NH Notes: An Ode to Coprology

Cross section of a corprolite

Cross section of a corprolite

“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 to my post yesterday on 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

This stone is a shark coprolite that when cut open was found to contain fossilized tapeworm eggs.  From

This stone is a shark coprolite that when cut open was found to contain fossilized tapeworm eggs. From Dentzien-Dias et al 2013.

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.

Eggs of a tapeworm fossilized inside a 270 million year old shark coprolite.

Well preserved eggs of a tapeworm fossilized inside a 270 million year old shark coprolite.  From: Dentzien-Dias et al. 2013.

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

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