The Story in the Scat

While I was back at Southern 8ths Farm in early June, the rains of the spring had helped nature paint the landscape in a lush green across every square inch of the farm.  The fields were rich and thick with new growth and the trees were still sending fresh new leaves to touch the sun.  The first couple of days I was there were marked by a downpour followed by a deluge.  Thompson Creek rose quickly and muddied with the runoff from upstream.  Brad invited me to kayak the creek with him and we spent a portion of one afternoon gliding down the swollen creek, enjoying the show that nature always gives.  I remember leaving the farm thinking of the creek and how full it was.  Much to my surprise, my July visit would present the opposite side of the coin.

It was rather warm the first morning I headed out, hinting at the blazing hot high temperatures that have been the norm for the Carolinas this summer.  As I walked along the road running beside the cemetery, I couldn’t help but notice how dry it was.  Brad had mentioned in an email that, should I be interested in walking the creek, now would be the perfect time.  Walking down to the creek, I saw exactly what he had eluded to.  Thompson Creek had been kissing the top of her banks when I left in June.  She was now down as low as I think she could get.  Stones that had been covered by several feet of rushing water were now laying dry and naked to the light of day.

Brad was right.  There was no better time to walk the creek.  So, I stepped int the creek on the northern part of the property and began walking downstream.

Thompson Creek, now very shallow and barely flowing.  A product of the lack of precipitation and the lengthy run of extremely high temperatures of the summer.

Thompson Creek, now very shallow and barely flowing. A product of the lack of precipitation and the lengthy run of extremely high temperatures of the summer.

All aspects of nature fascinate me.  I was turning over rocks, simultaneously looking for aquatic invertebrates and marveling at the geology of each rock I touched and stepped over.  At one of the moments of fascination, the distinct smell of scat wafted on the hint of a breeze in the air.  My interest was piqued and I began looking around for the droppings.  About 20 feet from me, I saw a collection of droppings atop a rock that stood as a highpoint, even in the now low waters.

Those that know me know that my natural history hero is Rudy Mancke.  I often refer to him as “The Blueprint”, a naturalist without compare that the rest of us should be patterned after.  During my time as a student in his ENVR 800 class at the University of South Carolina, I heard him speak a phrase he regularly used on his TV show and on his walks.  His geology professor at Wofford College instilled in him this idea of “the wasness of the is”.  To look at the geological formations and the fossils found within them as they appear now will tell you of how things used to be.  The present; the “is”, tells the story of the past; the “was”!

I take that thought process further, not simply thinking of the past as presented in stone or fossil.  The scat that lay upon the rock before me, several days old and deposited by a creature that was nowhere near where I stood, could tell me a story as well as the rock outcrops along Thompson Creek.

Scat atop a tall rock in the middle of Thompson Creek.  The location of the scat, atop such a high point, is no accident.

Scat atop a tall rock in the middle of Thompson Creek. The location of the scat, atop such a high point, is no accident.

For this lesson in scat, I want to take us back to our elementary school days, when our vocabularies were much smaller than they are now.  When we came to a word that we didn’t know, our great teachers would tell us to use context clues to help determine the meaning.  Just as my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Addison, did when I wanted to know the meaning of the word “inhibit”, I want us to use the context clues to figure out the who and the what of this scat.

As with real estate, let’s start with location location, location!  A rock in the middle of a normally wide creek would pose a problem for most animals to stroll over and defecate.  So, we’re likely dealing with an animal that is at home swimming and walking in the waters of a creek or can fly from one place to another, without worry of getting too wet.  Note, I’ve mentioned walking and flying.  That takes fish out of the running.  That leaves reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds.

The sheer volume of the scat quickly removes reptiles and amphibians that I know would be in and around Thompson Creek in this part of Chesterfield County, SC, where we find beautiful Southern 8ths Farm.  Unless a gang of snakes, toads, lizards, frogs and/or salamanders got together to deposit scat as a community, there is simply no way for those animals to be responsible for the amount on the rock I studied.  Now, I think that takes the list down to birds and mammals.

Birds do not urinate in the way mammals do, instead releasing uric acid in their droppings.  They, instead, excrete highly nitrogenous waste as uric acid in their scat, giving the distinct white wash we are all familiar with when a bird poops on our vehicles.  Whether a Great Blue Heron, an Osprey, a Wood Duck or a Belted Kingfisher, I would very much expect that white paste to accompany the scat, were it bird droppings.  Looking at the photos of the scat, there is no white wash to be found; leaving me to limit our list of suspects to mammals.

Now, what mammal would be at home in the middle of a creek?  The two biggest contenders would immediately be either Beaver or River Otter.  Let’s look at the contents to help us continue this detective work!

Shell fragments of a crustacean, in this case Variable Crayfish (Cambarus latimanus), tell us this scat belongs to a River Otter (Lontra canadensis).

Shell fragments of a crustacean, in this case Variable Crayfish (Cambarus latimanus), tell us this scat belongs to a River Otter (Lontra canadensis).

The first think that I noticed in the scat was it was loaded with shell fragments colored light red, brown and some that had been bleached white.  The shells were pieces of chewed and partially digested exoskeletons of Variable Crayfish, (Cambarus latimanus), a species of freshwater crustacean common to the piedmont regions of the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama.  As there was animal material in the scat, that quickly eliminates Beaver; as they only eat plant material.  We now have or depositor!  River Otter (Lontra canadensis)!

With the recent drop in the water level of Thompson Creek, pickings have become a little easier when it comes to a River Otter hunting for some tasty crayfish.  This scat was evidence of a River Otter finding more than a couple and having its fill of crayfish.  River Otters will eat just about any critter it can find in the water.  Fish, eels, crayfish, aquatic invertebrates (such as the nymph stages of many dragonfly species) are just the tip of the iceberg,  I’ve seen River Otters dining on tadpoles, full grown frogs and even snakes.

Members of the Mustelidae family, which includes badgers, wolverines, minks, and ferrets, otters frequently mark their territories and communicate through musks and pheromones.  The largest family in the order, Carnivora, Mustelidae is also the most diverse family with a large range.  They will often pick prominent places, like high points, as “scent posts” to deposit very pungent scat for other otters to know they’ve been there.  A rock sitting high above the waters, such as this rock, is a perfect place to leave feces high in pheromones and musk.  This scat was at least a few days old, but it was still very aromatic!  And that’s to my human nose, a nose that has a poorly refined ability to pick up scents when compared to other mammals.  I can only imagine how far this marking station was advertising to other otters.

So, as you can see, even droppings can tell a story.  By looking into “the wasness of the is”, we were able to take scat that was several days old and still find a cool detective story.  And, that’s what Southern 8ths Farm is all about.  As Brad says, “It’s all about the story!”  And I hope to continue to bring you some great stories as we continue this great journey!

-Josh