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Let’s talk about poop!

Scat, excrement, faeces, crap, turds, poo-poo, droppings, cow-pies, meadow muffins – well, you get the idea – everyone and everything has to get rid of body waste in some way. The unused and unusable parts of what is consumed must be expelled from the body, or the consequences will be deadly.

The gastrointestinal system differs in different animals, but they have similar basic functions, extract as many nutrients and essential materials from the food consumed, as possible, transport those to the rest of the body and discharge the waste.

Okay, with me so far? Let’s look at some behavioural stuff about poop. Ever wonder why your dog seems to love to roll in poop? The exact cause is not known, but it is speculated; reasonably, the activity stems from its canid ancestors, wolves, who roll in animal waste to mask their own scents. If a predator smells like prey, it can sneak up on prey more easily and have a better chance of making a kill. Makes sense!

What else can you do with poop? Careful here! I was recently in Paraguay, and one night the owner of one of the ranches, where we stayed, showed us an armadillo she had caught because she knew we’d be interested. It was intriguing to be so close to this wild animal, but as it was handed to me, it pooped, luckily missing me, but clearly deliberately expelling waste. Presumably, it was a defence mechanism to confuse me, the predator, in the hopes I would be distracted, I was, and it could escape.

Small rodents search out the faeces of carnivores, since they contain unused nutrients, often in the form of bones. These calcium-rich droppings provide essential micro-nutrients to the mice. Pooping in a bag may not sound like fun, but many birds do exactly that. Baby birds produce liquid faeces, which must be removed from the nest area to keep it clean. They do this by ejecting the droppings in small sacs, which then are collected and either eaten or carried away by the parents. Called a faecal sac, the contents are chock full of nutrients, as the baby birds have a fairly ineffective digestive system.

Ever noticed rabbit poop is small and round. Did you know it has a special name? It is called cecotrope because the cecum is a fundamental part of the digestive system of rabbits and hares. Rabbits often eat their own poop, to extract more vitamins and nutrients missed the first time through. Baby rabbits, hippos and pandas eat mom’s poop, to garner intestinal bacteria from it, to help them, later in life, to digest their own food. Too much information, you’re thinking!

Elephants and pandas poop a LOT; 50 and 10 kg per day, respectively. Did you know elephant and panda poop is so full of fibre that once expelled, you can collect it, decontaminate it and then make it into toilet paper and tissue? Zoos do this, to help get rid of tons of droppings produced by their elephants and pandas. Sloths only poop about once a week. When they finally get around to it, it is quite an event, where about 1/3 of their body weight may be expelled. Wow, don’t try that at home!

The health of many animals can be assessed by examining their poop. As unsavoury as this might sound, it is an essential task vets use. In nature, Mandrills, an African monkey, regularly check the poop of other Mandrills, partly to assess their reproductive state, partly to confirm territoriality and partly to see if they’re healthy. They can sense when an animal is unhealthy or carries harmful parasites, simply by smelling their poop. Once detected, they can avoid the animal and thus avoid infecting themselves. Being burrowing animals, wombats need to tell other wombats they are there, so they make poop piles outside their dens. Now round poop rolls away so they eject cube-shaped turds, clever, but maybe painful?

And that’s why you should give a crap!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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