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Arizona Museum Reveals Ancient Animals’ Stories Through Fossilized Poop

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — One intriguing method for understanding how a Tyrannosaurus rex processed its food is by examining its excrement. Bone fragments found in a piece of fossilized feces at a recently opened museum in northern Arizona—aptly named the Poozeum—offer minute clues indicating that T. rex wasn’t a chewer but rather swallowed large chunks of its prey.

The museum, which opened in May in Williams, showcases over 7,000 specimens, including the particular coprolite that reveals these insights. Williams, known for its Route 66 Wild West shows, wildlife attractions, and a railway to the Grand Canyon National Park, now adds this unique exhibit to its attractions.

One can’t miss the museum’s sign—depicting a bright green T. rex cartoon character perched on a toilet—a clever way to capture the attention of passersby amidst the buzzing neon signs and 1950s music from nearby businesses. Inside, display cases filled with coprolites, fossilized feces from animals that lived millions of years ago, line the walls. These range from the tiniest termite droppings to an enormous specimen weighing 20 pounds (9 kilograms).

George Frandsen, the museum’s president and curator, bought his first piece of fossilized feces from a shop in Moab, Utah when he was 18. Despite his love for dinosaurs and fossils, he had never encountered fossilized poop before. As he delved deeper into this niche fascination, he realized how much these specimens can teach us about our prehistoric past.

Coprolites, though not extremely common, can dominate certain fossil sites. Anthony Fiorillo, executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, indicated that over the past few decades, our knowledge about these fossilized feces has expanded significantly. However, identifying coprolites can be tricky. Sometimes, what seems to be a coprolite, characterized by pinched ends and striations, turns out to be something different upon closer examination.

For example, sedimentary processes can produce formations that resemble coprolites. Fiorillo likened it to squeezing toothpaste, which can create striations similar to those seen in presumed coprolites.

Fossil enthusiast Brandee Reynolds recently visited the museum with her husband during a road trip detour. She usually finds sharp teeth and other fossils but expressed her admiration for coprolites as well.

Among the highlights of Frandsen’s collection is a specimen that holds a Guinness World Record for being the largest coprolite left by a carnivorous animal. Measuring over 2 feet (61 centimeters) long and 6 inches (15 centimeters) wide, it’s believed to have come from a T. rex, discovered on a private ranch in South Dakota in 2019.

Frandsen also holds the record for the largest certified coprolite collection, with 1,277 pieces verified in 2015 at the South Florida Museum. His collection has now grown to approximately 8,000 specimens, although he can’t display all of them at the museum in Williams and showcases some online.

Frandsen assures that there’s no need to worry about any smell or germs; these disappeared millions of years ago when the feces were covered by sediment and minerals, turning them rock-hard. Various factors such as location, shape, size, and embedded materials like bones or plants help identify a coprolite, though identifying the specific creature that deposited it can be more complicated.

Fiorillo suggests focusing on differentiating between carnivore and herbivore coprolites, and understanding the food cycles within these broad groups, rather than pinpointing the exact animal. He emphasizes the importance of rare fossils in enhancing our understanding of the prehistoric world, and he hopes such fossils become accessible to researchers for further study.

Like Frandsen, Fiorillo’s interest in fossils began at an early age. He highlights private quarries in Wyoming’s Fossil Basin, where the public can hunt for fossilized fish, plants, and coprolites. Additionally, visitors can learn about paleontology at the research quarry at nearby Fossil Butte National Monument.

If a child leaves inspired after finding or seeing a fossil at a museum, Fiorillo believes that’s a significant achievement. Perhaps, these young enthusiasts will become the next generation of paleontologists.

Source: Associated Press