FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Date: January 13, 2022
Contact: Bonnie Farmer, Communications & Marketing Coordinator
410-326-2042, ext. 8067 Email: Bonnie.Farmer@calvertcountymd.gov
Fossilized Miocene Epoch Poop found along Calvert Cliffs, Maryland
First skull filled feces in fossil record!
SOLOMONS, MD – January 13, 2022 - Given the right environmental conditions, feces can fossilize. When they do, they are referred to as coprolites. In a paper just published in Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia (= Research in Paleontology and Stratigraphy, an Italian - yet international - paleontological journal), paleontologists from the Calvert Marine Museum (Solomons, Maryland) and the University of Pisa (Italy) collaborated to describe two different kinds of coprolites: 1) tiny fecal pellets (micro-coprolites) probably produced by scavenging worms and 2) extinct crocodile coprolites that were tunneled into by poop-eating animals.
The most amazing fossil that preserves the fossilized worm feces is a stargazer fish partial skull that is completely infilled with fecal pellets (Figs. 1 and 2). It is the first skull known in the fossil record to be infilled with feces. After the fish died, scavenging worms on the ocean floor ate their way into the fish’s skull, while filling the emptied spaces with tiny poop pellets (i.e., the micro-coprolites).
The scientific name given to these micro-coprolites is Coprulus oblongus (which translates to “oblong fecal pellets”). The fecal pellets are found in small clusters or strings of dozens, to masses of many hundreds (Figs. 1 - 3). Pellets are approximately 1/8 of an inch long and vary in color from gray to brownish black. These tiny coprolites have been found in a variety of fossils including a fish skull (Figs. 1 and 2), snail shells, clamshells (Fig. 3), barnacles, and in burrows. Because the fossilized fecal pellets are often found in tiny spaces or spaces thought to be inaccessible to shelled invertebrates, they are attributed to small, soft-bodied worms.
Some much larger coprolites attributed to crocodiles (Fig. 4) found along Calvert Cliffs were tunneled into, presumably the result of animals engaging in coprophagy (the term referring to the eating of feces), yum! The researchers do not know what kind, or kinds, of animals ate their way into the originally edible crocodile droppings. The fate of the vast majority of the Miocene epoch fecal masses was likely that they were completely eaten. The animals engaged in coprophagy were recycling nutrients present in the feces. If there hadn’t been recycling of feces, the ocean floor would have been buried deep in droppings.
These 8-18-million-year-old coprolites (both the micro-coprolites and those produced by crocodiles) were found by amateur and professional paleontologists along Calvert Cliffs and surrounding area. These coprolites were preserved in sediments that were laid down over millions of years on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean when it covered southern Maryland.
Explore how the prehistoric past, natural environments, and maritime heritage come to life and tell a unique story of the Chesapeake Bay. The Calvert Marine Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults; $7 for seniors, military with valid I.D, AAA and AARP members; $4 for children ages 5 - 12; children under 5 and museum members are admitted free. For more information about the museum please go to our website at www.calvertmarinemuseum.com. Keep up to date with the latest from CMM by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
|Figure 1. A view of the bottom of a partial skull of a Miocene epoch fossil stargazer (fish). In the center of the image, some of the bone forming the floor of the braincase was broken away revealing the hundreds of fossilized fecal pellets infilling the fish braincase. As preserved, the skull is about 3 inches wide. Photo courtesy of the Calvert Marine Museum. ||Figure 2. Worms scavenging the brain of a Miocene fossil stargazer produced the many hundreds of tiny fossilized fecal pellets seen here. This is the first skull known from the fossil record to have its braincase completely filled with fossilized poop. In both Figures 1 and 2, the fossil was whitened with ammonium chloride to highlight detail. Photo courtesy of the Calvert Marine Museum. |
|Figure 3. Fossilized micro-coprolites (probably worm fecal pellets) from the Miocene epoch from southern Maryland. These coprolites are tiny; each one is only about 1/8 inch long. Photo courtesy of the Calvert Marine Museum. ||Figure 4. Fossilized crocodile poop, broken open showing the burrows made by one or more kinds of poop-eating organism. Notice the feeding gouge marks on the sides of the cylindrical burrows. This large coprolite is 7 inches long. Photo courtesy of the Calvert Marine Museum. |