Science/Nature

Scat scans: How lasers are teasing secrets from ancient poo

Coprolites, or fossilised faeces, have always been slippery customers. But now we can use X-rays to see inside them, they are yielding fresh insights into ancient ecosystems



Life



16 December 2020

THE powerful X-rays at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, have been used to look inside some highbrow stuff: papyri from ancient Egypt, Neolithic cave art, Roman scrolls buried in the eruption of Vesuvius and artefacts from Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose. Then, every now and again, Per Ahlberg rocks up with a load of old crap.

Ahlberg, a palaeontologist at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, really knows his shit. Or, as palaeontologists call it, coprolites. These lumps of fossilised faeces have been known to science for nearly 200 years, but were long regarded as the arse end of palaeontology. “They’re not the most glamorous of fossils and they were often overlooked,” says Ahlberg. But thanks to Grenoble’s X-rays, they are now enjoying a golden age.

Coprolites (from the Greek for “dung stones”) first came to prominence in the 1820s, when amateur palaeontologist Mary Anning and University of Oxford geologist William Buckland realised the nodules they kept finding in Lyme Regis, UK, were fossilised faeces. The discovery sparked a brief bout of “copromania” among amateur fossil hunters. However, professional scientists turned their noses up.

In the 1990s, Karen Chin at the University of Colorado, Boulder, revived scientific interest in coprolites with a paper describing a “king-sized” specimen from Canada that she said was probably expelled by a Tyrannosaurus rex. It was 44 centimetres long, 16 centimetres wide, 13 centimetres high and crammed full of pulverised bone that may well have come from a young dinosaur, possibly a triceratops.

Partially digested

Since then, coprolites have yielded all kinds of amazing finds, including undigested …

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