The Scoop on Poop

2010/11/09
By Zach

Photo source: Peter Davis

Every living organism “poops”. Actually, “poop” is a common term used for feces. Feces, by definition, are the solid waste, which is expelled through the rectum (the end of the large intestine). The role of feces in organisms actually plays a huge purpose in the cycle of life ranging from helping organisms flourish or simply giving an organism something to eat.

As talked about in a Washington Post article released last year, feces are in fact useful for many organisms. For example, elephant feces are full of undigested plant matter. Now, what can be a significance of an ordinary pile of elephant feces? Well, to the ordinary dung beetle, an ordinary pile of feces can be heaven to the beetles. Dung beetles, in fact, thrive on the feces. They eat the feces, mate on the feces, and even reside their eggs on the feces. It many sound disgusting to the ordinary eye, but in order to meet the biological goal of surviving to reproduce, the dung beetles must do so.

Just recently, researchers at Harvard University looked at the importance of whale feces, and they soon found a major discovery. Whale feces are hard to compare to regular feces because they leave liquidly emissions from their rectum. The emissions then rise up to the surface, and in fact, carry important elements from the depths of the ocean (nitrogen being one of these main elements). This is known as a “biological pump”, in which an organism takes up a certain element to the surface. This, in result, increases the amount of life that exists at the surface. Higher amounts of plankton then reside near the surface, and therefore more fish and other organisms come to feed to the surface. Nitrogen is the main element that has a major role in this situation. When nitrogen reaches towards the surface, plankton tend to reproduce more often and quickly, which causes a growth in the amount of plankton. At the bottom of the food chain, extreme amounts of plankton can provide an easy feast to dozens of animals, but a real surprise occurs when the amount of nitrogen increases, resulting in an increase in plankton, which gives a higher percentage of fish a good meal.

Are there any other types of organisms that use feces in a way that is beneficial to helping the organism live? Is it true that some animals sometimes eat their own feces to gain extra vitamins or is it just a myth? Can feces benefit humans in any sort of way?

  • Naseem

    Haha very interesting Zach :) ! Yes, I found a study on how feces from scirtid beetles (Helodes pulchell mainly consumes leaf litter) proved a potentially valuable food resource for Tree Hole mosquito larvae. Leaf litter is really the resource for comsumption in tree holes, an abstract explained, and different species consume it at different stages of its decay. The feces, when administered to the larvae, would be given in different amounts and mosquito perfomance was tested. This study, performed by MATTHEW P. DAUGHERTY and STEVEN A. JULIANO from Illonois State University in 2003, concluded that this food source could possibly help tree hole mosquito larvae by increasing their overall population. What is REALLY interesting is then I found another study, perfomed in 2007, that proved Daugherty and Juliano’s hypothesis incorrect when tested. So, the point is, there are actually other species that could eat other species’ feces for nutritional value! Dung beetles do it! And so do mosquitoe larvae; they just don’t increase in reproduction, I guess,

    STUDY #1: http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1674/0003-0031(2003)150%5B0181:LSBFAA%5D2.0.CO%3B2
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/3566605

    STUDY #2:http://www.jnr-eeb.org/index.php/jnr/article/view/14
    http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1656/1528-7092%282007%296%5B597%3ASBHPLL%5D2.0.CO%3B2

  • Leyla

    This is a very interesting article Zach. In response to your question, “Is it true that some animals sometimes eat their own feces to gain extra vitamins or is it just a myth?” it is actually true that animals sometimes eat their own feces to gain extra vitamins. For example, capybara eat their own feces because it contains proteins. Dogs also eat their feces to gain vitamins. This is, however, not the only reason why dogs are coprophagic; mother dogs eat the feces of their offspring in order to keep them clean when they are very young.
    http://www.ehow.co.uk/facts_6877202_diet-capybaras.html

  • Emily

    Very interesting article, Zach. I researched about the topic and found that Coprophagia is the consumption of feces, and that many animals, including dogs, practice this. I also learned that eating poop may stem from the dog being a natural carnivore, and many years ago, dogs used to eat the insides or organs of other animals to survive. We may never know for sure what causes this behavior in dogs, but some have conjectured that mothers do it to keep their pups and their nest clean. If the mother were to leave this dirty waste lying around near her pups, it could lead to diseases, and eventually, her pups would die off.

    http://www.petplace.com/dogs/coprophagia-in-dogs/page1.aspx

  • Dan

    Dogs are sometimes known to feed on feces, they either do it out of curiousity or they find it nutritious. When well-trained adult dogs ingest feces it is usually due to vitamin deficiency. As feces still contains vitamins (they are not fully digested at times), a dog, andits acute sense of smell, may react to an insufficiency as searching for the needed vitamins. Canines or other species may ingest others feces in order to feed their craving. The negative effect of this is that bacteria like E. Coli, found in the rectum can cause adverse effects on the digestive system, if ingested. Since feces comes from the rectum, these bacteria can be found on feces and may cause illnesses if the feces are ingested. Many other diseases are associated with feces ingestion

    http://www.wisegeek.com/why-do-dogs-eat-their-own-poop.htm
    http://www.petplace.com/dogs/why-dogs-eat-feces/page1.aspx

  • Monica

    Wow, great post Zach! I never would have thought that animals can thrive off of other animals ‘waste’. I did a little more research on the topic and learned that rhinoceros dung often helps out the environment that they live in. For example, rhinos waste often contains many seeds from the plants that they eat because they never get digested and then later on pass through the digestive system. The seeds in the feces often tend to germinate, and later on grow into plants and bushes. By the rhinos despairing seeds in their waste, they are helping to maintain the environment and keep it healthy. This is another positive effect that animal feces can have.
    http://www.globio.org/glossopedia/article.aspx?art_id=42

  • dawood

    Cool post Zach. Ive heard of animals eating feces, but i never knew why until now. I did a little research and found out that many rabbits, hares, and pikas eat there own feces, and it actually makes sense because they can get vitamins, and water for them to survive.sometimes animals also eat feces to protect their youngfrom other animals. cats eat the feces of their young when they are first born, because it has a very strong oder and it attracts many predatos

    Links
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EPG/is_2_34/ai_58632890/
    coprophagia

  • dawood

    Nice post Zach. Ive heard of animals eating feces, but i never knew why until now. I did a little research and found out that many rabbits, hares, and pikas eat there own feces, and it actually makes sense because they can get vitamins, and water for them to survive.sometimes animals also eat feces to protect their youngfrom other animals. cats eat the feces of their young when they are first born, because it has a very strong oder and it attracts many predators

    Links
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EPG/is_2_34/ai_58632890/
    coprophagia

  • Alice

    Very interesting post, Zach! I never knew that poop could be so beneficial to our environment. I did a little more research on poop and how it could be beneficial. Scientists have discovered that by measuring the size of chinchilla poop, the amount of rainfall in previous years can be determined. Chinchillas poop in small scrap piles, which are full of plants and feces that chinchillas glue together with their urine. By pooping, chinchillas living in Chile’s Atacama Desert are helping scientists to determine the rainfall pattern within the region for the past 14,000 years. It is crucial to know previous rainfall patterns in order to predict Chile’s future water supply, and this is all able to occur as the result of tests done chinchilla poop.

    Link:

    http://news.discovery.com/earth/chinchilla-rainfall-chile.html

  • Josh

    Nice post, Zack recently a Seattle aquarium started doing tests on wild sea otter feces to settle why the sudden severe drop in population. their feces have determined some of the reasons why and one of those is that the otters are under a lot of stress and this is preventing the otters from meeting their biological goal. The otters are also pooping out reproductive hormones before they reproduce this also is effecting the offspring so that some of the offspring doesn’t survive. Their feces may help in restoring the population but the scientist have not finished their experiments yet.

    http://news.discovery.com/videos/animals-sea-otter-poop-may-help-save-species.html

  • Joe

    Great post Zach. To answer the question, what benefit does the excretory process have on human beings. Well, The human being is a mammal so we have organs systems dedicated to the excretory process. The benefit of excretion, is waste and extra indigestable substances or poisons are removed from the body. If they built up in our bodies, problems would ensue. In fact if the poisons weren’t removed we could die.
    I am over generalizing of course because “pooping” is the intestinal excretion process. There are more than one in the human body. Breathing and releasing carbon dioxide is one, and perspiring is another.
    http://www.fi.edu/learn/heart/systems/excretion.html

  • Emilio

    Well actually, there’s a simple and very common form of this happening in your own backyard! Well, sort of; manure is a naturally occurring fertilizer that can come from cows, horses, chickens, sheep and rabbits. “Manure” is just another name for poop. While humans buy these manures and spread it artificially on their lawns to fertilize grass and other plants, this occurs naturally on valleys and places where cattle or other animals previously listed are kept. They eat the grass, poop, and their poop fertilizes the very same ground, allowing grass to grow again. This fertilization is made possible by worms and other animals and insects.

    This link shows how my last example of natural fertilization is true, however there is a pop-up, however you do not have to subscribe, you can simply scroll to read above the popup, as you cannot close it either, as far as I know, the article isn’t solely about this either, but it does have statistics about the topic at hand.

    http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/02/18/appalling-video-of-factory-farmed-cows.aspx

    This link is specifically about how worms help the fertilization process along:

    http://urbanext.illinois.edu/worms/live/index.html

  • Aurora

    Great post Zach! After doing some research I found that there are farmers that live in places like China, India, and Vietnam where prices of fertilizer are rising. As a replacement, they use their own raw sewage on the crops. Although there are health risks and it seems highly unethical, it can actually serve the farmers well. For example, they prefer wastewater because it is high in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It also costs much less than chemical fertilizers.

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/08/080821-human-waste.html
    http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/environment/July-August-08/Millions-of-Farmers-Use-Human-Waste-as-Fertilizer.html

  • dawood

    Hey again. I just wanted to add a way that feces benifits and has been benifiting humans for a very long time. Plants. We eat vegetables fruits and many other plants, and they give us nutrients. In the past fertil soil was sometimes sucked dry of its nutrients because of overuse and people had to move to another location to start all over again. But man found a solution, feces (AKA manure). They used cow and horse manure to fertilize their plants and keep the soil healthy. Manure gives plants an immediate supply of nutrients,lowered pH, improved soil structure and much more. if you want to find out more information on this topic please click on the link below

    Link: http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/cropsystems/components/7401_02.html

  • Gabriela

    Great post, Zack!
    Adding on to what Leyla said, many animals eat the stool for nutritional purposes, but not all animals do it for nutrition. Koalas, for example. They eat the stool of the parents, not for nutrients in the stool, but for certain poisens that are in the stool, by injesting the toxins in the stool, the cub will have built an immunity to it by adulthood, and will be able to eat the normal koalas diet, eucalyptus leaves.

    http://www.planetozkids.com/oban/animals/facts-koala.htm

  • Nick

    Nice post Zach, very intriguing! I see no one answered your question above, “Can feces benefit humans in any sort of way?”, which is the question i found the most important. At first I was not sure how feces of all things can benefit a human, but after a bit of research i was amazed with what we can do with it. We use manure, which is a fertilizer for our soil. This helps out a farmer, or gardener a lot because without this, there is a lower chance of their crops to grow successfully, and when you add manure it is more likely for a healthy plant. I am very glad you posted this post, because it was very informative. This website below gives more information about the necessities of manure.

    http://ecochem.com/t_manure_fert.html

  • Ali

    Great post Zach,
    According to Nick’s comment, Manure from animals and typically humans do benefit farmers and gardeners for growing healthy plants using the nutrition, but it also is very fatal to humans prior to sanitation. According to an article in the NY times, dating back to 2008, one of the biggest issues amongst areas around the world affected by poverty is the simple lack of a safe, sanitary place to defecate. unfortunately as the author wrote, approximately 2.6 billion people face this problem everyday, defecating about 200 tons of untreated faces daily. every year, more than 1.8 million people, mainly children, die prematurely from exposure to water tainted with human feces. the reason Human Feces is very fatal is because they carry viruses called Pathogens. In fact, a child’s feces carries more pathogens than an adults feces. In my link, a video by UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) explains that every dollar invested in sanitation results in a tenfold return in increased productivity and tourism. it may well cost about cost about $10 billion for the number of people without basic sanitation, but it will save $100 billion for the costs of education and health benefits.
    here is my link to the article:
    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/18/poop-is-funny-but-its-fatal/

  • ghazala

    In my country Pakistan and neighboring country India cow’s dung is mixed with hay and dried as cakes to be used as fuel.The cattle shed wash is used to generate biogass which is methane, again used to turn turbines and light stoves.Eating of feces in hogs and pigs is a common observation.That is why its flesh is riddled with parasites and not considered fit for human consumption in many cultures.

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