Using poo to save the Andean bear in Colombia
Written by Dr. Paola Pulido-Santacruz and Dr. Adam Ciezarek, GROW Colombia Postdoctoral Researchers.
The Andean bear is an iconic species found across the Andes mountain range of South America. We know very little about this shy creature, except that sadly there are far fewer of them than there used to be. They play a crucial role in maintaining the dynamics and structure of the Andean forest and Paramo and are often referred as to the gardeners of the forest.
Tracking their movements in remote mountain habitats is very difficult. However, the bears leave behind big, smelly clues of their history everywhere they go, in the form of poo, which contains their DNA. We can use this to know whether the bears have historically travelled between different areas of Colombia. If they have, then we need to protect habitat connecting these regions, ‘conservation corridors’, allowing the bears to continue moving between them. However, if different areas have been isolated for a long time, concentrated effort needs to be given to preserving each population separately.
Working closely with National Natural Parks and other regional authorities, we have collected poo samples from across Colombian Andes, alongside museum samples so we can assess how genetic diversity has changed and how it may have contributed to the adaptation of the species to environmental changes. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has made it impossible to carry out vital lab work at present, but we are doing everything we can to hit the ground running when labs start reopening. By protecting the bear and its unique habitats, GROW Colombia hopes to help Colombia develop lucrative ecotourism opportunities, and maintain its globally important biodiversity.