News Release

3-D scanning methods allow an inside look into fossilized feces

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Image 1 Coprolite with Fish Remains

image: This is a coprolite with fish remains. view more 

Credit: Martin Qvarnström

CALGARY, ALBERTA (August, 2017) - Coprolites are fossilized feces that give evidence of an organism's behavior and often contain food residues, parasite remains and other fossils that provide clues to ancient paleoecological relations. Many of the inclusions in coprolites are delicate and fossilized soft tissues, which in many cases are more likely preserved within the coprolites than in other rocks. However, the composition, size and organization of the inclusions within the coprolites make them difficult to analyze. Classic techniques, such as looking at thin sections under the microscope or Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) require destructive preparation and can destroy the specimens. In a new study being presented at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Alberta, Canada researchers use synchrotron microtomography to understand as much of the content of the coprolites as possible.

Contents from coprolites from the Upper Triassic bone beds Poland were segmented into 3D models. As researcher Martin Qvarnström explains, "Examples from two feces of Triassic age (230 million years old) include delicate remains of beetles in one, and a half-complete fish and fragments of crushed bivalves in the other." The coprolite with fish remains including fin rays, scales and bones that were fractured and sheared during ingestion/digestion was likely produced by a lungfish. The other coprolite contains various fully three-dimensional beetle remain and was produced by a medium-sized terrestrial animal that evidently targeted small beetles as prey. Likely candidates include animals like cynodonts and archosaurs.

These examples underline the importance of coprolites, which have an underestimated potential in unraveling paleoecological relations from ancient ecosystems. Qvarnström explains, "I investigate the content of vertebrate coprolites with the aim to reconstruct trophic food webs of ancient ecosystems." Using these new advanced techniques give a rare glimpse into the paleodiets of organisms that lived over 200 million years ago.


About the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Founded in 1940 by thirty-four paleontologists, the Society now has more than 2,300 members representing professionals, students, artists, preparators, and others interested in VP. It is organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, with the object of advancing the science of vertebrate paleontology.

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (JVP) is the leading journal of professional vertebrate paleontology and the flagship publication of the Society. It was founded in 1980 by Dr. Jiri Zidek and publishes contributions on all aspects of vertebrate paleontology. Journal Web site: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology:


Martin Qvarnström
Uppsala University
Uppsala, Sweden


  • Grzegorz Nied?wiedzki
  • Uppsala University
  • Paul Tafforeau
  • European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
  • Grenoble, France
  • Zivile Zigaite
  • Uppsala University
  • Per E. Ahlberg
  • Uppsala Univesity


Image 1: Coprolite with fish remains.

Image 2: Coprolite with beetle remains.

Image 3: Fish scales (orange, with the ganoine layer highlighted in purple) and fin rays (green) in detail.

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