The Reverend William Buckland (1784-1856) was one of the last in a line of influential natural theologians following in the footsteps of John Ray (late 1600s) and William Paley (late 1700s). I recently gave a seminar in which I explored a number of significant turning points (figure below) in the history of discovery of deep time and the awareness of extinctions of flora and fauna in earth’s history. I didn’t have enough time to discuss Rev. Buckland during my presentation and so will give him some more time here.
Rev. Buckland came to prominence in the early 1800s just as the idea of deep time had become well accepted even among the majority of clergy. Buckland, both a minister and geologist, contributed a volume entitled Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology to the Bridgewater Treatises whose goal it was to explore “the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” He wrote many other books that examined how one can learn about the creator himself through his creation. Along the way he developed a set of tools and approaches for scientific exploration that we are still using today.
Rev. Buckland is probably best known as the first person to write a full account of a dinosaur (Megalosaurus) though the term dinosaur wasn’t coined until 1842 by paleontologist Sir Richard Owen. Working with other fossil collectors such as Mary Anning, the subject of a future article, Buckland contributed to the theory that there was a time when reptiles where the dominant organisms on earth. This so-called Age of the Reptiles along with a growing awareness that entire ecosystems were different in the past then in the present caused extensive discussion of the role of extinction of organisms and prompted a number of hypotheses about how other organisms could have come into existence since that time.
During Buckland’s life, that organisms had changed or been replaced over time became so apparent in the fossil record that theologians and natural historians alike were compelled to wrestle with the implications. Buckland like many of his natural theologian colleagues at the time where not evolutionists but rather promoted a form of progressive creation whereby the fossil record was explained by a series of divine creations that prepared the earth for human beings. Of course Charles Darwin takes center stage at the end of Buckland’s lifetime with the proposal that the pattern of fossil succession could be explained by the mechanism of natural selection acting over time to change organisms from one species into another.
Learning about the past by examining fossil feces.
Ok, dinosaurs are great but what I really want to talk about is Buckland’s contribution to the study of feces. Many of my presentations include a slide with pictures of coprolites (fossil feces) in which I talk about what we can learn about the past from them. It may be a better attention grabber than dinosaurs themselves!
Buckland coined the term coprolites for the fossilized feces of various organisms. Coprolites were well-known at the time because they are very common in the fossil record. They had been called bezoar stones prior to Buckland and were desired for the natural beauty. But their origins and significance where not appreciated until Buckland began to study them. I have to add that Mary Anning, whom I will extol the virtues of in a future post, should receive some credit for making the observations that Buckland used to draw his conclusion these stones represented the preserved remains of feces.
Once Buckland realized that coprolites associated with ichthyosaurs (ocean-dwelling reptiles) could reveal the diet of the animals that produced them, it opened up a whole new way to investigate the fauna and flora of the past. Coprolite analysis could reveal if an animal were a herbivore, carnivore or both and in many cases could determine species composition of the meal that the animal had eaten. Today these types of analyses contribute much to our understanding of dinosaur and other animal diets. I’ve written about a few of these studies (Piles of Fossil Poo: Providing a Peak into the Past, Dino Doo Doo (Coprolites) and the Genesis Flood).
Large animal coprolites are well-known throughout the fossil record though they are far from randomly distributed. For example, fossil feces of dinosaurs are found in the same rocks that dinosaurs are found and mammalian coprolites in the same layers of rock that mammals are found. In layers of rock deposited in lakes and shallow oceans billions upon billions of fish coprolites are found.
Buckland was so enamored with the beauty of coprolites and what they could tell us about past life that he had a table with thin-sliced fish coprolites embedded in its surface. It is said that he had guests eat at the table prior to telling them about the origins of the rock upon which they had just eaten. (The history of the table can be found in this article from the museum) As you might imagine Buckland had many colorful nicknames and received a lot of prodding about his passion. But, he opened up a whole new way of looking at past life that unquestionably resulted in a number of challenging questions that theologians and geologists would have to wrangle with for many years.
His work on coprolites from one layer of rock with a number of species of ichthyosaurs led to his writing a description of what the food chain (who ate who) during the age of the reptiles that rock represented. That description along with Mary Anning’s fossil collections resulted in the first pictorial representation of a scene from the past painted by Henry De la Beche in a painting called “Duria Antiquior.” (see below). The ancient reptiles and other organism depicted in this image are remarkably similar to the recreations of the same animals made today despite our having so much more data available to us.
Hyena Coprolites and Kirkdale Cave
In 1820 quarry workers discovered an entrance to a cave near Kirk Dale in Yorkshire, England. While not the first to investigate this cave, upon entering a large chamber through a small opening Buckland would have still encountered a huge cache of bones from more than 12 species of animals including coytes, wolves, elephants, hippos, rhinos, hyenas, bears, and even tigers. He eventually concluded this had been an ancient lair of extinct cave hyenas. This conclusion was based primarily on the presence of hyena coprolites preserved under layers of cave deposits that had occurred since the cave entrance had been closed. Those coprolites revealed the diet of those hyenas and confirmed they had likely brought scavenged material into the cave.
I am writing an article on the significance of this cave but for now I will just say that this cave was crucial in changing Buckland’s thoughts about a global flood and establishing the long history of England and the presence of a flora and fauna from time in the past before any humans had set foot on that land. Coprolites were a crucial piece of evidence that made deep time inescapable in the minds of even the skeptics during his time. Eventually, rather than a global flood being responsible for the closing of the cave and debris covering the bones and coprolites in the cave, a glaciation event became the likely cause and one that Buckland eventually came to accept despite his earlier beliefs expressed in whole books dedicated to explaining the effects of a global flood.
In future posts we will look more closely at why this cave, coprolites and the reptiles found in England were important discoveries that impacted the way we view past life today.
An Ode to Coprology
“Approach, approach, ingenuous youth,
and learn the fundamental truth:
The Noble science of Geology
Is founded firmly in Coprology.
For ever be the Saurians blest,
Who left us this diluvian test.
I claim a grand coronam lauri,
For these, Thesauri of the Sauri.”
A poetic addendum (originally a separate post but I have copied it here) regarding the Rev. Buckland and his fascination with fossilized feces. This poem is by Phillip Duncan dedicated to the work of William Buckland and is quoted by Francis Buckland in 1867 in his book Curiosities of Natural History: Second Series.
The first four lines of this poem are quite the famous, playfully suggesting to students transfixed by the new field of geology that they may find the hidden underbelly of geology quite unsavory. But I find the lesser known second four lines to be quite interesting as well. The language is a bit more antiquated but the “Saurians” are a reference the great reptiles that lived in the great Age of the Reptiles. Those reptiles had, through their fossil feces, left natural theologians of the day with a “diluvian test.” That test was how to explain those reptilian feces in the context of a global flood (the deluvian event). The “coronam lauri” I understand to be the plant wreath giving to victor of the race or in this case the best explanation for the meaning of the coprolites. The “Thesauri of the Sauri” is the many names or kinds of reptiles. So what could explain the coprolites of these many different reptiles none of which were living anymore? Buckland’s idea of examining the content of fossil feces has provided an answer to the diluvian test in the form of explaining some of the biology of these great reptiles and developing an appreciation for just how diverse they were in the past. This work solidified the idea that the worlds biota had changed dramatically over time.
Still learning from coprolites: evidence of tapeworms in 270 million year old sharks
In an addendum to an addendum I found this interesting example of modern coprology. Here we have a coproplite interpreted based in external morphology as coming from an ancient shark. It was sliced open and examined under microscope. In that coprolite was found fossilized eggs interpreted as having been derived from a tapeworm. Tapeworms are parasites which live in the intestines of many animals and produce eggs which are deposited in feces to allow them to get back into the external environment and be able to infect a new host. The presence of eggs in moderns animal feces are a nearly fool-proof indication that the individual animal is infected with adult tapeworms.
In this case the examination of fossil feces provides clear evidence that tapeworm parasitism in sharks has existed for a very long time. This is but one of hundreds of examples of how corprology has helped scientists learn so much about life in the past by going well beyond the simple bones and teeth we usually think of as fossils.
Dentzien-Dias PC, Poinar G Jr, de Figueiredo AEQ, Pacheco ACL, Horn BLD, et al. (2013) Tapeworm Eggs in a 270 Million-Year-Old Shark Coprolite. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55007. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055007
The Hyena Den, discovered 1820. | December 1, 2011
Cadbury, Deborah (2001), The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World, Fourth Estate, London, ISBN 9781857029635
Gordon, Elizabeth Oak (1894), The life and correspondence of William Buckland, D.D., F.R.S., John Murray, London
Rudwick, Martin J.S. (1992), Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-73105-
Rudwick, Martin J.S. (2008), Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-73128-6
Rupke, Nicolaas (1983). The Great Chain of History: William Buckland and the English School of Geology 1814-1850. Oxford University Press.