©1997 Melissa Kaplan
Coprophagy (copro = excrement, dung; phagy = one that eats) in reptiles is not well documented. Neonate prehensile tails skinks (Corusia zebrata), who spend a considerable length of time in association with their mothers after they are born, have been seen to eat the mother's feces (Burghardt et al. 1995). Hatchling green iguanas (Iguana iguana) have also been seen to ingest other iguana feces. While it has been shown that green iguana clutchmates recognize each other (Werner et al. 1987), it isn't known if they are eating the feces of their clutchmates, or that of other iguanas. It was previously held that iguanas need to eat the feces in order to establish their gut bacteria, and that they would not be able to eat food until they do so. However, hatchling iguanas, like other oviparous reptiles, continue to live off the remains of their yolk sac for at least a week after they hatch, during which time they will take little, if any, other food. In addition, despite some old books and caresheets out there, green iguana hatchlings are raised successfully in captivity without having been "inoculated" with adult feces (see Fecal Inoculation below).
Coprophagy is generally rare in reptiles. Frye (1991) reports it in some tortoises, such as the sulcata (Geochelone sulcata) and desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii and G. Berlandieri), as well as in the cobra (Naja melanoleuca) and a garter snake (Thamnophis). The coprophagous tendencies of sulcatas is well known to sulcata keepers who also have dogs; if left to do so, some sulcatas would cheerfully clean up their yard of all dog feces. Other than a few references to coprophagy in hatchling iguanas, there are no references that I have found addressing to coprophagy in adolescent and adult iguanas.
in Green Iguanas
My sense (which may or may not bear out) is that the feces eating of these green iguanas starts about the time that sexual maturity hits, and ends after the initial body chemistry changes. In my iguanas, it was the male who ate the female's feces; the female was never observed eating her own or any other iguana's feces. Other iguana keepers report episodes of iguanas of both sexes engaging in coprophagy, with an episode consisting of just one or a only a few events of feces-eating.
Figuring out when they are doing it still sheds no light on why they are doing it. If it is indeed occurring about the time of onset of sexual maturity, it may have to do with something related to the undetectable-to-us changes in hormones in the iguana whose feces is being eaten, or an attempt by the eater to detect such changes. In some mammalian species, males will flehman (a characteristic set of facial movements apparently reflecting the transfer of the scent to a vomeronasal organ in the roof of the mouth) when investigating the urine and other secretions of sexually mature female conspecifics, apparently in the attempt to determine if they are ready for mating. It may be that the coprophagy of the adolescent/adult iguana is something along the same lines. If so, one is left wondering why it only seems to happen during the first breeding season and not subsequent ones (based on observation and anecdotal reports).
A few iguana keepers have reported feces-eating done seemingly as an alternative to poop-painting or surfing, when the iguana, who is mad or upset with the keeper for some reason, pointedly eating feces when the keeper is watching, just he or she may at other times smear feces all over the enclosure or area ("painting") or deliberately walk back and forth through it ("surfing") before trying to cuddle with or otherwise climb on the keeper
Salmonella, of course, can be transferred this way. One iguana keeper I know lost most of her hatchlings when she "inoculate" the hatchlings with the feces of one of her apparently healthy adults. It turned out that the adult had more Salmonella than the immature immune systems of the baby iguanas could cope with.
Salmonella could potentially be a problem when it comes to keepers who have a habit of kissing their iguanas on the mouth.
There is a danger in feeding adult feces to hatchling iguanas in captivity: if the adult feces contains high levels of parasites or bacteria such as Salmonella, these organisms are ingested by the hatchlings who may become ill if they ingest high loads of these organisms. One woman I know many years ago followed her vet's recommendation to feed her hatchlings adult feces: all died from acute Salmonella infection.
If your iguana needs a temporary boost in gut organisms, as many do during or after a course of antibiotics, there are safer ways to do it: feed small amounts of liquid acidophilus or nonfat yogurt with live cultures. This is discussed more fully in the Emaciation (Starvation) Protocol article.
Burghardt, GM, and DG Layne. 1995. Effects of ontogenetic process and rearing conditions. In, Health and Welfare of Captive Reptiles. C. Warwick, FL Frye, and JB Murphy (eds.). Chapman & Hall, London. pp. 165-185.
Frye, FL. 1991. Reptiles: An atlas of diseases and treatment. TFH, Neptune City, NJ. 637 p.
Werner, DI, EM Baker, E Gonzalez, I. Sosa. 1987. Kinship recognition and grouping in hatchling green iguanas. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 21:83-89.
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