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10 Animals Whose Poop Comes With Perks

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Every animal excretes its waste; if it didn't, it would die. But sometimes that poop does double—wait for it—duty. Read on to discover the second careers of wombat waste, stork scat, and more. 

1. and 2. Marabou Stork and Vulture Poop // Climate Control and Decontamination

Birds can’t sweat, but black vultures, turkey vultures, and marabou storks might just have the next best thing to keep them cool: They poop on their own legs. (As anybody with a clean car can tell you, bird “poop” is actually a runny mixture of urine and feces.) Ornithologists are split on why they do this. For marabou storks, it’s believed that this practice, known as urohydrosis, makes use of evaporation to lower the birds’ body temperature. But vultures might be using it to decontaminate their legs from the bacteria they pick up after a long day standing in rotting meat.

Black vultures are also tactical pukers, using their vomit defensively “with wonderful quickness and power,” according to legendary bird man John James Audubon. It’s easy to see why that might work.

3. Baleen Whale Poop // Fertilizing Ocean Algae

Baleen whales eat krill. Krill eat algae. And algae … well, algae don’t eat anything. They're more like plants. Even so, they've got needs—sunlight and iron, both of which are found on the ocean’s surface. You can guess how the sunlight gets there, but the iron? Most of the time it comes from continents, but Antarctica is covered in ice, so no iron is entering the Southern Ocean from there. It was a mystery—until scientists analyzed tissue and fecal samples from four species of whale and seven species of krill. In the words of Australian Antarctic Division scientist Dr. Steve Nicol: “There’s huge amounts of iron in whale poo.”

Seen in reverse, the cycle seems simple. When krill eat algae, they concentrate all that algae’s iron. When the whales eat the krill, the iron gets concentrated even further. Then those whales do their business, releasing all that iron back into the water and fertilizing the ocean for generations of algae, krill, and pooping whales to come. 

4. Wombat Poop // Making Fences

Common wombats are solitary animals that, oddly, live in very close proximity. Their eyesight isn’t very good, but their sense of smell is terrific, which is why they mark the edges of their territory with 80 to 100 of these each night:

That’s right: wombats have cube-shaped poop. This is incredibly handy, since wombats like to poo at nose-level, which often means squatting atop a log, a rock, or even a large mushroom. Cylindrical feces would roll right off, but those little cubic turds stay put.

5. Pacu Poop // Planting Trees

It’s well known that certain plants need help from furry and feathered members of the animal kingdom. Because animals can walk, fly, and climb, they can carry a plant’s seeds much farther than the plant could ever take them. But let’s not overlook one of nature’s most efficient seed-spreaders: fish. Fish poop, to be specific.

A fish called the pacu gets its chance to contribute once a year, when massive flooding overtakes the wetlands of its native Brazil. The pacu might look like a piranha’s stunt double (and they are related), but it’s more of a softie, preferring the taste of ripe fruit that drops from tucum palm trees into the water. Belly full of pulp and seeds, the pacu swims for miles, through flooded forests and over watery plains. Along the way, naturally, it poops, leaving deposits of seeds in brand-new territory. The waters recede, the seeds germinate, and the pacu swims on, an unwitting hero. 

6. and 7. Rabbit and Capybara Poop // Recycling

If you’ve ever had a pet rabbit, you know where this is going. Rabbits (and capybaras, for that matter) produce two kinds of poop: hard, dry pellets; and soft cecotropes—poop for eating.

These animals are hindgut fermenters, which means that a lot of the good bacterial stuff happens in the cecum, right next to the colon, where it can’t be absorbed. Making sure none of the bacteria's good work goes to waste, a rabbit or capybara will eat its own cecotropes. Rabbits excrete theirs in what look like clusters of shiny little mucus-covered grapes. Capybaras go straight to the source, in a maneuver that calls to mind a teenager sticking his head under a Slurpee machine. (Sorry.) The nutrients are better absorbed the second time around, and everybody wins, aside from the researchers whose job is to watch this stuff for days on end.

8. Parrotfish Poop // Making Beaches

If you’ve ever enjoyed a stroll along Hawaii’s beautiful white-sand beaches, you can probably thank a parrotfish. Nearly every grain of sand on those beaches, according to biologist Ling Ong, “is of biological origin.” Translation? It’s poop.

The parrotfish, known as uhu in Hawaiian, uses its photogenic face to scrape delicious algae off coral. That beak is not terribly precise, which means these fish swallow quite a lot of coral. Bites of coral travel through the grinding jaws at the back of the fish’s throat, getting even smaller, and then—since the parrotfish has no stomach—shoot right back out into the ocean, now tiny grains of sand.

Urchins, sponges, oysters, and other sea critters all contribute, too, but none is quite so prolific as the parrotfish, which can produce up to 800 pounds of destination-wedding-worthy sand a year.

9. and 10. Bat and Tree Shrew Poop // Gardening

Of all the wily carnivorous plants out there, pitcher plants in the Nepenthes genus have got to be the craftiest. Most pitcher plants are a trap, offering passing insects a lick of nectar if only they’ll come closer. The bugs land, fall down the pitchers’ slippery sides, and end in a stew of juices that will digest them slowly. But not the Nepenthes. No. At least four species in the Nepenthes genus have evolved into full-service toilets. Woolly bats and tree shrews can safely land on the pitchers’ sturdy lips and lean over to enjoy a nectar meal. Once the animal is in this position, the perfectly shrew-or-bat-butt-sized mouth of the pitcher makes a perfect toilet. The bats and shrews partake, leave their deposits, and take off. The poop they’ve left in the pitchers provides the plants with as much nutrition as an insect feast. In fact, researchers estimate that the pitcher species get between 34 and 100 percent of their nitrogen from bat and shrew poop.

So. What has your poop done for you lately? 

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Animals
Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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