When someone first uttered the term coprophagia at me, my initial response was a polite “bless you”. It was in my early training years, when older and wiser guides would throw out unpronounceable words whenever our young training group got cheeky. A smack down of vocabulary was their only defense against our rambunctious energy. The word piqued my interest, but it was the meaning that stuck with me. Coprophagia – the process of consuming faeces. What animal would exhibit such behaviour and what would be the point? This question awoke my first realisation that nature has an answer and a purpose for everything, no matter how bizarre it seems.
Brown hyaena are a beautiful but elusive nocturnal scavenger of the southern Kalahari. Slightly smaller in size than their spotted relative, they share the same trait of having jaw power that can crush bone. Their stomach then finishes off the process by digesting the bone particles, to a point that allows them to pass the bone comfortably through their system. The result of which is a ‘scat’, that once dried by the sun, shines bright white due to the high calcium content.
Enter the tortoise, in this case the leopard tortoise. A reptile that relies heavily on their shell for protection against the elements and predators. Made of keratin, the healthy growth of the shell is reliant on calcium in the diet. This shy reptile has figured out that hyaena scat, in all its dried-out goodness, has some wonderful left-over calcium just waiting to be consumed!