trap leopard cats, might as well use them in my thesis.

So about a couple of weeks ago, I started doing my analysis on our samples. I tell you, after this, I will always associate the smell of ethanol with leopard cat scat! It’s quite a strong smell, but once you get over the odor, you get into the groove of scatology (i.e. the study of poop).

Ella Fitzgerald, Bach, Kimya Dawson, Carlos Vives, Parokya ni Edgar, The Corrs, John Prine, Greenday, and everything else in between keeps me company during my literally shitty moments. My ‘laboratory’ consists of a 1.7 mm sieve on a makeshift bamboo frame, a couple of pointy barbecue sticks, a pair of forceps, hot water in a plastic pail with a plastic tabo (dipper), a piece of cardboard I ripped off a box which I use to sit on, and a magnifying glass, which is perhaps the most sophisticated piece of equipment in the list. I would hunch over my sieve, wearing a mask over my face (no, it doesn’t help with the smell) and a pair of surgical gloves, picking through the soil, hair, bones, and everything else that makes up a leopard cat scat. I would take the tiny bone fragments, wash them carefully, and store them in small brown paper bags, properly labeled. I will be bringing these specimens with me back to the US, where I will seek the help of the experts from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to identify whether these fragments came from a bird, a mammal, a reptile or an amphibian (leopard cats are obligate carnivores, i.e. they eat only meat).

Diet is not the only thing one can learn from poop. Hormones can be extracted from them as well, and it can tell us about stress levels, or on what reproductive stage a female animal is. Parasite ova (eggs) can also be gleaned from scats. One can also determine how healthy an animal is from its excreta. And, DNA can also be extracted from scats. Depending on DNA quality, we can now be able to ID who owns it; how many individuals there are in our samples; what species of plants or animals the owner of the scat ate, and a few more possibilities (NB: Apologies to my colleagues for making this sound a bit more simple than it is!)

Pre-scat days, biologists used to capture animals, and gut them to obtain the stomach to study diet; they used to draw blood to determine the levels of stress hormones (which, duh, complicates the matter seeing as it stresses an animal during handing and capture!) With the advancement of science of shit, we can study a lot about the physiology, health, and ecology of an animal non-invasively (i.e. without having to capture, handle or sacrifice an animal).

Now that is Crappy Science!!!

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Jeric was paying at the cashier of Lopue’s La Carlota, practically the only reliable grocery store in town. The bagger was a trainee, as evinced by the printed letters on his shirt. He caught one of the older baggers pointing to Jeric, saying to his trainee, “That’s them!”

A few weeks back, in the same grocery store, the new security guard was going through our purchases. Jeric waited patiently for him to finish his inspection, mum on what’s going on but smiling to himself. One of the older baggers noticed him after a while and shouted: “It’s ok, they really use their own bag when they shop here; let them through!”

About nine months ago, when we’ve only been for a few weeks, when Jeric and I went to Lopue’s La Carlota to purchase our weekly supply of groceries. As we’ve done in the few times we went there to shop, we brought our own bags. We were about to pay so I handed the bagger our bags, and asked him politely to use them to bag our stuff. He hesitated and said, “I’m sorry mam, but you have to use your plastic bags.” He was about to grab one of the pink-colored plastic bags when I stopped him and said, “Please, we’d like to use our own bags.” He wouldn’t budge, so I we bagged our purchases ourselves, to his consternation, in the bags we brought, and I went straight to the manager’s desk.

I greeted him in the local language, introduced myself, and said, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I think we have a problem here….” I proceeded to tell him that people should be allowed to use their own bags when shopping to reduce plastic and paper waste.  It was a pleasant chat and we left the store with the manager in our side of the fence.

Apparently after that, we’ve developed quite a reputation.