The Question: I’m attaching a photo of scat I found in my yard. It doesn’t look like most of the deer droppings I see, and is too large for a raccoon or dog.
Submitted by: Tamara, Minnesota, USA
The Short Answer: I thought this might be the scat of a black bear, due to its large size and amorphous shape, but when I contacted Mark Enders, a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has conducted studies on the ecological importance of bear scat in spreading seeds, to get a confirmation, he disagreed. “The scat pictured here has many characteristics of ungulate (deer, elk, moose) scat, rather than bear scat. For example, this scat appears uniform in texture, which is characteristic of ungulates since they are ruminants and basically digest their food twice. On the other hand, bear scat often contains large pieces of whatever they’ve eaten (i.e., berries, seeds, grass, etc.). The scat pictured here also has a layering pattern typical of soft summer ungulate scat. When moisture content of their diet is high, ungulate scats typically clump in the manner that is pictured here (as opposed to pellets that are typical of their dry-diet scats). I would guess that it’s either deer or elk, but it’s hard for me to say for sure.”
I thought deer and elk scat were always pelletized, as in this photo, but it appears that I’m wrong about that. So I’m going to retract my bear speculation, and go with the simplest version of Mark’s suggestion, a white-tailed deer eating something soft and relatively wet.
More About Poop: Not only did Mark straighten me out on what kind of poop this is, I got to read about his very interesting research that showed that while seeds that go through a bear and end up in its scat don’t generally germinate very well, mice and other rodents often rescue them. By pulling the whole seeds out of the bear scat and burying them for use later, rodents serve as excellent secondary seed dispersers. The seeds they bury often germinate before the rodent returns to eat them, and those seeds generally fare better than seeds left behind in the scat. This is an excellent example of how the plants and animals of an ecosystem can be intricately linked.
Enders, M. S. and S. B. Vander Wall. Black bears are effective dispersers of seeds, with a little help from their friends. Oikos 121:589-596.