What Eats Poop?

You just have to love the questions kids ask.

I’m eating dinner last night, and my son is watching Wild Kratts on PBS Kids. Normally, we have him sitting at the table with us for dinner. But I got home late, and so I’m pretty much eating by myself, and I’m not paying attention to the show. But then, he pipes up with a question. “When all of the animals go potty, what eats it?”

Well, I think to myself as I take a bite of my calzone, that came out of nowhere. So I wrack my brain. “Uhm… bugs?”

“No, daddy!” he declares. “Porcupines!”

Honestly? I’ve got no idea here.  Bugs.  I’m pretty sure bugs eat dung.  I’ve got no idea about porcupines.  Maybe the Wild Kratts taught him a valuable life lesson about mammalian poop consumption. I don’t know. But, when you get right down to it, that’s the point of this blog. So, brace yourselves as we start off with your new word of the day: Coprophagia.

According to Dictionary.com, cophropagia is the noun version of the adjective “coprophagous”, meaning “feeding on dung, as certain beetles”. And, from what I can find, it’s common not just in beetles and other invertebrates, but among mammals as well. Young herbivorous mammals use it as a way to obtain the starters for the gut bacteria that help them digest vegetation (cellulose doesn’t digest easily). The dung of herbivores also contains a significant quantity of semi-digested plant matter, so many herbivores will eat (re-eat?) it to gain greater access to any nutrients still contained in the waste. Heck, it turns out that even our close cousins – gorillas and chimpanzees – engage in this behavior.

In humans, coprophagia is considered a symptom of a few different mental illnesses. But that’s a comparatively recent development. As recently as the 18th century, a juice derived from boiled cow or sheep dung was used as cough syrup in the United States. And even now, although doctors strongly recommend that you do not consume poop, there is a thing called bacteriotherapy () (also known as fecal transplantation), which is used to replenish gut bacteria in humans who have been through significant antibiotic treatments.

But, back to my son’s point, what about the porcupines?  Well, according to The North American Porcupine Second Edition, by Uldis Roze:

Unlike rabbits and beavers, who also have large caeca, the porcupine is not normally coprophagous (it does not re-ingest feces for a second round of nutrient extraction). That means that the bacteria in the caecum are not themselves used as food sources. The porcupine’s relatively long large intestine, which serves to absorb the fermentation products, partially compensates.
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Dr. Uldis Roze is a Professor Emeritus, in the Department of Biology, Queens College at the City University of New York.  According to his web site, he’s “interested in the anatomy, ecology, and natural history of the North American porcupine”.  Quite literally, he wrote the book on the subject.  So if he says they aren’t normally coprophagous I’ll assume he knows what he’s talking about.

Aren’t you glad you read this entry?