IFLScience Meets: Best-Selling Author Dr Dani Rabaiotti Talks African Wild Dogs, Animal Farts, And The "Wilddogpocalypse"

'If you really want to be a field biologist, learn to fix cars.' Image courtesy of Dr Dani Rabaiotti

IFLScience meets Dr Dani Rabaiotti, a London-based scientific researcher and author of popular science titles including True or Poo: A kids guide to animal facts and fakes and the New York Times Bestseller Does it Fart? (revealing some are deadly). Working with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), she has contributed to a number of published journal articles with a particular focus on African wild dogs. We caught up with her to find out what it’s really like as a zoologist in the field and in the office, and how one finds themselves in a "Wilddogpocalypse".

What do you do? 

As a Postdoctoral Researcher for the Zoological Society of London, I study the impact of climate change on African wild dogs. As an author and science communicator, I’ve written a number of popular science books including the New York Times bestseller Does it Fart? and I regularly speak about animals, as well as being a consult for a variety of television shows.

What did it take to get here?

My route was fairly "traditional" – I decided at a very young age that I wanted to work with animals, worked out what subjects I needed to study to make that happen, and then worked hard at school to get onto a zoology course at university. While at university I got a job as a casual ecological consultant, carrying out bat, newt, and reptile surveys and did some work surveying pollinators. From there I went onto my Masters (Biodiversity and Conservation) where I did a lot of spatial mapping of bats, both in the UK and Kenya, and that lead to my PhD on African wild dogs, which I finished in 2019.

I think one key difference between the route I took and that of many other people working in conservation was that I didn’t volunteer – I really focused on getting paid work, even if it wasn’t in exciting far-flung places. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get to go to exciting far-flung places – I tacked a trip to Honduras onto a university field trip to Costa Rica, and went to Kenya twice for fieldwork during my Masters, and went to the field during my PhD, but I focused my time outside my studies here in the UK doing paid surveys.

After my PhD finished in 2019, myself, my supervisor (basically my boss), and lots of other colleagues applied for a grant based on my PhD research, which got funded and that pays my current salary as a researcher at ZSL.

Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a career fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?

I take data from the field and use it to build mathematical models that predict how African wild dogs will be impacted by climate change. Most of what I do is coding, like most scientists these days. It’s pretty cool coding though, and it’s not as boring or hard as you would think – it’s actually really interesting and helps plan conservation of the species.

On top of this I publish popular science books about gross things that animals do, and I do science-themed events and consult for television shows too.

Dr Dani Rabaiotti
"It’s amazing to be part of a team that helps conservationists in Africa protect wildlife." Images courtesy of Dr Dani Rabaiotti

What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

I think the biggest misconception is that being a zoologist means working mostly in the field. The vast majority of academics working in conservation are doing data analysis, paper writing, and grant applications in order to fund the fieldwork. I definitely thought I would be a field biologist when I was younger, but like most people these days I spend most of my time at a computer (although that computer is in London Zoo when we are working from the office!).

Even though it’s not running around touching cool animals, I really love my job and it’s amazing to be part of a team that helps conservationists in Africa protect wildlife. At the end of the day, local people that live and work in the same countries as my study species are much better placed to do the fieldwork. This has been especially the case in the pandemic when we aren’t able to travel. Given both the UK and our field sites in South Africa have been hit by new COVID strains, it’s been crucial to have our colleagues out in Kenya and South Africa to go check on the field sites.

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