Every animal produces waste, which it expels in the form of urine and feces. Undigested food comes out in the form of excrement: rich in bacteria and often covered with mucus. Feces also contain cells detached from the intestinal wall, the DNA of which reveals the animal’s identity.
For every species: a shape and a size
Carnivores have cylindrical, cord-shaped excrement. It often contains feathers, fur or bones. The red fox has slender, elongated poop. It ends in a fine point, a sign that the fox squeezes its buttocks when finishing its business! In felines like the lynx, the cylindrical shape has undulations and shows that the poop doesn’t come out in one shot, but by little pushes. In insectivores, like hedgehogs, excrement contains insect remains, because the chitin in the shell is indigestible.
In herbivores, poops are more or less spherical, and plant particles are generally still visible in it. Also, a big poop denotes a big animal; a small poop, a small one.
Poops allow naturalists to draw up a portrait of local wildlife. DNA analysis makes it possible not only to identify the individual, but also to evaluate its territory and its relationships with that territory and with its neighbors.
From a session to a banquet
Excrement still contains nutrients. In carnivores, digestion is very efficient and their poops have low nutritional value. Only bacteria and fungus are left behind. In herbivores, it’s a different story. Poops contain a lot of plant matter, and many animals will feast on it. When it eats the berries that grow on trees, the black bear makes their seeds accessible to chipmunks, who normally can’t climb up to reach them. In fields we often see starlings pecking at cowflop, looking for the larva of certain insects like dung beetles.
All these organisms that feed on excrement are taking part in the recycling of matter. For example, the poop of carnivores like the wolf contains bits of bone and enriches the soil with phosphate. Animals that defecate often in the same spot fertilize the ground and foster the growth of richer vegetation.
Poops are more than just waste: they’re true “calling cards” that animals leave behind. Learning to read them is enormously informative about the life of the animals around us.