Why do baby elephants eat Mum’s dung?

It is not uncommon to see newborn (young) elephant’s eating the dung of their mother. Many young animals, such as rhinos, hippos, and warthogs rely on faeces to survive and thrive.

Elephants are hindgut fermenters. This means that once their meal has passed through their stomach and small intestine, it enters the large intestine. Here, bacteria generate fermentation, which helps break down the grass and plant matter. 

Baby elephants do not have the necessary microorganisms in their guts to digest plant materials when they are born. The only way for them to get the required digestive bacteria is to eat their mother’s or other herd members’ faeces. This is something we see them do when they are shifting from milk to plant materials.

Water makes up 75 percent of elephant faeces. 25% is made up of indigestible fibres that assist faeces to pass through the digestive system, dead bacteria, salts, dead cells, mucus, and live bacteria (un roughly equal parts). The baby elephants require these live bacteria to improve their immune systems and grow up their digestive systems.

Many African wild animals consume faeces.

A variety of other African animals eats dung. Coprophagia is defined as the eating of faecal matter. The minerals and salt required by the animal are abundant in faeces.

Coprophagia is an unusual and perhaps shocking feeding behaviour to us humans, but many animals practice it regularly.

So, why eat dung? The answer is straightforward. Because animals’ digestive systems digest 100% of what they eat, they are never fully functional. Therefore, their droppings contain nutrients that have not been digested and utilised.

Because hyenas eat bones as part of their diet, scat from hyenas is highly high in calcium. Therefore, hyena scat is often eaten by leopard tortoises, thereby providing calcium for their eggs and hardening their shells.

Rabbits and hares also eat their faeces, sometimes directly from their own rectum, because their digestive systems are too rapid for them to get enough nutrients from food the first time around. So they’ve adapted to eating their faeces in order to receive the nutrients they couldn’t absorb the first time around.