Ever wondered why our poo is brown, why the Egyptians worshipped dung beetles, or which animals you can find in a cow pat? Call of Nature: The Secret Life of Dung is the latest and smelliest literary offering from noted ‘Bugman’ Richard Jones, author of numerous successful wildlife books such as Nano Nature (2008) and House Guests, House Pests (2015).
The opening chapters of Call of Nature explore the fundamentals of faeces: what it is, how it is made and why we do it. While this could have been a simple human biology lesson, Jones straddles the line between funny, foul and factual to keep it interesting and I certainly learned more about my own bowels than I expected to.
After this journey through the human digestive system, the book covers the history and technological advancement of human waste disposal in quite some detail. I had first thought that this book would focus on the wild side of defecation, but I was intrigued to find that this first third of the book mostly covers dung from the human perspective. One stand-out nugget of this early section was learning of the existence of a llama-poo fuelled steamship in Peru, surely a treat for everyone.
The middle third of the book largely focuses on the ecological role of dung and the animals that exploit it. Right from the start of the book, Jones proclaims his undying love for dung beetles and by the end of this section you can begin to see why. Beyond the surprising beauty and diversity of dung beetles throughout the world, their role in community ecology and agriculture is staggeringly important. In addition to the descriptions of dung beetle lifecycles and behaviours, Jones provides summaries of the potential evolutionary forces that drove the development of dung-reliant lifestyles going right back to the dinosaurs. This section isn’t only a love-letter to dung beetles, as the culturally-misunderstood dung flies and a handful of other animals also get their moments in the spotlight.
The last few chapters of Call of Nature are a collection of illustrated guides to identifying dung and the animals that can be found alongside it. Whilst interesting to flick through, these pages might be of particular use for those wanting to go out and act on their coprophilous curiosity. The final chapter is a wonderful scatological dictionary; it brings back memories of hunting for dirty words in the dictionary at school, except that in here, they’re all dirty.
The real joy of this book is the inclusion of Jones’ personal anecdotes. Through his recollections of childhood insect encounters and voyages around the world, you really get a sense of his fascination with the topic. As well as these engaging stories, most of the book is written in a fun and friendly tone that wouldn’t feel out of place in a chat over a pint in the pub. There is undeniably a childish enjoyment that accompanies the faecal facts of this book; one that immediately reminded me of South Park’s own homage to the ‘Circle of Poo’, only this book is somewhat more accurate and has fewer talking turds.
The one niggling criticism I have is that the middle third of the book is a thorough exploration of the subtle differences between dung beetle and dung fly species, which can become rather dense and there were a few times that I found myself scanning for a new topic of discussion. On a similar note, there are a number of insect-plate illustrations throughout the book to bring the chapters alive, but where particularly stunning coloured beetles are mentioned, I wish there were a few photos included to give extra emphasis to their written descriptions.
Overall, Call of Nature is an interesting voyage of exploration from the formation of one animal’s waste to its essential role in creating new life for others. This book would make a great addition to any entomologist’s bookshelf and a thought-provoking read for anyone simply curious about crap. I’m just glad it’s not scratch-and-sniff.