Tag Archives: poop

Florida lizard was so constipated its 80% of its body weight was poop — and pizza is to blame

We’ve all had bad tummy days, but nothing comes even close to this.

Image credits: Florida Museum / Edward Stanley.

“When we caught it, we just assumed the animal was ready to lay eggs,” said Natalie Claunch, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Florida School of Natural Resources and Environment. “But when we went to feel for eggs, it just felt like it was full of Silly Putty.”

Claunch is studying invasive lizard populations in Florida, and she was shocked to find the unusual curly-tailed lizard. Along with Edward Stanley, director of the Florida Museum’s Digital Discovery and Dissemination Laboratory, she CT-scanned the lizard and found a massive fecal mass lodged in its enlarged stomach. It was so large that the surrounding organs were starting to atrophy, and the poop made up for almost 80% of its body weight.

“I was blown away by how little room there was left for all the other organs ­– if you look at the 3D model, it has only a tiny space left over in its ribcage for the heart, lungs and liver,” Stanley said. “It must have been a very uncomfortable situation for the poor lizard.”

The record poop-to-body ratio was almost six times larger than the previous one, held by a Burmese python. The unfortunate lizard was unable to digest the nutrient-depleted bolus and was essentially starving because she couldn’t eat more.

The culprit? Pizza.

Curly-tailed lizards are native to the Bahamas and Cuba, and they were originally introduced to Florida in the 1940s to eat sugarcane pests. The female lizard was likely hunting insects and other prey when it was lured to a parking lot by pizza grease. Thinking it found an easy source of nutrients, the lizard started gulping the grease, ingesting a bit of sand with each bite of pizza grease. Then, it was unable to digest or expel the digestive bolus, which quickly built up inside of it.

Northern curly tails often successfully pass large amounts of feces, as is seen in this healthy lizard. Image credits: Natalie Claunch.

It’s very unlikely for an animal to suffer this type of problem in nature. Lizards typically only eat small insects and can’t gulp a lot of sand at one time, and if they do, they’re likely to become prey for their own predators. It was once again human activity that paved the way for this to happen.

“New populations are still being reported and discovered – these lizards can hitchhike in cars, plant delivery trucks or boats, so they end up in a lot of disconnected places,” Claunch said. “We have so many invasive lizards in Florida that funding and person-power is typically directed toward ‘high priority’ species that are a direct threat to native threatened or endangered species, or to infrastructure, but the curly-tailed lizards’ successful spread makes it an interesting case.”

The researchers published their findings as a note in the Herpetological Review.

Penguin and seal poop create biodiversity hotspots in Antarctica

The desolate landscapes of the Antarctic receive an unexpected boom from penguins and seals, whose feces fertilize large areas, providing nutrients that help an entire ecosystem.

Image via Max Pixel.

The cold lands of Antarctica are inhospitable, but not completely barren. A small group of plants and animals brave the cold and the ice and manage to form sustainable ecosystems. As in all ecosystems, plants are the ones that bring new energy into the mix — they absorb solar energy through photosynthesis and transform it into nutrients. But plants also need to draw some nutrients from the soil.

This is where poop comes in to save the day.

“What we see is that the poo produced by seals and penguins partly evaporates as ammonia,” says Stef Bokhorst, a researcher in the Department of Ecological Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “Then, the ammonia gets picked up by the wind and is blown inland, and this makes its way into the soil and provides the nitrogen that primary producers need in order to survive in this landscape.”

The process isn’t limited to the area of the colony. In fact, Bokhorst and colleagues found that the benefits of this poop spread to an area up to 240 times the size of the colony, enabling the development of thriving communities of moss and lichens, which in turn support impressive biodiversity consisting of invertebrates. The numbers of springtails and mites, for instance, far exceeds what is typically found in more temperate areas.

“You can find millions of them per square meter here, but in grasslands in the US or Europe, there are only about 50,000 to 100,000 per square meter,” says Bokhorst, adding that identifying these small species was so painstakingly laborious that he’d much rather prefer trekking through the cold temperatures of the Arctic. “It took months and months of sitting in the lab counting and IDing them under a microscope,” he says, adding that the system is still too unproductive to support mammals such as mice or rats.

Ultimately, this bio-cycle of nutrient enrichment is not surprising, but what was surprising was how far it spread, and the fact that it had nothing to do with how cold an area was. The good news is that since penguin and seal colonies can be monitored with relative ease, this information can then be used to infer the enrichment area, offering a secondary monitorization. The bad news, however, is that climate change and human activity are already taking a toll on this existing biodiversity.

The vibrant communities that researchers discovered flourish, in part, because they have no natural predators. But the introduction of invasive species might affect the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Limiting our impact on Antarctica is crucial for the conservation of these communities.

The study “Nitrogen inputs by marine vertebrates drive abundance and richness in Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems”  has been published in Current BiologyDOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.04.038.

How wombats make cubed poop

The adorable wombats have a unique ability which has puzzled biologists for quite a while now: they make cubical poop.

Out of all the superpowers in the world, that seems like the strangest one. It’s so strange, in fact, that Patricia Yang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, didn’t believe it at first.

“The first thing that drove me to this is that I have never seen anything this weird in biology. That was a mystery,” said Yang. “I didn’t even believe it was true at the beginning. I Googled it and saw a lot about cube-shaped wombat poop, but I was skeptical.”

Yang studies how fluids, including blood, processed food, and urine, move about inside the bodies of animals — so she was perfect for the task. She carried out an analysis of wombat digestive systems on individuals which had been euthanized following motor vehicle collisions in Tasmania, Australia.

The researchers found that near the end of the digestive system, the poop turned from liquid to solid, and that’s when it becomes a cube. The group believes that the elasticity of the wombats’ intestinal walls allow for this process to take place, and at quite a high pace — wombats typically produce 80-100 cubes per night.

Credits: P. Yang and D. Hu.

Wombats used their squared scat to stack pieces on top of each other, making them more visible as a territory marking. Because the sides are flat, they’re also less likely to roll away or be blown by the wind. However, this ability appears unique in the animal world. Although cubes and other squared surfaces are quite common in industrial and some geological processes, they’re almost inexistent in the biological world, which makes the topic much more attractive, both for researchers and the general public.

“We currently have only two methods to manufacture cubes: We mold it, or we cut it. Now we have this third method,” Yang said. “It would be a cool method to apply to the manufacturing process — how to make a cube with soft tissue instead of just molding it. We can learn from wombats and hopefully apply this novel method to our manufacturing process,” Yang said. “We can understand how to move this stuff in a very efficient way.”

Co-author Scott Carver says that public interest, as well as the unusual nature of the problem, drove this study.

“There is much general interest from the public, both in Australia and internationally, about how and why wombats create cube-shaped feces. Many ideas, some more entertaining than others, have been put forward to explain this, but until this study nobody had ever investigated the cause. This has been a fantastic collaboration which shows the value of interdisciplinary research for making new scientific discoveries.”

The study “How do wombats make cubed poo?” was presented at the Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics.

Pee, Poop, and Perspiration Will Be Useful in Traveling to Mars

People have effectively been able to acquire fuel and, consequently, energy from human urine. This capability has been known for a number of years. In late 2012, a small group of teenage girls from Nigeria made the news by presenting a generator that ran on urine at the Maker Faire Africa. In their generator, the pee is poured into an electrolytic cell where the hydrogen is isolated from other components in the liquid.

The hydrogen is then purified by passing through a filter. From there, it’s sent to a gas cylinder from which it is further pumped into a cylinder containing liquid borax. The borax aids in separating the hydrogen gas from any remaining moisture. The final step is for this gas to be sent to the generator. The girls’ machine was able to supply six hours’ worth of electricity by using a mere liter of liquid waste.

Of course, this was a rather simple apparatus primarily for display, but the important thing is it worked! Urine’s use for producing gas and/or syngas (synthesis gas) has the potential to be quite revolutionary.

Waste as a Water Source in Space

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Recycling everything possible in extraterrestrial day-to-day life and travel saves both space and money. For a while now, astronauts on the International Space Station have been recycling their own perspiration and pee. The purified output is clean water, which is drunk a second time over. This cycle can be repeated over and over.

You’ve heard of twice-baked potatoes? Well, twice-expelled waste is starting to catch up in its popularity. Human urine and condensate (including breath moisture, human sweat, shower runoff, and animal pee) are all distilled and reverted to clean drinking water. As of 2015, about 6,000 extra liters of water are recycled each year.

Waste Empowering Yeast

One of the molecules which makes up our urine is called urea. Furthermore, urea is composed of nitrogen and carbon. Both of these chemicals are needed to feed a yeast, Yarrowia lipolytica, which when genetically tweaked properly can take a variety of forms such as bioplastics and even fatty acids. One particular fatty acid necessary for human health and functionality is Omega-3. The brain requires this nutrient.

Thus, Yarrowia lipolytica is being tested to hopefully be able to produce Omega-3’s efficiently in the future. This would be a great aid to humanity in the occasion of a manned mission to Mars or elsewhere. In addition, future astronauts will use 3D printers onboard their spacecraft to generate tools and other needed objects made of plastic. Yet again, the yeast can be altered to produce a certain type of polyester which could be employed for this purpose.

Feces and Urine for Future Food

The sheer quantity of food needed to sustain a manned mission to Mars remains a big problem. However, a clever party of researchers from Pennsylvania State University believes to have found an efficiently ingenious answer. The concept was discussed in a paper published in late 2017. Their space-saving device, a bioreactor, uses the urine as well as the feces of astronauts to feed a non-harmful bacteria that, in turn, is capable of sustaining the human space travelers.

Within the bioreactor, the solid and liquid waste become condensed leaving salts and methane gas in its place. It’s the methane which is used to grow the microbial mush, an edible element with a texture similar to that of Vegemite, a thick Australian spread made up of leftover brewers’ yeast extract along with an assortment of additives.

As you have seen, our astronauts’ waste will not be wasted. Scientists will surely engineer more ways for bodily waste to be put to beneficial use.