Wildlife TV

Learn interesting and funny plant and animal facts with videos and photos

Coprophagia: Poop is Food

on June 12, 2013

In previous posts I’ve talked about some of the strange things that animals eat; Geophagia is the eating of soil and rocks, and Osteophagia is the eating of bone matter. For today’s post, I’ve saved the best for last: Coprophagia.

Coprophagia can, basically, be defined as the eating of faecal matter (that’s poo to you and me). It is an unusual and perhaps shocking feeding behaviour to us humans, but many animals practice it regularly and I’ll outline some of the interesting reasons why they do this.

So why eat poo? It seems like a strange question, but the answer is reasonably simple; the digestive systems of animals are never 100% effective and as such, their droppings almost always contain nutrients that have not been digested and used. Let’s take for example an adult African elephant (Loxodonta africana), it can only metabolise about 40% of the nutrients from the food it eats as it passes through its system so quickly. Unused nutrients (along with other waste materials) end up simply being dropped on the ground where they will decompose as a result of the action of fungi and bacteria; but before decomposition takes place, there is an opportunity for animals to make the most of the material and recycle it.

An elephant dung pile broken apart by an army of busy dung beetles.

A dung pile broken apart by an army of busy dung beetles.

As you can see from the picture above (as seen in a previous ‘Photo Previews’ post), dung beetles (from the superfamily Scarabaeoidea) gather in great numbers on dung heaps; they feed almost exclusively on mammal faeces, indeed, they love dung so much we named them for it. Within minutes of a mammal dropping its dung on the ground, dozens of dung beetles will find it and get to work; they burrow through the heap and mould balls of dung into which they can lay eggs, so that later their young will develop inside a ball of food. A solid ‘log-like’ pile of rhino dung can be broken open and spread about by dung beetles in a very short amount of time. We will talk more about the various fascinating behaviours of dung beetles in a later post.

Lagomorphs (order Lagomorpha) are a group of animals that includes rabbits and hares and these animals use coprophagia as a natural part of their digestive process; they have short digestive tracts and are unable to metabolise all of the nutrients they need from their food with only one transit of that tract. After passing food through their bodies once, they eat pellets straight from their anus and send them through again. Thankfully this is a process from which humans are spared.

Scrub hares (Lepus saxatilis) is an example of a lagomorph.

Scrub hares (Lepus saxatilis) is an example of an African lagomorph.
Photo Credits.

Many animals that practice coprophagia do not feed exclusively on faeces; they supplement their diets with nutrients they recycle from animal droppings because they do not have access to the food sources of those nutrients directly. I talked briefly about one example of this in the Osteophagia post; the leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) has been observed feeding upon hyena droppings, this is because they contain calcium and phosphorus, nutrients that the tortoise needs but cannot acquire itself. Hyenas are predators and scavengers that are able to crush through bones with their strong jaws and digest it with their powerful digestive systems, but of course, there are always waste products. The tortoise is simply not equipped to crunch through animal bones but has evolved an equally useful strategy to gain the nutrients it needs.

Sometimes animals might feed on faeces but not for the actual material of the faeces itself. Infant white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) will eat the dung of their mothers because at birth, their digestive systems do not contain the bacterial cultures that help them digest the fibrous grass material that they will feed upon for the rest of their lives, however, their mothers’ digestive system does contain this bacteria and they pass some of it out in their dung. After several months a white rhino calf will have ingested enough of this ‘good bacteria’ that they will be prepared to graze and digest grass after weaning off of their mother’s milk. So as you see, the calf is only eating faeces for the microorganisms it contains, not the partly digested grass.

Awhite rhino baby (Ceratotherium simum) with mother. Calf acquires digestive microflora from its mother's dung before it can graze

A white rhino calf acquires digestitive microflora from its mother’s dung before it can graze.
Photo Credits.

Coprophagia is basically repulsive and wrong to us humans, largely for social/cultural reasons, but it has its origins in the fact that our faeces is mostly toxic to us and doesn’t provide any nutritional benefits. Coprophagia can also be a negative process for other animals too; many animals in captivity will eat their faeces if under stress as demonstrated quite tragically by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in zoos where their complex cognitive, social and emotional needs are not being met.

Hopefully you have been able to see past the ‘grossness’ of coprophagia and still enjoyed reading about it. The natural world is full of fascinating subjects even if it’s not all pretty.

Much love,

-Nick

 

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Diet category.
Other Diet entries:
Geophagia: Eat dirt!
Osteophagia: An unusual eating habit that actually isn’t very unusual.
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5 responses to “Coprophagia: Poop is Food

  1. argylesock says:

    For us humans, another reason to avoid coprophagia is that it’s a disease risk. I’m sure you know that some infections can spread by the faecal-oral route.

    Thank you for following my blog. Yours looks good so I’m going now to follow it. If you notice me saying any rubbish, esp about Africa, do please feel free to tell me (politely!) because I’m not African and I don’t claim expertise about that continent.

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Yes, the faecal-oral route is a significant cause of disease transmission. It’s most unfortunate that diseases spread so quickly in poorer communities without clean water, often because faecal matter finds its way into drinking water.
      On the otherhand, almost counterintuitively, faecal bacteriotherapy is a clinical procedure whereby healthy human faecal bacteria is transplated into a patient’s colon to replenish digestitive flora! So strange yet it seems to have positive effects.
      Anyways, thank you for following us, you too have a nice blog. I promise our future posts won’t be as gross!
      Cheers,
      -Nick

      • argylesock says:

        You’d have to try harder than that if you wanted to gross me out! On my blog and in my work I often consider poo, from various species including our own.

        Faecal bacteriotherapy is quite exciting, isn’t it? Lots of potential value for people with chronic digestive disease eg ulcerative colitis.

  2. loraxtreespeaker says:

    I’m working on a paper on this topic and was wondering if you could direct me to any scientific papers detailing this in African vertebrates.

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Unfortunately I can’t suggest any specific papers for you, all the information in the post is drawn from my experience in the bush and from a little online research. A great place to start looking for scientific papers is Google Scholar or even the source links at the bottom of Wikipedia articles, failing that, you could always check journals and papers at the library.
      Hope that’s of some help and good luck with the paper, it’s a hugely fascinating subject!
      -Nick

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