What is a Dinosaur Coprolite?

What is a dinosaur coprolite

It was on the English coast of Dorset that the famous paleontologist Mary Anning lived in the early 1800s. Her discoveries of fossils of extinct animals, including ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, large marine reptiles from the Mesozoic era, are remembered.

Her collecting trips along the Jurassic Coast have not only yielded these creatures. As part of her legendary career, Mary Anning also discovered fossilized poop. 💩

If you have a child with a passion for the great creatures of prehistory, consider buying them a dinosaur sweater.

A dinosaur coprolite from a carnivore dinosaur

Coprolites are the fossilized feces of dinosaurs and other animals that lived on Earth millions of years ago. They are trace poop fossils (ichnofossils) because they provide evidence of the animal’s behavior rather than its appearance or morphology. 🦕

Copro means “excrement,” and comes from the Greek “kopros.” The “-lith” ending comes from the Greek word “lithos” which means “stone.” Around 1830, coprolite was coined when the first known specimens were found.

Do coprolites have a smell?

Coprolites have fossilized over several million years. As a result, they do not smell and the vast majority of the organic matter has been replaced by mineral deposits such as carbonates and calcium silicates. However, many prehistoric coprolites have the appearance of unfossilized feces.
These fossilized droppings are appreciated by some collectors. Nevertheless, they are primarily a vast source of information for scientists. 👨🔬
Fossilized dinosaur poop

What can we learn from coprolites?

By examining the shape and size of the coprolites, as well as where they were found, scientists can determine what type of dinosaur the scat came from. 🦖
By knowing the shape of the intestines of a species, we can deduce the shape of its feces. The geological layers correspond to specific periods and it is therefore possible to find which species made which poop.
A coprolite like this one can give scientists clues about the dinosaur’s diet.
A dinosaur coprolite with a bone inside

However, it is difficult to know exactly which animal produced a coprolite, because the skeleton and body remains of the animal are not usually found in the same places as the fossil scat. It is easier to tell if the animal was a carnivorous dinosaur or a herbivorous dinosaur. 🥩

Clues about dinosaur meals

Using powerful microscopes, scientists can look inside the coprolites and see what is inside. Carnivores leave bone fragments behind as evidence of their diet. In addition, if there are tooth marks on the fragments, it may be possible to determine how the animal consumed its prey. These remains therefore allow paleontology to better understand what predators were in the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods until the mass extinction.

microscopic view of a coprolite

There is evidence that the animal that formed the coprolite ate plants based on the pollen, leaf remains, seeds, or bark found in the coprolite. The shapes and patterns of plants are often noticeable when magnified. 🌿

This allows scientists to determine the type of plant they are looking at, even if it is partially digested and in a coprolite. This allows scientists to know both the dinosaur’s diet and the plants that were growing in its habitat at the time.
a plant leaf fossilized

How to recognize a dinosaur coprolite?

Despite their appearance, not all rocks with a fecal origin are feces. Here are some things to consider when determining whether or not you have a coprolite. By the way, did you know that the Asian continent is the continent where the most dinosaurs and fossils have been discovered? If you want to know more, read our article about the asian dinosaurs

1. Location of the discovery

First of all, the most important thing to consider is where your rock was found. It is unlikely that you will find a coprolite unless you find it in an area or geological layer that contains other fossils. If you find bones, teeth, fish scales, or prehistoric tracks, you may be in luck. 🍀

Sedimentary Layer

2. Shape of the rock

Feces can be rather loose when exposed to the elements or when digestion problems arise, but coprolites are usually shaped like turds. The fossilized feces can take the form of pellets, spirals, rolls, logs, piles, etc. Their shape is determined by the intestinal and anal structures of their producers. Pinch marks and folds are common features to look for. 

3. Texture of the coprolite

Most coprolites have a fine grain. Specimens that appear grainy under magnification are not coprolites.

Marine dinosaurs are one of the exceptions that feed on sediment or coral. That’s why it’s crucial to know where the rock was found and what the geology is like. 🏞
Large Coprolite of Dinosaur

4. Presence of food scraps

Often, coprolites have visible remains of food. There may be things like teeth, bone fragments, and fish scales that are not digested completely. Stones are consumed by some animals as ballast or for digestion. These stones are known as gastroliths and, if present, are usually smooth.

5. Composition of the coprolite

Because herbivore scat tends to break apart and decompose quickly, it rarely survives the fossilization process. This is why most of the fossil scat found is from carnivores. Poop from these animals is usually rich in calcium phosphate, a mineral found in bones. 🦴

coprolite of a carnivore dinosaur

It is possible to find this mineral in a wide variety of forms. There are two types of hardness, hard and soft, which are determined by its density and hardness. When it comes to finding out if a potential coprolite is soft and porous or not, there is a quick test that is often used by the professionals.

There is a good chance that if you touch the stone with the tip of your tongue and it sticks, it is likely to be a coprolite, which is made up of calcium phosphate.

If you’re not very brave, you can also touch it with your wet fingers to see if it’s sticky, but it’s not as much fun. 👅

If the calcium phosphate takes on a harder, denser form, the “tongue test” won’t work. In some cases, a chemical analysis is needed to identify the mineral composition
microscopic analysis

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