It is rare to see animals in the woods as most are very illusive, but we generally know they are about from their scat and tracks.
The word "scat," a slang that is used for the excrement of an animal, is somewhat of a curiosity. Scat is generally used for wild animals, not domestic. We don't call what is excreted from farm animals "scat," rather the common term is "manure." We usually don't call what the dog leaves behind, and an irresponsible owner doesn't pick up "scat."
There are other meanings for the word. "Scat" is also defined as a coarse particle of rock which is discharged from the process of milling. "To scat," in a musical context, is to sing in the jazz genre. "Scat" the verb, means to go away fast. "Scat" also has obscene connotations.
The science of studying "scat" is called scatology. The term used to refer to animal feces perhaps comes from the Greek word "skat," meaning excrement.
Why the interest in scat? It can give us a lot of information about an animal including its health. Scat tells us where an animal has been and where we may be able to find the animal again. Scat tends to dry from the outside in, so fresh scat will indicate if the animal is close by, and in the case of a predator, to be aware.
Scat shapes, content and color can be used to identify general groups of animals and what they eat.
Elongate spheres are left by rodents, and members of the deer family. Mouse scats are the size of rice, very rough, wrinkled, and irregularly shaped. Squirrels produce smooth, oval pellets that are slightly larger. Moose pellets are larger than those of deer. Deer and rabbit pellets are about the same size, but deer pellets are pointed; rabbit scat is round.
Cord-like scats are left by coyotes, bears and raccoons. Dog pooh has typically more tapered ends than those of bears and raccoons. Cords often thick and constricted are left by mountain lions. Cords that are often folded are left by members of the weasel family.
The scats from many meat-eating animals are similar, and vary in size. Moist food produces slimmer scats while fibrous diets provide wider scats.
Hulls of seeds, skins of berries and bits of leaves indicate the animal is a vegetarian.
Small bones, fur and feathers appear in the scat of meat eaters.
Insect wings and other insect body parts indicate that the animal feeds on insects.
A large pile of hair-filled scat suggests a carnivore.
An oily pile indicates that the diet might be trout from local spawning streams.
In autumn, bears leave behind colorful piles (often purplish in hue) full of nuts, berries, seeds and other edibles high in protein and fat.
When elk scat is fresh, it will be wet and green. On dry ground, elk scat dries out in a matter of hours. Really fresh scat may even have a shine to it. If elk have shifted their diet from grasses to bushes and limbs, fresh droppings may be brown in color rather than green. Dry black droppings are old. Cow elk droppings are tapered on both ends whereas bull elk poop has a dimple or concave look to one end. Elk under stress scatter their poop as opposed to the scat which may clump together. Bulls produce big clumps.
With moose, if the nuggets are elongated, chances are they were left by a female. To verify, correlate the scat with the size of the hoof prints; Males tracks are larger, up to 6 1/2 inches long.
Wild cats digest about 90 percent of the bones they eat; wolves, process only 80 percent. That means that if you're in predator country and you don't see much bone in the droppings, you're looking at traces left by a cougar or bobcat.
There's almost no smell to the droppings of a plant-eater, if anything it might be sweet smelling. Scat filled with animal material (scales, bones and fur) is left by a carnivore, and is usually stinky.
Most scat isn't dropped at random in the animals' habitats. Small, twisted pieces of scat by rock outcrops, indicates the presence of a marmot. Wolves, coyotes and foxes squirt urine on rocks and trees and defecate to establish their home ranges. Mink, weasels, marten and fishers leave scat on prominent objects, such as rocks and logs, in the middle of the trail. The sites are odiferous "No Trespassing" signs saying this is my territory.
Scat plays an important role in the environment. After an animal has digested food, the remains of that food are expelled from its body as waste. Though it is lower in energy than the food it came from, scat may still contain a lot of nutrients. This means that of all food eaten, a significant amount of energy remains for the decomposing organisms. Many organisms feed on feces, including bacteria, fungi and insects. Some dine exclusively on feces, while others may eat other foods as well.
Animals that eat plants may be a means of dispersal for this plant as seeds may remain undigested in scat. The animals will eat the fruit and disperse the seeds in doing so. This mode of seed dispersal is highly successful as it is likely to be dispersed far away from the parent plant, and even be provided with its own fertilizer.
It's best not to come in direct contact with any kind of scat as it may contain harmful microorganisms and parasites.
If you wanna know what's in the woods or around,
Take a good long look at the scat on the ground.
It tells us what they eat and tells us who they are,
And that's what we know about scat so far.
Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.