Feces are a surprisingly useful subject for research. Scientists can use them to get a window into an animal’s inner life. You might think poop is just mushed-up food, but no, there’s a lot of information in there. A sample of poop can tell you about an animal’s gut bacteria, or diet, or about what’s going on with their hormones.
Yesterday for ScienceNOW I wrote about scientists who used poop to study right whales’ hormones. They were originally interested in reproduction–the right whales that live off the East Coast of North America are reproducing very slowly, and it’s not totally clear why. They used the poop to develop a right whale pregnancy test, and they can also tell if a female is lactating or a male has reached sexually maturity.
For this study, they used measurements of stress hormone metabolites to look at the whales’ stress levels. Stress is a big deal for animals, including humans–it can compromise your immune system and mess with reproduction. In this case, they were looking at how the whales respond to ship noise.
Fun fact that didn’t make it into the story: The scientist says the smell of right whale poop is “uniquely foul.”
Fun fact that did make it into the story: they found the poop with poop-sniffing dogs. No kidding. Read all about the whales, the poop, the dogs, and what all of this has to do with 9/11.
Photo: New England Aquarium