Thursday, September 8, 2016

At Last! A Poop Museum!

Ok, we've examined my borderline-deranged fascination with poop before ( see "How About a Fecal Transplant?," "Fabulous, Synthetic Poop" and "Cleaning Up Poop In Paradise"), so you'll understand why I was so thrilled recently when I learned that somebody has at last created a fitting tribute to this stupendous substance in the form of a museum.  Yes, a museum dedicated to excrement!

It's on the Isle of Wright, U.K., where apparently people are as enlightened (or deranged) about poop as I am.  I learned about the museum recently while scanning one of my routine online news sources, BBC.Com. This story was in their Earth section, a collection of brilliantly-written science articles, many of which are not only informative but also very, very funny. The author of this one is Katie Silver, whose enthusiasm for the topic is quite clearly conveyed in her entertaining and informative writing style -- I highly recommend  that you read the entire article, "Five Surprising Uses of Poo."  [Note -- "Poo" is the British translation of "poop."  The two terms will be used interchangeably henceforth.]

Zoo Poo
The museum is in the local zoo, where the curators have displayed 20 samples of animal droppings from crows to lions. Only one is from a human -- a sample of baby's poop -- but I could offer some real eye-catchers if the museum wants to expand their collection.  The National Poo Museum, as it is ambitiously called, even has its own website,, which provides a number of interesting details about the zoo and even includes an animated rendition of its catchy theme song, "They've Got An Awful Lot Of Poo At The Zoo."  Take a listen -- it's very cute.

How, you might ask, does the museum actually display specimens that are so...ah, delicate and aromatic?
Encapsulated Pigeon Poop
The answer is their invention of a clever process of drying and encapsulating them in plastic resin:
"...the [drying] machine [is] a long pipe with ‘poo hammocks’ that go into a poo dryer. Depending on the size of the faeces it will stay in the dryer for anything from a day to a couple of weeks. It’s then covered in resin and encapsulated, with vacuum chambers used to remove the air bubbles. The end result looks a little like a crystal ball. Except it has a poo in the centre." (Silver, 2016)
Somehow I find the mental picture of "poo hammocks" quite amusing.

Anyway, there is a great deal of serious information that can be gleaned from poop. My wife and I are very familiar with this from spending many hours on African safaris and nature walks in other parts of the world, during which our guides/trackers gave us many poop lessons. For example we now know the difference between male versus female giraffe droppings (females are tapered), between white rhino and black rhino poop (the nature of the cuts on undigested twigs), what a hyena had for dinner (smell and nature of bone fragments), and why wombat do-dos are cubes (the wombat pats them into that shape so rivals can't roll them off the trail). A good tracker can tell the approximate age and health of the animal, how long ago the nugget was deposited, how fast the animal was traveling, and even where it might be headed next, based on various telltale signs. A poop-pile is an open book, so to speak.

Of course, from past blogs we know that it's not just what you see in poop that counts, but sometimes what you can't see -- i.e., the trillions of microbes that live in our gut and ultimately reside in our poop as well. The microbial signature of different species can provide useful information as to what kind of animal made a deposit even when other indicators are long lost.  For example, Katie Silver documents how microbial poop signatures have recently provided evidence of the exact route Hannibal's army took when crossing the Alps 2000 years ago, which up until now had been mainly conjecture.  Hannibal took with him some 15,000 horses, which are prodigious poopers.  Archeologists located one spot along the most likely route where that many animals might have been kept during the crossing. When then dug down to the 2000-year level they found a high concentration of both organic material and Clostridia bacteria, a microbe common to horse droppings. The magnitude of the deposit and its microbial signature provide solid evidence that this was the actual route.

Fossilized Dino Dropping
A preserved bit of horse droppings from Hannibal's campaign would make a great exhibit in the Poo Museum, but as far as I can tell there isn't one. Nor does the Museum have an example of the ultimate in preserved poop -- a coprolite, or fossilized dinosaur dropping. These dino nuggets can be up to two feet long and are highly prized by paleontologists for the information they provide about diet, feeding behavior, and even health of animals that are now extinct. A recent Smithsonian Magazine article reports on an even rarer find -- a 150 million-year-old pterosaur fossil that seems to show the contents of its digestive tract still inside. What an exhibit that would make!

Despite the shortcomings of not having specimens from Hannibal's Crossing or from any dinosaurs, the National Poo Museum is quite active in promoting beneficial educational programs. For example, the museum's website lists this year's events as:
  • Continuous Program, Summer, 2016:  "Poo At The Zoo" featuring the resin-sphere exhibits.
  • May 30-June 15, 2016:  "Love Your Poo Week," focusing on waste treatment and disposal.
  • July 6, 2016:  My personal favorite, "Brighton Turd Nerd Night" featuring expert speakers on topics such as "Tackling dog shit in postwar Paris" and "Dirty dogs, worms and the politics of shit in 1970s Britain." 
The last one sounds particularly interesting.  However, the connection between poop and politics seems a bit obvious, and not just in 1970's Britain......