POOP: Fun, Games, and Science

Archeologists have long dug thru the trash piles of human history to gain a better understanding of who we once were and how we lived. You can find out a lot about a people from what they throw away. Even today tabloid newspapers have been know to rifle through the trashcans of celebrities looking for headline making gossip. When it comes to studying animals, researchers are also often looking for something they’ve left behind, but it’s not a trash trail.

To put it bluntly, scientists have a thing for animal poop, scat, dung, fecal material. I once did a story with a grad student in Tanzania whom I dubbed the Doctor of Poopology, because it was his job to follow a group of wild chimpanzees around waiting for them to poop. He would then go in grab a sample, put it in a test tube, and later have it analyzed for cortisol levels, to evaluate the health of the chimps.

In the 125th anniversary edition of National Geographic Magazine, celebrating a new age of exploration, there is an article on animal scat, and the importance of studying it to gain scientific understanding of animal populations and health than cannot otherwise be easily learned. On my radio show National Geographic weekend we talk about the article and how some scientists have more poop stories than a teenaged boy.

But I also share the story of how I took a group of National Geographic Kids Magazine contest winners on a bush walk in South Africa and after showing them some of the things you can learn from animal scat, I then taught them a unique South African poop spitting game. Called Bokdrol Spoeg, it’s a competition to see how far you can spit a kudu or impala dung pellet. Here’s a video of that experience, a day I’m sure none of the kids will ever forget.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Boyd Matson, in his work for National Geographic, has been bitten, scratched, or pooped on, and occasionally kissed by most of the creatures found at your local zoo. What he refers to as his job, others might describe as a career spent attending summer camp for adults. Currently Matson is the host of the weekly radio show, “National Geographic Weekend.” Conducting interviews from the studio and from the field, Matson connects with some of the greatest explorers and adventurers on the planet to transport listeners to the far corners of the world and to the hidden corners of their own backyards. Matson also writes about his experiencs in his monthly column, “Boyd Matson Unbound” for National Geographic Traveler magazine, produces videos for National Geographic.com, and serves as a spokesperson for the National Geographic Society.