The science of poo

Author
by Nicole K
Publish date
22 January 2012
Comments
Comments (5)

Your Question: Why do scientists study animal poo?

Poo is truly fascinating stuff. Each deposit contains a minefield of information about its owner and the environment it lives in.

Animal poos (scats) come in a multitude of different shapes and sizes. Each species produces its own unique parcels. You can therefore discover which species are present in an area (and how abundant they are) by looking at what they leave behind.

The square droppings of a Common Wombat, <i>Vombatus ursinus</i> The square droppings of a Common Wombat, Vombatus ursinus
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Minibeast Wildlife
 

The relative size of a deposit can also give you an idea of the age/size of he/she who dunnit. Sometimes, it's even possible to determine the sex and reproductive receptivity of the animal (by the smell).

The condition of the scat (taking recent weather conditions into account) will tell you how recently the animal was there – if it's still fragrant and sticky, you know you're fresh on the trail.

An animal's poo can also reveal the diet of the depositor. Long-term studies of scats can provide information about how animals' diets change over time and the seasonal abundance of their food sources.

A broken-up scat of a Thorny Devil <i>Moloch horridus</i>, revealing that  it has fed exclusively on ants. A broken-up scat of a Thorny Devil Moloch horridus, revealing that it has fed exclusively on ants.
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Minibeast Wildlife
 

The scats of carnivorous (meat-eating) animals can be an invaluable source of information about the presence and abundance of their prey species. Fur, teeth and bones are not usually digested as they pass through the digestive system and come out relatively intact. As foxes and owls are far better at finding small animals than we are, scats can contain crucial records for scientists studying endangered species.

The scat of a European Red Fox <i>Vulpes vulpes</i> The scat of a European Red Fox Vulpes vulpes
Image: Karen Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Poo is also a useful indicator of animal health. Scats contain parasites, hormones and DNA (in the animal's own skin and hair cells). Scientists can therefore use the clues in poos to monitor infections, perform genetic analyses and gather information on stress levels and reproductive state, all without touching or even seeing the animal.

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Square Poo

Comments (5)

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carolyn ketels 16 April, 2012 11:31
wondering if green very sticky scats found in morning in kitchen in frankston area, may be left by a bush rat?( i've read they don't usually like to come indoors).dead b. r. (very yellow teeth, dark lush fu on plump body, rounded ears, part tail cut off), has been found in last days, maybe related ??
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Discovery Centre 8 May, 2012 16:30
Hi Carolyn, I'm afraid it is impossible to say without seeing the material (and ideally an image of the depositor, as it were); if you are able to do so, feel free to email us an image via the Contact Us link at the bottom of this page and we'll do our best top suggest an identification.
Cheryl Polonski 11 October, 2013 19:53
I found a scat today, that I have never before seen. It was 4cm in diameter and the section was 8cm long. It was black in colour and resembled lots of mushroom caps joined together. It seemed to contain well digested plant matter, but also a few seeds of about 1cm in length. I cannot find anything online that matches it and I am a long way from any library. There are wallaroos, wombats and an echidna in the area, as well as some newborn calves, foxes and a feral cat.
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Paul Adderley 21 September, 2014 10:02
I have some free-range guinea pigs and their food sometimes attracts other animals (such as rats) which we have to deal with. However, recently I've noticed some very distinctive animal dirts near their cage and I'm worried that it might be something that could harm them. How can I identify the animal responsible from the scats? I've taken pictures!
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Discovery Centre 22 September, 2014 13:47
Hi Paul - precise identification from scats only is not easy, but you could start with a book called Tracks, Scats and Other Traces by Barbara Trigg. You'll probably find copies in your state library system, or you can browse one here in the Melbourne Museum Discovery Centre. Best of luck!
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