Cosmos’ 5 fun faeces features of 2022

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

It might be uncomfortable dinner conversation, but scientists love poo.

They can tell us about ancient humans, whether a hippo is in a good mood and if chimpanzees have been illegally traded.

Today we’re uncovering the most scat-tastic stories for this year, finding stories about poo we think will wow and gross out your friends and family, this holiday season.

Hippos Fling Poo at Strangers

Hippopotami might look like they’re taking life easy as they cruise sedately in the water, but new research indicates they’re actually listening closely to the grunts and bellows of their neighbours, ready to let loose a territorial poo-tornado on any unwelcome newcomers.

Notably they do a type of ‘wheeze honk’ when their friends are near, so it’s not all poo-nadoes.

190501 hippopoo goodfull

In a study published in Current Biology in January researchers detailed the behavioural responses of hippos to the recorded vocalisations of other hippos. These wheeze honk calls carry over long distances, leading researchers to suspect that they play an important role in maintaining social groups.

Read more here.

Parasitic Worms Near Stonehenge

Scientists also love fossil faeces – they call it ‘coprolites’.

Archaeologists published research in May that investigated 19 pieces of coprolite at Durrington Walls – a Neolithic settlement just 2.8 kilometres from Stonehenge.

The coprolite had been preserved for more than 4500 years and they found that five of them – one human and four dog – contained the eggs of capillariid worms, identified in part by their lemon shape.

This indicates that the person had eaten raw or undercooked lungs or liver from an infected animal, probably a cow, resulting in the parasite’s eggs passing straight through the body.

The leftovers were likely fed to the person’s dogs.

Read more here.

Britons Bedevilled by Belly Bugs

In April, researchers at the University of Oxford analysed 464 human burials from 17 sites, dating from the Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution.

They identified the trace presence of parasitic worms in these long-degraded burials, by hunting for worm eggs in the soil near the pelvises of the skeletons.

An analysis of these skeletons showed that the ancients (unsurprisingly) carried parasitic stomach bugs, but the patterns changed with the advent of sanitation.

People in the Roman and Late Medieval periods fared the worst.

Read more here.

Superpoo From Chimps

Eastern chimpanzee juvenile male gimli with gizmo. Credit anup shah getty images 1 1
Eastern chimpanzee juvenile male ‘Gimli’ aged 8 years playing with his brother ‘Gizmo’ aged 3 years (Pan troglodytes schweinfurtheii). Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Credit: Anup Shah/Getty Images

In June, researchers created the first ever catalogue of genomic diversity for chimpanzees.

This database – made up from 828 samples of DNA from chimpanzee poo – could one day be used to return illegally traded chimps to their natural homes.

This insightful poo, taken from across their current geographic range, also offers new insights into how chimp populations are structured, isolated, connected, and to where they are migrating.

Read more here.

Ancient Urns or Old Pottys?

Low res image 1 chamber pot
A chamber pot from the 5th century CE from the Roman villa at Gerace, Sicily (Italy). Scale: 10 cm. Image credit: Roger Wilson

In February, researchers published a paper showing that a conical jar found at an ancient Sicilian villa site was actually a Roman toilet.

To decode the pot’s long-disappeared contents, Cambridge archaeologists analysed a “crusty material” (yuck) formed on the inside surface of a pot found in the bathing complex at the site.

Using microscopy, a team from the Ancient Parasite Laboratory confirmed the present of whipworm eggs – a human intestinal parasite.

This type of urn has been found widely across the Roman empire and long thought to have stored unidentified objects or resources. Instead, it seemed to have stored poo.

Read more here.

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