Animals do all kinds of disgusting things. While these gross behaviors can make our stomachs turn, they are often crucial to an animal’s survival.
Me and my colleague Nic Gill did the dirty work and collected a bunch of unexpected facts about how this behavior helps animals live their best lives: making a home, finding friends and food, and surviving predators.
Our new book – titled Poo, spit and other gross things animals do – is aimed at children, but much of it will be news for adults as well.
So what does it take to survive and thrive in the wild? It’s not always about being the biggest and fiercest. Many animals have developed much nicer — if not rude — strategies for evolutionary success.
Rudeness in love (and self-defense)
For wild animals, finding a mate is no laughing matter. But how far some animals will go to get one can be.
Female lobsters pee on their potential mates’ faces for an invitation into their burrows. Stranger still, a lobster’s bladder sits under their brains – so the contraction spurts out of their faces.
Hippos, meanwhile, have become YouTube sensations for their rather obnoxious “dung shower” behavior. Hippos twist their stubby tails to propel a mixture of pee and poop up to ten meters in length — using the technique of marking their territory.
Hippos have also been observed to throw poop directly in the face of their love interests during courtship.
Living in the wild can be tough. Unless you’re an apex predator, something, somewhere nearby, probably wants to eat you.
Some animals are fast enough to run away from predators – or, like echidnas, protect themselves with armor.
Others have developed horrific survival strategies. For example, sperm whales are known to defecate in the water “for an amazing time.” This creates a “poo-nado” – a cloud of feces that hides them from sighted attackers (or unlucky snorkelers!).
And some spiders have taken advantage of the fact that, unlike some other animals, birds don’t like to eat their own feces.
As the name suggests, the tarantula has evolved to protect itself from predators by looking like bird droppings.
The spider has a black, brown and white color pattern and a squat shape. It sits quietly on leaves and other exposed locations during the day, tricking predators into assuming it’s a blob of poop.
But if there was a competition for the most abhorrent yet effective self-defense mechanisms, it would go to Eurasian roller chicks.
When frightened, these baby birds spit a foul-smelling orange liquid over their aggressor and themselves. Not only does this deter the predator, it warns the birds’ parents of danger nearby. Surrender as a distress beacon – who knew?
Read more: Physics of poop: why it takes you and an elephant the same amount of time
Feces (poo) and feces (spit) contain a surprising wealth of information for researchers looking at hard-to-study species.
The presence of poop or spit can help researchers determine where in the landscape a species lives — especially when, as in the case of wombat’s cuboid poop, it’s designed so it won’t roll away.
Pooing and spitting can also reveal important information about an animal’s diet, by identifying the bones or genetic material present. To take this to the next step, information from poop and spit has even been used to describe entire ecosystems.
For example, scientists have used owl spit to track the endangered mammals present where the bird lives. And information about an animal’s disease status and gut microbiome can all be extracted from poop and saliva.
These methods also have the advantage of being non-invasive — meaning researchers can monitor an animal’s health without physically dealing with it.
Conservation dogs are becoming an increasingly popular method of detecting these data-rich, stinky gold mines.
Read more: Drones, sniffer dogs, poop spotting: what’s the best way to perform Australia’s Great Koala Count?
3 more poo data
Not yet convinced of the power of poop? Consider these facts:
1. Creating White Sand Beaches: Parrotfish have some of the strongest teeth in the animal kingdom, which they use to graze on coral. Their digestive system turns it into fine white sand, meaning parrotfish poop helps create beautiful beach destinations
2. Threatens Outdoor Food Culture: In the 1950s, scientists realized that native beetles were not interested in eating poop from introduced cows. This left the land covered in cow dung – a perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying flies.
At one point, there were so many flies that eating outside was banned to protect public health. Finally, poo-eating dung beetles from abroad were flown in to solve the problem.
3. Cooling the Planet: Researchers have shown that bird droppings can help fight climate change. They found that ammonia, produced from tons of seabird droppings, helps form clouds in the Arctic that can partially block sunlight.
So now you know a little bit about how rudeness makes the animal world go round. Feel free to share these tidbits with your friends, though maybe not while they’re eating.
Poo, Spit, and Other Gross Things Animals Do by Nic Gill and Romane Cristescu, illustrated by Rachel Tribout, is published by CSIRO Publishing.