Good public sanitation is a mark of advanced civilizations. Humans have dealt with the “bathroom problem” mainly by burying, flushing, or otherwise sequestering our waste products in some far off, out-of-sight, out-of-mind location. In this way, we’re similar to mole rats that build specialized “latrine chambers” in their underground habitats. A new paper in Animal Behavior examines alternative ways to handle the sanitation issue, developed by some of the world’s most sophisticated societies: eusocial insects like ants, bees, and wasps. One strategy involves something known as the “blind gut.”
Colonies of eusocial insects can contain millions of individuals. Because dropping feces at will would cause a serious toxic hazard, many species have developed a way of holding it in for a really long time. The youngsters, or larva, of the order hymenoptera, have a “blind gut,” meaning one that does not connect the mouth with the anus. Essentially, this means their waste products are trapped inside their bodies for weeks to months, or the entire duration of the larval stage. Only when they pupate (when the larva changes into the adult form), does their waste get expelled in one big, stinky pellet known as the meconium. In the honeybee, the meconium is expelled during its first flight out of the nest. (Imagine human teenagers holding it all in until right before they leave home for college…) After the meconium is quickly disposed of, the adult insects develop a normal continuous gut.
You might think these scientists were potty training this whale shark based on their level of excitement when the giant fish (the world’s largest) finally had a bowel movement. The scientists, like some proud parents, even captured the moment on film. Researcher Mark Meekan described the rare poop, which he collected and stored in tiny vials, as “scientific gold” for the clues it would contain about the shark’s diet.
The researchers are studying the whale shark (Rhinsodon typus), a gentle cousin of the great white shark, to learn about the species’ mysterious feeding habits and migration patterns. DNA analysis of the poop confirmed that whale sharks, which can grow up to 12 meters long, sustain themselves on tiny red crab larvae. This also explains why they travel to Christmas Island, just south of Indonesia, where millions of red crabs spawn each year.
Considering the rate at which we’re going through traditional antibiotics, one day doctors may have to turn to muskrat poop to treat infections. That’s right, the feces of muskrats, a common squirrel-sized swamp-dwelling rodent, contains a chemical that kills Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus (that causes staph infections), and other bacteria, according to South Korean researchers. The research team has filed a patent for a method of preparing the antibiotic, which involves using organic solvents to extract the chemical from dried muskrat excrement.
But, as they say in infomercials, that’s not all! The researchers claim that the same chemical also kills plant pathogens and termites. They envision a whole line of muskrat poop products, including antibiotics, fertilizers, and pesticides. Muskrat poop would be a fitting addition to next-generation antibiotics that already include alligator blood and frog skin.