To study prehistoric animals like dinosaurs, scientists rely on bones, teeth, and other body fossils.
While they can be very instructive, these body fossils don’t tell us everything there is to know about these prehistoric animals.
Pieces of bones and even well-preserved, almost-complete body fossils only tell us what the animal looked like when it was alive and might provide some clues about their ecosystem.
But animals are more than how they look.
To truly understand prehistoric animals, we have to uncover information about their diet, how they digested food, and the interactions they had with other animals within their ecosystem.
For these, scientists rely on a weird but fascinating type of fossil known as coprolite.
That’s the fancy word to describe fossilized feces, and this type of fossil is more common than you might think.
In this article, we’ll explore the concept of fossilized feces to understand what it is and its significance to paleontologists.
What is Coprolite?
Coprolites are essentially remnants of animal waste material preserved in ancient rocks.
They’re fossilized poops of animals that lived several million years ago and have undergone years of geological transformation to become something valuable for our study of these ancient animals.
Coprolites come in various shapes and sizes, and they reflect the diversity of the prehistoric creatures that produced them.
Some may be large and smooth, resembling twisted logs.
Others are smaller and may be packed with bone fragments, suggesting that the animal that produced them had a carnivorous diet.
Formation of Coprolites
Every animal poops — that includes prehistoric animals like dinosaurs too.
Throughout a dinosaur’s life, it will produce piles of poop, but not all of these will be preserved as fossils.
In fact, bones, teeth, and other hard parts are more likely to be preserved than organic materials like excrement.
Coprolites will only be formed if the feces is quickly covered by a mineralizing agent shortly after production.
If mineralization occurs successfully, the feces will stop decomposition, forming a coprolite.
The journey from fresh excrement to solid fossils involves an intricate interplay of various conditions and natural processes.
For feces to get mineralized, the animal has to excrete waste in an environment conducive to fossilization.
This includes sediment-rich areas or areas where deposition occurs actively, such as mudflats, riverbanks, or lake beds.
In such areas, the waste can quickly become buried.
This protects them from the elements and scavengers.
Once buried, the feces are shielded from decay because the lack of oxygen and other factors slow down the decomposition process.
However, what truly allows the formation of coprolites is the infiltration of minerals into the feces from the surrounding sediment.
The organic components of the feces are gradually replaced by minerals.
This creates a petrified replica of the original waste material, allowing the coprolite to retain its shape and structure while transforming it into a solid form that can be preserved for several millions of years.
Unveiling Ancient Diets: What Can Coprolites Tell Us?
While studying petrified poop might seem like a less-glamorous side of paleontology, it is a very important one.
Coprolites are classified as trace fossils.
These are fossils that are not formed from the animal’s actual body but from something that came from their body.
In this case, it is preserved remnants of the animal’s feces, which can be used to deduce what it ate and reveal the eating habits of these ancient creatures.
Other examples of trace fossils include burrows and footprints.
Ancient Diets Revealed by Coprolite
To study coprolites, scientists examine the composition, size, shape, and texture of this fossil.
In some cases, the coprolite may also contain undigested remnants.
Based on these, it is possible to deduce whether the animal that produced the poop was a carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore.
For instance, if the coprolite contains plant matter or cellulose, it’s probably from a herbivorous animal.
Similarly, coprolites rich in bone fragments came from an animal with a carnivorous appetite.
Some coprolites might even contain evidence of the creature’s digestive processes, offering insights into its physiology.
Reconstructing Food Chains
Another intriguing aspect of coprolite analysis is its usefulness for reconstructing prehistoric food chains.
Since an animal’s diet usually consists of things that are present in its surroundings, identifying what an animal ate can help scientists infer its position within its ecosystem.
For instance, a coprolite containing the remains of small prey animals suggests that it came from an animal higher up in the food chain.
Similarly, coprolites from a herbivorous animal means the animal that produced it was a primary producer.
In fortunate situations where coprolites from different organisms within the same area and period are preserved, scientists can study these remains to piece together a complex web of interactions between these species.
Coprolites can also help scientists unravel the nature of interactions between predators and prey, shedding light on the strategies employed by ancient predators to catch their prey.
The presence of prey remains with crushed and shredded bones suggests that the predator probably chewed up the remains before swallowing them.
In contrast, relatively intact body parts suggest the prey was swallowed whole.
Thus, coprolites can reveal vital information about the hunting behaviors and adaptations of ancient animals.
Different Types of Coprolites
Fossilized excrements provide a window into the diets and behaviors of various kinds of organisms spanning multiple geological periods.
Expectedly, the shape, size, and characteristics of these fossils will vary based on the type of animal in question and the environment where it was fossilized.
Coprolites can be classified based on their shape.
These preserved remains can have a spiral, cylindrical, spherical, or irregular shape.
The shape of the coprolite provides clues about the animal that produced it.
For instance, sharks and other fish produce spiral coprolites because they have a spiral-shaped intestine, while dinosaurs and mammals typically produce cylindrical coprolites.
Coprolites also have varying textures based on the animals that produced them.
The texture can be smooth, granular, or nodular.
Herbivores usually produce smooth coprolites, while carnivores produce coprolites with a rough texture.
It is difficult to tell the exact animal that produced a coprolite.
Unless fossils of the animal’s body are found in the same location (which is very unlikely), we can only infer that the fossil came from a herbivore or a carnivore, as the case may be.
The environment in which coprolites fossilize also plays a vital role in what the coprolite looks like and how it will be preserved.
Coprolites preserved in waterlogged or anaerobic (low oxygen) environments tend to preserve more delicate details because they retain more organic materials.
If the feces were deposited in an arid environment, the overall shape and structure of the coprolite are likely to be preserved.
But most of the organic content will be lost.
How Coprolites Are Discovered and Studied
Coprolites are discovered through careful fieldwork, where paleontologists scour sedimentary rock formations in search of potential fossil-bearing layers.
However, in a few instances, people discover coprolites accidentally.
Paleontologists on the field identify these fossilized feces based on their distinct shape and size.
Sometimes, the remains may contain undigested food particles such as bone fragments or other remnants that are visible.
Once a potential coprolite is found, it’s meticulously extracted from the rock where it was preserved and taken to a lab for further study.
Tools and Methods Used in Studying Coprolite Fossils
Studying coprolite fossils to uncover clues about what the prehistoric animal that produced them ate involves using a range of tools and methods.
Some of the most important techniques for analyzing corporations include:
Scientists use high-powered microscopes to examine the composition and structure of coprolites.
Thin sections can reveal microscopic details that are not visible to the naked eye.
For instance, it might be possible to make out seeds, leaf remains, pollens, or bark by simply looking at the coprolites.
However, magnifying these plants will reveal distinctive shapes and patterns, which can help identify the specific type of plant in question.
Chemical techniques like stable isotope analysis and trace element analysis provide insights into an organism’s diet.
Isotope ratios in coprolites can be used to determine whether an animal primarily consumed plants or animals.
In recent years, DNA analysis has become a powerful tool in coprolite studies.
DNA extracted from coprolites can reveal not only the identity of the producer but also the specific species it consumed.
X-ray scans can be used to study the internal structure of coprolites, revealing hidden contents or structures without destroying the coprolite.
By comparing coprolites to feces from known extant animals, researchers can make educated guesses about the identity and diet of the producers.
Contributions of Coprolite Studies to Paleontology
Coprolites may not seem significant initially, but by employing various techniques, scientists can uncover valuable insights from them.
Some of the things coprolites contribute to paleontology include:
Understanding Animal Diet
With body fossils, we can only speculate what an animal ate based on their dentition.
Coprolites reveal the specific diets of ancient creatures, contributing to our understanding of prehistoric food chains and ecosystem dynamics.
Coprolites offer clues about how animals hunted, foraged, and interacted with their environments and other species within their ecosystem.
Scientists can reconstruct the complex interactions that shaped ancient ecosystems by studying the fossils of animals found within the same area.
Coprolites provide a direct link for studying the behavior and adaptation of animals.
This sheds some light on the evolution of feeding strategies across various geological periods.
Extraordinary Discoveries: Notable Coprolite Finds
Amateur fossil collector, Mary Anning, discovered the first coprolites in the early 1800s.
She theorized that the strange poop-shaped stones that she found in association with the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs she studied were fossilized poop.
Mary Anning communicated her discovery to Paleontologist William Buckland, who studied these fossils and found that they contained remains of bones, fish scales, and other inclusions.
In 1829, Buckland concluded that these were indeed dinosaur poop fossils and named them coprolites.
Since then, there have been many more significant coprolite discoveries that have contributed to our understanding of the prehistoric animals that produced them.
The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, is one of the most famous fossil sites in the world and is known for its accumulation of ice-age animals.
Coprolites from these animals have also been found at the site, providing scientists with information about their diet and behavior.
But coprolites don’t have to come from notable fossil sites like the La Brea Tar pits.
The largest fossilized poop ever discovered was found on a private ranch near Buffalo, South Dakota.
The coprolite, which has been nicknamed “Barnum,” is believed to have come from a T-rex since it was the only animal large enough to produce a poop of that size in that region.
While Barnum is famous for its size, many exceptional coprolites have been found containing well-preserved remains of prey animals, which makes them very valuable.
This was instrumental in determining the diet of this dinosaur.
This is just one of several instances where partially digested remains of coprolites prove valuable for uncovering the diet of ancient animals.
The Stories They Tell: Coprolites in Ancient Environments
In addition to contributing to our understanding of the diets of prehistoric creatures, coprolites can also provide clues about the environments where these creatures once thrived.
When paleontologists study coprolites, they can deduce the types of animals that live in a particular area and the nature of the ecosystem.
The content of these coprolites will also reflect the availability of food sources, climate conditions, and even the geographical landscapes of these periods.
For instance, coprolites containing the remains of aquatic animals, such as fish scales or the shells of invertebrates probably came from an aquatic predator.
Identifying the specific prey within the coprolites may also uncover insights about which part of the water column this prey hunted.
Similarly, coprolites rich in plant matter might suggest that the animal that produced the feces lived in a lush, vegetated environment.
Coprolites from animals that lived in arid environments will be less rich and are likely to contain higher mineral content.
Studying these types of fossils can also contribute to our understanding of how ancient organisms adapted to changes in the climate and landscapes where they lived.
Fascinating Uses of Coprolites Beyond Paleontology
Although coprolites are most famously associated with paleontology, the value of these fossilized feces extends beyond understanding ancient ecosystems and animals.
Coprolites have found various intriguing applications across fields like archaeology, medicine, and even understanding human history and health.
Coprolites from more recent times can provide insights into the dietary habits of ancient civilizations.
Researchers sometimes analyze coprolites found in archaeological sites in order to learn about the diet and food sources of past societies.
These fossils can shed light on the culinary traditions, agricultural practices, and even food preparation methods of ancient civilizations.
Analyzing coprolites can also help archeologists uncover clues about the cultural practices of ancient societies, including their use of medicinal plants or substances and how they managed or disposed of waste.
In some cases, they’ve revealed evidence of parasites, bacterial infections, and dietary deficiencies, offering clues about the health challenges our ancestors faced.
Due to their unique composition, coprolites were once considered a rich source of phosphates, making coprolite mining very popular in the 1800s.
Rev John Stevens Henslow, who was a professor of Botany at St John’s College, Cambridge, made this discovery in 1842, which kickstarted a mining frenzy for coprolite on an industrial scale throughout East England.
The phosphate extracted was mainly used for producing fertilizer and also for munitions after the First World War.
Coprolites are valuable but little-known treasures that provide direct evidence of what creatures consumed in ancient ecosystems.
This makes them very important to paleontologists looking to unravel the dietary preferences of ancient animals.
It is also a useful tool for reconstructing ancient ecosystems and the intricate food chains that existed within them.
By studying these trace fossils using advanced techniques such as microscopy, x-rays, and chemical analysis, we can learn more about the life of ancient organisms, their interactions with other animals, and their ecosystem in general.