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Bobcat’s Tail

Name that scat

What secrets can you solve from the stool?

To be clear, let’s talk about animal poop – also known as wildlife scat.

Sure, you can tell a lot from tracks, browse and other wildlife sign, but finding a single scat is like reading a whole chapter in a critter’s daily diary.

How many times, for instance, have you gone for a hike and spotted in the middle of the trail a perfectly prominent poop, obviously not a dog’s, but coincidentally canid and captivating.

Coyotes like to poop in an obvious place, alerting other coyotes and animals that they've been here, like leaving a business card.

I’ve encountered coyote scat on a handkerchief that had earlier apparently fallen out of some hiker's pocket. It's the kind of thing that makes you stop and think about not just the species that left the deposit, but also the individual.

I had modestly enjoyed deciphering scat secrets years ago, thinking that those tricky trail treats were interesting, but then my thoughts would quickly turn to less poopy matters.

The Princess of Poop

And then I met someone who would forever encourage an enthusiasm for nature’s nuggets. Susie Spikol Faber not only knows those nuggets well, she celebrates them, like a wine connoisseur would cherish a vintage merlot.

As a teacher naturalist for the Harris Center for Conservation Education, Faber has often led school groups through the snow, following a track. On a lucky day, it might be a fox. Susie’s group might follow that fox footpath for a few feet, until they come upon an exciting yellow find in the snow: fox pee. Susie will stoop down, give it a good whiff, then rise smiling and speculate with the kids on the vulpine’s gender. Ahh, the noble life of a naturalist!

Her outings might yield otter scat, with scales shining like sequins, a reminder of this fish-eater’s menu. Or a pileated woodpecker’s ant-speckled feces at the base of a battered tree.

As Susie has told her students: “If you really want to know what an animal eats, take a good, hard look at what it excretes.”

The treasure trove

To make the case in the classroom, Susie might pull out her scat collection, a box of jars – stool samples, if you will – a varied and wondrous assemblage from fauna’s unwitting donors.

When the pupils’ poopy hysteria dies down, they start solving riddles. Usually part of a unit on predator/prey or evidence, the samples beg questions, like: Was this an omnivore? A carnivore? An herbivore? How can you tell?

Scientists look to scat to answer many more riddles. Using DNA analysis, they can identify individual animals. They can determine the health of not only the animal in question, but also its prey.

Biologists in Asia studying the imperiled snow leopard seek scat to determine gender, one’s relation to another, movement patterns and population structure.

Off the coast of Washington state, dogs trained in sniffing out killer whale scat can give scientists a load of information. Like, are the orcas getting enough of their favorite prey, Chinook salmon? Are there signs of contaminants, like PCBs? Are there stress hormones in the scat, which can point to issues of boat traffic, among others.

What they left behind

Closer to home, in the Gulf of Maine, scientists studying the colossal blue and humpback whales have found not only the world’s largest poops, but also a phenomenon called the whale pump. Whales feeding from the depths, discharge their fecal plumes at the warm surface, stimulating the growth of plankton, thus helping the rich marine cycle of life.

And yet even closer to home, here in our woods and fields, what secrets can you solve from the stool? Was it a fox? A coyote? A black bear, all full of bird seeds or acorns? Was it a weasel, leaving it all twisted and tightly wound? Was it a snowshoe hare’s perfect little pellets? How about a moose, with its summer plops or winter marbles. Or was it from a bobcat, all segmented and full of bones and hare?

Even if you don’t solve it, enjoy the riddle.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

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