Poop Gets Its Close-Up

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Beijing may have more excrement than any city in the world, and Paris might have the most interesting sewers, but the world’s leader for breadth and depth of feces is — wait for it — Albuquerque. That’s the opinion, anyway, of New Mexico’s top poop scientist, paleontologist Adrian Hunt of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS).

“New Mexico is the best place in the world for fossil poop,” said Hunt at the museum’s special one day “On the Origin of Feces” event on Sunday, Sept. 1. Because of that special geological distinction the museum’s fossil feces collection is probably second only to that of the Smithsonian Institution’s, he added.

The New Mexico collection is also notable for the span of Earth’s history it covers. New Mexico’s mountains and canyons have yielded coprolites (the polite, scientific name for fossil feces) from as far back as the Permian period (250-300 million years ago) and as recent as a few thousand years ago.

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The latter includes mummified dung of mammoths and ground sloths of the last ice age. Hunt has spent much of the last 22 years looking in the middle of that range, specifically at dinosaur feces.

“Nobody has looked at more fossil poop than he has,” said Spencer Lucas, curator of paleontology at the NMMNHS — fully meaning it as a compliment.

Among the many surprising discoveries made as a result of coprolites is the fact, for instance, that duck-billed dinosaurs ate conifers; as in pine trees.

“Nobody thought that duckbill dinosaurs ate conifers,” said Lucas. The lesson there, he said, is that there’s only so much you can deduce about an ancient animal’s diet from from teeth and associated fossils. “At the end of the day you have to identify the gut contents or coprolites to know what an animal ate.”.

As for how “On The Origin of Feces” went as an event, it appears to have been a hit.

“One good thing about this is that it attracts kids,” said Hunt, whose poop-laden table was near another where kids could match images of modern animal dung with various popular candies which they resemble. Kids won candy when they played the game and then impressed their parents by still finding it appetizing.

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The two school-aged boys I brought with me were impressed by a number of things.

“I was surprised that fossil shark poop has little curves on it” reflecting the fact that sharks have spiraling intestines,” noted nine-year-old Elijah O’Hanlon, a fourth grader at Placitas Elementary School (and my son).

“It didn’t smell bad,” added his brother, first grader Walker O’Hanlon, while thoughtfully chewing on jelly beans (a.k.a. porcupine droppings). “I thought the museum would smell like poop.”

Photo: New Mexico’s paleo-poop master, Adrian Hunt, snags another fine specimen of fossil feces. Image courtesy New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.