Here’s the poop: It plays role in survival

Imagine you’ve just voided the enormous porterhouse steak that has been renting space in your intest
Krystel Perkins, 16, gives 2-month-old rabbit Lovrboy a kiss at the Saratoga County Fair. Rabbits are one species that needs to re-ingest its own feces to reclaim lost nutrients.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Krystel Perkins, 16, gives 2-month-old rabbit Lovrboy a kiss at the Saratoga County Fair. Rabbits are one species that needs to re-ingest its own feces to reclaim lost nutrients.

Imagine you’ve just voided the enormous porterhouse steak that has been renting space in your intestines for the better part of two days.

Now, instead of flushing it away and getting on with things, you must immediately consume the fresh waste to glean precious nutrients your body failed to absorb the first time around.

It’s a process known as coprophagy, and for rabbits, hares, naked mole rats, capybara, guinea pigs and a host of other creatures, taking part in this “second feeding,” as it is often called, is absolutely essential to survival.

The reason for the repulsive-sounding ritual is simple, said Alice Pell, a professor of animal nutrition at Cornell University.

Lagomorphs — any of various plant-eating mammals having fully-furred feet and two pairs of upper incisors — consume only difficult-to-digest plant materials, and because food passes through their bitty bodies so quickly, it is impossible for them to assimilate every dietary requirement with a single pass.

Therefore, reingesting the chow and encasing excrement is obligatory.

In Spanish, it’s called “caca” and “poo-poo.” In French, it’s “merde.”

While people are not generally fond of poo, and will go to great lengths to wipe thoughts and images of it out of their minds, the fact remains that whatever you call it — doo-doo, stool, droppings, dung, excrement, scat, dung or feces — bodily waste has long been hailed as the most useful substance on the planet.

No place is that more evident than in the animal world.

Plenty of purposes

Millions of species utilize the malodorous by-product to build homes, hide from enemies, attract mates, mark their territory, communicate, protect their young, cool off — and yes, even polish off as part of a balanced diet.

Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife scientist at The Humane Society of The United States in Maryland, said poop serves a wealth of purposes for just about every type of animal.

Pigeons, for example, utilize their droppings as an adhesive to bind together sticks, string and other finds for their large nests.

Storks and turkey vultures, meanwhile, aim their excrement at their legs to cool down, said Wayne Lynch, author of the book “The Scoop on Poop” and a wildlife biologist based in Alberta. “A lot of times, they are in arid environments,” he said, noting that water is a major ingredient in poop. “If you see them up close, it will look like their legs are white when in fact they have red legs.”

A particular leaf beetle belonging to the Chrysomelidae family, carries its cumbersome load of waste around for protection.

Christopher Tipping, an entomologist and assistant professor of biology at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., said the larva will tote around a shield — a combination of feces and dead skins that have been cast off during development — over their bodies for camouflage.

“There could also be some aromatic chemicals associated with their frass [bug poop] that could repel some of their natural enemies, too,” he said.

Many snakes have discovered the value of feces in keeping themselves safe from predators and other dangers.

Garter snakes, water moccasins and even giant anacondas can thrash about and smear themselves with their waste on command, said Lynch. The stench, he said, is usually so offensive that it manages to send any would-be troublemakers scurrying away on the double.

Poop as protection

Nicola Davies, a zoologist and author of “Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable,” explained some animals go so far as eat the droppings of their predators to gain a measure of security. It offers a type of “sensory camouflage.”

“Eating the feces of their prey helps predators to smell like the animals they need to catch, so they can sneak up on them without their own scent giving them away,” she said. Pet dogs, she noted, still have this habit left over from the time when their ancestors had to hunt for dinner instead of getting it in a bowl.

Animals also seek out clues about where to find their next meal by examining the poop of their prey.

“Nice, fresh poop can mean that food is close at hand,” Davies said. “Baby animals make easy meals; so their feces are like a sign saying ‘dinner is served.’ ”

For that reason, mother animals will regularly eat the feces and drink the urine of their babies.

Lynch said: “Mothers lick their baby’s bottoms with their warm tongues to get them to evacuate and then she eats and drinks the babies [excrement]. She will also lick the groin to make sure the baby stays odor-free.”

Examples of animals that do that include deer, moose, baby elk and kangaroos, he said.

Lynch has long been amazed by how doo-doo is used among mom and baby animals.

Many plant-eating animals, such as cows, deer, elephants, pandas, antelope and even koalas, for example, possess bacteria and other microorganisms in their gut making it possible to digest cellulose — the largest component of their diet, he said.

Because newborn animals are not born with this friendly flora in their intestinal tracts, however, they must consume their mother’s feces to inoculate themselves.

Pell, said this “inoculation” is critical.

“If [an animal] is going to be an herbivore and have a high-fiber diet, it has to have that bacteria,” she said.

Territorial marker

There is plenty more to do with poop than eat it and use it for protection.

It is quite notably used as way of marking one’s turf.

Sea otters do it. Badgers and t igers do it. And so, too, do peccaries — wild pigs from the South American jungle that live in big gangs.

“When everyone is busy finding food all day, it can be hard to keep up with one another’s social lives. Peccaries have a big latrine in the center of their territory that everyone uses,” Davies said. “And each time a peccary poops, it has a good old sniff of the latrine to find out what’s going on in the group — who’s around, who’s pregnant, who’s ready to mate, who’s boss and who wants to be.”

For the common hippopotamus, poop is like an olfactory compass.

“At night, they leave the rivers to eat grass on dry land, marking their trail with piles of dung. Even on the darkest nights, the hippos can find their way back by following the smell of their poop.”

Avoiding a loser

Females throughout the animal kingdom rely on excrement’s myriad properties to find a good mate.

“A female can evaluate from a male’s feces whether he is healthy, carrying a parasite load or if he’s starving,” Lynch said. “If he’s starving, she’ll choose not to follow that male because she doesn’t want her offspring sired by a loser,” he said.

Davies added that there is so much she adores about animals and their “poop” behaviors, not the least of which is “termite gardening,” where termites grow mushrooms as food on the poop of the termite colony.

“All down there in the dark, all those thousands of little pale bodies have been doing the recycling that we humans think is such a new idea, for millions of years,” she said.

When it comes to animals and excrement, nothing goes to waste.

Millipedes make nests for their eggs using their own fecal matter — working the tiny pellets like little bricks. In Africa, ovenbirds, use the dung of antelope, water buffalo and domestic cattle for their nests, especially when water and mud are in short supply.

Pooper scoopers

Then there are dung beetles that break large masses of the matter down into workable material. Different types of dung beetles target specific types of dung based on scent preferences. These beetles generally can be found feeding on and mating in dung on farms, in yards, throughout parks and just about everywhere easily identifiable piles of excrement abound.

They are nature’s own pooper-scoopers, and they keep the earth livable for us. Besides clearing the ground, these beetles’ activities also fertilize the soil. In fact, using dung beetles more efficiently in agriculture, according to one United States Department of Agriculture scientist, could save the nation’s farmers up to $2 billion a year by restoring grazing land, recycling the nitrogen that is normally lost to the atmosphere and reducing the populations of bloodsucking flies that stunt the growth of livestock.

Given all the uses for and ways poop benefits the world around us, Davies said: “It’s no surprise that bird poop on your head is supposed to be lucky.”

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