When Poop Doesn’t Stink

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Eastern black rhino mom and calf

Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students.  For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blogs.  For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

“You can pick it up and even smell it if you want to.” Nine pairs of, some eager and some mildly appalled, eyes watched as Dr. Chris Tubbs from the Reproductive Physiology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research raised a chunk of dried rhino feces to his face and inhaled.

The scientists behind reproductive physiology, the science of hormones and the parts that make creating a baby possible, have introduced me to new ways of looking at animal excrement. While you and I generally consider picking up after our dogs a smelly chore, to people like Dr. Tubbs, the job means a handful of valuable hormonal information.

At the Beckman Center, questions like “Is this giraffe pregnant?” or “Can this goat ever have kids?” are answered using the highest levels of science, as well as the common excrement sample. The hormones of all animals, including humans, exit the body through excrement and these unspeakable substances can be used over time to track the levels of estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone to see if the animal is experiencing normal reproductive cycles. Dr. Tubb’s work includes helping keepers at the Safari Park with inquiries about their animals in order to keep an eye out on the levels of reproduction in an enclosure. Whether there is a need for increase or decrease of reproduction, scientists in this division can look at which individuals are prime suspects for breeding or design methods of modulation to ensure a healthy balance within the population. For example, the pandas are watched over very carefully in the lab because of their extreme endangerment and fragile mating habits that keep conservationists on their toes and fingers crossed. Tracking progesterone levels allow keepers to provide environments that best promote the birth of a new cub, as well as many other offspring of endangered species!

Sometimes women find themselves in a situation where peeing on a stick can tell them their “baby” or “no baby” status. This same idea is applied to the Zoo’s animal pregnancy tests, however, as each test must be designed for a particular species, it doesn’t end up as simple as buying one off the grocery store shelf. Instead, individual assays must be developed, which basically determine the amount of progesterone (the hormone that regulates pregnancy) that exists in a given sample through a fun color-coded test tube method. In pairs, we interns went about composing our own “mock” assays upon the cold, yet sleek, lab counters and after a few minutes of pipetting enzyme, each group stood in front of rows of test tubes of yellow and purple, and all shades in between. The colors were indicators of the amount of progesterone in each solution (progesterone taken from female rhino feces!) and by graphing the hormone data we discovered the rhino’s pregnancy status (my group determined that our subject had indeed become very pregnant).

While my friends thought it was pretty weird when I shared my newfound excitement for animal reproduction during art class, my interest survives unaltered. Who knew that poop could tell you more than what you ate for lunch? Ya, I know that’s gross, but, hey, it’s also science.

Iris, Real World Team