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Fossilized feces on display

Dino droppings offer clues to history at museum

The Columbian
Published: July 6, 2024, 5:50am
5 Photos
A fossilized coprolite in a casting is displayed on June 7 at the &ldquo;Poozeum&rdquo; in Williams, Ariz. The museum in northern Arizona along Route 66 features the fossilized feces of prehistoric animals.
A fossilized coprolite in a casting is displayed on June 7 at the “Poozeum” in Williams, Ariz. The museum in northern Arizona along Route 66 features the fossilized feces of prehistoric animals. (Ty ONeil/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — One way to help tell how a Tyrannosaurus rex digested food is to look at its poop.

Bone fragments in a piece of fossilized excrement at a new museum in northern Arizona — aptly called the Poozeum — are among the tinier bits of evidence that indicate T. rex wasn’t much of a chewer, but rather swallowed whole chunks of prey.

The sample is one of more than 7,000 on display at the museum that opened in May in Williams, a town known for its Wild West shows along Route 66, wildlife attractions and a railway to Grand Canyon National Park.

The Poozeum sign features a bright green T. rex cartoon character sitting on a toilet to grab attention from the buzzing neon lights and muffled 1950s music emanating from other businesses.

Inside, display cases filled with coprolites — fossilized feces from animals that lived millions of years ago — line the walls. They range from minuscule termite droppings to a massive specimen that weighs 20 pounds.

Poozeum’s president and curator, George Frandsen, bought his first chunk of fossilized feces from a shop in Moab, Utah, when he was 18, he said. He already loved dinosaurs and fossils but had never heard of fossilized poop. From there, his fascination grew.

“It was funny. It was gross,” he said. “But I learned very quickly it could tell us so much about our prehistoric past and how important they are to the fossil record.”

Coprolites aren’t tremendously common but they can make up the majority of fossils found at some sites, and people have learned more and more about them over the past few decades, said Anthony Fiorillo, executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

It can be hard to identify them and in some cases, specimens that appeared to be coprolites — with their pinched ends and striations — were examined further and ultimately reclassified as something else.

“There’s a number of sedimentary processes that can produce an extrusion of soft mud to a different layer,” he said. “So think about your toothpaste, for example. When you squeeze it, there can be some striations on that toothpaste.”

Fossil enthusiast Brandee Reynolds recently visited the museum with her husband after finding it was a short detour from a road trip they had planned.

“I mostly find sharp teeth and things like that,” she said. “I haven’t really found a whole lot of coprolite, but who doesn’t love coprolite?”

A highlight of Frandsen’s collection is a specimen that holds a Guinness World Record for being the largest coprolite left by a carnivorous animal. Measuring more than 2 feet long and over 6 inches wide, Frandsen said it’s believed to be from a T. rex, given where it was found in South Dakota in 2019. He also holds the record for the largest certified coprolite collection of 1,277 pieces, earned in 2015.

His collection is now about 8,000 specimens.

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