Poo, stool, faeces, dung, spraint, scat. Whatever you call it, is a goldmine of information for conservation scientists. No, really. You may not realise it, but poo can tell you a lot. You can find out what an animal has been eating, check for diseases, get an idea of how healthy it is, identify individuals or families from the DNA it contains (when poo passes through your digestive tract, it sloughs off some of your cells, so they come out with it), and by the amount and location, you can get an idea of population size and distribution. All without catching, tagging, trailing or generally interfering with the animals you are trying to protect.
The study of poo is called scatology and molecular scatology is studying the DNA extracted from it. Of course, you need to be pretty good at identifying your scats. Could you tell a mink spraint from an otter’s? How about a jaguar from a puma?
It’s common to collect the suspect scats, extract the DNA and identify it by a reference sequence (or barcode), but some clever chaps at the University of Washington had a better idea – dogs. If they can sniff out drugs and explosives, then why not train them to find the scats of endangered species? These clever pooches are trained to find poo from many different species, with the main star (a black labrador called Tucker) even able to find orca poo floating on the sea from inside his boat (he shows where the boat should go by tugging on his lead, apparently).
You’ll never look at poo the same way again.
Image with thanks to Center for Conservation Biology