The plains and savannahs that make up the landscape of your African safari are filled with animals – and therefore, with animal dung. From impala droppings to grass-filled elephant excrement, you'll see evidence of the animals that have passed through before you everywhere you go. Learning to interpret animal dung (or scat, as it's more properly called) is an important skill for bush guides and trackers, and an interesting pastime for visitors. Dung reveals many secrets about the animal it comes from - including the species of the donor, how long ago it was in the area and what its last meal consisted of.
In this article, we reveal a few fun facts about animal dung that you might not guess just from looking at it.
Hippos spend most of their lives submerged in Africa's lakes and rivers. After dark, however, they emerge from their aquatic homes to graze on the adjacent bank - sometimes consuming as much as 110 lbs/50 kgs of grass in a single night. Of course, all this roughage has to go somewhere, and the hippo's preferred toilet is the water in which it lives. To make sure that the dung is properly distributed around its habitat, hippos use their tail as a propeller in a behavior known as "dung-showering". By flicking the tail from side to side whilst using the bathroom, the hippo's dung is liberally splattered in all directions. This may seem like a particularly messy way to relieve oneself, but in reality, the nutrients introduced into the water via hippo poo form the basis of a rich ecosystem on which plants, fish and many other creatures depend.
Hyenas are the archetypal African scavenger – although some species, like the spotted hyena, actually catch and kill the majority of their prey. Others, like the striped hyena, rely on the leftovers of other predators' meals for their food. After the big cats have finished with their kill, the hyenas arrive to clear up what's left - which often, is only bones. As a result, hyenas are equipped with exceptionally strong teeth, capable of crushing bones into fragments that are easier to digest. Bones contain a high level of calcium, which is eventually excreted from the hyena's body in its poop. As a result, hyena scat is white - making it highly visible against the burnt orange backdrop of the savannah. In 2013, fossilized hyena poo was discovered containing human hairs estimated to be at least 200,000 years old.
Despite their fearsome reputation, Nile crocodiles make pretty dedicated mothers. After burying their eggs in the sand, crocodile moms guard their nests for three months before carefully uncovering the eggs when the little ones are ready to hatch. It is ironic, then, that crocodile poop is best known for its use in one of the world's very first contraceptives. According to papyrus scrolls dated to 1850 BC, women in Ancient Egypt used pessaries made from crocodile poo, honey and sodium carbonate to block and kill sperm. Surprisingly, there is some scientific basis to this strange behavior, because crocodile dung is so alkaline that it would probably have worked in a similar way to modern-day spermicides. We don't recommend trying it at home, though.
African elephants are the planet's largest terrestrial animals, and they eat accordingly. Every day, a single elephant can consume up to 990 lbs/450 kgs of vegetation. However, only 40% is fully digested, resulting in a considerable amount of large, fiber-filled droppings. These droppings can be used for many different things, including the manufacture of eco-friendly elephant dung paper and the production of bio-gas. It is rumored that elephant poo has plenty of uses from a survival perspective, too. It can be burned as a substitute for mosquito repellent (especially handy in malaria areas); while fresh dung can be squeezed to yield drinkable moisture (for those that find themselves particularly desperate for water). Apparently, Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili used elephant dung in all his paintings.
For African penguins, poop has become a matter of life or death. Historically, the birds made their burrows in thick layers of their own guano, which kept their eggs cool in summer, warm in winter and was naturally self-draining. However, commercial removal of the guano deposits for use as fertilizer in the 19th and 20th centuries left the penguins without any of their natural burrowing material. Instead, they were forced to dig shallow sand burrows or simply lay their eggs out in the open, leaving them vulnerable to predators and the elements. This is one of the reasons why African penguin populations have declined by 95% since pre-industrial times. The penguins are now endangered and charities like the Dyer Island Conservation Trust are building artificial nest boxes for them to try and save them from extinction in the wild.
Of course, no article on African animal dung would be complete without mentioning the continent's connoisseur of all things poopy – the dung beetle. There are many different species of dung beetle worldwide, but perhaps the most interesting in Africa is Scarabaeus satyrus. This little guy is often seen crossing the roads in safari parks, determinedly pushing a ball of dung many times larger than itself. This is precious cargo and will eventually be buried in the beetle's underground nest. Here, it serves as a cocoon for the beetle's eggs and later as a food source for emerging pupae. Scarabaeus satyrus is particularly special amongst dung beetles, as scientists have proven that it is capable of using the glow from the Milky Way to navigate during nighttime poo-collecting operations.