Call of nature: the secret life of dung

An exploration of the importance of dung in the global ecosystem and our own intimate lives

Call of Nature
The fall of bodily waste onto the ground is the start of a race against the clock as a multitude of dung-feeders and scavengers consume this rich food source. Dung creates a miniature ecosystem to be explored.

We don’ t talk about it much in polite society; it’ s something we do quietly, alone, discretely, behind closed doors. But we all do it. So does the entire animal kingdom. Contrary to popular opinion, excrement is not a dirty word. From a biological perspective, defecation is a fascinating process, and its importance does not stop at the point of voidance.

The fall of dung onto the ground is just the beginning of a complex process of reuse and recycling, and comes with its own intricate ecological web as the multiple dung-feeders and scavengers compete with each other, with predators and parasites, and against the clock to make the best use of the limited quantity deposited in each pat.

The ancient Egyptians were sufficiently enamoured with dung-roller scarabs to create a sun-roller deity in their image. Four thousand years ago scarab amulets were the most popular form of personal jewellery, with representations sumptuously crafted in exquisite and ornate style, or in crude but charming rustic simplicity. We can only guess at their motivation, but it seems pretty clear that the Egyptians put aside any squeamishness about the insects’ habits, and celebrated, instead, their ingenuity, their tenacity or their environmentally friendly recycling behaviour.

Without the unsung heroes of the dung fauna we’ d soon be knee deep in our own ordure, and that of our farm animals. This is not hyperbole ; it very nearly happened on the other side of the world, when the British colonised Australia and took with them their cows and sheep and horses. They made the big mistake of taking familiar grazing animals to an unfamiliar continent. It took 200 years before they thought to take the dung clear-up brigade. They’ re still a long way from sorting it all out.

Ecology, the interconnectedness of every living thing, is complex beyond any simple measure. We cannot study everything, everywhere, all the time; but we can draw some understanding from looking at the small parts of the world, and seeing how the individual cogs whirr together. This, at least, gives us a sense of awe in the diversity of living organisms and the mind-numbing complexity of our planet. A dung pat is a small, compact, discrete unit, but by watching the comings and goings of the beetles, flies and other animals that recycle it, we can begin to see at least some of that bigger picture.

Dung, then, is the hook on which to hang a series of ecological messages, some bizarre, some astonishing, some actually quite beautiful. There is no need to avert eyes, or turn up noses. It is just one small part of the turning of the natural world. [From the preface to Call of Nature: The Secret Life of Dung, by Richard Jones]

“I love this book. Packed with scatological gems, it is a magnificent, highly entertaining and beautifully illustrated guide to the world of excrement. No bookshelf could be complete without it.”
– Dave Goulson, Author of A Sting in the Tale

Journey through the digestive systems of humans, farm and wild animals, and meet some of nature’s ultimate recyclers as they eat, breed in and compete for dung. The fall of bodily waste onto the ground is the start of a race against the clock as a multitude of dung-feeders and scavengers consume this rich food source. From the enigmatic dung-rolling beetles to bat guano and giant elephant droppings, dung creates a miniature ecosystem to be explored by the aspiring dung watcher.

The author completes the book with an identification guide to dung itself, so that you can identify the animal that left it behind. Pellets or pats? Scats, spraints, frass, guano, spoor – learn your way around different species’ droppings. There’s also a dung-feeder’s identification guide that includes the species you’re most likely to encounter on an exploration of the dung heap.