What’s That Scat?

What’s That Scat?

What’s That Scat?

4 minute read.
As we are out enjoying some of the many trails the Yukon has to offer, we often have to watch our step to make sure we’re not putting our boots in something smelly! These unexpected trail obstacles can be great indicators of whose habitat we are walking into, what they are eating, and how they are digesting it. Just like us, many animals have dynamic diets, and will eat what is available. Scat can be interesting but can also spread diseases, even to humans, so it should be looked at and not touched, especially by our furry companions.

Bears

Black bears are opportunistic omnivores who will eat whatever food they can find, including fish, fruit, meat, insects, and herbs and grasses. Grizzlies have a similar diet, but tend to favour high-energy meat and insects more than the smaller black bears. Like their diets, bear scat appearance is quite varied, and often contains fragments of their last meal, like seeds, bits of berries, or small animal bones. Wildlife Interpreter Maureen recounts seeing a landscape covered in red wine-coloured piles that were actually scat from grizzlies that had eaten a lot of cranberries!

Light brown bear scat with seeds visible.

Bears are relatives of mammalian carnivores, they have a digestive system similar to carnivores, without a cecum or extended large intestine. This limits how efficiently they can process leafy plant material and they must eat a lot if they are relying on these foods, which is common in the spring. As a result, when a bear eats a lot of plant material their scat often has a green tinge from the undigested grasses or a fibrous appearance. Typically, their scat is brown or black and tapered, though sometimes it can appear as more globular if it is loose. Grizzly scat tends to be a bit wider and larger piles than black bear scat. It can be hard to distinguish between the two, but both should make a hiker cautious of the trail ahead. Remember bear spray and noisemakers and stay bear safe!

Left to right: Older bear scat; bear scat that is darker brown in colour with grasses visible.

If you’re interested in getting involved in bear research, the Operation Ursus Research using Scat (OURS) project is aimed at estimating the Yukon grizzly and black bear populations using DNA available in bear scat. Lucile leads the study and shares the project story Bear Poo and You with YWP.

Canines

Foxes, wolves, and coyotes are more exclusively carnivorous than bears, but may occasionally eat berries and seeds. Their digestive system is similar to that of a bear, as is their scat. Wolves’ stomachs are specially adapted to hold a lot of food so that after a hunt they can get their share of the reward. Additionally, their stomach is very acidic to kill off any pathogens in the meat. It is tubular and tapered and may contain bits of bones, fur, or berries. It may be lighter, as it varies from tan to dark brown in colour. It is, however, smaller than bear scat: fox scat is about 1.25 cm in diameter, coyote scat is about 2 cm, and wolf scat is usually at least 2.5 cm in diameter.

Wolf scat with fur visible.

There will likely be much less of it as well. Foxes often defecate in obvious areas to mark their territory. The Wildlife Preserve exists as an ecosystem within a larger ecosystem and foxes are one of the many wild animals that visit. They seem to like to use the boardwalks at the front cabin to do their business!

Foxes often defecate in obvious places to mark their territory.

Left photo credit: L.Caskenette.

Feline – Lynx

Unlike generalist bears and canines, lynxes are specialists. Snowshoe hares are their primary food source, and can make up 75% of their winter diet. Meat is highly digestible, meaning that most of what is consumed can be broken down and absorbed easily. Lynx digestive systems, therefore, have shorter small intestines relative to body size and less developed caecum than canines.

Lynx scat of varying ages among grass.

Their scat is black, tubular and tapered, and does not have so much undigested material as the bears or canines. It is also very smelly. Like a house cat, they will cover their scat with dirt or snow, probably to hide their presence from nearby animals. Also like house cats, they often defecate in the same latrine over and over, which can be seen in our lynx habitat.

Lynx, like house cats, often poop in the same places every time. This is one of the latrines in the lynx habitat at the Preserve.

Cervids

The Yukon has a great variety of cervids (antler bearing animals) or members of the deer family. Their diets, digestive systems, and scat have many similarities. In general, they produce uniform, dark brown or black oval-shaped pellets, which result from uniform movements of smooth muscles in the large intestine and its sphincters.

From left to right: Caribou, moose, mule deer and elk. Photo Credit: L.Caskenette & J.Paleczny.

Their diets are often high in fibrous, dry tree materials like leaves and twigs, which is why their feces forms pellets. If they are eating more grasses, in the summer, it may appear softer and more clumpy. Cervids are all ruminants which means that their stomachs have four compartments: the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum and the abomasum.  This allows for fermentation by bacteria and other processes that break down vegetation. This is part of the reason that cervid scat does not have as much undigested material as the carnivores’, despite their plant diet having less digestible material. In addition, they will regurgitate their food and chew it again, also called chewing their cud!

Left to Right: Soft caribou scat clumps together versus caribou scat in pellet form.

Deer pellets are small, about 1 cm in diameter, and are left in piles of many pellets. They defecate an average of 13 times per day! Elk scat is similar but 1-1.5 cm in diameter, and moose scat is even larger at 1.5-2 cm in diameter. Deer and elk pellets are rounder than moose pellets.

Softer deer scat often clumps together as seen here.

Moose are more strictly browsers, that eat only tree materials, so mostly their pellets are harder. Caribou scat appears somewhat more rough than deer or moose scat. It is often in harder pellet form in the winter when they eat a lot of lichens and sedges. In the summer, when their diet switches to grasses and vegetation with a high moisture content, their scat often forms larger soft clumps.

Moose scat in pellet form, darker brown because it’s older.

Bovids

There are also a wide variety of bovids (horn bearing animals) in the Yukon. Our mountain sheep, mountain goats, muskox, and bison are all ruminants, just like the cervids. They are all herbivores who eat a variety of grasses, sedges, seedlings, and leaves.

Left to Right: Muskox, bison, mountain goat, thinhorn sheep. Photo Credit: L. Caskenette

Muskox, mountain goats, and thinhorn mountain sheep also form pellet scat, even when their diets consist largely of grass. That’s because their digestive tracts are highly evolved to reabsorb as much water as possible, likely an adaptation to their arid alpine (goats and sheep) and tundra (muskox) habitats.

Sheep scat forms pellets.

Goats have varied diets that includes browse, shrubs, lichens, grasses, and even trees. Their alpine foraging sites may be sparse, which doesn’t allow them to be picky eaters. Muskoxen eat grasses, forbs (herbaceous flowering plants), and willows, which they often have to dig out from the frozen arctic ground by smashing the permafrost with their heads and pawing the ice pieces out of the way. Mountain sheep eat mostly grasses and some other low growing sedges.

Muskox scat.

Bison scat is distinct from all the other ruminants mentioned above, because it forms an indistinct pile. Their diet is also primarily grasses and other low-lying herbaceous plants, but they may eat some willows and twigs. Grasses would make their scat more loose, but we’re taking suggestions for what makes their scat so different from the other grass-loving bovids!

Bison patty.

Hopefully after hearing all of these scat facts you can see scat as more than just something gross to be avoided on the side of the trail. It can tell you who’s habitat you are in, but also what they have been eating. It is interesting to watch it change throughout the season. Of course biologists may be able to find out way more about an animal through their scat, for instance genetic samples or presence of pathogens. There is so much to learn from the scat around us!
Although all the different scat we explored above is only a small number of animals, all species do it and we encourage you to:

1. Explore other species scat/defecation/poop – whatever you want to call it!

2. Pack out yours and your furry companions (yours domestic canines) poo in the backcountry and wilderness places you visit!

3. Sing the Scat Rap Song!  

It starts with an S and it ends with a T
It comes out of you
and it comes out of me
I know what you’re thinking
But don’t call it that
Let’s be scientific, and call it SCAT
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

You can find it on the ground
It’s usually colored brown
It is shaped in a mound
It is a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

You can smell it with your nose
It’s gonna decompose
It’s where the fungus grows
It is a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

Birds flying through the air
Look out! Beware!
It landed in your hair
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

I was hiking through the fog
When I saw a big log
It came from a dog
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

I was tired of TV
I was checking out the trees
I could smell it on the breeze
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

I know it’s kind of gory
But it’s a true story
It marks territory
It is a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

I picked up a chicken
And something was drippin’
It wasn’t finger-lickin’
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

A squirrel ate a nut
Digested in its gut
It came out of its butt
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

If you park your car
By the woods or a field
You might find something on your windshield
Full of berries
Both purple and white
You just got bombed by a bird in flight
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

Photo Credit: Sophia Slater or as otherwise credited.
References:

Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) sign. ADFG. 

Blood, D.A. Mountain sheep. Hinterlands Who’s Who. 

Blood, D.A. (2000). Mountain Goat in British Columbia. British Columbia Ministry of Environment Land and Parks.

Bosch, G., Hagen-Plantinga, E., & Hendriks, W. (2015). Dietary nutrient profiles of wild wolves: Insights for optimal dog nutrition? British Journal of Nutrition, 113(S1), S40-S54. doi:10.1017/S0007114514002311

Keith, L.B. Canada lynx. Hinterland’s Who’s Who. 

Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (2018, June 25). What scat can tell you about your wildlife neighbors. CSERC

Costello, C.M., Cain, S.L., Pils, S., Frattaroli, L., Haroldson, M.A., & van Manen, F.T. (2016). Diet and macronutrient optimization in wild Ursids: A comparison of grizzly bears with sympatric and allopatric black bears. PLoS ONE, 11(5).

Gray, D.R. Muskox. Hinterland’s Who’s Who. 

Hatch, K., Roeder, B., Buckman, R., Gale, B., Bunnell, S., Eggett, D., Auger, J., Felicetti, L., & Hilderbrand, G. (2011). Isotopic and gross fecal analysis of American black bear scats. Ursus, 22(2), 133–140. 

Howard, W.T., Hutjens, M., Kilmer, L., Linn, A., Otterby, D., & Shaver, R. (2021). The ruminant digestive system. University of Minnesota Extension

Winand, C.J. (2008, September). Deer Pelletology. Buckmasters Magazine

Sophia Slater

Sophia Slater

Wildlife Interpreter & Animal Care Assistant

Sophia is one of the Interpretive Wildlife Guides and animal care assistants at the Preserve. She is new to the Yukon and moved here from Ontario, where she just graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Nipissing University. Hiking mountains is her newfound passion while she’s here, and she’s hoping to summit as many as she can this summer. At the preserve, she loves getting to talk to and learn from guests who come from all over the Yukon and beyond about their experiences with wildlife.

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The Animals are Quite Fine Outside

The Animals are Quite Fine Outside

The Animals are Quite Fine Outside

5 minute read –

After a beautiful, drawn out fall (by Yukon standards), winter arrived in force at the end of October 2020. Record setting snowfall on November 2nd 2020 kicked winter into full gear. Shutdowns were widespread (including here at the Preserve). It was snow joke!

Now that we’ve dug ourselves out, we can offer winter wildlife viewing at its finest! Without leaves on the trees and a beautiful white backdrop, its easier to spot the animals (although the Arctic Foxes can be a bit tricky with their white winter coat). It is especially satisfying to watch animals in their element.

We sometimes get asked if we bring them inside when it gets cold. Apart from the obvious challenges of convincing the Mountain Goats to come down off their cliff, I think they all might get a little hot if they had to be inside. I don’t even want to think about “musk”ox in an enclosed space. And the Bison probably wouldn’t listen to us, even if we asked nicely. Anyway.

They are quite fine outdoors. If you’re not convinced, I give you:

 

Exhibit A: Muskox and Caribou

Muskox and Caribou were wandering around with mammoths on the Beringian steppes during the last ice age. (For better or for worse, the giant beavers didn’t make it). The Preserve’s other ice age animal (and unofficial 13th species) the ground squirrel is much more sensible. They are currently napping right now instead trying to eat each other. While there’s been a lot of snow so far, it’s probably not as much as they had last ice age.

Rebecca spotting deer, in layered clothing to blend into the vegetation - Cora Romanow

Exhibit B: Arctic Foxes.

They also get around the north (quite fine, thank you very much). Incidentally, they may be illegally immigrating into Canada from Norway. This is probably because they are the bomb. By which I mean “Among mammals, the arctic fox has the best insulative fur of all.” In the same paper, they also note that Arctic Foxes don’t start shivering until somewhere below -40c. They’re not quite sure how cold it needs to get, because the scientists that tried, “…did not succeed, because they did not have the necessary equipment available to reach sufficiently low ambient temperatures.”

This Arctic Fox is not only warm, but also enjoying a pumpkin filled with meat treat. No tricks here.

Exhibit C: Mule Deer.

Now stay with me. I realize I’m skipping past a few animals to get to what is arguably the least “winterized” animal at the Preserve. Their large ears and delicate hooves say “I’m new here”. And that’s true – they were first sighted in the Yukon in the 1930s and 40s.

What’s so remarkable about Mule Deer is just how wide a range they now have. Several years ago I was camping in the dessert outside Phoenix, Arizona. And believe it or not, there were Mule Deer wandering around between the prickly pear cactuses! Meanwhile they are now seen as far North as Dawson City, Yukon!! They are simply remarkable animals (Rebecca will back me up on this) that deserve a lot more credit than they get.

And finally,

Exhibit D: Humans

It’s really just us that get hung up about the cold. Last January I had an excellent opportunity to  to make a questionable life choice and strip down to a thin long-sleeve shirt while standing beside a caribou at -35c. I decided to leave my pants on as well as my long underwear not to mention my wool snow pants. Even so, it was quite cold. Painfully cold. Luckily Josh Robertson, a PHD student studying animals with thermal cameras had his camera handy:

The bright yellow bits in the second image are all my heat escaping out into the atmosphere. The caribou is busy eating and clearly doesn’t care. (If you found this foray into thermal imaging unsatisfyingly brief, you’re in luck, we’ve got more on this in the works)!

The animals have got this.

If you haven’t experienced these Yukon species in their element, I highly recommend a trip to the Preserve. If you’re worried about the cold I recommend:

  • Walking (shivering is a metabolic way of warming your core temperature, but walking is a way more effective).
  • Bring some snacks (to fuel your internal furnace).
  • Wear warm clothes (and you know… maybe don’t strip down to pose with animals). Soft soled boots keep your feet flexing and therefore warm. A warm hat keeps the heat from leaking out the top.

I got around a couple days ago and took a few photos to give you a taste of what you’re missing out on! Click for bigger versions – and see if you can find any of the Preserve’s bigger “cats”.

Jake Paleczny

Jake Paleczny

Executive Director

Jake Paleczny is passionate about interpretation and education. He gained his interpretative expertise from a decade of work in Ontario’s provincial parks in addition to a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. His interests also extend into the artistic realm, with a Bachelor of Music from the University of Western Ontario and extensive experience in galleries and museums.

867-456-7313
jake@yukonwildlife.ca

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Swipe Right (for Antlers)

Swipe Right (for Antlers)

Swipe Right (for Antlers)

Only animals in the deer (or cervid) family grow antlers. That includes elk, deer, moose and caribou.

Animals like Bison, Sheep and Goats are part of a different family and grow horns, not antlers. We’ll tackle that in another video/post!  With the exception of Caribou females, only Cervid males grow antlers, mostly to attract attention from females. 

Antlers are also really important for determining which males will get to breed – this is established through posturing and challenging other males of the same species to duels. 

Antlers grow, and fall off (or shed), every year. Depending on the species and the individual animal, antlers fall off anytime between the end of December to April. This leaves a “kind-of” scar on the animal’s head, called the pedicle – this is the spot where the antler meets the animal’s skull. From that “scar” – or pedicle, the new antler starts to grow – and it is covered in a fuzzy brown skin we call velvet.

 

This photo was captured just moments after the antler shed. The blood is from little bits of dried skin around the pedicle that was attached to the antler. The antler that detached was a pure white bone – no blood. Photo by Jake Paleczny.

The new antlers basically start growing immediately. Within a couple weeks the pedicle will have little fuzzy bumps. Photo by Lindsay Caskenette.

That velvet has nerves and blood supply bringing in nourishment to grow those antlers, which are soft at this point of growth. Antlers grow very quickly and in the Yukon, antler growth is typically done by early to mid-August. Antlers take an ENORMOUS amount of energy to grow. Only the healthiest animals will have impressive antlers.

Once they’re done growing and have fully calcified (or hardened) the blood supply to the velvet stops, the velvet dies and the animal may rub that off on stones/trees or it just falls off.

Because the nerves also die with the velvet, the antlers now have no sensation and are ready to challenge other males to duels, and hopefully impress the females. Antlers can be an important part of asserting dominance.

Female cervids can look at a male’s antlers and have insights in to their diet, nutrition, overall health and of course, genetics. Large, symmetrical antlers say healthy genetics and that means healthy babies.

A female might be impressed – “you grew those antlers in just ONE season?!?” or – she might not be impressed.

Either way, once the breeding season is over, and winter is on its way – hormonal changes triggered by reduced daylight causes the pedicle to begin deteriorating which eventually causes the antler to break away from the weakened pedicle, the antlers will fall off and the cycle renews.

Julie Kerr

Julie Kerr

Visitor Services Coordinator

Julie is a Registered Veterinary Technologist, living and working in Whitehorse since 2012. She joined the team in May 2018. She is passionate about wildlife, nature and living in a conscious manner with both. Her free time is spent outdoors observing wild animals and ecosystems; her connection to the natural world around her brings great joy – joy she loves to share with anyone interested. Honestly? Work and life blend rather seamlessly.

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Bull On Encounter!

Bull On Encounter!

Bull On Encounter!

Right place right time! Animal Care Assistant, Bree Parker spends day after day diligently supporting our veterinarian Dr. Maria Hallock in caring for, feeding and ensuring the well-being of our collection of wildlife residents. 

Equally as important and valuable as literally providing food for the animals also is observing the animals. Observation is a critical part of our animal care process. This is when staff ensure an individual animal’s behaviour is normal. Observing them eating, moving and interacting helps us know that animal is content and full-filling life needs. Signs something is off can include: the animal has a limp; they are not coming to the feed stations and eating; or, they are not socializing in a typical  herd group. These observations could indicate that there might be an ailment to the individual that deserves closer observation or possibly even intervention. However, sometimes this observation can be quite enlightening, it can catch incredible moments of animal encounters and wild behaviours we strive for our individuals to be able to fulfill.  

We’ve been waiting for the young bull to drop his antler for months now. . .

Bree starting filming this interaction simply because she thought it was fascinating and humorous to see the younger bull (on the left) asserting dominance with another bull, an older bull, with no antlers. Then everything got pretty exciting, pretty quickly!  “We’ve been waiting for the younger bull to drop his antlers for months now. The older bulls lost theirs in December” said Bree.

This is typical to have individuals vary on antler shed timing, especially between different aged individuals related to sexual maturity. Over the next several months both these individuals, along with all our antler-bearing cervid’s (like moose, elk and mule deer) will be re-growing their antlers in preparation for fall. Alas, as another rut season comes and goes, so too will their antlers!

Bree Parker

Bree Parker

Animal Care Assistant

All animal lover to her very core! Bree has had a menagerie of pets over the years, including mice, crayfish and a hedgehog. After completing her Environmental Technician diploma at Seneca College, she realized her true calling was with animals, sending her back to Ontario this coming fall for University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus’s Veterinary Technology program. Bree is always eager to learn new facts about the animals at the Preserve that she can share with visitors.

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Roam and Reign – “Winter is Here” Caribou Edition

Roam and Reign – “Winter is Here” Caribou Edition

Roam and Reign – “Winter is Here” Caribou Edition

6 minute read – “Winter Is Here” series begins with the “king of the tundra” – Caribou!

Here comes the king of the tundra. Being one of the few animals escaping the mass extinction of species after the last ice age, caribou are royally adapted to life in the North, which happens to be predominantly winter season! In the wild, they live all across the circumpolar region, including Europe and Russia, where they are called Reindeer. Both Caribou and Reindeer are the same species, only the Reindeer is generally a bit smaller and most herds on the Eurasian continent are actually domesticated. The Wildlife Preserve is home to a group of the Boreal Woodland Caribou, the largest representative of its kind. 

 

Compared to their body size, Caribou have relatively large, split-hooves which they can spread the toes out wide. This enables them to distribute their weight onto a larger surface and walk across snow, ice and sort-of-frozen swamps more efficiently. Their hooves also harden up in the winter and become overgrown by hair. The hair insulates the live, fleshy inside part of the hoof from the cold and the hardened horn on the outside helps them to paw through the snow cover to get to their food. 

Like most arctic animals, their posture is stocky and compact, in order not to lose too much body heat. A crucial addition to body shape is their coat. Like most dogs, caribou have a double coat with a softer underlayer and a coarse outer layer. This prevents heat loss but also from getting wet when they lie in the snow for example. Hairs of the outer coat are hollow, which offers further insulation. 

Even their noses are designed for the cold – the inner bones are shaped to increase the surface area inside the nostrils so when they breathe in the cold air, it has more time to warm up within the body before reaching the lungs. And on the way out, the air is cooled down on the way and most of the body heat is retained before breathing it out. Have you ever noticed steam coming out of a caribou’s nostrils? Neither have we and that’s why. 

 

Caribou and reindeer follow ancient migration routes throughout the seasons. Some just change a mountain range to get to their winter food supply and spring calving grounds, others travel over hundreds of miles to get to a different habitat. Their roaming is also believed to have evolved following environmental conditions. Compared to the storm-beaten, treeless tundra, the boreal taiga forest offers better shelter and easier access to food due to thinner snow cover. 

In the wild, the Caribou’s main diet is an algae-like organism called lichen. It grows on rocks and on specific soil conditions such as the wide pine tree stands of the boreal forest. The animal reaches its food by pawing away the snow on top of it with their hooves or scratching it away with their antlers, sometimes even pushing through thin ice layers. As well adapted as caribou have become over millennia, the – in evolutionary terms – recent climate change poses entirely new challenges. Temperatures don’t always remain below freezing all winter. There are so-called warm spells, where snow on the ground melts and re-freezes as a thick, impenetrable layer of ice once temperatures drop again. This can – and has been – detrimental to the survival of the caribou. While their technique with hooves and antlers works well in the fluffy, powder-like snow that falls in dry northern climates, intermediate melting of the snow cover, increased humidity from lack of sea ice and in some cases even freezing rain – make it impossible for caribou to punch through the thick layer of ice in order to get to their food. In 2016, tens of thousands of reindeer died of starvation during exceptional weather conditions. 

Caribou at the Preserve fare quite well even in those exceptional weather conditions. Staff monitor and feed animals daily. In the summer the individuals are able to bulk-up on plenty of high nutrient foods.  It’s important that wild caribou populations have good summer food sources to consume for both the success of their offspring and ultimately their species! Protecting these special places so caribou can thrive has been an on-going effort in the territory and beyond. In the territory and specific to woodland caribou the rebounding Southern Lakes Caribou sub-population has been a long but successful story by many . We have been able to expand our learning and understanding to these animals’ needs, movements and adaptations in a ever changing world.  

Sarah Stuecker

Sarah Stuecker

Wildlife Interpreter

As a wilderness guide, Sarah has spent many days out in the bush over the years. Sitting out there glued to the scope is just as fascinating to her as observing and following animal tracks in the depth of winter, trying to draw conclusions of what this particular critter might have been up to. Sarah is passionately sharing her stories as part of our team of wildlife interpreters. 

 

867-456-7300
 info@yukonwildlife.ca

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