Dung beetles play a remarkable role in agriculture. By burying and consuming dung, they improve nutrient cycling and soil structure. They also protect livestock, such as cattle, by removing the dung which, if left, could provide habitat for pests such as flies.
A Scoop Full
A new traveling exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History teaches children to see science everywhere, even in what they flush away.
Poop: It's a four-letter word that describes a perfectly normal biological function that most people don’t discuss in polite conversation.
Now it's getting the full science project treatment in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s current traveling exhibit, The Scoop on Poop: The Science of What Animals Leave Behind, on view in the R.P. Simmons Family Gallery through May 4, 2008.
Based on the book of the same title by science writer Wayne Lynch and created by Peeling Productions, the exhibit-creating arm of Reptiland, a reptile and amphibian zoo near Williamsport, Pa., The Scoop on Poop digs into some deep doo-doo to discover what exactly “it” is and how animals—and humans—use it to their benefit.
“It’s an investigation into the science of what we leave behind,” says Chad Peeling, exhibit co-creator and Reptiland operations manager. “One of the most common responses we hear is that people—especially adults—are surprised that there’s so much to know about the subject. For kids, it’s a lot of giggly fun while they’re learning.”
For the most part, the learning is hands-on, which isn’t nearly as icky as it sounds. A mix of video displays and interactive installations, The Scoop on Poop gives kids the opportunity to discover how long it takes an African elephant—the world’s most prodigious pooper—to deposit a mound equal to their weight. They can play “Animal CSI” and decipher how the “scat” an animal leaves behind can reveal its identity and much more. Or, kids can listen to an animal’s digestive system, learn the language of poop in countries around the world, and peer through a veterinarian’s microscope at a “sample” slide to discover what’s ailing someone’s favorite pet.
“Usually when we talk about animals and what they eat, we generally talk about the front end of the process,” says Suzanne McLaren, the museum’s collections manager for the Section of Mammals. “But we usually don’t follow the process to the end. This fits in well with things we talk about more often, and it offers valuables lessons.”
Of course, the museum is helping visitors digest it all with a series of educational programs aimed at everyone from preschoolers and homeschoolers to teachers and families. The offerings include chances for kids to play “Name That Scat” and “Where Does It Go,” a journey through the modern plumbing system, from the time you flush a toilet until the payload hits the local sanitation system. While The Scoop on Poop’s appeal is widespread, one display is an especially natural fit with the museum’s widely acclaimed Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit.
A picture of a giant, 80-million-year-old piece of dinosaur dung serves as a reminder that Tyrannosaurus rex and his pre-historic pals left more behind than teeth and bones.
Accompanying the exhibit is a video that features a paleontologist who specializes in finding fossilized feces. By studying bone shards in a dried “T.rex pie,” she determines the force of the bite it took to crack another beast’s skeleton. In other fossils, the scientist found undigested muscle tissue, plants, seeds, leaves, and other remains. Just by looking at the king of the dinosaurs’ waste, she can paint a fairly accurate picture of the creature’s eco-system.
In addition to the science of waste, The Scoop on Poop proves that the educational can be fun. Nothing illustrates this better than the “Dung Beetle Derby,” where kids control two mechanical beetles that push dung balls up a small hill. The idea is to get to the top before your competitor. Sure, kids like the race. But the reality is actually a life-and-death matter.
“Of course the exhibit is silly,” says Peeling. “But the broader message is that to real beetles, a dung ball is a prized find. They compete and fight for them. They need to quickly bury them so that they can lay eggs in them and feed their babies.
“The point is that waste to one creature is a treasure to another.”
Animals leave more than just poop behind! Visit our family activity this spring to create a picture using a variety of animal footprints and learn where these footprints can be found in nature. Third Floor Balcony, free with admission.
March and April
Saturdays, noon–4 p.m.
Sundays, 2–4 p.m.
Check Today Sheets (onsite) for location. Play a match the scat game with our Teen Docents. Select Saturdays, noon–4 p.m.
Check Today Sheets (onsite) for hours. From an owl pellet to a hairball formed in the stomach of an ox, find other fascinating animal “waste” in the Discovery Room.