What excites paleontologists just as much as finding a nice, old dinosaur skeleton? Finding a nice, old dinosaur dung heap, of course. Coprolites, or fossilized poop, tell sceintists a ton about the creature that dumped them. By studying the excretement of organisms of years past, paleotnologists can determine what that organism ate, how its digestive system worked, and what kind of microorganisms lived in its gut. (Read more about coprolites at berkeley.edu.)
270 million years ago, an ancient shark defecated in what was most likely a freshwater pond. The pond dried up, and the animals living in it died. Unfortunately, their fossils didn’t quite make it. But here’s the upside: their poop did. Paula Dentzien-Dias, a paleontologist from the Federal University of the Rio Grande in Brazil, recently found and analyzed the 270-million-year old poop. The researchers aren’t sure what species of shark excreted this egg-filled coprolite. But it did tell them a whole lot about the organisms who lived within the shark. The spiral-shaped poop was found to contain 93 little oval objects—what the scientists determined to be tapeworm eggs, so small they measure only about the width of one-and-a-half sheets of paper. Even more exciting was that one of the eggs was further along in development than the others—it was in an early larval stage. Tiny structures in this egg that look like fibers were probably the beginning of hooks that the adult tapeworm would use to cling to the inside of a host’s intestines.
This finding is the earliest evidence of tapeworms in vertebrates by 140 million years. It appears that tapeworms were plaguing animals with their leeching behaviors much earlier than we thought. In hopes of learning more about tapeworms and their parasitic history, Dentzien-Dias and her research team are working on analyzing the other 500 coprolites from the Brazilian fossil site.
Find out more at www.livescience.com.
The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
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