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  • Writer's pictureKasia Majewski

Building Our Network: Our Latrine List and Colleague Community Grows

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

"Is that a latrine there?!" One of our interns asks me, excitedly pointing to a perfectly feces shaped seed casing which had started to decompose, enhacing its appearance as something that would have dropped out of the less charismatic end of a tanuki. "Sorry no," I say, hoping I sound as empathetic as I feel, knowing this trick of the forest all too well, "it's just an old, thick seed casing. They can look a lot like tanuki feces, but they're not what we're after."

Lab Supervisor Dr. Andrew MacIntosh leads intern Christopher and Negin into the subalpine cedar forest in Shiratani gorge.

I poke the seed casing to reveal its true identity. I hear a not entirely silent collective sigh of frustration. This latrine finding business can be trickier than one might expect. No one has more empathy than the tanuki team who have already spent countless hours on the ground, mistaking all sorts of objects for feces in their most tired and desperate hours of latrine surveying in Yakushima. We even recreated this confusion in our 2022 video about the project. With the arrival of five new members assisting with YakuTan Project, I recognize some of the earlier frustrations I had with developing the methodology in the forest in the faces of my new colleagues, as well as a familiar joy of discovery, and determination. This June, we were a group of students and interns from Canada, Japan, England, Iran and Australia from vastly varying backgrounds, all bound together by our love of living things, and our desire to protect them from harm. And maybe also, above all, our love of questioning.

From left: Christopher, Dr. MacIntosh and Negin enjoy the warm rain in Yoggo near to the coastal Inahama area.

Questions like: "are different ecosystems around Yakushima being impacted by invasive tanuki in the same way?"

Or: "how do the components of latrines vary between seasons?"

Or, as I was asked shortly after discovering the false feces seed casing: ""what's that?" to which I responded "Negin, that's a suzumebachi (a giant Asian hornet, Vespa mandarina) and maybe that's our cue to end the survey for now."

Negin embraces the beauty of the local tree species.

Negin poses with one of the towering giant banyan trees in the Seiburindo coastal forest.

Negin Eslamibidgoli is an M1 student who joins the YakuTan Project as a MEXT scholar from Iran. Her work on tanuki populations will help us understand the population structure of tanuki on Yakushima better. This June was her first visit to Yakushima, and first experience collecting samples for the project in the field. After many months of working together on DNA analysis in the lab, I was grateful Negin could join me in the field to contextualize all the sample vials we had been working with until this point.

From left: Fitzu, Alexander, Evan and Negin. We welcomed Fitzu and Evan for some assistance with our field surveys from Dr. Hanya's lab.

Joining us from Australia as an intern is Alexander Hendry, who has spent the last few months working on a project involving captive primates at the Japan Monkey Center in Inuyama. His enthusiasm for wild primates was infectious.

From left: Miku, Negin, Alexander and Kasia pose during a survey along the Inakahama region.

Miku Minamikawa recently joined an adjacent lab led by Associate Professor Goro Hanya as an M1 student, and we welcome her as our veterinarian for the trapping portion of the YakuTan Project this summer! Her past experience working with invasive raccoons in Hokkaido has become an invaluable asset to our work.

Christopher contemplates the beautiful birthplace of one of his favourite films, Princess Mononoke.

Christopher Attewell-Hughes led a crowd-funding campaign to fund his internship on Yakushima this summer, and to further support our research activities. Thanks to his generosity and the generosity of his supporters, he raised enough funds to travel to Yakushima and support our work on investigating tanuki sea-turtle predation.

Charlie holds up a GPS tracking his location as he performs a latrine survey.

Charlie Tyson-Taylor joins us this summer as a research assistant to support the collection of fecal samples and live tanuki trapping portion of the project. Originally from the UK, his love of travel and of living things (amphibians most of all) motivated his arrival to assist our work in Yakushima.

This summer for YakuTan Project is one of growth, both in our data set, and in our community. I am grateful for the enthusiasm and commitment demonstrated by our dedicated interns, research assistants and fellow students. Our research goals for this period are to 1. continue to collect further fecal samples from latrines during latrine monitoring to build our understanding of seasonal variation in diet and parasites, 2. to identify additional latrine locations, particularly in the Inakahama Region where sea turtles nest, 3. to trap and GPS collar two tanuki individuals.

Traps to capture tanuki have been deployed in stages to habituate shy tanuki before we begin trapping in earnest in July. The traps are presently open to allow for movement through them.

From left: Alexander, Fitzu,Evan and Negin work their way across Nagatahama during a beach survey for tanuki latrines.

I am also grateful for the continued support and generosity from the local community here in Yakushima - but more on that later!

While completely adjacent to my tanuki work at present, I also love photographic the fungi of Yakushima. Following the rainy season the incredible shapes, colours and forms of fungus we have encountered during our surveying and monitoring have been immense. I couldn't write this blog post without a nod to the fungus among us as we work.

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