Vail Daily column: Scatological specimens
“Ewwwww!” The kids were clearly repulsed as I wantonly picked up piece after piece of what looked like elk scat, holding it out for them to get a closer look. In case you don’t know, scat is the scientific term for animal poop. And the study of animal poop, or scatology, can offer tremendous insight into the inner workings of the animal world, if you’ll pardon the pun.
The presence of a particular animal scat in an area can give us a lot of information. First of all, it can tell us what kinds of animals are around — something that could be pretty important to know, especially if you are camping or have young children or pets. Closer examination can tell us even more. What was the bear eating? Were the elk well hydrated? What was the owl’s prey?
But first things first, so let’s talk safety. A good rule of thumb is not to touch scat directly. Typically, herbivore scat won’t hurt you, but it’s better to be safe, especially if you’re not sure exactly who or what left the droppings. Carnivore scat can house dangerous bacteria and sometimes even parasites. So it’s best to use a stick or pocket knife to dissect your scat if you need a closer look.
And how exactly would you be able to recognize whether the scat-er is an herbivore or a carnivore? Herbivores generally leave pellet-type scat, shaped and sized like various chocolate covered candies and other treats. Rabbits leave little bits of Kix breakfast cereal, deer leave chocolate covered peanuts, chocolate chips tell us the mountain goat has been around and Milk Duds are a sure sign that a moose was frequenting the area. Scat that is more tubular shaped, like a tootsie roll or bigger, is typically from a carnivore, especially if it has fur and tapered ends.
Scat from similar species can look alike, like that from foxes and coyotes. In these cases, size gives us our biggest clue as to the exact perpetrator, but we need to remember that a small coyote, or a young one, might have scat that is sized more like that from a fox. And anyone can have a larger-than-normal scat after a hearty meal. Deer, elk, and moose scat can often be confused, as these ungulates all produce pelleted piles, and have habitats that can sometimes overlap. Size is the biggest differentiator here, but deer scat tends to occur in round to slightly elongated oval shapes, while elk scat is slightly larger and often marked with a “dimple and a pimple,” or a small dent on one end and a point on the other. And finally, a moose’s Milk Duds are often doubly pointed, like a miniature football.
Scat from small critters can be especially difficult to distinguish, and you might wonder why you would care if a particular dropping was ejected from the behind of a mouse, squirrel or bat. But I can assure you, when the droppings are littering your front porch every morning, you care. And it turns out that mouse droppings are smaller than those from bats, and bat droppings, if you examine them closely, can be distinguished from those of a squirrel because they sparkle from the bits of insect exoskeleton in their diets. This again may seem insignificant, but you can trap and poison a mouse in your house; the same is not true of bats. Bats are protected and much harder to get rid of than mice. Trust me on this one.
Many experienced trackers with years of experience looking at various scats and tracks will express uncertainty upon encountering a particular scat specimen. It’s not that they lack knowledge, but these trackers have a reverence for the diversity and variation that we find in nature, and avoid making quick judgments based on only one pile of evidence. The rule is, unless you see the animal leave its mark, you never really know for sure. But by observing and thinking about the wildlife that might be around us, we begin to ask questions and to think about the relationships and connections that hold the natural world together. The guessing game keeps us entertained and hopefully better informed as we develop and hone our awareness of the natural wonders around us, even the less attractive ones.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon where she is always game to guess who has left their mark.