Survival and Poop

The city was so friggin’ cold I couldn’t believe it but I still loved
my day at the zoo. I ended up going on Sunday so I could hang with the
other docents and also hear a fascinating lunch table lecture on the
role of feces in survival of the species. This clever young woman at
the zoo is busy extracting hormones from zoo poop so she can figure out
things about stress and reproduction in the animals without causing
them- stress. Catching those buggers and poking them for blood samples
is stressful; wandering around after them and putting their poop in
ziploc freezer bags is not.

Puzzler: So, if you have a bunch of African
apes living in a large troop in an expansive indoor/outdoor enclosure
how can you tell whose poop is whose?

Answer: Can you say glitter? And food coloring? And corn? And little colored pop beads? Apparently there are refrigerators all over the zoo filled with colorful poop.

She’s an endocrinologist and she and a team of scientists are doing this work not only at the zoo but also out in the field as they work on species survival. By looking, for example, at animals who live in social groups where some members of the group are forced to live at the "edges" of that particular society they can figure out if there is increased stress, or decreased estrus cycles related to stress or less access to food. Interesting things like that, all because they have figured out how to extract, in the lab and in a mobile field lab, hormones and enzymes from poop.

I think I told you this one before: What’s the difference between a hormone and an enzyme? Answer: You can’t hear an enzyme. (humor. ark,ark.)

I did my observation on the polar bear talk and I’ll take that test next time. (That link will take you to the zoo’s page on Lee and Anana and that’s a zoo photo of Lee, too.) They have a great scientific name because it’s just so apt: Ursus maritimus. While I do the polar bear talk, I get to hold this giant polar bear skull and teeth and tell the public about how polar bears are the largest land carnivores, how they can sprint up to 26 miles per hour on land and that they aren’t really white. They have black skin and all that fur is really transparent and hollow like tiny glass tubes that trap the suns heat and then that black skin holds the heat. The fur is also, of course, waterproof. It’s a good thing when you can give the talk while the two
resident bears cooperate and hang out in the 266,000 gallon pool and on
the rocks, looking massive and handsome but sometimes they choose to be
inside their dens. All animals at the zoo have the option of being out
or in, so it’s sort of a crap shoot. Unless they have one or the other
areas closed for poop collecting.

Another fact, sad but true: you know that myth about global warming? It could mean extinction for polar bears before the end of this century. These bears typically live on and hunt from ice flows. As ice flows melt and artic ice retreats, polar bears either drown or are forced to move to land where their dietary needs can’t be met. This very month, polar bears are being considered for the Endangered Species Act list and if Fish and Wildlife Service puts them on that list, it will be the first mammal declared threatened with extinction by global warming. As you might imagine, the Inuit people, one up on the food chain, would like to see dramatic action, post haste. As you might also imagine, despite massive amounts of solid evidence that sea ice is disappearing, including data collected by government agencies, there has been a lot of foot dragging in Washington.

(Whats-his-face and I have video Skype so we can chat online with video feed. He rang me from his room in Paris, right across from the Arc de Triomphe and the Champes-Elysees. That made him real again but while he looked totally exhausted after a five hour business dinner, I wanted all the details on the six course menu and the wines, so we’re also figuratively in very different spaces right now. If he brings home good hotel soap, I might remember his name.)


14 responses to “Survival and Poop

  1. You were right. I can never stay caught up with what you write! I am always surprised to stop by and find no new post and even more susrprised when I drop in and find five or more in a row!

  2. I love polar bears, and their plight makes me sooooo sad. My eight-year-old is freaked out about polar bears and panda bears and tigers, and that makes me sad too.

    Ummmm, so why aren’t you in gay Paree?

  3. This post reminds me… why is he in Paris and you are not? I would like to visit Paris. I think you could amuse yourself at the Louvre for a few hours while he is in business meetings and that Canon 70 – 300 IS zoom lens could be put to very good use.

    Enzymes facilitate a chemical reaction but are not a direct component of the reaction. Hormones are the product of said complicated chemical reactions. Oh… this reminds me of a test I had in Endrocrinology…. “Starting with the base compound cholesterol, show the chemical reaction pathway to all hormones produced by the adrenal gland; show each step in the reaction including enzymes and include drawings of the chemical structures of the compounds formed at each step in the process.”
    Do you know how many hormones the adrenal can make? The professor was angry with us for something. That was the day of the med student revolt and the last year the professor taught. He made it 50% of the test and had introduced the topic just minutes before the test. Bad memories.

  4. Fascinating! Glitter and food color. Wow. Who woulda thunk it…..

  5. I love the idea of glittery poop, and poop with colored beads. Yay for non-invasive, non-stress inducing science. Wonderful. The plight of the polar bear breaks my heart. I find it unbearable that such a magnificent creature is wandering the earth with its very specialized habitat shrinking, and I don’t think there’s a damned thing we’re going to do about it. They are the harbingers.

  6. I am devastated for both the polar bears and the Inuit people. One depends on the other, I think.

    Glitter in the poop……I wonder what the animal thinks of that when they examine their leavings (as they almost always do)? Poor things might decide they have a terminal illness with glittery poop or pop-it beads…LOL

    I still want to know why you didn’t go to Paris too. And if you’d share your new address, I’d send you some great hotel soap!!

  7. My favorite polar bear exhibit is the one in Central Park, but only because I have really great memories of going there in my youth (20s). We went in November and the bears were all sleeping so it wasn’t the same.

    Hormones and poop are pretty fundamental things to study.

    Ummmm….what else? I’m glad the zoo gig is bringing you satisfaction and joy.

    Rachel wants to have her birthday party at the zoo. Did I say that already? Probably.

  8. Now THAT is a cool way to identify poop. AFTER it happens 🙂

  9. Scat!

    Shouldn’t you be in Paris with your beloved instead of at a zoo with big old bears?

  10. I think whats-his-name should be forgiven. He called on skype. That has to count! 😀

  11. PARIS?? Je suis jalouse. I would love to be there too right now. The poop info is fascinating; I love bears, but am terrified of them at the same time. My husband would love to go to Alaska, but alas, I am bear-phobic–except when they are at a zoo. (we have polar bears at our Point Defiance zoo)

  12. whose poop is whose? I am cracking up here… Thanks for information on Polar Bears. I learned something today. And May your long lost love get back from that awful city called Paris.

  13. um…. i’m afraid the hair-as-heat-collectors thing is a myth – when they actually got around to testing it, they confirmed that the hair is STILL opaque to usuable frequencies of light. sorry.

  14. Right you are. It’s funny- I googled it and the first 5 articles vaguely confirm that the hair is translucent and hollow AND conducts heat. Further checking finds this article which gives an explanation that disputes the heat conducting properties.
    I laughed at this comment: “As writer Bertrand Russell pointed out, even Aristotle–the most famous scientist of his day–claimed that women have fewer teeth than men, though it never occurred to him to check Mrs. Aristotle’s mouth. The moral of Koon’s study is that a little dose of skepticism never hurts.”

    Wait ’til I tell my mentor docent. 🙂

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