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Volunteers Dissect Coyote Scat For Scientific Research On South Coast

It’s something that doesn’t sound very appealing. But lots of everyday people are doing it. They’re examining coyote poop on the South Coast to help advance scientific research.

About a dozen people from the community have gathered here at the National Park Service Headquarters in Thousand Oaks for a monthly coyote scat party.

“As a kid, I always enjoyed dissection whether that was at science camp or just in high school dissection. I think that’s still fun no matter what age you are,” said Jacob Walker, a recent college graduate who’s pursuing a career in film.  

He is among the volunteers who are analyzing scat to learn more about coyotes’ diet in an effort to reduce conflicts between both coyotes and people and coyotes and pets.

He says he is not turned off by the scat.

“I think maybe it’s not a bad idea to de-stigmatize poop. It doesn’t mean you have to do something gross or unhealthy – just approaching it as a scientist would.”

Michelle Vanegas, who also recently graduated college, is planning to become a high school science teacher. And she says dissecting scat is not repulsive but rather quite fascinating.

“Scat is kind of like taboo. It’s 'oooh, gross, no' like waste. But everything poops. It’s one of the five life processes. You produce waste. It’s what living things do. So, I think it’s a really neat field of study to be able to look at waste and piece together the life of an organism through it," she said.

These citizen scientists are using tweezers, picks, even appliers to dissect what looks like piles of dirt but are, in fact, scat -- that has been sanitized -- from coyotes living in the Thousand Oaks area. 

Justin Brown, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service, says they’re finding that coyotes are eating a wide variety of foods.

“Everything from fruits to vegetation to insects to small mammals – things like black rats, which is an invasive rat -- to squirrels. Rabbits are common. They’re occasionally eating domestic pets. They really do eat a lot of things. Basically, if there’s food out there on the landscape and they can take advantage of it, they will,” he said.

By studying what coyotes eat, he and other researchers will help develop guidelines that can advise land managers, scientists and the public. For example, they may recommend what foods should not be grown nor left outside in order to keep coyotes away.

“Coyotes have shown that they can live almost anywhere. They move in very quickly. They reproduce at very high levels. They’re pretty much here to stay, so we have to learn how to live with them. This information will hopefully help that,” Brown said.

The results will be compared to a simultaneous study happening in the Los Angeles basin where coyotes deal with more traffic, more people and fewer open spaces.

As for why the public is participating in this research project, Brown says it couldn’t be done without members of the community pitching in.

“It takes a lot of time to dissect scats and look through them.  So, by having everyone help, it’s kind of a way we can get a good sample size and answer questions accurately,” Brown said.

While these citizen scientists are making important contributions to better understand, manage, and conserve coyotes, many, like Vanegas, are also enjoying it.

"Another tool that I can gain to keep learning about the natural world and share it with other people,” she said.

One of the interesting findings so far is that coyotes in certain areas are eating a lot of figs and grapes.  That tells researchers that those coyotes are getting into people’s backyards or trash cans.