Study of 300-million-year-old faeces finds meat on the menu

The coprolite sample used in the study.
The coprolite sample used in the study.
Curtin researchers have analysed organic molecules preserved within 306-million-year-old fossilised animal faeces (coprolite) and unlocked a wealth of information about the diets of long-extinct animals and prehistoric ecosystems.

Lead author PhD candidate Madison Tripp from Curtin’s WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre (WA-OIGC) said the research had revealed important biomolecular information that, despite being millions of years old, remained intact at a well-preserved fossil site.

"The samples, collected from Mazon Creek in Illinois and supplied by Field Museum Chicago, are the first coprolites of the 60-million-year-spanning Carboniferous age to be studied for organic molecules," Ms Tripp said.

"By studying these molecules preserved inside the fossilised faeces samples, we found fascinating dietary information about an unidentifiable extinct animal from Earth’s distant past - showing that the animal was a meat-eater or on a predominantly carnivorous diet.

"Molecular analysis of the faeces or coprolites showed two clear indicators the animal was carnivorous. One was the high proportion of a variety of molecules derived from cholesterol, which is present in most animals, and the other is a distinct lack of plant-derived biomarkers."

"Interpreting the diets of extinct animals through the biomolecular analysis of coprolites is important for studying ancient environments and ecosystems, which may have implications for understanding, our current ecosystems."

Research co-author ARC Laureate Fellow, John Curtin Distinguished Professor Kliti Grice, Director of WA-OIGC, who was this week named Scientist of the Year at the 2022 Premier’s Science Awards, said the research highlighted the significance of exceptionally preserved fossil sites, such as Mazon Creek.

"These hard, compact masses or carbonate concretions, which are known to have rapidly encapsulated the flora and fauna and are responsible for the exceptional preservation at Mazon Creek, are important in not only soft tissue preservation but also biomolecular preservation," Professor Grice said.

"This means we can analyse and investigate ancient animals and ecosystems, even when intact DNA is no longer present.

"Our study highlights the importance of future studies into the molecular preservation of such specimens, which have the potential to contain significant palaeoenvironmental and ecological information expanding on our previous research on Devonian and Jurassic fossils."

The research was funded by an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship grant, an Australian Government Research Training Program scholarship and an AINSE Ltd. Postgraduate Research Award (PGRA).

The invited paper, ’Fossil biomarkers and biosignatures preserved in coprolites reveal carnivorous diets in the Carboniferous Mazon Creek ecosystem’, was published in Biology and can be found online here in special issue, "Paleontology in the 21 Century".

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Curtin University would like to pay our respect to the indigenous members of our community by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which the Perth campus is located, the Wadjuk people of the Nyungar Nation; and on our Kalgoorlie campus, the Wongutha people of the North-Eastern Goldfields.