The World’s Oldest Vegetarian Poop?

Winding through the Paleozoic section of our Morian Hall of Paleontology, past the trilobotes, the placoderms, the Sea Scorpions and the other terrifying creatures that roamed the earth at that time, you will eventually come to what we affectionately call our “wall of poop“. It’s in the Permian section of the Hall, to the right of the big Dimetrodon model. The wall has some amphibian skulls, part of a Dimetrodon jaw, and a whole bunch of coprolites.

 

coprolite4

 

 

Coprolites are fossilized feces. It may sound gross, but these coprolites are important to science! For example, we know for sure that T. rex’s ate Triceratops’ in part because we find triceratops bones in T. rex coprolites. In the same way, we have learned about the diets and lifestyles of Permian-era creatures (who lived millions of year before T. rex) in our hall by studying these coprolites.

One very interesting piece is a coprolite that was most likely produced by a herbivorous animal. This is a big deal because as far as we know, land-dwelling, herbivorous reptiles were just evolving in the Permian. They show up later in the fossil record because herbivores have more complex digestive systems than carnivores do. You know how cows have eight stomachs, have to regurgitate their food and chew it a few times so they can digest it? Well, that’s because most plants are really hard to digest. So the idea is that the first land-dwelling animals were carnivores and some of them later evolved more complex digestive systems to eat plants.

 

coprolite1

The coprolite we’re discussing is believed to be herbivorous because of its shape and consistency. Compare it (above) to the pictures of those of a carnivore (top of article) and you will notice that the meat-eaters generally produce straight, smooth coprolites, while our vegetarian coprolite is coiled and lumpy. It is believed that the herbivore who produced this particular coprolite was Diadectes, a model of which is pictured below.

 

diatectes

 

Do you like coprolites? Are you interested in learning more about vegetarian evolution? Do you have a hilarious or, better yet, informative comment about this blog? Feel free to leave a comment by clicking the little bubble at the top of this post. We want to hear from you! 

 

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Bakker blogs: You can’t have a dinosaur as a pet, but you sure can pet a dinosaur!

You know that saying, “You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose”? Well this is like that. Sort of.

We know you can’t actually adopt a dinosaur for a pet, but you can pet a dinosaur at HMNS’ new Hall of Paleontology! Curator Dr. Bob Bakker tells us how (and who) in this latest Bakker blog.

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Dinosaur “mummies” conjure up visions of B-movies with Cretaceous monsters wrapped in funereal linen, chasing Brendan Fraser across Egyptian sand dunes.

hall mummy bottom amnh-v
The most famous duck-bill dino mummy is likely the edmontosaur at New York’s American Museum. The “skin” you see is an impression in the rock.

Our new Prehistoric Safari features two dino mummies: our fantastic Triceratops, Lane, and a slab of duck-billed dinosaur we nicknamed “Trigger.” Lane’s perfectly preserved skin is beautiful, but so delicate we can’t let visitors touch it (even the PhDs held their breath when they moved the specimen). But Trigger’s hide is totally petrified and rock-hard, so we want you to pet it.

Go ahead, give Trigger a gentle touch. Lots of folks get goose-bumpy when they run their fingers over the finely textured scales that covered this 4-ton veggie-saur, which chomped down on bushes in Utah some 73 million years ago.

In truth, most “mummified” dinosaurs aren’t exactly mummified in the original sense. True mummies preserve the actual skin and much of the body muscles, which become dehydrated and shrunken around the skull and skeleton.  The Egyptians were masters of religious mummification and devised clever ways to prevent the decay that usually rots out the soft tissue. Nature can mummify human bodies, too — when burials occurred in desert sand. Hot winds suck out the water from the sand and extract the juices from the deceased, leaving a body with leathery skin and desiccated innards.

hall Mum Leo -Poster copy

Dino mummies ≠ Egyptian mummies.

Usually, dinosaur mummies appear as if they have real skin shrunken over their ribcages and faces. But if you look closely, you’ll see that all the skin tissue is actually gone. What’s left is the impression of the skin, preserved in fine-grain sand and mud. What happened is this:

The dinosaur died and dried out. Scavengers were kept away somehow (that’s the tricky part) until sediment buried the carcass. Microbes finally destroyed all the skin tissue, but not before the sediments had been pressed tightly against the body. As the sand and mud hardened, the sediment recorded the impression of the outer skin surface — many “mummies” capture the skin texture with fabulous fidelity.

Lane the Triceratops goes one step better. There are genuine remnants of the original skin material preserved as dark, carbon-rich residue. We’ll do some high tech probing of this stuff to search for organic molecules. (No, we won’t get genetic material, Jurassic Park fans — DNA is too big and complicated to survive more than a few thousand years.)

Our Prehistoric Safari has a fine cast replica of a third dino-mummy, the famous duck-billed Brachylophosaurus named “Leonardo” from Malta, Montana. Leo, as he is known affectionately, has skin impressions over the arms, shins and flank. However, his claim to fame is his innards. The contents of Leo’s stomach and intestines are still there, faithfully recording his last meal. Tiny fragments of Late Cretaceous leaves fill the gastrointestinal tract, and you can see the progress of the digestive cycle.  Leaf bits get smaller passing from the stomach to the lower guts, showing that digestive juices were doing their job of breaking down the food.

Leonardo is the only herbivorous dinosaur specimen which gives us a glimpse into the food-processing organs deep inside the body.

But back to the petting —we have several pettable specimens in the exhibits and on the touch carts. Feel free to stroke bones, teeth, even our wonderful selection of coprolites (though you might want to look that word up).