The Tao of Poo

By   March 26, 2015


Tortoise poo has much to teach us, Grasshopper, if only we will pay close attention. Let us delve into the mysteries of this reptilian nether realm.

Is there a tortoise here? If we find the unmistakable old stogie shapes seen in the photo we know that tortoises are in the area. Tortoise scat is an important sign, especially in areas lacking burrows. Numbers of scat can be compared between areas to help generate estimates of relative tortoise densities.

How long ago was it here? The photo shows a time series with a fresh, dark pellet on the left and an old, nearly decomposed turd on the right. They emerge from the animal moist and bearing a glossy coating. Over time this layer flakes off and the scat dries and starts to fade. In its bleached old age it flakes apart and returns to enrich the soil.

What was on the menu? If it’s coarse perennial grass the thick fibers, as seen here, will align on the long axis of the scat. Annual wildflowers result in much finer grain. Botanists can take them apart and generate a species list based on undigested plant parts. Sometimes the scat will be partially or completely composed of soil. Tortoises love to orally mine mineral rich deposits, especially for calcium. This gives new meaning to the term “roughage”. And sometimes we see bits of bright plastic in there – an indication of the dangers of mistaking petrochemical products for natural food.

Is this a favored burrow? Often when we look down a burrow we see many scat in the tunnel. This tells us that this is a frequently used shelter.

How big is this tortoise? Naturally, turds scale. Finding an itty-bitty tortoise scat, a perfect miniature of the adult version, is exciting because it means there is likely an itty-bitty tortoise somewhere nearby. Many a successful hunt of a juvenile tortoise has started with the discovery of these products of digestion.

What direction was it going? I kid you not, turds are arrows telling you where the critter was headed when nature called. (Note: I could have used a fitting scatalogical verb instead of “kid” but I spared you, Dear Reader. You’re welcome.) Look again at the photo- each one has a blunt end and a pointy one. The sharp bit was last out and points the way. I have caught tortoises by paying heed to this detail when finding a “freshie”.

And a personal note: I love tortoise turds. They tell me my favorite animal is in the area and some of what its life is like. But there is something else: they smell great! One of my rituals is to crack open the first fresh scat of the season and take a deep whiff of its wonderfully sweet, hay-like scent. Despite our visual bias we humans are creatures of scent emotionally. All the wonderful times I’ve had in the desert come flooding over me as I inhale essence of tortuga. Ahhhhhh…


One Comment on “The Tao of Poo

  1. B. Simon Blake

    Thanks for giving us the straight… umm… story, Tim Shields.
    An epic scat-song indeed!

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