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|The Scoop on Poop : River Valley edition : Wednesday, 17 July 2019 12:57 EDT : a service of The Public Press|
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The Scoop on Poop
by Madeline Bodin
Push your cornflakes aside for just three minutes, because poop humbly tells us something about the overlooked creatures in our landscape (but you probably don't want to be eating and thinking about this at the same time).
Veterinarians pay attention to it. So do animal trackers. If you own a pet, you are probably paying attention, too, because you have to clean it up. Yes, I'm talking about poop, scat, feces, or number two. Push your cornflakes aside for just three minutes, because poop humbly tells us something about the overlooked creatures in our landscape (but you probably don't want to be eating and thinking about this at the same time).
Most people are familiar with bird poop. If you are not, wash your car and park it outside. Murphy's Law says that there will be bird poop on it within hours. Usually it's a dark squiggle centered in white goo.
Bird poop is different from mammal poop, because birds' bodies are different. While mammals have two excretory openings, birds have only one. Bird urine does not have a lot of water in it. That's what makes it white and pasty: it's concentrated. Since there is only one exit, the poop and the pee come out together.
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Reptiles also have just one opening, and their poop looks remarkably like bird poop, says Jim Andrews, a herpetologist at Middlebury College in Vermont who coordinates the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. He says that some snakes defecate defensively. AA northern watersnake is like a fountain,@ he says. Plus, its feces are mixed with musk, so it stinks. He's learned make sure the snake's vent (end opening) is facing the other way when he picks up one of these snakes.
Andrews also says that snakes raised in labs are known to barf up any remaining dinner before they go in to their winter torpor. It seems that while the snake is dormant, the bacteria in its gut are not. It's possible for last fall's meal to rot inside the snake before spring comes. Thus, the up-chucking.
Insects also only have one exit from their digestive tracts, but they really don't pee, says Don Chandler, professor and curator of zoology at the University of New Hampshire. What comes out depends on what goes in, he says. Aphids, scale insects, and other insects that eat only fluid sucked from plants excrete only fluid. Other insects, such as leaf-eating caterpillars and plant-eating beetles, excrete dry pellets. You may be more familiar with insect excrement than you realize. Chandler says that if you have ever parked under a tree (here we go with the cars again) and have come back to find the car covered in tiny droplets of sap, it may be that the tree is heavily infested with aphids or scale insects. It's not tiny drops of sap leaking from the tree, but rather from the insects. The tree sap has far more carbohydrates than the insects can use, but they need to suck in large amounts to get enough of the other nutrients they need. So the carbs are excreted in great quantities.
It is these excreted carbohydrates, contained in a liquid known as honeydew, that the famous aphid-farming ants Amilk@ from the aphids. Chandler says there are species of these farmer ants in our area.
That sugary mist does more than get your car dirty, Chandler says. It is a vital source of carbohydrates for many forest insects, including flies that land on the misted leaves and lick up the honeydew.
Ants and flies are not the only animals that find nutrition in excrement. Long-eared owls have been observed eating their nestlings' poop. (Many songbirds simply carry off their nestlings' poop, which is conveniently excreted in a little sack, so as not to literally foul the nest.)
Finally, there are dung beetles. Chandler says our area has about 31 species of them. None are as glamorous as the legendary Egyptian scarab beetles, which glitter in metallic colors and roll their meals into neat balls pushed into the underworld. Our species generally tunnel up below a big pile and pull it down into the tunnel. There are some specialists, says Chandler, such as a species that only eats only deer poop. And there is only one pretty one: a metallic green species, whose males have horns. It's only as big as a pinky-nail, though.
What the beetles don't take care of, worms, fungi, and microbes do. And thank goodness for that, because otherwise it would never go away, and you'd never get back to your cornflakes.
What does the scat of tiny creatures tell us about the world we live in? If nothing else, it tells us where to park our cars. If you haven't been paying attention, here's a hint: if given a choice between parking under a tree full of aphids, or one with a long-eared owl nest, go with the owls.
BIO: Madeline Bodin is a writer who lives in Andover, Vermont. Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol. This column is produced by Northern Woodlands magazine. A selection of these columns has been collected in The Outside Story, available at www.northernwoodlands.org. Support for this article series is provided by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation's Wellborn Ecology Fund: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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