UNL student researches fox disease through scat

Nick Friedeman walks 20 km collecting fox scat to test for zoonotic diseases.

Friedeman walks the Mopac trail with his wagon collecting scat.

While most students avoided the rain over the weekend, one senior walked 20 km through it. His goal? Fox poop.

Nick Friedeman, a fisheries and wildlife and microbiology double major, obtained grants from UCare and Cabelas to conduct his research. He’s collecting red fox scat in urban and suburban Lincoln to test it for two diseases: Echinococcosis multicularis and Salmonella typhimurium. Both diseases are zoonotic meaning they are transmissible between wildlife and humans.

“I thought it would be important to study this because there are lots of people outside in the summer and that increases human and wildlife contact,” Friedeman said.

If passed onto humans, Salmonella attacks the digestive tract and gives food poisoning symptoms. Echinococcosis multicularis is a type of parasite that can cause a bad liver disease.

Since July, Friedeman has walked a 20 km trail every weekend surveying for scat. One of his trails winds through suburbia where he often runs into curious neighbors and dogs. Another trail only encounters bicyclists and corn fields.

No matter the scenery, one can find Friedeman dragging an old, blue wagon with one wonky wheel. He fills it with two coolers full of CryoTubes, gloves, spoons, notecards, and, no surprise – scat.

“People give me funny looks and sometimes ask questions,” he said. “Some have thought my coolers were filled with beer.”

Friedeman takes two samples of scat in CryoTubes and then collects the whole sample in a bag.

On one weekend, Friedeman will only spray paint the scat he finds. Then, on the next weekend, he fills two CryoTubes from it for testing and then takes the whole sample. This is to limit human disturbance to the area to not scare the foxes away.

Friedeman uses CryoTubes to save scat samples.

Red foxes use human trails to survey territory and look for food because it is the path of least resistance. Because of this, Friedeman doesn’t have to look far off the path to find the scat.

“Just like us they would rather walk through something easy instead of something with a lot of tall grass,” he said. “It saves energy.”

So far, Friedeman has collected over 25 samples in seven weeks. After about 14 weeks of surveying, Friedeman will move from the field to the lab and begin testing his samples.

He will use PCR on the samples to make sure they are actually fox scat. This is a machine that can copy and amplify DNA. Then, he will check the scat DNA to see if the bacterial DNA is present.

“It’s cool to get to do a project that is applicable to what I want to do which is wildlife field work and diving deeper into the microbial world,” he said.

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