Our planet is running out of poop.
Thousands of years ago, giant mammals, whales and other larger-than-life creatures inhabited the Earth, scattering their nutrient-rich feces wherever they felt like squatting.
Over time, these animals disappeared, plagued by declines and mass extinction. As life on Earth evolved and farming became prevalent, other animals, like sheep and cattle, were put behind fences and kept from roaming.
Without these free-roaming “megafauna” — and their poop — the Earth’s nutrient recycling system has been damaged, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In layman’s terms: there are fewer poopers moving these nutrients from concentrated areas, like the ocean floor, to places where nutrients are hard to come by.
The research focuses mostly on phosphorous, which is used to fertilize plants.
Whales, according to the study, used to bring up about 750 million pounds of the element to the ocean’s surface each year by feeding on the ocean’s floor and then pooping near the surface. Today, mostly due to human hunting of whales, that contribution has been reduced to 165 million pounds.
Less phosphorous on the surface means less phosphorous for fish to eat. Other animals eat the fish — and then poop, spreading the phosphorous across a wide area.
But some animal populations — like bison — are reversing the trend, spreading phosphorus far and wide
“Recovery is possible and important,” Roman said. “That’s achievable. It might be a challenge policy-wise, but it’s certainly within our power to bring back herds of bison to North America. That’s one way we could restore an essential nutrient pathway.”