Animal poop is an underappreciated resource for studying shy animals, a new study argues. Published today, September 21, in PLOS One, the research by bat ecologists and geneticists at Northern Arizona University finds that guano can be used to identify different species when the bats themselves aren’t present.

“Bat guano is a relatively untapped reservoir of information,” they write. To mine it, the researchers developed the memorably named Species From Feces, a DNA mini-barcoding tool that can confirm the species of bats present in different environments or confirm the species of captured bats that are hard to identify by eye. It analyzes a certain mitochondrial gene present in bats all over the world, but not in their prey. That makes it ideal to target in a feces test, where there might be remnants of the bat’s dinner as well as its own genetic material.

This study validated the test by using it to correctly identify 54 different bat species from eight families. It was correct 92 percent of the time when identifying species from a larger research database containing the genetic information of about a third of the world’s known bats (1338 species).

The test works with both fresh guano or older pellets, and can identify both those bats that eat insects and those that feed on nectar, individually and in larger communities. The project has a searchable database where other researchers can confirm that the test works for the species they’re looking to study. Need your bat guano tested? See the lab's brochure of services [PDF].

This feces-based technique could be useful in studying bat diseases like the deadly White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of North American bats.

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