Scat Scout

DHEC stream team with Wingate University interns at Thompson Creek

Identifying wildlife in your area can be done in many ways, including monitoring game cameras, searching for tracks, and simply observing the animal in the wild. All of these options are a great way to gather information on the wild animals who are part of your community, but have you ever considered other signs? For example, deer often leave behind rubs, scrapes and antlers. While these signs may be less obvious, they tell us a lot of information such as locations that deer favor for feeding and mating. Another way one can identify wildlife in the area is well, a little crappy… Scat!

The first image of small round droppings indicates there might be White-tailed Deer in the area.

The first image of small round droppings indicates there might be White-tailed Deer in the area.

Scat is a fancy word for animal fecal droppings, or poop. Now, this may seem like an unusual thing to pay attention to, but animal droppings are unique in shape, size, and contents. Therefore, animals can often be identified based on the scat they leave behind. The idea of studying scat to identify animals and what they are consuming is not as taboo as it may sound, and there is a profession dedicated to it. Scatology is the scientific study of excrement, and a scatologist is one who studies excrement for taxonomic purposes or for the determination of diet. So why would someone want to play around with scat for a living? Well, scat holds a lot of valuable information about a species including information about diet, DNA, and overall health of the animal. Some things that can be determined from scat samples include hormone types, reproduction status, presence of toxins and overall health of the environment they inhabit. A good example of using scat to make predictions about the environment is a study done on River Otters in Seattle, Washington. River Otters feed on shellfish within their watershed, and measuring the pollutants within the shellfish they have consumed can determine how healthy the watershed is. Additionally, studying the scat of an animal is less invasive and stressful than capturing the individual for study.

Compare coyote scat (left) and bobcat scat right).

Compare coyote scat (left) and bobcat scat right)

The most common scat types found here at Southern 8ths are White-tailed Deer, Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, Wild Hog, Bobcat, and Coyote. Deer droppings are small round droppings often deposited in piles throughout woodlands and open fields. Similarly, Rabbit scat is also small and round. However, Rabbit scat is approximately 0.6 – 1 centimeter depending on species, much smaller in comparison to Deer scat which can be 1.2- 1.6 centimeters. Hog scat is often found near areas where Wild Hogs have rooted in the soil, which is a tell-tale sign, but it can also be set apart by its irregular shape and large size – about 3-9 inches long and 2 inches thick. Bobcat and Coyote scat are interesting in that they do not have the typical appearance of scat. Both species often produce scat filled with hair and bones which are apparent without dissection. Coyote scat is about 3-6 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. It is often less compacted than Bobcat droppings and is usually tapered at the ends forming a point. In contrast, Bobcat scat is slightly smaller and usually measures between 3-4 inches and is 3/4 inch in diameter. Bobcat scat also has blunt ends – think tootsie rolls! – lacking the points that are associated with coyote scat. Many mammal species are notorious for marking their territory with scat in prominent locations – we often find Coyote scat in the middle of trails, and River Otter “latrines” along streams and pond shorelines.

Flies are expected, but butterflies also get nutrition and moisture from fresh scat, such as this Eastern yellow swallowtail on otter scat.

Flies are expected, but butterflies also get nutrition and moisture from fresh scat, such as this Eastern yellow swallowtail on otter scat.

No matter where you live or what animals are around you, scat will always be a part of the ecosystem and is worth taking a second look at. Scouting scat may help you determine valuable information about your habitat – is there enough food? What seeds are being carried? What small rodents live there? What other mammals live there? Are the animals that live there healthy? You may never know what animals call your land home until you search for the signs of their presence.

Author: Brianna Bergamini