Although we find it disgusting, there are animals that eat feces! Additionally, if the conditions are ideal, the feces can fossilize, and when they do, they are known as coprolites. Some coprolites retain evidence that they have been partially eaten. Nibbled or buried coprolites have been found along the Calvert Cliffs, the world famous cliffs along part of the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay that preserve fossils between 8 and 20 million years old, mostly of the marine domain.
There are basically two types of fossils, body fossils (such as shells, bones and teeth; fossils remains of a once living organism) and traces of fossils (like footprints, nests, burrows and coprolites…evidence of the Activities of a once living organism).
Scientific names, consisting of a genus and species name, are given to fossil bodies, as one of the most famous, tyrannosaurus rex. Scientific names may also be given to trace fossils; they are called ichnotaxonomic names (thus ichnogenres and ichnospecies). “Ichnos” means “footprint” in Greek.
In an article which has just been published in open access in the Revue suisse de paleontologie (https://trebuchet.public.springernature.app/get_content/ecc36f9a-335f-4775-ac47-44817d7262b2), the curator of paleontology at Calvert Marine Museum, Dr. Stephen J Godfrey in collaboration with Dr. Alberto Collareta, Università di Pisa, Italy, have given an ichnotaxonomic name to the burrows found in the large coprolites preserved along the Calvert cliffs.
The new ichnotaxonomic name is Transexcrementum cuniculus, Latin for “tunnel that runs through feces”. This scientific name is applied to tubular (cylindrical) tunnels in coprolites (Figures 1 and 2). The coprolites themselves are trace fossils, being evidence of the activity of once living animals. Burrows are also trace fossils, being the feeding/tunneling activity of once-living animals, but by one or more types of organisms still unknown. Because these trace fossils (the burrows) are found within another type of trace fossil (the fossilized feces), this compound fossil is known as a complex trace fossil. Although we don’t know for sure what type of animal produced the original feces, they most closely resemble the coprolites produced by crocodilians, and from their fossilized bones and teeth we know that there were large saltwater crocodiles living in this region during the Miocene. era.
The burrows often curve into the coprolite. This suggests that the tunneling organisms weren’t just trying to burrow directly into feces. Rather, the curved burrows suggest that the tunneling tracer likely engaged in coprophagy; the term given to animals that eat excrement. Not only were the coprolites buried, but the exterior of the excrement is often heavily marked with short, irregularly oriented scratches and gouges (Figure 3). These marks were either made by the mouthparts of the feeding animal or by its food appendages, such as claws.
Judging by the general scarcity of Transexcrement cunicule occurrences in the fossil record, the tracer responsible for the burrows could also have been rare or only occasionally fed on feces. In a way, it is remarkable that these burrows have been preserved. The vast, vast majority of faeces did not fossilize, they were simply recycled back into the old ecosystem as it is today.
See how the prehistoric past, natural environments, and maritime heritage come to life and tell a unique Chesapeake Bay story. The Calvert Marine Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $9.00 for adults; $7.00 for seniors, military with valid ID, AAA and AARP members; $4.00 for children 5 to 12 years old; children under 5 and museum members are admitted free.
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