Biology 101

Biology 101: Coprophagia and geophagia

When you work with animals, you know that a varying diet can be hard to maintain. A lot of animals eat plants, fungi, other animals and also insects. In captivity, we often rely on kibbles and other ready-to-eat alternatives for our pets. A lot of the times, this works well. But sometimes animals can get a lack of nutrients, which they solve by coprophagia and geophagia. Hedgehogs and tenrecs are known to do both! But what do those terms really mean?

What is coprophagy?

Coprophagia is the term used for the behavior that is displayed when an animal eats their own feaces. Sounds gross? Yeah, maybe. But it does come with a few benefits. Some animals lack enzymes to digest plant matter, others do it to take in some more vitamins. Some animals even eat the feaces of other species to add more nutrients to their diets.

What is geophagy?

Geophagy is the term used for the behavior that is displayed when an animal eats earth or soil-like substances such as clay, chalk, or termite mounds. Geophagy in animals is primarily used for protection from parasites, to provide mineral supplements and to help metabolize toxic compounds from leaves.

The prominence of eating earth and faeces in African animals

With the warmer climates throughout the African continent, a lot of plant matter is tough and not a lot are fruit-bearing. And even when they are, it’s hard for most animals to crack their hard shells and eat them. If they can reach them at all, given how tall some of the fruit-bearing trees can become. This, together with how fast plant matter and animal matter dries our in those warm climates, it’s hard to get a variable diet to live on. A lot of African animals therefore are inclined to eat feaces of their own as well as that of other animals.

Fresh feaces up to about 2 days of age, contains a lot of undigested nutrients that might be of use to animals that are able to digest the half-digested plant matter and other wasted nutrients that haven’t been digested by the animal leaving the feaces behind. So the animal ingesting that feaces, might benefit from the extra nutrients including a variety of vitamins. Eating feaces can also be a way to cure boredom or just to fill up their bellies. And fresh feaces can also be very interesting for animals on the hunt for insects! That’s a lot of benefit from eating poop. Though not up to everyone’s liking i can imagine..

Eating earth can be a way to ingest minerals and a way to ingest calcium. This is very common in animals that are sick, pregnant or growing up. For pregnant and lactating animals, ingesting earth or calcium-rich components is a way to get rich milk and have their young developing with strong bones. For sickly animals is can mean becoming stronger and having more chance on survival. Especially in the harsh environments of Africa’s heat. this can be a life or death situation and every source of nutrients can be a welcome one.

Geophagia and coprophagia in hedgehogs and tenrecs

Both occur in hedgehogs as well as tenrecs. It is a topic of discussion that geophagia is used to aid in a hedgehog’s defence agains toxic plant matter as well as against parasites. Tenrecs on the other hands are known to have developed survival skills by consuming termites and termite mounds to stay alive. Especially in Tanzania where they aren’t native. By lack of their own native biodiversity which offers a great range of insects and fruits, Tanzania is a place where these tenrecs needed to find a way to survive.

Feaces are eaten in rare cases especially when there seems to be a lack of nutrients in the wild, in which they can eat both their own as well as feaces of other animals. But they can also be attracted to the insects living on feaces of animals, to add onto their diet.

In captivity, geophagia is hardly ever seen. Coprophagia tough is a very common sight in both hedgehogs as well as tenrecs. This might be due to their inability to fully digest plant matter in their kibble. It might also be to get extra nutrients from partially digested matter. So don’t panic when you notice your hedgehog or tenrec eating their own feaces, it’s totally normal. Even if we think it’s nasty!

Article by Judith Duinkerken.

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