What-o-phagy? Finding nutrients in some unlikely places

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Osteophagy, geophagy, coprophagy. What about myrmecophagy? It might sound like a new language, but any word that ends with the suffix, -phagy, describes the consumption of specified foods. Animal’s bodies are complex machines and require complex fuels in order to sustain themselves. Sometimes these complex fuels cannot be found in the animal’s regular diet and so nutritional balance is obtained by ingesting some obscure things, giving rise to some strange behaviours.

Bone of contention

Giraffes are often seen chewing and sucking on bones that they have found lying in the bush. A carnivorous giraffe perhaps? No. Just giraffes practicing osteophagia (the eating of bones) in order to gain extra minerals in their diet such as calcium and phosphorous. Hyenas also practice osteophagy and use their crushing jaws to consume and digest bones The faeces of spotted hyenas is white once dried due to the bone and calcium content. Tortoises have often been observed feeding on hyena dung to gain further minerals in their diets. In effect, the tortoise is technically practicing both osteophagy and coprophagy (the consumption of faeces). This is a great example of the complexities of life in the bush and the interrelationships between species (whether in life or in death).

Giraffe practicing osteophagy (Photo credit: Unknown)


Feeding on faeces

Coprophagy is also seen commonly in rabbits and hares. Lacking a complex digestive system, rabbits extract extra nutrition from grass by giving their food a second pass through the gut. When they first defecate, the faeces are dark, almost black in colour and covered in mucus. These faecal pellets are known as a cecotropes, “soft faeces” or “night faeces”. Cecotropes have high protein content and are also high in vitamin B12. When re-consumed, the extra nutrients are absorbed by the small intestine and a second, harder faeces is then passed. This second faeces is the one you will find when walking in the veld (or in your pet rabbits hutch). The cecotropes are consumed directly from the anus. Nice.

So what about geophagia? Well geo- is the prefix denoting “earth”. Geochemistry, the study of the Earth’s chemistry. Geology, the study of the Earth. Geophagy, the consumption of earth of soil-like substrates such as clay and chalk. Geophagy is observed commonly in the bushveld, with many antelope species eating soil in order to gain vitamins and minerals that are lacking in its diet. Often this soil is eaten in a sodic (sodium rich) area where salts have accumulated over the years.

Adapted for ants

Myrmecophagy is the eating of ants or termites. Evolutionary trends in ant-eating animals include a loss or extreme simplification of the dental structure, strong claws and an extendable tongue. In the bushveld, this includes animals such as the Pangolin and Aardvark. Both of these animals have adapted in morphology in order to make use of one food source, ants!

As environmental conditions change, the availability of resources in the bush goes through peaks and troughs. Sometimes, nutrients are plentiful, sometimes nutrients are scarce. Animals have to be adaptable and seize opportunities for obtaining nutrients in some unlikely places. Whether it be through eating faeces or chewing on bones, vitamins and minerals need to be consumed in order to maintain normal bodily function and sustain the complex machinery that is an animals body.


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