Most of us would probably rather not think about dung. It’s the end product of a digestive process that involves bacteria, enzymes, saliva and all manner of other stuff we’d also rather not think about. But dung is important. And it’s very interesting stuff.
In many parts of the world the dung of vegetarian animals is dried and used as fuel. This includes cows, buffalo, goats, yaks, kangaroos, camels and antelope. Biodigesters can also turn cow pats into free usable energy in the form of methane gas. Cow dung can also be used to repel mosquitoes (by burning), as an effective and cheap thermal insulator and as an additional building material for adobe mud bricks or wattle and daub. It is even used as sports gear.
The practice of throwing ‘cow chips’ or ‘buffalo chips’ was first popularised in Beaver, Oklahoma, in 1970 and is still played today.
We should also be grateful for the myriad small creatures that dispose of the dung for us. If you want an animal to love, forget pandas and hug a dung beetle; without them, we’d all be knee deep in animal faeces.For example, a one and a half kilo pile of elephant poo can be completely removed by 16,000 dung beetles in just two hours. 6,000 individual dung beetles have been recorded at a single elephant dropping. Dung beetles save the US economy $380 million per year in clean ups. And, in 1995, Warringah council in Sydney, Australia, became the first council in the world to use dung beetles to recycle dog poo. The scheme has been ‘rolled out’ to a number of other areas.
A fool looks for dung where the cow never browsed.
Animal dung is full of nutrients. Most herbivores’ digestive systems are fairly inefficient and much of the ‘goodness’ is lost during excretion. Only 53% of the hay eaten by a sheep is assimilated into the body, so almost half of the nutrients remain in the excrement. The dung of a South African antelope called the blesbok (Damaliscus pygargus phillipsi) is composed of 9% protein. By comparison, rice is 10% protein. So it’s no surprise that other animals make a meal of dung when they find it (including my dog).
Dung eaters are called coprophages. Creatures that eat their own dung are autocoprophages. Rabbits re-swallow up to 80% of their poo to use their food more efficiently. There is some evidence that some rabbits even do it while they're asleep by curling up in a ball with their mouths pressed up against their bottoms so as not to miss any nocturnal treats. And before you say ‘That sounds like The Human Centipede’, you may be interested to know that centipedes don’t do that ... but millipedes do. Most species eat their own dung and some will become ill, or even die, if they don’t. That’s because eating their faeces replenishes valuable copper lost during the digestive process.
Eating dung is surprisingly common. Young elephants and hippos have all been observed eating their mothers’ faeces or the droppings of other animals in their herd. Pandas and koalas do it too. It’s a method of obtaining the gastric bacteria that the young animals will need to process the nutritional material in plants. They don’t carry the bacteria at birth as their guts are sterile. Our closest relatives, the great apes, often eat their own faeces and those of other individuals. It’s not known exactly why, but it may be because it provides additional vitamins and other nutrients from re-ingestion of semi-digested seeds.
Many animals make their homes in dung. Over 150 species of insect can live on a cow pat, beginning with horn flies and ending with beetles. Fungi grow on the dung, springtails and mites feed on the fungi, flies and beetles eat the dung directly and then other beetles arrive to feed on the whole ecosystem.
The crust that forms on the pat is extremely important to some species of insect as it holds in valuable moisture. Some insects are very picky, eschewing a dry pat, or vacating a watery one. But finding the pat that is ‘just right’ isn’t too difficult as one single cow could cover a third of an acre in a single season while a small herd could create more than three tons in the same time frame.
There are two main ways for an insect to find dung; through smell or by hanging around the animal and waiting. Some species of Australian dung beetle, for instance, cling to the fur by the anus, waiting for the marsupial to defecate. At this point they grab onto the pellet and drop to the ground with it.
Horn flies (Haematbia irritans) spend their whole adult lives living on the body of a cow (and feeding on its blood), only leaving it occasionally to deposit eggs on a steaming pat. And it must be steaming; horn flies are very picky and will only lay eggs on pats in the first two minutes after they are dropped. It’s even been known for them to lay eggs in the slurry before it hits the ground.
Dogs are the leaders of the planet. If you see two life forms and one of them is making a poop and the other one's carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?
You can tell where a cow pat has been for at least a year afterwards as the grass is much more lush.
Humans rarely indulge in coprophagy but one rare exception involves one of the most expensive coffees in the world – kopi luwak – which is made from beans that have first passed through the digestive system of the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus).
It’s said that the civet’s tummy acids improve the flavour of the beans, which are harvested from their poo. Whether true or not, people are willing to pay around £100 per pound for it.
There is a dung beetle in South America called Zonocopris gibbicolis that feeds on the faeces of large snails on whom it rides around.
Millipedes do more with poo than just eat it. After mating, the female eats some soil and then excretes it, sometimes shaping it into a nest with her anal folds or using it to coat each egg as it is laid.
In 1999, British painter Chris Ofili exhibited 'Holy Virgin Mary', a picture decorated with elephant dung, in Brooklyn.
Mayor Giuliani, tried to cancel the museum's funding on the grounds that 'Civilization has been about trying to find the right place to put excrement, not on the walls of museums'. This view overlooks the fact that elephant dung has a long history of use in art and worship in West Africa.
In Malaysia, tea is made from the droppings of stick insects fed on guava leaves.
The male burrowing owl has a tempting gift to bring to his mate while she is under-ground incubating the eggs: he brings her some dung.
A dung-fired power station has been operating at Holsworthy in Devon since 2002.
Crocodile dung was used as a contraceptive in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom.
'Poos' is Dutch for 'interval'.
In 2009, three different species of frogs were discovered living in the dung of the Asian elephant in southeastern Sri Lanka.
Suckling baby hedgehogs (hoglets) have neon-green faeces.
The male indian rhino marks his territory with dung piles up to a meter high.
Wombats have cubic faeces.
A scatomancer is someone who reads people’s fortune by looking at their poo.
Dogs align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field when they poo.
In the 18th century, wrapping poo in paper and throwing it over a neighbour’s wall was known as delivering a flying pasty.
In 1995, Mouse Works published a children’s book called Cooking With Pooh.