It’s not always pretty

I recently realized how much my blogging focused on the more attractive aspects of nature.  What a shame!  Any true naturalist worth the label will spend as much time picking through scat and vomit, let alone investigating carcasses, as they will admiring the mimetic properties of certain moths or the varied glories of warbler songs.

Nature isn’t always pretty.  In fact, it’s often full of things people find horrifying or disgusting.  To appreciate it all—the good and the bad—is a sign of a true naturalist.  Because discoveries and knowledge can be found in both the beautiful and the terrible.  I would just as readily show a dead animal or a parasitized live animal as I would a slithering snake in good health.  Yet I haven’t shown much of the bad.  So now it’s time to fix that.

In the deep coastal woods that define the Dagger Point Trail of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, I came upon a fresh bit of evidence that something had been suffering from an upset stomach.

Coyote vomit (2010_01_12_048659)

The whole mass was about the size of two fists.  That’s a lot of grass.  Given how much whole grass there was, it seems most likely to have been a canid.  And given the location, that means a coyote (Canis latrans).

Research on canids eating grass has resulted in an interesting truth: how they eat it determines what happens next.  If they nibble and chew the grass, it goes down like everything else and is processed normally; this seems to be a way of augmenting their diet (adding roughage as it were).  But when they gulp it down—swallow the grass whole—it becomes their syrup of ipecac, essentially acting as an emetic (something that induces vomiting).

Coyote vomit (2010_01_12_048662)

Digging through the wet pile revealed nothing more than grass with some twigs and some dead leaves.  A few bits might have been bone and a few might have been fur, but honestly there was too little of the non-grass stuff to make heads or tails of.  Well, that and it was all glued together with saliva and gastric juices that melded it all into a sort of turf stew.  I suppose the coyote in question had suffered from an upset stomach long enough to have nothing else to throw up except the grass it ate to cure its ailment.

It’s fascinating to realize canine species learn this emetic trick and use it when necessary.  Most people associate it with dogs since that’s the only experience they’ll have with it, but it’s obvious their genetic cousins also practice this home remedy to cure tummy problems.

OK, I understand if you need something to cleanse your visual and mental palates after that, so here’s a great egret (Ardea alba) to leave you with a better taste in your brain.

A great egret (Ardea alba) standing in a shallow bay (2009_10_03_030090)

Like the coyote in question, I hope you feel better now.

7 thoughts on “It’s not always pretty”

  1. I am proud to be among the people who bend over piles of previously-ingested matter on the trail and poke through it with a stick. I like to think of it as an adorable trait. Dissenting people can keep their opinions to themselves. They usually do, too.

  2. Not much goes unturned or unstirred when I’m hiking. Scat is usually the only trace of bears, pumas and skunks but it tells a bit of their story. Our big Sonoran Desert Toads leave a whole voucher collection of local arthropods – if you are good enough to id from accumulated head capsules…

  3. Well, shoot – I was hoping you’d find some cool beetles in that mess.

    Honestly, I don’t think I ever walk by a carcass or pile of doo or regurgitant without stirring through it or flipping over. One time I was surprised to find some small dung beetles in a fresh roadkilled cottonmouth. One of my more impressive ‘yuck’ experiences was finding a seething migrating mass of maggots moving through a bottomland forest – they covered an area around 2 feet wide and 6 feet long and were obviously moving in one direction together. I could not find a carcass anywhere nearby – they must have moved quite a distance. Why!?

  4. That’s pretty fascinating, Jason. I’ve always associated grass-eating (and the subsequent throwing-up) with cats, since they’re the animals I’ve lived with most. Since getting a dog, we’ve seen Raven nibble at grass but never much. I hadn’t realized there were different ways they used it.

  5. I do feel much better–now that I have an explanation for the slimy grass piles I keep finding in the driveway.

    I’ve had this conversation with my more-squeamish-than-me husband: “I’m gonna rummage in this with a stick. Maybe you should just keep walking…”

  6. My dog Jack has two methods of eating grass. Sometimes he nibbles the ends, lightly grazing. It’s never much. The tiniest salad really. And there’s no vomiting. However when he has a stomach upset of any kind… and we’re generally alert on these occasions because his innards make quite a noise when unsettled… he makes for the grass in a big hurry, tearing away long strands and gobbling them up. He’ll continue this activity for a few minutes until he begins to heave and brings forth a heap of grass and bile, just as in the photographs above. At which point he usually looks rather pleased with himself. I’ve found that there’s almost nothing else of note in these little green bundles (Jack has a fairly simple and regulated diet) moreover there’s no unpleasant smell. The grass is barely down him before it’s back up again. But then again, even when he brings up a partially digested meal… which can happen if he eats too much and too late… then there is none of the unpleasant smell that I associate with human vomit. More of a slightly sweet, mealy odour, which of course may just be to do with his what we feed him.

    Sorry to foist these observations on the unwary reader, but I offer them in the spirit of this post.

    But just to finish off this comment, the other week I was on a walk with some friends who have taken on a two year old black Labrador. The Lab, rootling about in a hedgerow, found the corpse of a long-dead rabbit, a creature that looked like a wet seal pup, so far gone was it. The smell of decomposition fifteen feet downwind of the remains was enough to fell an ox. We all reeled. But the Lab swallowed it whole, flipping the corpse mid-air to send it down head first. (This had been a big rabbit, and to swallow it whole looked nigh-on impossible.) Jack, who was present, literally stepped backwards at this display of carrion consumption. I swear he looked disgusted! Later when we got back to our house, our friends elected to put their dog into their car instead of bringing him inside, just in case he was sick. I didn’t demur. The memory of the smell made me quite sure I didn’t want that long-dead rabbit deposited under the table in our kitchen! But they regularly checked the he car to make sure the dog was OK, and some four hours after the incident, the malodorous meal was still inside him! He must have a cast-iron digestive system!

  7. hee hee. I’m guilty of focusing on the purty stuff, too. Though I have an excessive amount of pictures os scat, scat and more scat. so much fun to identify. i have been chastised before for poking a pile of bear crap. by another biologist – come on, man! biologists can’t help poking poop! luckily i don’t get grossed out by weird nature stuff, only weird people stuff. ew! i definitely enjoyed this one, Jason!

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