Published on July 19th, 2021 | by David Marshall


Episode 127/128: Coprolite Inclusions

One of the factors that makes palaeontology such a popular science is its constant ability to surprise us. It seems almost every week that a new study is released that significantly adds to our understanding of ancient life. This could be in relation to a new species, a new analysis or new fossil locality. In this episode, we discuss a new discovery that not only yields a new species, but also provides direct dietary evidence and has us re-evaluating the potential for food to be preserved in coprolites (fossilised droppings).

Joining us for this interview are Drs Martin Qvarnström and Martin Fikáček of Uppsala University and National Sun Yat-sen University, respectively. Both were part of a team that identified and described a new species of beetle preserved within a dinosaur coprolite!

In this first part of the interview, we provide the context for the discovery, discussing the study of coprolites and of beetles and in the second part we look at the significance of the find for the study of dinosaurs, beetles and coprolites.

Our story begins in the Upper Triassic (late Carnian) Krasiejów clay pit, near Ozimek, Upper Silesia, Poland. This is a site famous for its fossils, so much so that a theme park (Jura Park) has been constructed in celebration. Immediate access to a theme park probably makes Krasiejów the best place to do field work. Image: Jura Park.
Amongst the terrestrial vertebrate discoveries are a large predatory rauisuchian (Polonosuchus silesiacus), an aetosaur (Stagonolepis olenkae), a dinosauriform (Silesaurus opolensis) (pictured), an archosauromorph (Ozimek volans), and various small other diapsids. It is thought that Silesaurus was the producer of a coprolite (fossil dung) that was the focus of this study. Image: Małgorzata Czaja.
Martin Q used synchrotron microtomography to penetrate inside of the coprolite and was able to identify numerous inclusions. These turned out to be lots of beetle elytra (wing covers) (orange) as well as complete specimens (yellow). See video below.

These beetles were so well preserved that their anatomy could be studied and compared to modern beetles. This is particularly surprising considering they had been eaten and passed through the entire digestive system of a dinosaur.
Image: Holotype (top) and second complete specimen (bottom).
The beetle was identified as a new genus and names as Triamyxa coprolithica.
From comparisons to modern beetles, it was apparent that Triamyxa coprolithica belonged to Myxophaga, a suborder of aquatic beetles that feed on algae. Image: modern myxophagan beetles.
These beetles would place Silesaurus as feeding in a freshwater environment. Such an association provides vital clues as to how Silesaurus lived (its ecology).
The large number of specimens and their relatively good preservation also raise questions about coprolites as a medium for the exceptional preservation of fossils; a kind of localised lagerstätte if you will. Will close examination of other coprolites also yield similar material?
Lead author Dr Martin Qvarnström, right, and co-author Dr Grzegorz Niedźwiedzki. Image: Joel Vikberg Wernström.
Dr Martin Fikáček, left, with Yun Hsiao collecting myxophagan beetles in algae. Image: Andy Chang.

Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy of Drs Martin Qvarnström and Martin Fikáček and figured in ‘Exceptionally preserved beetles in a Triassic coprolite of putative dinosauriform origin‘.

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