Great big piles of dung, tiny specks of scat, or the unmistakeable white splotches of bird droppings: In the wild, poo comes in all shapes and sizes. Have you ever considered the many mysteries surrounding the world of poop? Does a tiny creature poo only a tiny amount? Why do some animals (like your dog) like to snack on poop?

Many creatures use poop and pee to mark their territory. Did you know that large animals like elephants can poop up to 100 kilograms in a day? They do their business while walking and eating, barely batting as eyelid as they drop heaps of dung. Smaller cats, on the other hand, prefer their privacy and will bury their waste.

Sometimes, poop serves a much higher purpose. Read on for some fascinating facts about animal faeces.

Mushrooms growing on rhino dung. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
Odours from rhino dung can provide vital information to other rhinos, such as the age and sex of the rhino, and if female, whether she is ready to mate. Cover Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Poop as a Communication Tool

Is the quantity of an animal’s poop directly proportionate to its size? In the case of the greater one-horned rhino found in Assam, it certainly seems to be. A single rhino can poop more than 20 kg at a time. Great big piles of rhino dung dot the landscape in Kaziranga, Pobitora, and other areas where the pachyderms roam. Rhinos tend to defecate in the same spot for a period of time, marking out certain areas as their toilets. These dung piles or middens serve many purposes. Like with many other animals, male rhinos use poo and pee to mark their territory. Rhinos also use these middens to glean a wealth of information and communicate with their brethren. Sniffing around the dung, rhinos can tell the age, gender, and reproductive stage of other rhinos in the territory.

Rhino dung also serves to disperse seeds and spread nutrients through the landscape. Multi ‘poo’rpose indeed.

Jungle fowl feeding on insects in rhino dung. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Jungle fowl feeding on insects in rhino dung. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Poop as Food

Dung beetles feast on the scat of larger animals like elephants and rhinos. Photo: Duwwel/Wikimedia Common/Public Domain

As the saying goes, “One man’s waste is another man’s treasure”. In this case, an animal’s waste is an insect’s treasure. Dung beetles survive on animal poo. It’s what they eat, sometimes it’s where they live, and in other cases, it’s where they lay their eggs. So what makes poop a dung beetle’s meal of choice? When herbivorous animals defecate, some bits of undigested and nutritious food end up in its dung.

A dung beetle rolls rhino dung into a ball to bury it for feeding or to lay their eggs in. While rolling a ball away a beetle may pause on top occasionally to see where it’s going. Photo: Alan Manson - CC BY-SA 4.0

This is what a dung beetle goes for — the larvae eat the solid bits of undigested food, while adult beetles suck up nutrient-laden moisture from the dung. Dung beetles are classified into rollers, tunnelers, or dwellers. Rollers make tiny poo balls from the dung and roll them away to snack on later. Tunnelers bore into the dung, make a tunnel under the dung pile and bury their precious poo-food. Dwellers just like to live inside the dung heap.

Poop as a Holiday Essential

In order to crunch coral and poop sand, parrotfish have adapted to owning two sets of teeth. One like a beak and an inner pharyngeal set that crushes the food. Photo (left): Sputnikcccp - CC BY-SA 3.0, Photo (right): Pooja Rathod - CC BY-SA 4.0

Dreaming of digging your toes into a pristine white sand beach? Highly likely that much of that beautiful white sand is actually dazzling white fish poop. Parrotfish poop, to be specific. These brightly coloured fish that inhabit the tropical waters off Lakshadweep and the Andaman Islands spend their time chomping on coral reefs. Using their beaks and the strong teeth in their throat, they scrape algae off the coral reefs, eat soft coral and polyps.

In the process, these fish end up pulverising and consuming the hard coral as well. Hard coral is made up of calcium carbonate, which is what parrotfish poop out after digesting the algae and soft tissue. Essentially, parrotfish poop out fine white sand, and a lone fish produces up to 300 kilograms of it in a year!

Malavika Bhattacharya

is a travel and culture journalist always looking for an excuse to head into a forest or an ocean. Find her work at www.malavikabhattacharya.com.

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