When we think of Jurassic Park, one of the first things that come to mind is John Hammond’s amber staff and the precious “dino DNA” that was extracted from the mosquito within. In reality, amber specimens have unfortunately/fortunately (depending on your persuasion towards giant apex predators) haven’t allowed us to bring dinosaurs back to life, but animals trapped within natural preservatives have provided new insights into ancient ecosystems. Just recently, a 50-million-year-old piece of amber revealed an unknown genus and species of fungus that erupted out of the rectum of an ancient carpenter ant. Now, science has discovered a new species of beetle only this time the preservative was a little less… glamorous.
A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, describes a new-to-science beetle species found preserved within the fossilized droppings of a dinosaur ancestor. Also known as coprolite, the stanky cocoon kept the beetles frozen in time, preserved in 3D formation and some even with their delicate legs and antennae fully intact. The dung is believed to have been deposited by a species from the Triassic period around 230 million years ago. That is one big pile of academic insight.
The team on the new study used synchrotron microtomography to take a look inside the coprolites, an imaging technique they were already familiar with having discussed its benefits for studying coprolites in a 2017 paper.
“We were looking at thin sections of coprolites and realized that there are a lot of interesting food remains still preserved within them,” first author Martin Qvarnström, a paleontologist at Uppsala University, Sweden, told IFLScience. The new-to-science beetle species has been named Triamyxa coprolithica, and it’s thought the samples were probably so well preserved thanks to the coprolites' calcium phosphatic composition and early mineralization facilitated by bacteria in the poop.
So, how did some near complete beetles come to get stuck inside a turd in the first place? The old fashioned way, says Qvarnström. “They were most likely ingested. The reason why we believe so is that most of the beetle remains are just represented by isolated bits and pieces. Only a few specimens are near complete. The reason why a few of the beetles are so complete is likely because a lot of beetles were ingested and that they were very small.”
The researchers suspect that the coprolite in question belonged to Silesaurus opolensis, a Triassic dinosaur ancestor that was around 2 meters (6.6 feet) long. While the droppings contained many T coprolithica, they were probably accidental bycatch as S. opolensis was feasting on something more sizable.
Fossilized feces such as this are common at dig sites and that they can contain undiscovered species makes them an untapped resource for paleontological research. Amber fossils such as that wielded by John Hammond are famous for their exquisite preservation, but the oldest known amber fossils are only around 140-million-years-old, practically adolescent compared to some of the ancient lumps of poop that have been unearthed. It could be that by diving headfirst into poop fossils, scientists may be able to step through the looking glass into an unexplored geological window of Earth’s history.
According to Qvarnström, the next step will be to study coprolites from the same place, see what’s inside them and connect them to their maker. In doing so, the team hopes to reconstruct ancient food webs and explore how they changed over time.