Friday, October 5, 2012

Coprolite and Munitions of the First World War

What is Coprolite?

Coprolites are fossilized dinosaur excreta, fossilized feces!

Sometimes mistaken as a stoney meteorite with its shape and sometimes, colors, they are just the fossilized remains of, well, animal excrement! 
These unusual specimens despite their their rarity have had an interesting place in history; coprolites helped win the First World War!

How  Coprolites  Helped Win the First World War

More rare and often harder to identify than dinosaur bones, the fresh excrement of ancient animals if exposed to conditions favorable to preservation can become fossilized. The specimens can become rock-hard nodes. 

They are called "coprolite". High in phosphate, ground coprolite "dinosaur poop" was used for fertilizer and briefly used in munitions development during early World War I.
Coprolites are found around the world but some places are noted as having conditions that favored preservation as fossils.

 Coprolites can be easily confused with pseudofossils, natural inorganic and completely natural objects with regular shapes and patterns.
 -Things like bogi stones, for instance, which are completely inorganic yet surprisingly symmetrical is size and shapes.

Only coprolites are true fossilized animal dung.

Coprolite of a Meat-Eating Dinosaur


Image via Wikipedia

Psuedofossils are objects that look similar to organic material or processes such as highly detailed crystalline markings, other impressions causes by natural forces and have nothing to do with animalia. 

One such famous psuedofossil was identified in 1865 by J. W. Dawson and was thought to be of very ancient, large and highly evolved protozoan.
More were found in subsequent years which seemed to support the contention that these were some form of animal.

Image via Wikipedia

In 1970 however, the very same structure was discovered from ejecta material from the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption. The latter discovery obviously was created under conditions of extreme heat and pressure conditions more typical with geologic processes, not the natural fossilization of organic material or lifeforms.

Uses of Coprolite Include Fertilizer, Explosives/Munitions

In the 19th century England, coprolites were mined for agricultural and industrial applications. Coprolites are high in phosphates which made them valuable for fertilizer. The coprolite mining had declined in the late 1880s but during the early part of World War I, the industry was revived out of necessity.

The phosphates from fossilized dinosaur dung were needed to make munitions, explosives. There is even a street called “Coprolite St.” near Ipswich Docks in Ipswich where the munitions factory that processed coprolites once stood. 

So in a very real sense, dinosaur poop helped the Allies in the war against Germany. Who would have guessed?

Fossilized Dinosaur Droppings


(Image by author: obverse view of a coprolite from collection of author)

Fossilized animal droppings are often overlooked because they do not resemble anything familiar to the fossil prospector. 

Very small specimens can resemble stones or other inorganic rock formations or other natural concretions of minerals, such as bogi stones. 

Paleontologists study coprolites because they serve as evidence of the animal’s diet. From this we can learn what they ate and even of what parasites they may have carried in life. 
From coprolites we can learn if the dinosaur ate only plants, was omnivorous or if it was exclusively a meat-eating predator. Sometimes coprolites are found to contain bone fragments or be of a high calcium and/or protein content from having digested remnants of their prey. 

This can solidly identify the associated dinosaur as a meat-eater and even the study of fecal remains of ancient humans can conclude if they included or raised domestic mammals for a stable food source.

Another View of the same Coprolite


(Image by author: reverse side of the same coprolite shown above)

Coprolite fossils are mainly composed of the compound calcium phosphate, hence their use as fertilizer and later out of necessity, explosives and other munitions creation.

Other organic matter sometimes is present in coprolites such as bones and flesh of whatever was in the digestive tract of the animal. 

Most terrestrial animals dung fall apart long before it can become fossilized so finding a coprolite is quite rare despite the aggregate volume excreted by any indigenous animal specie during its lifetime. 

Marine and aquatic animal coprolites are more common because they often were buried in silty sediments before they could fall apart and thus, preserved in situ





A land animal’s droppings would be subject to wind and rain erosion long before fossilization might occur. But in some rare cases, a fresh fecal spoor if quickly buried in sand or soil, it can become preserved. Eventually, to become fossilized.

Coprolites are seldom identified as having come from a particular specie of creature or animal.
 The more ancient the specimen the more difficult the taxonomy of identifying it becomes. It is of higher probability that a match has occurred when the same type of fossilized coprolites are found associated with the bones of specific dinosaurs and in multiple locations across continents. 


Only then with some degree of high certainty can one say that so-and-so sample of coprolite is confirmed as being the fecal spoor of a particular specie of dinosaur. A taxonomical similar coprolite found elsewhere can be reliably guessed as being from the same general if not specific specie of dinosaur.

 Fossils Fossils!  -A New Coprolite Added to My Collection


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