Piles of Fossil Poo: Providing a Peek 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 headlines when the first news was released. 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 about 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 from 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 feature is the quantity of coprolites and the spatial context they are found.

Tens of thousands of rock nodules were found eroding from the side of hills in Argentina.  A close examination of these nodules revealed that they average rocks but rather preserved feces of a large extinct herbivorous mammal-like reptile.  That an herbivore was the culprit can be inferred from the contents of each fossil nodule: they were found 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 are these coprolites evidence of a common latrine you might ask?  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 at the time when they were finally preserved.  The scientists involved interpret these fossils 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 tens 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 were extracted. These bone 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.

This type of behavior—having a communal latrine—is well known in large animals today such as rhinos but not reptiles.  Obviously, no one was there to witness these animals deposit these plant nodules but this interpretation of the data represent a most reasonable explanation that fits all of the observations.  The evidence they left behind is our witness to past behavior and events.

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

Here is where I ask a familiar question for those that have read any of my other writings:  how might a young earth creationists (YEC) interpret this particular 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. At the same time they probably would readily accept that a large animals 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 location fits into the broader context of Earth’s history.

But it is the geological context in which these fossils were found that is relevant to the question of the age of the earth and why I chose to write about it here.  Simply put, most of these coprolites were found eroding from a hill that is just a small part of a much larger set of rock formations that include thousands of feet of rock layers. All of the coprolites where found in the same layers of rock and they have been found in multiple locations many miles apart.  The conventional geological explanation would be that 200 million years ago this area of what is today Argentina was a relatively flat land with wetlands where groups of these reptiles lived.  Large piles of dung built up in communal latrines but we would expect that this dung would eventually be decayed and eroded by typical processes. However, these dung piles were present when 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 tens of thousands of feet of sediments in this area over a period of a few days to maybe a few months.  As the global flood subsided, massive erosion  sculpted the rocks into these mountains and hills.  Therefore, these flood geology theories of YECs would undoubtedly interpret 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 mammal-like 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 decayed for some period before being preserved? In fact we should note that the rocks show show desiccation cracks as if the soil in and around these coprolites had dried out before they were preserved.

Also, how would a pile of loose digested plant material survive the next huge wave of water bringing sediments in to cover them up?  In fact, the rock that these feces are preserved in is composed of material that geologist recognize as volcanic ash.   It was a massive ash fall that preserved these feces in the geological record.  How could a volcanic ash fall have happened in the middle of a global flood?

We could continue showing many examples of observations from the fossil record that do not fit logically into the YEC view of Earth’s history.   These are the same problems that we have seen with thousands of preserved dinosaur nests and footprints (see the figure below) that are located right in the middle of layers of rock that YECs propose were 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 that 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 specific characteristics of these fossils finds are most easily interpreted within the context of a world of great age. Once one is familiar with the context of the data it is easy to recognize YEC explanations as being nothing more than ad-hoc attempts to hold onto a preconceived interpretation of the history of earth.

Anyone who examines the paleontological literature will be confronted with thousands of similar examples to that I have presented here and realize that flood geology provides a wholly  inadequate interpretive framework for understanding the world around them.

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. “How could a volcanic ash fall have happened in the middle of a global flood?” All too easily. By some variant of the usual creationist techniques of recklessly adding anything that seems necessary to the biblical account (I believe there is a verse warning against that sort of thing, somewhere).

    So in this case, the breaking open of the fountains of the great deep could have been accompanied by spewing out of monstrous amounts of volcanic ash. No more absurd than the claims that the continents moved around as if on rollerskates, or that the highest mountains rose and the seafloor sank and the rate of production of radiocarbon dramatically increased, as part of the same convulsive process, all of which I have seen claimed in the Young Earth literature.

    Like

  2. Robert Byers says:

    Certain points here.
    first is the claim the critter is a mammal-reptile or reptile-mammal. Its now said that there were no reptiles but a bigger group as they would otherwise have to include birds as reptiles and this seems a problem.
    I say thyere are no such thing as reptiles or mammals but only kinds. So these creature does not have some mammal/reptile traits but just has traits that other creatures have. Grouping it is a false classification.
    As to the layering. Well one can imagine great chunks of land being swept away. they carry these creatures with in a few days and then they are covered by another layer from somewhere else. if its a ash layer thats fine. Volcanoes are seen to be exploding like crazy in yEC models as we see the former united continent breaking up which would lead to volcanoes exploding.
    its all happening fast and firious and in great powerful movements of lanmd/sediment.
    in fact these cases actually show how it was done. A great surge of land thrown aside that still allows the creatures to hang on and then they are covered.
    remember EVERYONE must account for their collection and fossilization. everyone must agree they were covered quick to stop decay.
    its very unlikely to imagine a slow process lasting long time that uniquely collected nd fossilized these creatures as non creationists would have to suggest.

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    • Can you provide a citation for “Its now said that there were no reptiles” – who/what is the source for this? If you make a claim, you must give the evidence it’s based on, or else it looks as though you’re making things up.

      Did you read the whole post? Joel specifically wrote, “…these feces appear to have decayed for some period before being preserved…the rocks show show desiccation cracks as if the soil in and around these coprolites had dried out before they were preserved.” This is the point you need to address in order to support your claim that the feces were rapidly preserved by an ash layer in the midst of a rainstorm. “[E]veryone must agree they were covered quick to stop decay” is the opposite of what the evidence suggests.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think Robert Byers may be referring to the fact that reptiles are not a clade. I do not understand the further claim that “there are no such thing as .. mammals”, but as you see this is just a leadin to “I say that there are … only kinds.” We have heard this from Robert, and have asked him in vain for a coherent definition of “kind”, many times.

        Notice that he has to his own satisfaction disposed of the problem of an ash fall during a flood, exactly as I had predicted.

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        • Robert Byers says:

          I don’t agree with the ancient classification concepts. so mammals is not a real thing in nature. there simply are kinds that , in a limited blueprint options in biology, have like traits. Yet no reason to group things or imagine common descent because of these traits.

          yes in segregated flow events a ash deposit could be deposited just before more on top. its an option.

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          • christine janis says:

            “I don’t agree with the ancient classification concepts. so mammals is not a real thing in nature.”

            Can you tell us which mammals are more closely related to other types of vertebrates than to other mammals? If not, they remain a clade.

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            • Robert Byers says:

              No clades or anything. the equation is KINDS. then a common limited blueprint forces traits to be the same as needed. yet the traits is not a anatomical/genetic trail of anything. thats just a guess that presumes too much.
              anything will lay eggs if its better then other ways. thats why some snakes, bugs, lay eggs but others don’t. thats why platypus lays eggs but other otters etc do not.
              it was just funny wrong classification systems from a few old dudes long ago.
              in fact evolutionism reliance on classification is why it gets things so wrong and why its not a scientific theory. its a cheat.

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              • Hello Robert,
                If I understand you, you are saying that classification based on kinds should depend on gross body plan. So as examples, otters, beavers, and platypus would be a kind. Wolves, thylacines, and hyenas would be a kind. Horses, zebras, camels, and deer would be a kind. Is this an accurate description of your classification? If not please provide details to help me understand your thinking.
                If my understanding of your idea of kinds is accurate, then I am curious as to where bats and penguins fit in (or are they their own kinds?). The more specific examples you are able to provide the better.
                Just trying to understand.
                Thanks

                Like

                • Robert Byers says:

                  No.,What a kIND is IS long gone. so one can only use anatomy to hint at what can be within a KIND.
                  however there is no such thing as a mAMMAL kind or a reptile kind or dinosaur kind or marsupial kind.
                  these are inventions from the old days where they used trivial traits to unite biology.
                  Having mammary glands is just a good idea in a limited bleprint for biology. there is no reason/evidence to say it unites such creatures more then with other creatures.
                  This classification agenda interferes with scientific investigation for origins.
                  it forces direction that is not shown by actual biology evidence.

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                  • Hello Robert,
                    I am sorry work got in the way of me replying earlier.
                    However, I do not think you answered any of my questions. You have said what kinds are not, but have not said what kinds are.

                    If you won’t answer my previous questions, then perhaps you will describe what discovery, finding, and/or experiment would convince you that you are wrong?

                    Like

      • Robert Byers says:

        They do say this about reptiles and actually I just read a link about it from another evo blog called pandas Thumb .
        Things being dried out is just moisture having left. so in a segregated earth/sediment collection one can speculate the pressure moving it would suck the moisture out before landing on top other sediment. Or at the placing of another layer on top it instantly sucked the moisuture out. YEC needs this to explain how the great layers were instantly turned into stone. great pressure from above squeezing everything.
        YES you need to cover it all too to stop further decay even if time for drying was allowed.

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        • Would you share the link to the article you read at Panda’s Thumb? Maybe it would be clearer. I look forward to seeing your answer to Tom so that maybe I can tell what your actual claim is.

          I have a very hard time understanding your writing…why would adding an additional layer of wet sediment, in the middle of a flood, suck water out of layers below it – instantly, no less? Piling heavy layers on top of feces might press moisture out (although now you have to invent a place for the moisture to go and evidence that it did so), but then the coprolites would look very different. You still need to explain how the feces dried out (not “had water extracted through being mashed flat by layers of sediment”) and decayed for some time under these circumstances. Surely a walk around your local dog park would demonstrate that feces that have dried out & partially decayed don’t look at all the same as recent “deposits” or feces that have been stepped on?

          “YEC needs this to explain how…” is interesting. Am I overstating your position to paraphrase as, “YEC needs [to add these details, even though we don’t have evidence for them] to explain [the existing evidence in a way that supports the explanation I would prefer to be true]”?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Byers says:

            i don’t know how to link. it was recently on some thread on pandas thumb. they don’t have many.It would be a dinosaur thread.

            to explain these things IT must be that layers of sediment were deposited powerfully quickly on top of each other.. This is fine with YEC.
            so a layer is moved and then on top another wHICH from the great pressure squeezes out all moisture. this is the constant equation. the origin for oil/gas etc.
            so in like manner feces or sand is simply had the moisture removed. it didn’t dry or rather having the moisture removed instantly WOULD give the same impression as drying.
            Just a great suffocating pillow effect over a large area.
            Everybody has to cover that feces before decay. then load on top.

            Like

            • It’s not true that the layers must be deposited “powerfully” or quickly. That’s your claim in order to make the events fit your timeline. Do you remember the source for this idea?

              I don’t know how to write more clearly:piling sediment on top of the feces fast enough to press the moisture out would change their shape. (Olives don’t still look like olives after they’ve been through the press!) The coprolites don’t look like they were mashed flat, so what is the evidence that pressure on them from layers above was sufficient to remove water from them?

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              • Robert Byers says:

                Things must be figured out. yet if there was a sudden clobbering of a layer of sediment upon another AND so hard that it instantly squeezed out all moisture YET it did not deform the biology then why not. In all these things fossils are demanding that they were covered instantly. in a YEC model this instant also turned them to stone instantly.
                its about pressure. YEC already must say sudden great pressure didn’t deform the biology as that is what we call fossils. So feces is just mnore fossils from the same mnechanism.
                there are issues how it was done but YEC would only need to explain one mechanism.

                Like

                • It sounds like we agree that YEC doesn’t have an explanation for this evidence or scientific reasons to reject the geologic explanation that Joel describes above, so let’s leave it at that. This is probably the only thing we’ll agree about!

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Robert Byers says:

                    no. I didn’t say that. I offered better exp[lanation. i’m just saying minoe points need imagination to deal with them. Loads of stuff in origin issues is not figured out. however the YEC model of deposit and squueze does make more sense to explain feces/fossils keeping their shape integrity . Its not just a big smush. All fossils are turned, along with the sediment they are buried in, into stone by pressure from above. great pressure YET we all know they keep the shape of the creature intact.

                    Like

                    • I’m afraid your explanation isn’t better until the minor points have been not only imagined, but there’s strong evidence to support them. At this point, you’ve rejected an existing explanation with existing evidence in favor of one that’s unsupported but maybe someone will eventually figure it out. The “YEC model of deposit and squueze [sic]” requires adding unsupported assumptions, in the hope that some future hypothetical research can fill in the gaps. The best option is to accept the explanation with the evidence we actually have – we can always change our minds (and should!) if better evidence comes in.

                      “What if it happened a different way that left no trace?” can’t override “Here’s the evidence that the normal processes we observe & already understand would produce those results.”

                      Like

  3. Robert Byers says:

    Mel. its not like that. i’m not saying that. i’m iving the better explanation. deposit and squeeze. i see feces as no different then anything that was fossilized. i don’t see a DRYING need or event taking place. THE SQUEEZE dried it instantly while not crushing it.

    Like

    • [Can’t resist] I suggest you try the experiment on an actual sample

      Like

    • I’ll try to do a better job of paraphrasing you so as to not be guilty of a straw man.

      This is crucial: an explanation can’t be better unless the evidence for it is also better.

      Joel laid out an explanation based on interpreting what scientists observed in light of processes we do understand: “When feces decompose & dry out, we observe XYZ. For these coprolites, we observe XYZ; therefore, these feces were decomposed & desiccated. When ash layers undergo lithification, we observe ABC. We observe the layers around the coprolites to be ABC; therefore, the feces were buried and fossilized within ash layers.” The opposite is also true: “When feces are compressed, we observe E. When feces haven’t begun to decompose or dry out, we observe FG. We don’t observe either of those with these coprolites; therefore, the conditions of the feces were not EFG.” All of those processes are well-known – they’re starting with something we see now, and applying it to something that happened in the past.

      Your explanation is based on claiming that, even though the feces look like they went through decomposition and desiccation, they didn’t. Your claim requires an unknown process that contradicts what we observe and can explain. This is the place in particular where I’m getting stuck – what is the evidence that the usual processes didn’t apply for these fossils?

      Like

      • Robert Byers says:

        there are options. The unusual mechanism of instantly turning sediment/biology into stone from great pressure is not today observed. So’scientists” or any intelligent observer would not have this example.
        Yet if this happened. indeed the fossilization mechanism we all need which is unique and not happening today, IT WOULD also turn to stone feces within ash etc etc. It would instantly dry it out from moisture. Feces that has dried SIMPLY has had, over time, the moisture leave. Fast would mimmic slow. You couldn’t tell which process had happened.

        Another point in your case. If the feces is in the ash. Then merely the preservation of the ash would explain the preservation of the feces. Indeed, once again, the unique situation of the feces embraced by the ash

        Like

        • An unknown/unobserved process isn’t proposed as a mechanism when there is already a well-known explanation available. Because Joel’s explanation has evidence and your explanation doesn’t, I have to go where the evidence points.

          What, in your opinion, is the single best piece of evidence that these fossils came from your unknown process instead of the well-known processes Joel laid out in the article?

          Like

          • Robert Byers says:

            Everyone is looking after the fact. The great evidebnce is that biology/sediment was uniquely frozen in time by a unique mechanism. this does not happen today or very rare.
            The first instinct should be the obvious. it was fast and furious and layers were likewise from these events. Anyways we have biblical timelines.

            Like

            • There’s no evidence that it was frozen by a unique mechanism – you have to demonstrate (not just assert) that it was a unique mechanism rather than the explanation offered in the article based on the normal processes.

              Back to evidence: what is the single best piece of evidence that it was “fast and furious” rather than the gradual process supported by the appearance of the fossils?

              Like

              • Robert Byers says:

                it was a unique process whether creationist or evolutionist. nothing is in process today of being fossilized or anyways we weould never know it. everything goes back to dust.
                so we have a result. so one hypothesis on the origin of the result. our hypthesis are just better then others.

                Like

                • A hypothesis is considered better when it has better evidence.

                  What, in your opinion, is the best piece of evidence that the feces were preserved by an unknown, yet-to-be-discovered process rather than the normal processes of decomposition, desiccation, and sedimentation that we see today?

                  Like

                • If the true answer is, “There isn’t evidence for my hypothesis yet, but Joel’s explanation can’t be correct because those processes would take a long time, which doesn’t fit my interpretation of the Bible, so a different process must have been involved that would fit the timeline I accept, and someday another YEC will discover it,” then go ahead and admit it. That way, we all understand your position clearly.

                  Liked by 1 person

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