Friday, January 22, 2016

Scatology

“Ewww!!!” exclaimed the second graders as I pulled a large rubber replica of bear scat out of the tub. Scat, of course, is the scientific word for animal poop, and we were about to become scatologists.

During my fall MuseumMobile visit to their classroom, we’d talked about the different adaptations that herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores need to survive. We examined beaver and deer skulls to see the flat, grinding teeth that herbivores need in order to eat plants. Next, the jagged, pointy back teeth and long, sharp canines on the wolf skull created quite a stir. Students had no problem imagining how those intimidating teeth help the large carnivore survive. Then we omnivores ran our tongues over our own canines and molars, and connected our mixed diet with that of a bear.

Today, during the winter MuseumMobile visit, I wanted to carry that theme a little farther, a little deeper, to its natural end. Hence the replica bear scat. “Take a look at the Animal Scat Identification Chart in front of you,” I instructed. The chart is divided into three columns, one each for herbivore scat, carnivore scat, and omnivore scat. I had the kids look for shared characteristics among the herbivore scats. The words small and roundish seemed to summarize their ideas. The carnivore scats were all long and thin, with tapered ends. I explained that those tapers are usually shaped by hairs from the prey animals. The omnivore scat was somewhere in the middle. The cylinders were much longer than herbivore scat, but had blunt ends instead of the hairy points.

“So who do you think made this scat?” I asked, while holding the handful of rubber bear scat aloft. Several hands shot into the air. Omnivore. That was an easy one. Next, I pulled out a replica of scraggly fox scat, and a pile of rubber deer scat. No problem. Most kids were confident that they could categorize any scat the might find in the woods.

Identifying scat to species is a little more difficult though, since many related animals produce similar scat. The size of a scat can be somewhat helpful, but that can vary quite a lot among individuals of the same species, and even in one individual from day to day. For example, fox scat and wolf scat can overlap in diameter. The contents (if you’re brave enough to look closely), can also be a clue. Otter scat is often chock-full of crayfish shells and fish scales, but many animals have a widely varying diet that can produce very different-looking scats.

In some cases, it is pretty easy to narrow down certain shapes of scat into groups of related animals. For example, rabbits, hares, and pikas (all Order Lagomorpha) poop in piles of flattened spheres, not unlike sawdust-filled M&Ms. Deer and their relatives produce slightly elongated spheres of various sizes, often with a point on one end and a dimple on the other.

Members of the dog family have the long, tapered cords. Other carnivores are similar, but with interesting quirks. Cat scat tends to be broken into segments, or at least constricted in a few places. Weasels tend to have dark, greasy cords that loop back on themselves, and they like to place it in the middle of the trail, especially on a prominent rock.

The weasels’ choice of latrine location hints at one of the several purposes of scat. Of course, it is first and foremost a way to get rid of waste. Scat is also an important form of communication among animals. It marks a territory, announces a presence, and can sometimes relay the receptiveness of a female during breeding season, too.

For humans, scat can add interesting information to a tracking expedition, indicate what animals are nearby (though both the scat of the predator and the evidence of its prey still in the scat), and provide some giggles, too. Scientists use scat to get DNA specimens, sample stress hormones, discover details about diet and health, and study the abundance of animals in a population. Collecting scat is often a cheaper, safer, and less stressful way to study an animal.

One by one I pulled several other scat replicas out of my tub. One boy in particular had a knack for categorizing them, and shouted answers gleefully across the room. A girl just shook her head in confusion. She couldn’t see the pattern, and probably didn’t want to look much closer anyway.

Scatology is a fascinating subject with many benefits for amateur naturalists and scientists alike, but I will admit – and you might agree – not everyone is cut out to be a scatologist.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Lake Alive!” opened May 1, 2015, and will remain open until March 2016.

Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.

The long, thin cord of a carnivore's scat ends in a tapered point. 
You can learn a lot from scat. Photo by Emily Stone



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