Fossilized poop, or coprolite, is a rock-solid remnant of prehistoric potty time. These literal time capsules provide valuable direct links to animal diets, behaviors, and environments in ways that other fossils can’t. Unfortunately, coprolites are relatively rare. Coprolites with unique markings or identifiable inclusions (think modern-day peanuts and corn) are exceptionally rare. A single coprolite specimen with both unique identifiable markings and a spectacular recognizable inclusion were unknown to the world… until now.
Mark Stitzer was hunting for shark teeth near Charleston, South Carolina, when he found an odd stone with an embedded fossilized shark tooth. The black and brown curiosity measured approximately 2” x 1.45” (51mm x 37mm) and weighed 2.85oz (80.3g). Stitzer believed that he had found something special, and thought that it might be a coprolite. The piece had a .4” (1cm) starburst circular impression and a strange .65” (16.63mm) linear opening on the opposite side from the tooth.
Further examination determined that Stitzer’s hunch was correct. The specimen was a coprolite, and most likely came from a crocodilian. The embedded 1.3” (33.3mm) tooth belongs to a species of massive prehistoric shark named Carcharocles angustidens, which lived about 33 to 22 million years ago, during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs. Carcharocles angustidens teeth have triangular crowns and small, fully-serrated side cusps. Fossil remains of Carcharocles angustidens show that the shark could reach over 30 feet (9.14 meters) in length.
The linear opening on the coprolite evidences a series of evenly-spaced lines plunging down into the gap that match the serrations of the embedded tooth. These distinct impressions indicate that this opening is actually a bite mark left behind when the shark scavenged on the feces, and that the tooth was not eaten and then digested.
The starburst circular impression on the tooth is well-defined and evidences a series of small lines that stem from the center to the edge of the impression. The current hypothesis is that this unique marking was left by a ray’s dermal denticle—a placoid scale in cartilaginous fishes that provides protection against predators. Rays were very common during the time in which Carcharocles angustidens lived. We’re still not sure how the feces received the dermal denticle impression. It’s possible that the dermal denticle was digested and broke off from the feces after passing, or that the impression was made when it made contact with the feces outside of the host animal.
The unique hallmarks of this coprolite illustrate that a crocodilian pooped 33 to 22 million years ago, and that a Carcharocles angustidens shark took a bite out of that poop, but did not digest it. The shark left behind a tooth, as well as a bite mark impression in that poop. That poop also came into contact with a ray’s dermal denticle, either through digestion or after passing.
If you’re interested in seeing this legendary fossilized feces in person, you’re in luck. It will be on display with other amazing coprolites at the Florida Museum of Natural History from January 27, 2018 to May 6, 2018.
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