A fossilized cranium of an extinct species of stargazer fish was stuffed with tiny fecal pellets known as coprolites , according to a recent paper published in the journal Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia—the first known skull in the fossil record to be completely filled with fecal pellets. This particular is the joint study by paleontologists at the University of Pisa in Italy, and the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland, who proposed that tiny scavenging worms ate their way into the dead fish’s skull and pooped out the pellets.
It was a 19th century British fossil hunter named Mary Anning (recently portrayed by Kate Winslet in the particular 2020 film Ammonite ) who first noticed the presence of so-called “bezoar stones” in the abdomens of ichthyosaur skeletons around 1824. When she broke open the stones, she often found the fossilized remains associated with fish bones and scales. A geologist named William Buckland took note of Anning’s observations five years later, suggesting that the stones were actually fossilized feces. He dubbed them coprolites.
Coprolites aren’t quite the same as paleofeces , which retains a lot of organic components that can be reconstituted and analyzed for chemical properties. Coprolites are fossils, so most organic components have been replaced simply by mineral deposits like silicate and calcium carbonates. It can become challenging to distinguish the smallest coprolites from eggs, for example, or other kinds of inorganic pellets, but they typically boast spiral or annular markings, plus, as Anning discovered, often contain undigested fragments of food.