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Scoop on Poop Dished Out by New Exhibition

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 10, 2006
 
A traveling museum exhibition currently on display in Miami, Florida, is all about poop.

Really.

"The subject is vast and fascinating," said Chad Peeling, the operations manager at Clyde Peeling's Reptiland in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.

Staff at the specialty zoo created the exhibit, called "The Scoop on Poop," to help children and adults alike explore the world of scat—what it is and how animals and humans use it.

The show runs at the Miami Metrozoo through January 10, 2007, before moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The 5,000-square-foot (465-square-meter) exhibition was inspired by Canadian science writer Wayne Lynch's book of the same name, Peeling says. Lynch's ideas, though, have been expanded for a broader audience.

"This is definitely not an exhibit about shock value or being gross or potty talk or any of that stuff," he added.

"The poop part is just a hook. It's not even a word I use in my everyday life."

Everybody Poops

The exhibition's 15 interactive stations allow visitors to learn how scientists use poop to unravel an animal's biology, how critters use poop to build homes and hide from enemies, and what to do about the growing problem of human waste.

At one station, called the Super Pooper, a visitor can stand on a scale and learn how many hours it would take an African elephant to produce the visitor's weight in dung—about six to eight hours for the average adult.

"It gives people a sense of proportion," Peeling said.

Other highlights include a dung beetle race, a touchable replica of a termite mound (which in nature is glued together with the insects' own feces), and a video of a hippopotamus spinning its tail to wildly spread its excrement as a territorial marker.

(Related video: African dung beetle.)

There's also a world map that allows visitors to learn how to say "poop" in different languages.

In Spanish, it's "caca" and "poopoo." In French, it's "merde."

When Cristina Heredia, the exhibitions manager for the Miami Metrozoo, learned about "The Scoop on Poop," she thought it could be a way to turn a distraction into an educational tool.

"Whenever we have programs with live animals—close encounters or hands-on—with kids, we'll have their attention," she said.

"But if the animal poops or goes to the bathroom, the kids explode with laughter and we lose [their attention] for a while.

"But it's fun," she added. "Kids are fascinated by poop."

The exhibit, she notes, captures that fascination and does an "amazing" job of teaching the science of scat.

Scat Science

Peeling says that his team spent more than three years researching and developing the exhibit.

"We ended up connecting with scientists from all over the world who study feces in many different ways," he said. "Veterinarians, farmers, wildlife biologists, paleontologists … there's a lot there."

For example, the exhibition includes an interview with Karen Chin, a scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies fossilized poop, or coprolites, to understand ancient ecosystems.

Her research has included the examination of coprolites from Tyrannosaurus rex to tease apart details on the meat-eater's diet and bite force. (Related news: "Dino Dung: Paleontology's Next Frontier?" [March 12, 2003].)

Other scientific uses of poop detailed in the exhibit include tracking grizzly bears and mountain lions in Yellowstone National Park and unraveling the life histories of monitor lizards in Indonesia.

"In many [scientific] fields, studying scat is so routine that scientists don't think of it as a big deal," Peeling said. "On the other side, there're aspects of scat to science that are very cutting edge."

Heredia, the Miami Metrozoo exhibitions manager, says visitor response to "the Scoop on Poop" has been overwhelmingly positive.

Attendance to the museum has risen by about 35 percent since the exhibit opened on October 13.

In fact, Heredia says, some visitors have been so taken with the exhibit that they have donated their own fecal treasures for display.

For example, one zoo member loaned the museum a piece of manure, enclosed in a glass globe, from the stall of the famous racehorse Secretariat.

"We had no idea," she said, "this was going to have so much attention from the public."

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