Weird and Fascinating Ways Animals Use Poop

For one, some eat it—like the dung beetle.

None of it smells like roses.

That’s conventional poop wisdom, but otter dung, called spraint, can sometimes smell like violets, according to entomologist Richard Jones, author of the new book Call of Nature: The Secret Life of Dung.

Such flowery faeces made us curious: "How do various animals use poop?"

Setting Boundaries

Badgers, which range throughout Europe, live in groups of about a dozen animals. This scrappy team “digs a series of small rectangular pits, which together … form the latrine,” says Jones.

A Eurasin badger sits at the entrance to its burrow.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FLIP DE NOOYER, MINDEN PICTURES, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

This badger bathroom sends a message to other roving badgers that "this territory is already taken, and we’re very well fed and very strong," he says. (Read how rhinos use poop piles like a social network.)

Cosmetics

The Egyptian vulture has a specific mission when it visits cow dung piles: Eating the yellow poop.

Not only does yellow dung contains nutrients—in particular carotenoids—but it intensifies the vultures' bright yellow beaks and faces of both sexes.

Birds that sport a robust yellow hue show that they're fit, and so are more attractive to mates and capable of establishing dominance in a group than birds with paler colours.

Baby Nursery

From the rainbow scarabs of the southern and eastern U.S. to the minotaur beetle of Jones’ native England, dung beetles are nature's recyclers—and "beautiful, elegant, shining, [and] handsome," to boot, he says.

Though dung beetles of the world have many different behaviours, their most famous manoeuvre involves rolling fresh excrement into a ball. Males will then painstakingly push their balls back their burrows, often toting a female who was hanging out at the dung pile.

Dung beetles, like this minotaur beetle, make a beeline for fresh faeces.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BLICKWINKE, ALAMY

Next, the beetle couple buries their poop ball in a burrow and lays a single egg inside—which serves as both baby food and nursery.

In a behaviour that's unheard of among insects, "then they sit there and look after it … exactly the way birds do," Jones says.

Food

Dung beetles may be the charismatic cleaning crew, but hidden microbes that do a lot of the dirty work.

AFRICAN DUNG BEETLE Sacred to ancient Egyptians, these beetles recycle—of all things—dung.

Anne Estes, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, studies microbes living inside dung beetle guts—or, you could say, the cleaners inside the cleaners.

In bull-headed dung beetles, a Mediterranean insect also found in parts of the United States and Australia, larvae eat mum's dung, called frass. The frass contains a particular type of microbe that enables the larvae to digest the cow dung into which they were born.

Then, after having eaten their mum's poop and the cow's poop, the larvae feed on their own poop.

“It’s a crappy way to get food,” Estes quips.

True, but their recycling gets five stars.

Header Image: A rainbow scarab beetle, with parasites riding on its neck, is seen at the Houston Zoo. Dung beetles raise their babies in poop balls. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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