Monday, October 31, 2005

Orangutan urine collector voted #10 of the worst jobs in science

"Have I been pissed on? Yes," says anthropologist Cheryl Knott of Harvard University. Knott is a pioneer of "noninvasive monitoring of steroids through urine sampling." Translation: Look out below! For the past 11 years, Knott and her colleagues have trekked into Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, Indonesia, in search of the endangered primates. Once a subject is spotted, they deploy plastic sheets like a firemen's rescue trampoline and wait for the tree-swinging apes to go see a man about a mule. For more pee-catching precision, they attach bags to poles and follow beneath the animals. "It's kind of gross when you get hit, but this is the best way to figure out what's going on in their bodies," Knott says.

Knott analyzes fertility through estrogen and progesterone levels, and weight gain or loss through ketone measurements. DNA is extracted from the orangu-dookie, and stress levels can be measured by cortisol in the urine. The goal is to understand great-ape reproduction, and because of her unique urine-collection method, Knott isn't limited to visual observations, as previous researchers have been. She has documented, for example, that female orangutans' reproductive-hormone levels surge during periods when they are eating more. That timing is critical for the apes, which reproduce only around every eight years. It's also highlighted how vulnerable the animals are to extinction, and that's why, when she's not sampling urine, Knott is working to conserve the rain forest.


Story here.

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