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Studying the unmentionable

A traveling exhibit lets the curious indulge in the taboo subject of poop, getting a lot of science along the way

By | April 13, 2007

The din of youthful voices fills the small exhibition hall at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. A crowd of tiny visitors flits between towering displays, and one rarely-uttered word is on the lips of this excited and potty-mouthed group: Poop.
That forbidden yet enticing word rings through the room and draws these youngsters to The Scoop on Poop! exhibit like flies to...well, you know. "Poop" has even supplanted that old photographic stand-by, "Cheeez," as kids pose for snapshots atop plastic piles of phony elephant dung. "Pooooop," they smile. The Scoop on Poop! is a traveling exhibit based on the book of the same title by photographer and science writer Wayne Lynch. The largest-ever exhibit about poop explores a substance that's intimately familiar to just about every animal on Earth by presenting some of the countless ways in which both animals and scientists use poop to their advantage.
Beyond the exuberant silliness that the topic of poop engenders in young visitors, the exhibit packs some serious science. Chad Peeling, operations manager for Peeling Productions at Reptiland, a zoo in central Pennsylvania and one of the designers of The Scoop, says that the subject is not just for kids. "It was originally conceived of as an exhibit for children, but it didn't end up that way," he said. "The more we dug into it, the more we realized it is an adult subject." One of the first things I do upon entering the exhibit is step on a scale with the hind quarters of an elephant painted across its face, entitled "Worth your weight in... ." The scale proceeds to tell me that it would take an 11,000 pound African elephant 11.5 hours to poop my weight. Didn't know that. Apparently, African elephants are some of the Animal kingdom's most prolific defecators. A typical elephant dropping weighs as much as five pounds, and a healthy pachyderm can deposit more than 100 of these hefty pellets per day. The rest of the exhibit is filled with information on creatures that eat poop (rabbits and hares eat their own as a way to maximize digestive efficiency), build their homes with poop (termites use theirs as glue to construct their towering mounds), leave poop as a way of marking their territory (rhinoceroses stomp in their own dung and parade around their territory), and even use poop as nurseries (the exhibit's unofficial spokes-insect, the dung beetle, starts life as a larva encased in feces).
Ten-year-old Lauren Griffith says she was intrigued by a blurb in the exhibit explaining how supposed mummy-conjured curses could have their roots in poop. It turns out that early 20th century tomb explorers -- like Egyptologist Lord Carnarvon, who died mysteriously after opening the tomb of Tutankhamun -- may owe their mysterious deaths to histoplasmosis, a flu-like disease contracted from inhaling a fungus that grows in bat guano. "That's pretty gross, but somewhat interesting," Griffith says. There were also displays describing "Dung Detectives," researchers who could determine the health, diet, behavior, and ecology of animals simply by examining their poo. One of these "detectives" is Karen Chin, a paleontologist at the University of Colorado, who uses dinosaur coprolites, or fossilized fecal pellets, to reconstruct the ancient ecosystems in which those lumbering giants lived. She's peered into a Tyrannosaur coprolite to find identifiable muscle tissue from its prey, found coniferous plant tissue and ancient dung beetle burrows in duck-billed Myosaur coprolites, and is currently piecing together ancient marine food webs by studying the coprolites of extinct marine reptiles. "There's so much information in feces," says Chin. "We keep finding more [coprolites] that provide different perspectives on the ancient world." Understandably, the star attractions of The Scoop are the exhibit's interactive displays. Children jockey for turns at games like "Dung Beetle Races," where two pilots steer models of the scat-scooting insects up a curved track to the finish line. Others stand in line to play "Who dung it," a quiz game where the object is to match creatures with their characteristic droppings. (I earned a respectable 5/6 -- Porcupine?!? Who knew?!?).
At the "Diagnostic Doo" display, visitors can examine actual microscope slides of fecal samples infected with parasites like hookworms, tapeworms, and roundworms. "There's science in everything," says Peeling. "There just happens to be more of it in feces than you would imagine." The Scoop on Poop! is on display through May 13, after which it heads to the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa for the summer. Bob Grant mail@the-scientist.com Images: The Scoop on Poop! at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, all taken by Bob Grant. Links within this article: Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences http://www.ansp.org/ The Scoop on Poop! http://www.ansp.org/museum/changing/scoop_on_poop/index.php Wayne Lynch http://www.waynelynch.ca/ Lord Carnarvon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Herbert,_5th_Earl_of_Carnarvon J. Yajnik, "When biodiversity makes you sick," The Scientist, December 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/36659/ Karen Chin http://www.colorado.edu/GeolSci/faculty/chin.html "The scoop on dino dining," The Scientist, July 6, 1998. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/18121/#note4 Blank Park Zoo http://www.blankparkzoo.us/scoop/page1.html

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