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Poop Week: The Conservation Science of Scat

Posted by David Williams at Aug 01, 2014 05:35 PM |

Naturalist and author David Williams looks investigates the emerging science of studying feces, including the research of a conservation biologist at the University of Washington.

Welcome to Day 4 of Poop Week, the week where we get real about No. 2. From diapers to dogs, the conservation science of scat to the best backcountry privies in Washington, we're digging into the subject of poop on trail all week long.

Below, naturalist and author David Williams investigates the emerging science of studying feces, including the research of a conservation biologist at the University of Washington:

An emerging science

    “A coprolite is about as personal as you can get. You find out things people would never admit to you,” says Glenna Dean, state archaeologist of New Mexico. You can learn what they ate, if they had a disease, and even whether they were male or female. Few things reveal as much about a person as their excrement. Each time we produce we are putting forth a surprisingly detailed snapshot of our lives.

    Over the past couple of decades, the study of feces, whether fresh or fossilized, has emerged as a critical tool in fields as diverse as epidemiology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology. Using fecal material, researchers, with nicknames like Professor Poop, Empress of Excrement, or Doctor Doo-Doo, have traced how birds transport diseases in China; revealed cannibalism in people who inhabited the American Southwest 800 years ago; stopped poaching of ivory in Africa; and discovered the oldest evidence for humans in the new world—fourteen fossilized poops from Oregon dated at 14,000 years old.

    Although some of these discoveries rely on simple techniques, such as counting seeds or sifting pollen, more recent work can be described as PSI: Poop Scene Investigation, with a reliance on advanced technology. In order to confirm that people and not dogs produced the Oregon coprolites (fossilized poop), European researchers ferreted out human mitochondrial DNA from the samples. A lab in California added cross-over immunoelectrophoresis (a tool made famous on the television show CSI) to corroborate the DNA evidence and finally, team members in Florida and Oxford radiocarbon dated the coprolites with accelerator mass spectrometry. “Ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to get this information,” says Dennis Jenkins, who headed the international research teams.

    Studying "information-rich time-capsules"

    Coprologists don’t limit their inquiries to humans. The biggest known coprolite, about the size and shape of a baked ham, came from a Maiasaura, a bipedal, nine-meter-long, three-ton dinosaur. Wood fragments showed that the herbivorous beast ate part of a tree, a dietary choice no paleontologist had suspected. In addition, dung beetles left holes in the dung, providing first hand clues to a 77-million-year old food web.

    Closer to home, Sam Wasser, a professor at the University of Washington, is pioneer in the use of poop for conservation biology. Over the past decade he has helped train dogs to detect the scat of wolves, bears, jaguars, and tigers. Wasser’s team has even trained dogs to sniff out whale poop in Puget Sound. They use the whale feces to analyze hormones that respond to nutritional and psychological stresses. The studies show that the whales suffer more from a low food supply, that is salmon, than from increased boat activity due to more and more and whale watching tours.

    Many scientists have long laughed at their colleagues who study feces and coprolites but as these poop pioneers take advantage of better technology and novel research techniques they are bringing respectability to their chosen subject. From dinosaurs to whales and from long-gone civilizations to modern humans, the information-rich time capsules we call poop clearly show that one person’s refuse is another person’s treasure.

    David Williams is lucky to be married to a WTA staff member. He is finishing a book on Seattle topography and is the author of Cairns: Messengers in Stonewww.geologywriter.com
     

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