Talking to Others

By Bob Engel, Marlboro College Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science

About fifteen years ago, I had a remarkable student named Cristina.  She had come from Botswana, Africa to study at Marlboro.  Her thesis work took her back there, and she studied Brown Hyenas and their behavior.  I ran into these same hyenas in Namibia, where they penetrate the driest part of one of the driest deserts in the world.
        Cristina studied their poop, which they usually deposited in something we call a latrine.  The poop builds up, and not just with hyena poop.  Other, usually smaller, carnivores also left offerings at the latrines.  Why was this happening?
        Communication.  Any hyena who came along could tell instantly that another had been there (some of their anal secretions, which they paste on grass stems, remain potent to the very mediocre human nose for more than a month).  Presumably, clan members could identify one another and the recentness of a visit.  Further, any brown hyena could tell that this part of the desert was not empty and might have already been scoured for food (usually carrion).
        One final point is that the latrines are not randomly arranged.  They are usually on the south side (shady side) of a tree…a landmark.
        Back here in Marlboro, Vermont, we two put our kitchen compost (everything) about 300 feet from the house.  The driveway is nearby, and each morning on my “constitutional,” I admire any droppings that appear on our long driveway.  People come every night for the compost.  These days, most of the visitors are gray foxes.  Their scat is identifiable (in summer) by the foxes’s well developed omnivory — apples are selling well right now — and by its diameter of about a half inch.  Less common, and they used to predominate here, are coyote droppings with more hair (one was full of course, brown deer hair) and a diameter closer to an inch.
        The other frequent difference between a fox and a coyote is that the former may be much choosier about where to place their little bundles of information.  My informal count is that the foxes put their droppings on stones or hillocks at least half the time.  Not a tree in a barren desert, mind you, but a hard-to-miss landmark all the same.
        So here we are back to chemical communication.  “I am here; I make a living here, I am a female; and I am not in estrous.  Bug off.”  Could there me more?  Obviously, the dropping is a bit of a menu, telling any inspector what there is to eat, and the density of the droppings (two to three every night) might say something about either the density of foxes, the abundance of seasonal foods, or both.  There may also be small amounts of stress hormones to be considered.
        What was new for me this morning is that a fresh set of droppings was carefully placed right on top of another, larger offering that had been there for a couple of days.  The older was bigger in diameter, full of apples and brown, not dark, with cherries, like the new stuff.
        So what was the deal here?  Same animal?  Possible; maybe it found some cherries.  But there are still abundant apples.  If they are two different animals, I can imagine that the second fox is not intimidated by the first, and has expressed those sentiments clearly.