Piles of Fossil Poo: Providing a Peak into the Past

One headline reads “Giant Prehistoric Toilet Found” another refers to the discovery of an ancient latrine.  Don’t know how I missed those a few weeks ago. Surely had I seen that headline I would have had to clicked on it to find out what that was all about.   The actual title, The oldest known communal latrines provide evidence of gregarism in Triassic megaherbivores, of the research paper from which the popular press picked up the story may not sound so interesting to you.  But for me, the title told me they were talking fossils which meant this was a story about fossil poop, or, to sound more scientific, coprolites.  If you have followed this blog you know that I have a fascination with coprolites and have written about what we can learn fro them before (most recently –  Dino Doo Doo and the Genesis Flood).

A selection of coprolite fossils from one of the communal bathrooms.  From the article

A selection of coprolite fossils from one of the communal bathrooms. From Fiorelli et al. http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131128/srep03348/full/srep03348.html

The coprolites contain only plant material.  But what plants?  Based on the predicted age of these feces (240 million years) and evolutionary theory scientists would predict that no flowering plants should have been present at the time this herbivore lived.

The coprolites contain only plant material. But what plants? Based on the predicted age of these feces (240 million years) and evolutionary theory, scientists would not expect to find any flowering plants in the these feces because flowering plants should not have existed at the time this herbivore lived.   Given flowering plants are the dominant flora it would be seem quite surprising to find that large herbivores in the fossil record did not eat a single flowering plant.  The correlation of feces lacking flowering plant tissues along with the lack of any flowering plant fossils in rocks of this age is considered to be very strong evidence that flowering plants have not always existed but evolved more recently.  I have not found out yet what type of plants that were found in these feces so this is a test of predictions of evolutionary and creationists predictions: the former would predict no flowering plants (including grasses) and the latter would predict the presence of flowering plant tissues. I will see if I can find out what plants are present.

This particular fossil find is really nothing all that special to geologists and paleontologists  as coprolites, fossil dung just in case you forgot, are very common in the fossil record. In this case the notable thing is the quantity of coprolites and the spatial context they are found.  10s of thousands of rock nodules were found eroding from the side of hills in Argentina.  A close examination of these nodules revealed that they are preserved feces of a large extinct herbivorous reptile.  That an herbivore was the culprit can be inferred from the fact that each fossil nodule was observed to be composed exclusively of preserved plant remains rather than small bones which are found in carnivore or omnivore (plant and animal feeders) feces.

Coprolites from site in Argentina.  Image: Fiorelli - See article by Fiorelli et al,, 2013 http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131128/srep03348/full/srep03348.html

Coprolites from site in Argentina. Image: Fiorelli – See article by Fiorelli et al,, 2013 http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131128/srep03348/full/srep03348.html

How is this evidence of a common latrine?  The density of feces (around 90 per square meter covering 900 square meters) was the first clue but then closer inspection of this poo-pile revealed that the feces were not all deposited at the same time and not all by  the same animal. They are different sizes and some were more degraded than others when they were finally preserved.  The scientists involved interpret this site as evidence that the herbivore that deposited all this material lived in a community structure where they had a community area where they all did their business.

An artist drawing of a dicynodont based on bones found in Argentina.

An artist drawing of a Dinodontosaurs based on bones found in Argentina.  This is one of at least 70 recognized groups (genera) of mammal-like reptiles from the Triassic. All of these are extinct today but if they were alive would be a strange mix of reptile with some mammal characteristics.

So what animal was responsible for these 10s of thousands of coprolites.  It didn’t take much detective work to find the likely culprit.  There are thousands of bones in the same rock formation that these coprolites came from that all belong to the same animal.  That animal is an extinct form of large mammal-like reptile that reached up to 8 feet long.  Based on skeletons the picture to the right represents an artistic rendering of what this reptile might have looked like.  Notably, this type of communal latrine is well known in large animals today such as rhinos but not for reptiles.  Obviously, no one was there to witness these animals deposit these plant nodules but it is certainly the most reasonable explanation.  The evidence they left behind is our witness.

Large piles of poo – yet another challenge to the creationist’ paradigm.

Here is where I ask a familiar question for those that have read my previous articles:  how does a young earth creationists (YECs) interpret this fossil find?   I expect that many lay Christians that believe the Earth must be young can read a story like this and they may see the dates (240 million years old) and gloss right over them and just assume that the dates are wrong. But they probably would readily accept that some sort of large herbivorous reptile really did exist and that these really are feces but other than that they probably wouldn’t consider the larger question of how this fossil site fits into the Earth’s history.

The geological context of where these fossils were found is what I found most interesting about this fossil find and why I chose to write about it here.  Simply put, most of these coprolites where found eroding from a hill that is part of a larger set of formations that include thousands of feet of rock layers. All of the coprolites where found in the same layers of rock from multiple locations many miles apart.  The conventional geological explanation would be that 200 million years ago this are of Argentina was a flatter area with wetlands where groups of these reptiles lived.  Large piles of dung built up but would have also been decaying very rapidly but a volcanic eruption covered the whole area with a thick layer of ash that preserved the dung and many of the animals.  More layers of ash and then other sediments eventually were deposited here by additional volcanic activity. Much later erosion took place forming the mountain and hills there today and that erosion brought these fossils back to the surface.

Young earth creationists propose an alternative history. In their history a massive global flood deposited 10s of thousands of feet of sediments in this area over a period of a few days to maybe a few months. In the past 4000 year erosion has then sculpted the rocks into these mountains and hills.  Therefore, these flood geology theories of YECs would undoubtedly view the rock formations from which these fossils were found as having formed right in the middle of a chaotic global flood only 4-6 thousand years ago.

So how does a group of strange-looking 8-foot long reptiles survive the initial stages of a cataclysmic global flood in which 15,000 feet of sediments have already been deposited below where they gathered together? Even if they were running or swimming around during the flood and managed to find their way onto a small piece of land between waves how come these feces appear to have aged before being preserved (many show desiccation cracks as if they dried out before they were preserved)?  Also, how does a pile of loose digested plant material survive the next huge wave of water bringing sediments in to cover them up.  In this case these piles of feces look to have been preserved by a layer of volcanic ash being dumped on them. How does that happen in the middle of a global flood?   We could go on and on showing many pieces of data that do not fit logically into the YEC view of Earth’s history.   These are the same problems that we have seen with dinosaur nests and footprints (see figure below) that are located right in the middle of layers of rock presumably all laid down within hours or weeks of one another (see: Fossil Eggs, Nests, Flood and Stressed Pregnant Dinosaurs and Juvenile Dinosaur Fossils in a Nest: Testimony to Rapid Burial but Not in a Flood).

A section of the geological column from southwestern Utah showing that dinosaur tracks and found in may layers of rock presumably laid down in the middle of Noah's flood. Figure 2 from the paper: Stratigraphic section of the Moenave Formation at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm. Resting trace and trackway SGDS.18.T1 is in the “Top Surface” of the Main Track-Bearing Sandstone Bed (indicated by the blue arrow) in the Whitmore Point Member of the Moenave Formation.  From: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2009/03/10/a-most-amazing-set-of-spoor/

A section of the geological column from southwestern Utah showing that dinosaur tracks and found in may layers of rock presumably laid down in the middle of Noah’s flood. Figure 2Milner ARC, Harris JD, Lockley MG, Kirkland JI, Matthews NA (2009) Bird-Like Anatomy, Posture, and Behavior Revealed by an Early Jurassic Theropod Dinosaur Resting Trace. PLoS ONE 4(3): e4591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004591 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0004591

I mention research like this on coprolites because it illustrates, all too well, the difficulties YEC flood geology to explain fossils and the geological record.   Rather, viewed within their geological context the specifics characteristics of these fossils finds are most easily interpreted as supporting a world of great age. Once one is familiar with the context of the data it is easy to recognize YEC explanations as simply being ad-hoc attempts to explain away difficulties.   Anyone who studies or reads the paleontological literature is going to be confronted with thousands of similar data to that I have presented here and realize that flood geology provides a wholly  inadequate interpretive framework for understanding that data.

References:

The oldest known communal latrines provide evidence of gregarism in Triassic megaherbivores.  Fiorelli et al. 2013. Nature, Scientific Reports 3, Article number 3348.  doi:10.1038/srep0334

Comments

  1. “it illustrates all too well, contrary to the claims of YECs, that flood geology is a better explanation for fossils and the geological record the geological context and specifics characteristics of fossils finds are most easily interpreted within the context of a world of great age”

    Please change the interpunction!

    “it illustrates all too well, contrary to the claims of YECs that flood geology is a better explanation for fossils and the geological record, that the geological context and specifics characteristics of fossils finds are most easily interpreted within the context of a world of great age”

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  2. Hello, NH, just wanted to provide some possible answers to your questions, which as you correctly note, are a challenge to YEC interpretations. These come from Mike Oard’s book, Dinosaur Challenges and Mysteries, which I would highly recommend to you, as it addresses your concerns directly. Mike’s been thinking about this issue for a long time, and I find his hypotheses to be very logical and consistent with the data.

    First, while the early stages of the Flood’s global marine transgression were most probably catastrophic, there is no requirement for them to have been hypercatastrophic everywhere, or for relative sea level to have risen at the same rate in every area of the world. Tas Walker’s model proposes that by Day 150, the waters would have covered the earth, and while the overall progression of the water would have been upward during that time, Mike gives at least five mechanisms that would have caused brief and local falls in sea level: tectonic uplifts/subsidence, tsunamis, lunar tides, and the dynamics of Flood currents on shallow, large areas (p. 116-121). Dinosaurs and other mobile animals were capable of moving away from rising sea level, and the remarkable unidirectionality of many dinosaur trackways is very consistent with such an explanation.

    What Mike suggests is that patches of newly laid sediments briefly emerged from the water during the Flood, due to relative sea level fall, allowing animal migration onto the newly exposed surfaces. Trackways, desicccation cracks, and egg clutches (egg laying could have also been a stress-triggered response) would have been laid down at this point, and then later covered by subsequent relative sea level rise of sediment-laden waters. Sea level oscillations could account for multiple layers of such features.

    Lastly, volcanic ash layers are just as consistent with a YEC model as with an old earth model.

    To me, Mike’s hypothesis is very consistent with the data, and it’s important to realize that the phenomena you describe are just as problematic for the conventional old earth model. As you point out, animal droppings and other features such as tracks, ripples, dessiccation cracks, and egg clutches are all inherently fragile and impermanent. Their preservation requires both rapid and gentle burial (so they aren’t eroded) and quick lithification. These conditions are not the norm in the environments of deposition postulated by conventional geologists for the formations which contain them. Thin ash layers, for example, are extremely erodible–where is the ash layer laid down over the ground surface of the northwest US by Mt. St. Helens in 1980? The same can be said for animal tracks, droppings and egg clutches.

    Anyway, I appreciate your data-driven criticisms. I would again highly recommend that you read Mike’s book, and would be very interested in your response to it.

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    • Hello, thanks for taking the time to respond. You are obviously familiar with the YEC literature on this topic so I appreciate the interaction. I do not have Oor’s book though I have read many of his other writings on the subject and so am familiar with the gist of his argument. I have also interacted with Barnhart’s article previously on this blog on the same topic: https://thenaturalhistorian.com/2011/12/03/dinosaur-nests-eggs-fossils-stressed-in-the-flood/ ( specifically deal with the stressed out pregnant dinosaurs here) and https://thenaturalhistorian.com/2011/11/25/juvenile-dinosaur-fossils-nest-testimony-to-rapid-burial-but-not-by-a-flood/.

      The figure at the end of my post from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0004591 is probably the most relevant to your points. Dinosaur footprints are found in multiple layers of rock and while that is quite challenging to explain in a global flood scenario that part that, at least in their presentation to lay Christians, Oard and others aren’t putting into context is that all these layers of rock are found 1000 feet above the top layer of rock found at the Grand Canyon. Also there are fossil sites in these layers that suggest an entire ecosystem (nets, roots, consistent groups of plants with a particular climate, burrows of many small rodent and animals etc..) not just random bits of stuff stuck in layers. The mudcracks are indicative of a surface exposed to the air for some considerable time and there are many layers of rocks that show mudcracks.
      What Tas Walker and others would have us believe is that the 5000 feet of sediments that make up the Grand Canyon layers were deposited over thousands of square miles and another thousands feet of sediments on to of that before there was a time when some of those layers were exposed to the surface after day 150 allowing animals to migrate over them. But where did the dinosaurs come from? How did they survive that 100+ days when 6000 feet of sediment was being deposited below them? I expect the answer will be that they were hanging out on floating mats of vegetation. If that were the case I would expect those stressed pregnant dinosaurs to have given birth then and even if they waited would they really have had time to build nests.

      I understand Oard is admitting these are difficulties and he feels compelled to find some plausible explanation because it must be true. What I have to wonder though is if it is really possible that thousands of animals could survive on floating vegetation mats for 150 days and leave their marks in the very upper portion of the geological column that are claimed to be derived in the Flood then doesn’t it seem likely that some animals survived the flood altogether. Just looking at it from a statistical point of view there are so many trace fossils throughout the entire fossil record that there is no recorded time in which there were no living things left and thus the global flood seems to have been an ineffective means of wiping out all flesh.

      You are right that many features in the fossil record are extremely fragile and erodible. But this isn’t a big problem for the old earth model. Hundreds of thousands of local events over time have preserved things. I attended a YEC talk recently that showed Green river fish, whale fossils and even dinosaur fossils that he admitted where all post-flood fossils and thus were not the result of a global flood but local events. Billions of organisms decay today but some very small percentage will end up in a place that preserves them. Dinosaurs must have made quintillions of footprints over time but only a millionth of a percent of them will have been in the right place at the right time to be preserved. See my post on elephant footprints for an example of fossil footprints that YECs would agree are post-flood fossils so yes we know footprints can be preserved. https://thenaturalhistorian.com/2012/02/24/preservation-of-behavior-fossilized-elephant-tracks-from-the-arabian-peninsula/.

      In the end Oord is making an attempt to provide any possible explanation even if it isn’t very plausible. I can’t say his explanations are impossible but his conclusions certainly are not the most parsimonious.

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  3. NH, I would gently suggest again that you read Mike Oard’s book, and, if you haven’t already done so, the book “Rock Solid Answers,” which he and John Reed co-edited. These books are very detailed treatments of many of the problems you describe, and if you’re going to make your blogging platform criticism of the YEC model, you owe it to you readers to be as up to date as possible on the positions you’re criticizing. Otherwise, you run the risk of setting up straw men arguments from incomplete knowledge. For example, Tas Walker’s YEC model posits that all the world was flooded and all life extinguished BY day 150, not AFTER day 150, which is what you appear to believe, based on your comment above.

    In addition, it’s important to point out that many of the problems you mention are just as difficult for the old earth model. Lateral continuity and horizontality of thick, widespread sediment layers are very problematic for the uniformitarian model, because the dominant process in most of the world is erosion, not deposition, and even where deposition is currently occurring, such as lake beds or river deltas, the results are not even close to the scale of the Navajo sandstone, to name one example. One can come up with various naturalistic scenarios that might solve the problem, but that would be ad hoc reasoning, and not based upon observation of current processes.

    I say this in a spirit of friendly suggestion, because there are so few voices out there who address the YEC model on the basis of the evidence itself. There are valid criticisms of the YEC model (see Paul Garner, himself a YEC geologist, here: http://thenewcreationism.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/the-top-five-challenges-for-creationist-geology/), but I would suggest that the most recent work within the YEC paradigm has greatly reduced the problematic nature of the issues that you have focused on here.

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    • You are correct that I misread Walker and that he does say before 150 days. Not sure how that aligns with evidence of trace fossils through the whole record. I do have the book “Rock Solid Answers” and I struggle with how to respond graciously to that book. I have read countless articles by John Reed and I really haven’t found reason to read much of it because it appears to be a repackaging of the same thing he has been saying for years. Reed has been critiqued multiple times by Christian geologists and that dialogue has been rather fruitless.
      Regarding ad-hoc reasoning just because a process isn’t happening today doesn’t mean it is ad-hoc or invalid to propose that there were events in the past that we don’t witness in the present. If the ocean were 500 feet higher and covered vast portions of the Midwest there would be massive lateral deposition. We don’t see that happening today but we can study the mechanisms of deposition in the present. You may wish to disagree but vast and higher rate deposition in the past is a prediction of evolutionary theory. Grass pollen and fossils are unknown until the Cretaceous. Therefore a large portion of the western formations were deposited during a time when it seems that grass did not exist. Prior the flowering plants (grass included) arriving on the scene the land would have been subject to massive erosion compared to today were we find that the grasses, in particular, inhibit erosion. So the present speed of erosion is not indicative of past erosion but the correlation of plant fossils with the fossil record is indicative of a changing ecology that changed the speed at which geological processes proceeded. If grasses did not exist in the past then to look to todays rate of erosion and deposition to understand geological strata of the past would not be wise. Call that ad-hoc but to limit anyone to observation of only what happens today is unnecessary. We have never observed a large meteorite strike on earth but we can certainly infer they happened in the past and even study what their effects may be without actually observing one currently.

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  4. NH, if you have the time, maybe you could consider doing a series critiquing some of the “Rock Solid Answers” chapters, such as the ones on karst, paleosols, and mudcracks. Both YEC and old earth models can only be improved by logical, dispassionate criticism. I still would recommend getting Oard’s book, because, as I mentioned earlier, it is the most detailed, fieldwork-based treatment I’ve seen yet of the tracks, traces and egg problem.

    I see your point about constructing a hypothesis to explain geologic features within a particular model as not being ad hoc reasoning, even though those conditions are not currently observable. A couple of problems with what you propose, however, is that production of thick, widespread, horizontal and laterally continuous sediments requires more than just subaqueous conditions, Additional requirements include a steady, long-term sediment source, a consistent and long-term means of transport, and, most importantly, sufficient accommodation space that increases throughout time to allow the layers to accumulate. Additionally, there are many basins that contain thick post-Cretaceous layers, such as the South Caspian basin, with over 20 km of Cenozoic sediments.

    However, I see sedimentary basins as an example of geologic data that can be equivocal with regard to origins–depending upon one’s assumptions, they can be consistent with either a YEC or an old earth model. You see geologic data as supporting the reality of the geologic time scale and of common descent of organisms from one original life form through genetic modification and natural selection. YEC scientists, on the other hand, see the same data as consistent with a catastrophic global marine transgression and a one-time appearance of genetic kinds, with an innate but limited potential for variation. As Mike Oard notes, however, there is a double standard that is applied to unresolved questions: “For evolutionists, they are research problems; for creationists, they are held up as indisputable evidence falsifying the entire paradigm.”

    Both models have strengths and weaknesses, but if it’s not fair to call ad hoc reasoning what evolutionary scientists do who explain away difficulties by making predictions using their assumptions, the same courtesy should be extended to YEC scientists who use the same reasoning within their own model.

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    • I apologize for the delay. I’ll get a copy of that book soon and check it out.

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    • ashley haworth-roberts says:

      “YEC scientists, on the other hand, see the same data as consistent with a catastrophic global marine transgression and a one-time appearance of genetic kinds, with an innate but limited potential for variation”. I believe that is solely because they have decided that the opening chapters of Genesis are a ‘complete’ and ‘infallible’ history of life, the universe and planet Earth. Explanations of the geologic and fossil record as resulting from a literally worldwide and year-long flood less than 5,000 (for which there is no compelling scientific evidence just various flood legends) simply don’t work despite the protestations of YECs like Oard, Walker, Ham etc.

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  1. […] a week ago at his blog Naturalis Historia Joel Duff discussed the recent discovery in Argentina of the 240 million year old fossilised remains of a communal […]

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