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The Science of Poop

Sep 6, 2019

Black Bear in Hobart, WA - Photo by Stan Orchard

Yes, they do.

Two very different news stories popped off the laptop screen over the past couple of weeks. Stories we found fascinating (links below). One story involved scientists trying to learn more about prehistoric humans in what is now the UK. The other story is about how scientists are tracking a very rare, secretive cat in the mountains of Central America. An animal rarely seen by humans. But both stories involve one of our favorite subjects: scatology. The study of feces.

Ancient fossilized human feces is called coprolite. This poop from Bronze Age residents revealed those people were infected by parasitic worms that can be spread by eating raw fish, frogs and shellfish. The other story involved what the secretive animal leaves behind as it moves around. It tells them a great deal about where the cats go and what they eat, among other things.

But here’s the thing: scatology is not just for scientists. Anyone can do it.

“Ya, I do it all the time. In school I had classes on what poop is this?” said Gabriella Boyer, one of our Animal Caretakers who has a degree in fish & wildlife science. “I have books on different kinds of poop.”

She confided in me that she has the scatology bug bad. She’s always on the lookout for poop.

“Most of the time when you go hiking you’re not seeing a lot of animals. So, I look for evidence of animals and that’s typically poop or tracks and poop is easier to spot.”

Image from Maida Ingalls, former member of our Animal Care team

Bear scat. Notice the small seeds from berries. Image from Maida Ingalls, former member of our Animal Care team.

I confess I share her love of scatology. When I’m out hiking around I’m always on the lookout for poop. She says there’s no shame in it. And not only that, it’s advisable to be looking for it when you’re out in the woods. You need to know who else is out there walking around.

This time of year when blackberries seem to be every where, you know humans aren’t the only ones out there picking those luscious little fruits. We routinely see bear scat near my family’s home in rural King County as we pick the summer bounty. But even in the heart of the city wildlife abounds. Around the science center we routinely see raccoons, all sorts of rodents, fowl and other critters.

Learn more about this very interesting topic in this quick PacSci Podcast embedded below. Then, get out there. In the city, in the mountains, on the beach, just about anywhere. It can be a lot of fun and you’ll learn something.

Be curious!

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