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Why Does Poop Stink?

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Reader Bonnie wrote in to ask why feces smells so bad.

Between fall 2002 and spring 2003, researchers led by Val Curtis from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) showed some 40,000 people from all over the world a series of photographs and asked them to rate how disgusting the image was, on a scale of one to five. 

In that set of 20 photos were seven pairs. The pictures in each pair were closely matched but one implied disease and the other didn’t. One pair, for example, showed the same plate of viscous liquid with two different color treatments. In one photo, the liquid was blue, like glass cleaner. In the other, it was yellowish with some darker spots, like mucus. Another pair showed the same person, but one photo had been manipulated to make him look wet, feverish, and spotty.

“More than 98 precent of people found the disease-relevant pictures equally, or more disgusting, than their pairs,” the researchers said, with the ick rating often doubling from one to the other.

Darwinian Disgust 

The easy answer to the question of poop’s smell is bacteria. The trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut (and the guts of other animals) produce a number of sulfurous compounds that pass out of the body along with the feces and give it its characteristic odor. This “which is grosser” study is part of a growing body of research that suggests an answer to a deeper question: Why do we think of that odor as particularly offensive?

Curtis’ work echoes a suggestion that goes back as far as Charles Darwin: that we think poop stinks for our own good. Our disgust towards certain sights and smells, Curtis says, is a “behavioral immune system”: an adaptation—biologically rooted, but tweaked by culture and social conditioning—that evolved to keep us from coming into contact with infection and disease. 

Curtis and other scientists have noted a number of things that almost universally elicit disgust among humans: bodily wastes and fluids, wounds, dead bodies, certain animals, spoiled food, and people with poor hygiene. As Philadelphia psychologists Paul Rozin and April Fallon summed it up, disgusting objects are those that “if they even briefly contact an acceptable food they tend to render that food unacceptable.”*

Poop, specifically, is gross all over the world. When Curtis and a colleague went looking for what disgusted people in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Burkina Faso, India and at the Athens International Airport, feces topped every list. Even some non-human animals try to avoid the stuff. Cattle, horses, sheep, cats, dogs, and some apes and monkeys have all been known to reject food and/or sleeping sites that had been contaminated with feces. 

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Disgust with poop isn’t monolithic, though. Some animals will consume feces (either their own, or someone else’s) to squeeze some more nutrients out of a meal or get a dose of beneficial gut bacteria. 

Among humans, disgust is partly shaped by local culture, environment, and personal experience. Bugs, for example, are usually deemed disgusting in the Western world, but in many other countries they're edible delicacies. Aversion to poo can also be lessened or overcome to accomplish other goals, like caring for family. When American and Australian researchers, for example, presented mothers with a series of dirty diapers, the moms consistently rated the smell of diapers that came from strangers’ babies as more disgusting than their own babies’, even when the sources of the diapers were incorrectly labeled or not identified.

*The human reaction to disgusting things is also almost identical and recognizable around the world. The face twists into a specific expression marked, pioneering facial expression researcher Paul Ekman notes, by a wrinkled nose, raised upper lip and cheeks and protruding lower lip.

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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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technology
Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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iStock

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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