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Anatomy & physiology

Coprophagy in leporids and other mammalian herbivores


Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, Hitsujigaoka 7, Toyohira, Sapporo 


Leporids have long been known to reingest soft faeces. However, it was recently found that they regularly reingest hard faeces, too. During the daytime, both soft and hard faeces are defecated and all of the faeces are reingested. Excreted at night are the hard faeces, which are normally discarded but reingested in starvation. The separation mechanism in the proximal colon, which diverts fine particles into the caecum and thus only passes large food particles, produces hard faeces. When the mechanism ceases acting, fermented caecal materials are excreted as soft faeces. The reingestion of soft faeces, rich in vitamins and microbial proteins, is physiologically imperative. Hard faeces are basically a refuse, but their thorough mastication at reingestion reduces poorly digestible large particles to fine ones good for fermentation. The regular reingestion of daytime hard faeces thus promotes food digestibility. The temporary use of night-time hard faeces allows leporids to do without food for some time. It thus gives leporids behavioural flexibility and thereby an ecological advantage. Reingestion is also known in other small- to medium-sized herbivores, which are all caecal fermenters. Morphological differentiation between faeces is reported only in larger species, but all ingested faeces are found to be richer in nutrients than discarded ones. Thus a separation mechanism is probably present in all reingesting species. Reingestion activity is deeply related to other behavioural and physiological traits of small mammalian herbivores, hence its study is important to understanding of their ecology and biology. Leporids are the largest of the reingesting species except for the semi-aquatic Coypu, and reingestion by leporids is certainly the most sophisticated. This development of a reingestion-involved digestive system has probably brought them to their present niche,as terrestrial medium-sized generalist mammalian herbivores, and consequently made their characteristic hide-and-run lifeforms by exposing them to a strong predation pressure.