Another week, another neighbor. This time it was a white-tailed deer. No, no investigation this time; there was no need. They’re very common in the area, I’ve seen them napping in my yard, and they’re the only even-toed ungulates in New York with the exception of the moose (and believe me, you’re not going to mistake a moose print for that of a deer). The interesting thing about these prints is that there were two sets of differing sizes. It looked like I had a mother and juvenile come for a visit. We used to get them coming around all the time, but again, that was before The Fence.
We’ve been talking a lot about prints, but they’re not the only signs animals leave. When I was in South Africa we spent a few days looking at tracks. No snow, but plenty of sand. A lion print here, a hippo print there, beetle tracks, but we also saw other signs. Scrapings along the ground from a rhino horn, a bed of flattened grass from a waterbuck, and scat; lots of scat.
Scat, feces, dung, excrement, droppings, poop… you get the point, right? If you see a print in the dirt you know an animal has been there. Well, it’s the same with scat. And similarly to prints, you can often tell which animal left you the “gift” too, though I admit this can be more difficult. It changes based on diet, which can change based on season and weather patterns. Anyway, I had such a “gift” the first fall after moving into my house. It was a large pile; yes, I actually measured. It wasn’t from any of the animals I’d seen since moving in. Actually, it was much larger than what would have been left by any neighbors I’d seen. I had a suspicion and it was confirmed by a biologist friend of mine. I had a black bear in my yard!
It must have been after the tasty wild blueberries on the edge of my property. Berries are a common bear snack in the fall as they try to fatten themselves up for hibernation, and it tends to change the texture of their dung. You can actually see berry seeds in the scat if you want to look closely enough. (You all must think I live in the middle of the woods, but really, I’m just on the edge of town and only a few miles from the nearest city.)
Believe it or not, scat is actually very valuable to scientists (and even non-scientists. A main ingredient in many perfumes comes from whale poop. Sorry.) While a print can tell you the species, size, and sometimes the sex of the individual, scat offers a bounty of data. First and foremost, scat can tell scientists which foods the animal was eating. It can provide DNA so that scientists can identify the specific individual animal that left the scat. It can let scientists know if the animal is healthy or ill, or even pregnant, by way of hormone levels, blood, or bacteria left behind. Toxins in the scat tells of toxins in the environment.
Do you remember when I told you about the dogs used in wildlife/conservation work in my post Canines of Conservation? Well, the dogs are trained to help out in two different ways. Sometimes they are taught to smell the animal directly, such as a turtle that may be hiding in the mud. In other instances the dogs are trained not to sniff out the animal, but the animal’s scat instead; after all, that’s not going to run/fly/swim away. I talked a bit about this in the Canines post. Check it out.
National Geographic Magazine actually just published an article on scat and the world of the University of Washington’s Center of Conservation Biology Conservation Canines unit. If the January 2013 edition is still out, you can go grab a copy and see for yourself!