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A coprolite is fossilised faeces (poo!). The fossils we are familiar with are called “body fossils”. Coprolites are called trace fossils because they give us clues to the creature’s diet. Coprolites are derived from the Greek words kopros, meaning “dung” and lithos, meaning “stone”. Coprolites may range in size from a few millimetres to over 60 centimetres!
The famous fossil hunter Mary Anning noticed as early as 1824 that “bezoar stones” were often found in the abdominal region of ichthyosaur skeletons. She also noted that if such stones were broken open, they often contained fossilized fish bones and scales as well as sometimes bones from smaller ichthyosaurs. It was these observations that allowed the geologist William Buckland to propose in 1829 that the stones were fossilized faeces and named them coprolites.
Coprolites are different from paleofaeces which are fossilised dung. Like other fossils, coprolites have had much of their original composition replaced by mineral deposits such as silicates and calcium carbonates. Paleofaeces, on the other hand, retain much of their original organic composition and can be reconstituted to determine their original chemical properties, though in practice the term coprolite is also used for ancient human faecal material in an archaeological context.
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