How an Ancient Fish's Skull Filled With Fossilized Feces

It’s a dubious distinction in the fossil record: For the first time, a vertebrate has been found with fecal pellets where its brain once...


It’s a dubious distinction in the fossil record: For the first time, a vertebrate has been found with fecal pellets where its brain once was.

The fossilized animal was Astroscopus countermani, an extinct fish first described as a separate species in 2011 in Maryland. Also known as the Astronomer because his eyes were above his head, he was the earliest known member of his family and genus, still hunting prey on seabeds around the world. But around 7.5 to 10.5 million years ago, in the Miocene era, scientists suspect that this astronomer’s specimen, which could have been the size of today’s trout, was dead and his brain may have been infiltrated by polychaetes or another type of annelid worm. The creatures may have scavenged the brains of the dead fish, leaving a copious amount of feces in their wake.

“This,” said Stephen J. Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland and author of the study, “was an overperforming worm or worms that burrowed into this little fish!”

Although the Astronomer Fossil was not a new discovery, authors have more recently been able to use improved technology to look inside the puzzle and the fossilized pellets without destroying them. In a published article in January in the journal Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e StratigrafiaScientists describe the use of a spectroscopic device to confirm the calcium and phosphate signatures of coprolites – fossilized feces – in the fish jigsaw.

It is remarkable, says Dr. Godfrey, that such a small fish survived fossilization. But it is equally remarkable that the tight coprolites in his puzzle have also been preserved. This means that no other former scavengers for whom fecal pellets would have meant lunch followed these verses.

The Calvert Cliffs where the fossil was found stretch 35 miles along the Maryland coast. Well known for its large and diverse fossil content, the site has so far produced fossils of 650 different ancient organisms. They include evidence of creatures digging into fossilized remains, shark fossils with shark bite marks, coprolites bitten by sharks, and whale fossils that indicate they were recovered. John Nance, co-author and head of paleontology collections at the Calvert Marine Museum, found numerous traces of fossils on the beaches next to these cliffs, many of which were discussed in the recent article.

But the micro-coprolites described in this article turned out to be particularly interesting to study. Dr. Godfrey and his co-authors noted their uniform shape and size. Similar fecal pellets have been found much deeper in the fossil record, including the trilobite heads over 450 million years old.

“We don’t know the identity of the producers of these pellets,” said Alberto Collareta, co-author and paleontologist at the University of Pisa, “but we do know that their behavior turned out to be quite effective.” In other words, the same type and shape of micro coprolites have been found in similar tight spaces for hundreds of millions of years.

Although large fossils garner considerable attention in paleontology, “fossils of tiny organisms, however, often have much more to say,” said Aline Ghilardi, professor of paleontology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. , who did not participate in the research. .

She says the smaller creatures and what they leave behind — burrows or bodily waste — can provide detailed stories about environmental changes over time.

“Each type of fossil has a different story to tell, and these stories complement each other, helping us to reconstruct a more accurate picture of the past,” she said. “Paleontologists need all of these pieces to piece together the history of life.”

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