November 17, 2010
Geology Word of the Week: C is for Coprolite
Posted by Evelyn Mervine
|A coprolite. Image courtesy of USGS, taken from Wikipedia commons.|
1. Fossilized animal dung. That’s right, rock solid animal poop.
2. Something I occasionally find under the sofa next to my cats’ litter box. Thanks, Samira and Zayna, you little furballs.
I have actually never seen a genuine coprolite. The “cat coprolites” I sometimes find are not true fossils- they’re dried out, but their structure hasn’t been replaced with silicates and calcium carbonates. I would like to see a real coprolite, or several. If anyone knows of a good museum displaying these, let me know, and I’ll try to plan a vacation there at some point. That’s right, I will include “go see fossilized poop” on my vacation agenda. Why? Because coprolites are pretty cool, when you think about it. I find it amazing that poop can become fossilized and that, millions of years later, geologists can recognize fossilized poop and learn things from it.
Coprolites are one of many trace fossils. A trace fossil is a fossil which does not preserve the animal itself (well, unless you count poop as part of the animal…) but rather preserves traces of animal life. Other types of trace fossils are footprints, burrows, borings, feeding traces, and resting traces. Coprolites and other bromalites (see below) are important because from these fossils we can learn about the bodily processes of ancient animals and humans. Millions of years ago, animals and humans were just as gross as they are today: they pooped, peed, and vomited. In lucky cases where these bodily excretions were fossilized, we can learn much about the biology of ancient organisms- what they ate, where they ate, where they peed, where they pooped, and so on.
Here are a few other awesomely gross trace fossil words:
Bromalite: a general term used to describe any kind of fossilized remains from the digestive system of an animal or human.
Urolite: trace fossil preserving erosion caused by peeing. Did you know that dinosaurs peed?
Paleofeces: fossilized human (distinguished from animal) poop.
Regurgitalite: fossilized vomit or other regurgitated material (such as stones to aid digestion).
Cololite: fossilized intestinal contents.
Gastrolite: fossilized stomach contents.
And, here are my two little coprolite producers:
You can buy little coprolites pretty cheap at AGU, if you want one for your home that is not produced by a cat :)My favorite coprolite experience was when I was studying abroad at Cambridge, we had an open house day and I was helping out with a fossil booth. My favorite thing to make kids guess what it was was the coprolite (mammoth tooth was pretty fun too), since they were usually so surprised to learn what it was. However, when I asked one little 6-year-old boy what he thought it was he said, "It's a coprolite" in perfect little English boy accent. Blew me away.
Lisa: Awesome! I am totally buying a coprolite at AGU. I'll be going to AGU for the first time this year… I've been to Goldschmidt twice but never to AGU. I'm excited- and a little nervous, but mostly excited.
There are (or at least were last time I visited) a few samples on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller (http://www.tyrrellmuseum.com/) and I completely recommend a visit to anyone even remotely interested in paleontology. I can't remember whether you can touch them… you might be allowed to, though. It's been a couple years since I visited.I believe there are a couple good coprolite samples at the University of Alberta paleontology museum that you can actually touch… but it is a relatively small, if well put together exhibit, so a trip to Edmonton solely for the UofA mineral and paleontology museums probably isn't worth it.
Evelyn: I'm not sure how else to reach you so I apologize for the blatantly off-topic comment, but I wanted to bring your attention to my blog which was directly inspired by your Geology Word of the Week posts at Skepchick and here. It's the Astronomy Word of the Week (AstroWoW)! You've got a shout out in my inaugural post. :-)My email address can be found on the About page on the blog…I'd like to talk to you about possibly collaborating in the future on words that might overlap between our fields. If you're interested, send me a note! Cheers.
Hi astrowow… I just created an email account for this blog. Here you go: georneysblog (at) gmail (dot) com
Old Earth Accretionist: thanks for the tips on where to see coprolites! I'll keep those in mind…