A Pooey Story

In my first graduate job, I had an ecologist boss who had an interesting collection on the shelves and windowsills of the office. They were scats – pieces of poo! There was koala, wombat, wallaby and even glider poo. It was a great talking point for engineer and construction worker colleagues who dropped by the office. “You’ve got sh*t decorating your walls?!”, they would say.  My boss would stun guests even further by often picking a piece up and proceeding to crumble it in his fingers and have a good close sniff. All while sharing where he sourced it from and some quirky fact on the animal species that left it behind.

Years later when I had my own office elsewhere, guess what? I naturally started to collect poo and put them on display in my office. Not only did it help in my own knowledge of ‘who leaves what’, plus add an ‘eco’ touch to my office amid a construction department, but more importantly, it prompted environmental conversations that supported my educating role. The poo was great science communication I realised!

So I’m going to stop using the word poo now (even though I secretly relish in using it) and be more proper. For the animal world we commonly use the term droppings or dung, but the all-inclusive, ecological term is: scats. This comes from the Greek word meaning excrement. One interesting exception is the waste left by otters, referred to as spraints. It comes from the Medieval French word, espraindre, meaning to squeeze out. Ah, the wonderful world of poo!

A different kind of scat-man maybe, but in my mind it’s only one thing!

Scat tracks

With so many aussie fauna friends being elusive and nocturnal, a good clue to their presence could be the little remnants they leave behind. Our native quolls can be so difficult to find, often the only indicator of their presence is their ‘latrines’ that are established for regular defecating duties.

There’s a wealth of information that can be extracted from this excrement! It can tell you who it is, what they’ve eaten, what’s their territory, how big they are, how old, male or female and so on. However, investigative work isn’t always that clear cut. For example, with macropods (i.e. kangaroos and wallabies) the variety in shapes and sizes – sometimes due to seasonal changes – can mean difficulties in narrowing the scat down to species level. On another note, it’s rare that you’d ever come across scats of a bettong – dung beetles that can hitch a ride on their fur, jumping off for the feast leaving little trace of the bettong’s presence.

Nothing in nature is wasted

Quite a few animals are keen to get in on the feast when scats are left. The scarabs or dung beetles are of course no exception. A fascinating area however, are those species that enjoy eating their own excrement. This behaviour is known as refection, which is common in a few animals. Hares and rabbits for example produce soft, green pellets that are eaten again to extract more nutrients. The second round are darker and more digested and left as fertilizer on the ground.

A snack from the rear end? Image:
A snack from the rear end? Image: Norman Hyatt via Wiki Commons

There’s a hair in there

Hair in scats is common to find for both herbivores and carnivores. With herbivores, this is from grooming and licking oneself with some hair inevitably ingested. Analysis in the lab can then identify the species if it was previously unknown. Carnivore scats frequently have hair from mammal prey. Fragments of bone, teeth, feathers and insects can also be commonly found. Interesting fact: A new population of pygmy possum was discovered at Mt Buller, Victoria in 1996 from the hair left in predators’ scats.

You’ll never find a hair in a wombat poo though! I think wombat scats are my favourite. I once spent the good majority of a day on my hands and knees crawling around cleaning up wombat scats in an enormous enclosure of a wildlife park where I was doing year 10 work placement. I remember the shrewd looks the wombats would pass, as if they were mocking me. With all this time spent with wombats, I could identify wombat scats anywhere, and you could too! It is very unique for it comes out as a cube! (Amazing!)

Cubed poo is a piece of cake mate! Image: Steven via Flickr
Cubed poo is a piece of cake mate! Image: Steven via Flickr
Certainly good for not rolling away! Image: el captain via Flickr
Certainly good for not rolling away! Image: el captain via Flickr

It may not be the best dinner time conversation for everyone, but the ecology of poop is certainly fascinating. Not to mention plays a vital role in nutrient cycles, seed dispersal and general support of the whole food web. If you want to hone your animal investigative skills or aspire to scatologist status one day, I recommend Barbara Triggs comprehensive field guide ‘Scats, Tracks and Other Traces’. 

6 Responses to “A Pooey Story”

  1. Leslie says:

    Thanks for the great read! I can’t decide whether or not to keep staring at the picture of the wombat poo or if I’m disgusted by it.

  2. Tamara Meehan says:

    Thanks guys! Glad to spread how interesting poo can be! (no pun intented.) 🙂 Angela, the wombat scats come out in that shape. It is very dehydrated by the time it leaves them (up to a couple a weeks later after ingesting that material). They use this to their advantage by placing it in positions to mark their territory – bonus is they don’t roll away easily 🙂 I can just imagine their ultimate aim is to create little pyramids of poo!

  3. BirdKate says:

    This is a fantastic read! What an interesting set of office decorations haha.
    Love the use of scatman in there, that will be stuck in my head for weeks and every time i’ll think of this blog post – very catchy indeed.

  4. Angela Li says:

    Nice story about poo! I never came across any chance of seeing any wombat poo before. Does their poo come out cubed naturally or did they do anything to the poo after it’s out which gives them that shape?

  5. glmorris says:

    Such a good read! I saw wombat poo for the first time while camping during the mid-sem break and was amazed that it was cube shaped.

  6. Larissa says:

    Great read! Love that otter poo is named from the medieval word for ‘squeeze out’ that’s hilarious! Nicely written! And I liked the video.