Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fecofiles of a fecophile

My research has been fecal free for a number of months now, but last night I had the opportunity to learn about whale poop and then this morning I got a message asking if I could look over 80-some-odd pictures of poop that originated from unknown predators. Apparently, I am an excrement expert, which got me thinking about all things poop.

So, I started digging out some of my poop files (pictures and articles including one of my all time favorites entitled "Facts From Feces"), and that led to googling various types of poop. At one point I caught myself thinking, "Wow, this really is a crap kinda day and its pretty fun."

Poop not only facilitates a seemingly endless barrage of sh*#ty puns, but is also scientifically informative. From scat samples you can learn about an individual's health, diet, dentition, reproductive status, stress levels, symbionts, parasites, and a plethora of other factoids, should you be so inclined. Heck, if you were lucky enough, from a single turd you could even sequence the genome of the pooper, that of the poopee, along with several strains of gut flora, and maybe even a worm or two! And the pooper, needn't be alive or even extant. I have colleagues working with coprolites from 1000-year-old mummies. Get this- you could even buy your very own fossilized dinosaur poop. WHY DON'T I HAVE ANY FOSSIL DINOSAUR POOP?! 

Seriously though, I use scat from my lemurs to understand what they are eating (and what they actually get out of their foods), and also to understand predator-prey dynamics of the forest. Predators are really difficult to keep tabs on, due to their elusive nature, so if you want to know what they are eating, well, you may as well bring yourself a paddle, because you are heading up sh*t creek. Wait, I don't think that pun/metaphor worked, but you get my drift. 

Figs before they are eaten by a lemur

And after!

Piece of ring-tailed lemur skull that I pulled from a fossa scat. 

Oh and just to be clear, I hold no particular affiliation to flatulence, although there may be an available niche for someone, in the wind domain. Cow farts, for example, contribute more to global warming than all other sources of greenhouse gasses combined. Or, you may also recall that the gas of some animals (i.e. folklore of the Little Bastardsare said to be lethal. Jobs of the future: cow fart analyst and/or forensic fart detective. Now those are careers your guidance counselor never mentioned. 

Lets get back to poop. I am sure that you are probably wondering "how hard can it be to distinguish scat from different animals?" Well, let me tell you, it can be tricky. Inter-species dung can appear remarkably similar while intra-species can look quite different. Contrary to what you may have heard, a turd is not a turd is not a turd. Climate, habitat, season, food availability, diet composition, body size, and sex can all influence the distinctive characteristics of a poop. Thus a keen eye is needed to get to the bottom of "who pooped the bed." And after many years, I have such an eye. I'm a turd doctor.

I think that's enough crap talk for one day. Consider yourself more informed than most on the scientific value of poop. I hope you never look at a dirt squirrel the same.

Here I am, coveting a bag of dog poop. With Bronwyn McNeil, assistant extraordinaire. 

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