Book Review: Marine Mammal Tracks and Scats

Marine Mammal Tracks and Scats: A Field Guide to North American Species, by Ostermund I. Fuhl, Feaux•Afield Guides (, 2012, 401 pages, $24.95


At long last, a field guide has come along that plumbs the steaming underbelly of Neptune’s Kingdom, the murky depths of which neither The Island of the Blue Dolphin nor Free Willy dared tread. With Marine Mammal Tracks and Scats: A Field Guide to North American Species, Dr. Ostermund I. Fuhl, Ph.D., takes the tracks and scats field guide genre to new depths, delivering the straight poop on remote tracking and identifying marine mammals adrift at sea.

Following in the footsteps of such greats as cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber or anthropologist/primatologist Jane Goodall, in the late 80’s Fuhl embedded himself among the elder huntsmen of a pre-contact Inupiat–Yupik (Eskimo) coastal village in northern Alaska along the Avatanak Bight. There, whether leap-frogging between ice floes in search of polar poo or daring hypothermia in the circumpolar pools of the Arctic shadowing bearded seals, Fuhl perfected the trade of open water tracking and scat identification – a burgeoning field of marine biology known as thalassohodoscatology – first-hand (literally; Fuhl lost his right thumb, both index fingers, and the distal lobe of his right ear to frost bite).

Upon his return to the mainland in 2008, Fuhl presented his work at the 2009 Decennial Association of Scatological Studies Convention in Munich, Germany, where he was lauded for his innovative analysis of maritime sign. After first adapting his work into a field manual for fellow thalassohodoscatologists, Fuhl quickly recognized thalassohodoscatology’s broader appeal and painstakingly adapted the manual into a field guide, tailoring it to lighthouse keepers, charter boat captains, whale watching tour operators, Navy Seals, fur trappers, deep sea welders, purse-seine tuna fisherman, offshore oil prospectors, transcontinental pilots, marine park curators, castaways, privateers, Greenpeace activists, and Russian whaling fleets.

Following the introduction, in which he recounts the adventures and exploits of his 22 years at sea under the wing of elder Qorviq “Willy” Ihun, Fuhl takes the plunge into the physics of what has, until recently, been considered an impossible feat: keying out narwhal wakes, untangling humpback bubble nets, and reconstituting sea otter plops in the precious seconds before they’re dashed to flotsam in the high seas. In the following chapters (The Physical Properties of Marine Sign; Dissemination, Decomposition, & Dissipation; Principles of Thermohaline Circulation), Fuhl begins by examining sign propagation and permanence (its floating shelf-life asea) as a function of thermoclinal refraction, wind and water turbulence, ocean current velocity, the Coriolis Effect (like on land, marine scat circulates the porcelain seas clockwise in the northern hemisphere), kinematic viscosity, diffusion gradients, and lunar phase. Using over 30,000 seaborne stool samples, archival marine snow indices, and historical ship’s logs, Fuhl has painstakingly tabulated each North American marine mammal species’ typical sign permanence based on its scats’ post-dispersal colloidal phase stability; rate of sedimentation, aggregation, and flocculation; buoyancy quotient; and dietary composition.

From discharge to dissipation, the remainder of Fuhl’s opus follows standard field guide fare: natural history accounts for each species accompanied by stippled, pen-and-ink wake-type diagrams and full-color plates of representative wild deuces, each annotated with Fuhl’s pioneering ephemerality equivalence equation – the “E³ half-life” – key to determining a given species’ poop-permanence. Tabbed pages, a color-coded poo-hue color wheel, and an extensive index allow aspiring thalassohodoscatologists to look up Flipper flops and Moby dookies with ease.

While field testing his preliminary E³ half-lives in the Puget Sound in the spring of 2011, Fuhl came into a pod of resident killer whales (I pod) foraging for salmon in the strait. After herding fish, breaching, and spy-hopping in the surrounding waters for over 2 hours, the matriarch – I2 – dove beneath Fuhl’s research vessel, the Starboard Bowel, venting a cloud of Chinook chowder as she passed. Knowing the orcas’ E³ half-life (47 seconds), Fuhl’s team had a Zodiac in the water and their nets wet in record time. The sample was overnighted to a lab in Virginia for testing. After three months of careful analysis, the lab confirmed for Fuhl with unqualified certainty the identity of the sample’s originator: a killer whale. Fuhl was ecstatic. “Despite the 22-plus years of sweat and tears I’ve poured into my work, I’ve had my doubts about the utility of the E³ half-life. Now, having seen it in action, I can say to the world, ‘My shit don’t sink'”.

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  1. #1 by Kim on April 15, 2012 - 9:19 pm

    This is awesome! 🙂

  2. #2 by Matthew Bettelheim on May 3, 2012 - 8:52 am

    Thanks! It was a fun review to write…

  3. #3 by Matthew Bettelheim on May 3, 2012 - 8:53 am


    …Fuhl’s research vessel, the Little Deuce Coupe…


    …Fuhl’s research vessel, the Poop Sloop…

  4. #4 by Kim on May 3, 2012 - 9:32 am

    Hahaha! Great stuff!

  5. #5 by Melissa on March 7, 2013 - 6:10 pm

    This article made me think of you and this posting. It does exist!

    (The lady mentioned in the article is heading up our canine scent detection group.)

  6. #6 by Matthew Bettelheim on March 8, 2013 - 6:48 am

    Aha! A fellow thalassohodoscatologist – you ought to recommend Fuhl’s guide to her.

    Too bad dog’s can’t read…

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