The Inside Of Ancient Fossil Turds Visualized In Impressive 3D


The 230-million-year-old poop of a lungfish, showing a partially articulated fish skeleton. Martin Qvarnstrom


In scientific news you probably didn’t want to know, researchers have peered inside 230-million-year-old poop to see in detail what the creator had for lunch. This is the first time that researchers have been able to fully visualize the internal structure of fossilized poop to such a fine resolution.

The study, published in Nature this week, used a technique known as synchrotron scanning to get an unparalleled look inside the fossil poop, known properly as coprolites. This basically involves taking a particle accelerator, firing electrons around the ring-shaped track, and then directing the X-rays they emit towards the mineralized turd.


Amazingly, they were able to see in astonishing detail what two different creatures had for dinner. In one coprolite, they found the wing cases and legs of three different species of beetle, while in the other they found half an articulated fish skeleton. They suspect that the first poop most likely belonged to a terrestrial lizard-like critter, while the second was likely from an ancient lungfish.

The wing case and leg os three different species of beetle found in the second turd. Qvarnström et al. 2017

Traditionally, palaeontologists have studied coprolites by taking 2D slices of the poops and then using microscopes to analyze what's inside them. This is a crude way to do it and means the researchers have to try and reconstruct what may have been preserved within the coprolite. Using the particle accelerator, however, the team could visualize what was inside the poop in 3D.

While the ability to peer into fossil poop is incredibly impressive, the work is somewhat limited. Coprolites are a fairly common find in the fossil records, as animals poop on a pretty regular basis.

The tricky part when it comes to coprolites, though, is nailing down exactly which ancient creature evacuated its bowls to produce the turds in the first place. Sure, it’s interesting to know that a dog-sized animal was snacking on beetles some 230 million years ago, but does that tell us anything new? The researchers certainly seem to think so.


“We have so far only seen the top of the iceberg,” says team lead Martin Qvarnström of the University of Uppsala in a statement. “The next step will be to analyze all types of coprolites from the same fossil locality in order to work out who ate what (or whom) and understand the interactions within the ecosystem.”

This could, in theory at least, allow researchers to build up a picture of the ecosystem, including how different species during the same time period filled different niches. So rather than focusing on individual species, it could provide a useful overview of an entire environment, based solely on poop.

  • tag
  • fish,

  • beetle,

  • fossil,

  • electron,

  • poop,

  • particle accelerator,

  • turd,

  • coprolite