Coprolites: A Few Words On Prehistoric Turds
Coprolites, or fossilized excrement, is commonly found throughout the world – somewhat surprising considering the ephemeral nature of the source. Though the process of mineralization has made them hard and (thankfully) odorless, coprolites can still tell us much about the extinct creatures who created them so long ago.
Living In A World Of Poop
If one considers the number of living creatures who have walked, trod, swam and flown through Life’s billion-year reign, it’s a wonder we’re not up to our eyes in excrement today! Or maybe we are and just don’t know it. When excrement fossilizes, minerals replace the organic matter and to the casual observer the result (a coprolite) is indistinguishable from a rock, stone or pebble. Paleontologists and the rather more specialized Paleoscatologists, however, know turds from treasure when they see them. Sometimes, in fact, the former can be the latter!
Meet Karen Chin, one of the world’s most well-known paleoscatologists – she’ll understand if you don’t want to shake hands. Chin is the curator of paleontology at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder – no pun intended – and her work with dinosaur coprolites has enlightened us to some important aspects of dinosaur behavior and lifestyles.
For example, Chin noted worm tracks in coprolites that indicated the big beasts were afflicted by worms and other intestinal parasites. She also discovered bones – both whole and crushed – in T Rex’s fossil dung that indicate the dainty-fingered dino wasn’t a dilettante when it came to downing its dinner.
Ex-Stinkers From The Extinct
Coprolites have been found to have come from all manner of creatures, great and small, fish or fowl, but dinosaur coprolites seem to have inspired the most interest and fascination. Perhaps seeing their poop brings these large, fearsome creatures down to size, so to speak. Maybe it’s just that for most of us excreta is a passing thing – yet these dino dumps appear pretty much “as left” even though they first saw the light of day tens of millions of years ago.
Paleoscatologists state that coprolites from carnivores are more easily preserved than those from herbivores – a somewhat surprising fact given that some of said plant-eaters were the largest creatures to have ever walked the Earth. Cretaceous carnivores were no lightweights however, and that goes for their dung as well.
The monster loaf above was thought to have been pinched by a Tyrannosaurus Rex some 65 million years ago, presumably during a commercial break. Discovered in 1995 by Wendy Sloboda of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, the dino dropping measures 17.6 by 6.4 by 5.2 inches (44 x 16 x 13 cm) and weighs over 15.5 pounds (7 kg).
Mammoth Dung: A BIG Problem
Mammoths and Mastodons were big, they ate during the bulk of their waking hours – and they ate in bulk, period. What goes in, must come out as the old saying goes, and it’s likely these extinct shaggy pachyderms had a significant impact on their environment. Images of several fossilized “impacts” are shown above.
(image via: Green Diary)
It doesn’t take long (on a geologic scale) for dung to fossilize and in some cases the process is over and done with in just a few hundred years. Not so in the earth’s frozen tundra where generations of Woolly Mammoths roamed for hundreds of thousands of years, doing what Woolly Mammoths do… and doodoo. Some scientists speculate that as global warming heats up the Arctic, dormant microbes in the dung could wake up and go back to work, in the process spewing forth significant amounts of methane. Kinda like letting your dog do his business in the yard all winter and next spring when the snow melts… uh oh.
Regurgitalites: Jurassic Barf
Closely related to coprolites are Regurgitalites, or mineralized vomitus. If that’s not plain enough for you, we’ll call a spade a spade: fossilized vomit. One of the most, er, exciting regurgitalite finds occurred in 2002 when Peter Doyle of the University of Greenwich described a conglomeration of belemnite skeletons believed to have been coughed up by a marine reptile called Ichthyosaurus approximately 160 million years ago.
Belemnites are ancient relatives of squid that had hard, calcified skeletal structures. It’s thought that once a certain number of these shells had accumulated within an ichthyosaur’s stomach, it would vomit them up much the way owls do with indigestible rodent bones. As for the British regurgitalite, Doyle stated that “We believe this is the first time the existence of fossil vomit on a grand scale has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.”
Pseudocoprolites: If It Ain’t Crap, It’s Crap
Sometimes what looks like a coprolite is really just a crappy rock. Various geological processes can conspire to create these so-called pseudocoprolites, most involve water and a variety of chemical reactions. Paleontologists and paleoscatologists can determine if a coprolite is the real deal by examining it under a microscope and by treating it with chemical agents. Coprolites of carnivores will have a high calcium phosphate content due to their high bone content.
Ground Sloths: Paleofeces Of The Pleistocene
Giant Ground Sloths were once relatively common in North and South America, and were the poster kids of the megafauna. Some species weighed up to 5 tons and stood up to 20 feet tall. Though most giant ground sloths died out thousands of years ago, a few may have survived in Cuba and on some Caribbean islands up until the mid 16th century. These massive creatures liked to make their dens in sheltered caves – those in dry or desert regions contain remarkably preserved samples of their dung.
(images via: Cryptomundo)
These massive creatures died out too recently for their dung to become completely fossilized as coprolites. Instead, what friable droppings remain are described as “paleofeces”. Samples found in Arizona caves have been extremely well preserved, and a cave in Chile was found to contain not only paleofeces but surprisingly fresh-looking sloth skin and hair. The photo above shows the interior of one of the best-known Arizona “sloth caves” with piles of dung scattered across the cave floor – not a candidate for a Good Housekeeping profile. No recent, color photos of the cave exist because a careless human smoker accidentally started a fire in the cave which consumed most of the flammable dung.
Dung Deposit Leaves Ancient Viking Thor
Human coprolites? In my bank? It’s not the deposit one normally expects to find but workers digging a new bank vault for Lloyds Bank in York, England back in 1972, found exactly that. At first, the 9-inch (23cm) long object was thought to be a chunk of old refinery slag but upon further investigation it was determined to be a rather large mineralized human excrement over 1,000 years old. According to paleoscatologist Andrew Jones, “This is the most exciting piece of excrement I’ve ever seen. In its own way, it’s as valuable as the Crown Jewels.” No shi-, er, no kidding!
The area of northeastern England including the town of York was under Viking occupation in the 10th century so it’s reasonable to assume the originator was a Viking. The Lloyds Bank Coprolite‘s impressive length and girth led student conservator Gill Snape to comment “Whoever passed it probably hadn’t performed for a few days, shall we say.” This makes sense, what with all the rape, pillage and games against the Packers that kept the Vikings busy. The coprolite is currently on display at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, which invites you to come face to feces with the Vikings.
Who’s Laughing Now?
A remarkable discovery in Gladysvale Cave near Johannesburg, South Africa, has extended the age of the oldest found human hair from 9,000 years to over 200,000 years – thanks to the caveman’s ancient nemesis, the hyena. The hairs – about 40 of them – were discovered when coprolites of prehistoric Brown Hyenas were dissolved and analyzed. As the only human (hominid, to be exact) species known to inhabit the area 200,000 years ago was Homo Heidelbergensis, thought to be ancestral to Neanderthal Man, it’s extremely likely the hairs were ingested by a hyena that either killed one of our ancestors or scavenged a predeceased carcass.
When Poop Mines Were Goldmines
Not the most prestigious address perhaps, but the sign above marks a curious chapter in British history: the Great Coprolite Rush of 1849! It seems that in the early 1840s, coprolites aplenty were discovered in the hills of Suffolk, England. Processing with sulfuric acid released copious amounts of phosphates which were used for fertilizer. Most of the refining took place in the city of Ipswich, where the above street sign is located.
(image via: Suffolk Booklover)
The coprolite industry declined in the 1880s when other, less expensive methods of producing phosphates were discovered but Ipswich holds dear to its unusual claim to fame – and woe be it that anyone call the town a dump.
Polishing A Turd
Who says you can’t polish a turd? Some may be familiar with jewelry made from polished dinosaur bones but coprolite jewelry is also available from the same manufacturers – and is often quite beautiful. Thank the natural process of mineralization for providing the coprolites with such a wide range of contrasting and complementary colors… and thank the dinosaurs for taking time out to produce those gaudy baubles in the first place.
As long as we’re co-opting old expressions, how about “I don’t know whether to sh*t or wind my watch”? Now you can do both… well, sort of, courtesy of the Dinosaur Dung watch from Artya. The Swiss-made timepiece features a polished coprolite face sourced from a herbivorous dinosaur’s dung dropped 100 million years ago. A bronze casing chosen to match the “warm and matchless tints” of dinosaur dung and a strap made from American Cane Toad skin completes this piece of… art? All for only $11,900.
Whew, I need a break, and not that kind of break if you know what I mean. Writing about poop can leave one feeling flushed, pooped even, but it does stimulate some speculation such as: how appropriate it is that remains… remain? Coprolites offer us a unique way to get down & dirty with the daily details of ancient life – without all the actual down & dirtyness working with fresh pre-coprolites entrails. I mean entails. That’s it, I’m outta here.