National Geographic News
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Adrian Hunt, a paleontologist who's spent much of the past 25 years combing the Southwestern United States for fossils, still recalls the first time he found fossilized dinosaur dung.
A tan cylindrical mass with bits of plant material inside it sat on a hill in northwestern New Mexico, gently falling apart in an area known as the "Fossil Forest."
"I was very excited," Hunt, director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, recalled. "Your mind wanders off and you can imagine that the warm feces was left by a dinosaur that just walked behind the hill You feel like you're there."
The notion of fossilized dung may draw wry smiles from some. But the researchers who study coprolites, as fossil feces are known, say these dietary waste products can tell us much about dinosaurs and other ancient animals.
Coprolites are the most rare of all dinosaur fossils. They belong to a group known as trace fossils. The class includes dinosaur tracks, regurgitalites (fossilized vomit), and cololites (think coprolite, trapped in the lower digestive tract).
A Little Respect, Please
English scientist William Buckland discovered the first coprolite in 1823, 20 years before dinosaurs were known to science.
But in the 180 years since, most paleontologists have paid coprolites scant attention. "They're the Rodney Dangerfields of the fossil world," Hunt concedes.
That may be changing, however. Experts say coprolites are garnering greater respect in paleontology circles. Some go so far as to say that paleo poop represents one of the more intriguingalbeit unchartedfields of dinosaur fossil research.
"I think for a long time people saw them as 'giggle fossils' because they're unusual," said Karen Chin, a paleontologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and perhaps the world's leading coprolite researcher. "It's hard to draw paleobiological information from them. You don't know, necessarily, who produced them."
"But I think, like dinosaur tracks they have really lent credence that there are a lot of things that we can tell from these [trace] fossils. But it takes a while to be careful enough to be able to draw the right conclusions."
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