What is it about poo?

Why are researchers so interested in animal poo?

Call it crap, scat, feces, faeces, dropping, dung: we love it!

This is because poo is an infinite source of knowledge.


Learn how to recognise scats!

koala-poo
echidna-poo

Koala poo

small (2cm), olive like, odour of eucalypt, only small pieces of crunched plants when you open the poo (this is not too bad to do with koala poo, I wouldn't touch any carnivore poo though!!!)

Echidna poo

cylinder shape, very smooth on the outside, lots of sand and bits of ants on the inside

fox-poo
cassowary-poo

Fox poo

lots of fur, small bones, seed and here bits of crabs, can be white when lots of crunched bones

Cassowary poo

one of the biggest birds so a big poo, containing lots of fruit stones and seed, because of its size the cassowary is the only animal that can disperse the largest seeds in the forest

What's Your Problem With Poo?

If you read the story about snot, you probably start to wonder what my problem is: now a story about animal poo??!

And I must admit that if you look into my CV, you might very well think I am obsessed with scats.

One way or another, I have been working on one sort or another of droppings for the past 9 years!

Feces (also spelt faeces) are amazing.

Poo is Knowledge

Let me tell you what animal poo has been teaching me:

  • where a wild animal has been (where you find a poo, you know someone has poo-ed it!), thus wildlife distribution,
  • how much poo there is, thus an indication of animal density,
  • what is inside an animal poo, thus its diet,
  • from the animal’s cells around the poo, the animal’s genetics,
  • even some things like which sex an animal is, its reproduction status and stress level!

This is because animals use poo to talk to each other.

Some dung might say:

“Hey YOU! You’re in MY territory here! And I’m a big boy and I’m not afraid of anyone!”

while another animal poo would whisper:

“Hello there, I’m a girl and I am looking to meet someone nice...”

Example 1: Gorilla Dung

While working in the Congo on gorillas, I used locals to track gorillas in the jungle and then collect their poo. Local trackers were just amazing to watch. I could not see anything at all, yet they were all over gorillas’ trail!

They were picking chewed bits of plants, getting on their all four, trying to think like a gorilla and guessing the path a gorilla would likely have chosen through the dense jungle... Until we followed the gorilla trail for long enough to get to their poo!

We collected gorillas’ poo to study their genetics. In the park where we were following gorillas, about 90% (yes, 90%!) of the population had disappear because of an Ebola outbreak. This was dramatic, and we were wondering what effect it could have on genetic diversity.

Diseases are sometimes a huge problem for wildlife. This is in addition to all the other threats they have to face: habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, trafficking, climate change...

Some disease might get more frequent in wild populations because of human disturbances which might for instance put in contact wildlife and domesticated animals, or might cause changes that put wildlife in contact with new virus. Also wildlife stressed by other factors (loss of their habitat, more frequent contacts with humans or human infrastructures) might get more fragile, more sensitive to diseases.

Diseases and their huge impact on wild animals (sometimes taking species to the brink of extinction) is one of the many reasons why we need to protect large chunk of wild animals' habitat, and in different parts of their range (for instance, in different countries).

Therefore, if one population is severely reduced by the spread of a disease, we have other "insurance" populations somewhere else that might not get affected.

The situation of lowland gorillas, although not as dramatic as their mountain cousins, is quite frightening. Not only do they face the terrible Ebola virus, but their habitat is threatened by logging and mining, while poaching is a major concern.

Hopefully what we learn about gorilla form their dung will help conservation and management of wild population affected by diseases...

They are so worth it.

But my experience with gorilla poo was nothing compared to the amount of time I was going to spend on koala poo!

Example 2: Koala Droppings

I actually even publish a paper ONLY on koala droppings (how quickly koala poo disappear in the natural environment, how much poo you miss when looking for it... Cool stuff.)

I have been looking at koala poo mainly for two reasons:

  • koala distribution
  • koala diet

Now you might think there would be an easier way to study koala distribution and diet than looking at poo? Well... Actually not really!

Koalas are extremely difficult to spot directly to study distribution. Seems weird when you know they can be up to 15kg and just spend their entire day sleeping on a branch! They are actually very well camouflaged: white bottom and grey fur to look like the sky or the trunk of one of their favourite eucalypts. But also they are very still and very quiet, and human are mostly good at detecting movement (we are much better at seeing a small fast moving bird than a big still koala).

Koalas are also very frequently found at low density (one koala for many, many hectares). So you can look for a long, very long time before you even have the opportunity to see one...

But one koala can produce up to 200 poos a day! And poo stays long after the koala is gone... Thus making it much easier for the koala researcher to find a poo than a koala!

What about koala diet though? Surely it would be easier to just look at what tree the koalas are using to determine their diet? Again not at all! Because when you spot a koala (which is hard!), you are observing it during its “night time”, when it’s spend much time ... sleeping.

As a consequence, if your koala is frequently in a particular tree and you say “Eureka, this koala is here all the time, this tree must be an important source of food”, that would be like if an extra terrestrial form came and observed you every night in your bed and declared “These humans are always in their bed, that must be where they found most of their food”.

But if you look at a koala poo, you can find the remains of the trees that were eaten. This is the real diet!

It’s a bit complicated but... Let me try to explain. When a koala eats a leaf of a specific tree species, it chews it very well. Then the fragments of the leaf get digested. Now you might think that nothing could be studied in that chewed paste.

Well, there is one thing even the toughest koala tooth can’t destroy: the leaf cuticle. This is the external layer of cell, the one that protects the leaf: it’s mighty tough!

In this tough layer, they are some holes: yes, the leaf needs to be able to “breathe”: let O2 and CO2 gases in and out (both for photosynthesis and breathing). And the cells involved in creating these specific holes or stomata, are what we’re looking for. The reason? Stomata are actually different from one tree species to the next.

That’s it! Now you get it?

Inside koala poo, we look at leaf fragment which have special cells that are characteristic of a tree species. We count the fragments of the different trees (this is a long and hard job) and we know the diet!

Not easy, but much more accurate than looking at what trees koalas use.


So animal poo is not only that smelly thing on the ground you try to avoid walking in...

On the contrary, poo is very important to wildlife researchers.

Poo can also be quite fun when you are taking a walk in the wild with your children: if they find poo along the path, you can explain how to identify what the animal has eaten, which gives an idea of who he is!