NEWCASTLE, Maine — Midcoast conservation biologist Dash Masland dreams of using her unusual research specialty — her nickname is the “poopologist” — to help save the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal from extinction.
With her recent selection as one of two young explorers competing in the National Geographic Channel’s Expedition Granted online contest for $10,000 toward an expedition, she just might have her chance.
Voting for the contest ends Wednesday, in the middle of the channel’s Expedition Week. By Saturday afternoon Masland held a commanding 11 percent lead over rival explorer Trevor Frost of Virginia, who wants to help protect parks from poachers in Indonesia.
“It’s exciting,” the 27-year-old Maine native, who now lives in Newcastle, said. “Funding is hard to come by, in this day and age, and funding for someone who isn’t a Ph.D. is even more rare. This is an incredible opportunity.”
If Masland is the chosen explorer, she will head to Hawaii for about a month to do dietary studies of fish DNA in seal scat. It’s similar to what she did in graduate school at the University of New England in Biddeford, where she studied gray seals. That’s also where her father gave her the nickname of the “poopologist.”
Traditionally, scientists look at fish bones in seal scat to determine what they’re eating, Masland said. But fish bones are fragile, and it’s possible to miss an entire component of their diet that way.
“By using DNA, we can get much more sensitive data,” Masland said. “It’s a high-tech kind of new method.”
Knowing more about the diet of the monk seal is crucial, given that only about 1,100 animals remain and most monk seal pups die of starvation. The monk seal was hunted by humans to near extinction in the 1800s and the population has struggled to rebound, Masland said.
Even though the seal is found primarily off the northwest Hawaiian islands, where officials have protected its habitat in a marine park for years, the species is still not recovering, she said.
The pups have less than a one in five chance of making it to adulthood, likely because of a shift in the availability of food and to competition for fish from other seals and other animals, including sharks, she said.
“In the marine mammal world, there’s a lot of attention to helping save them,” Masland said.
Nevertheless, she was surprised when she was contacted by the National Geographic Channel in January to see whether she was interested in competing. Masland said she had applied for and won a National Geographic Young Explorers scientific research grant in grad school, and channel officials were looking for past explorers to take part in the competition.
“It was completely out of the blue,” she said of being contacted.
If Masland wins, she plans to work with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Hawaii at Manoa to collect the scat using a noninvasive method that causes minimal disturbance to the animals. Then she’ll bring the scat samples back to the lab and analyze them for fish DNA.
“Understanding the diet of marine mammals is tough to do since foraging is difficult to observe, so any information we can gain about this subject matter is valuable and will contribute to the conservation of the species,” Masland wrote in a post about the contest on her website dashmasland.com.
Monk seals are considered “living fossils,” and the species is about 15 million years old, she said. Masland hopes they won’t share the fate of their closest cousins, the Caribbean monk seal, which already is extinct, or the Mediterranean monk seal, which has just 600 animals left.
“I love getting to work with these charismatic animals, because they’re so beautiful. They’re fascinating. They have extraordinary life histories,” she said. “I have always been so fascinated by the ocean, and trying to conserve what we have, trying to figure out how humans can coexist with the ocean ecosystem. Conservation biology is a really incredible field to be in.”
To vote for one of the two young explorers, visit http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/expedition-week-granted.