Q: What exactly is a coprolite?
A: A coprolite is basically poop that has fossilized; turned to stone.
Q: How did you first learn about coprolites?
A: I believe I was doing a search on eBay for “weird gifts.” I take gift giving very seriously and always try to find interesting things that no one else has. What better gift for a child than fossilized dinosaur poop? It’s educational, interesting, and always good for a chuckle!
Q: How long have you been studying coprolites?
A: Although I had been collecting for a couple years, I didn’t begin seriously researching the subject until after participating in my second dinosaur dig in 2013. I had brought my, at that time, modest coprolite collection to share with the group. Since I had a knack for finding fossilized fecal specimens and a healthy curiosity, one of the site paleontologists suggested I begin reading scientific papers and she put me in touch with Karen Chin, one of the leading experts in the field.
Q: What is it about coprolites that you find so fascinating?
A: Bone, teeth and other body fossils are interesting because you can get a picture of what an animal looked like. But coprolite, as well as other traces fossils, such as footprints or nests, bring those pictures to life. When I look at a coprolite and see undigested bone fragments, teeth, scales, or bits of vegetation, I feel as though I’ve been transported back in time. Suddenly, I am visiting a vast ancient sea teaming with strange looking armored fish or squid-like creatures ambushing strange animals that look like delicate flowers as they dance by. On land there is a giant meat-eater chomping down smaller dinosaurs, wary scavengers feeding on a dead carcass that washed up on shore, or robust herbivores grazing on ferns. Termites are feeding and breading in downed branches and logs. When I see a partially decompose pile, I think of time lapse photography that suddenly stops as ash falls from the sky. Put a specimen under a microscope, and you may discover parasite eggs, or poo from worms that fed droppings. Coprolites bring the past to life!
Q: What are some of the most interesting things you have found in your studies?
A: While scanning a piece of petrified wood containing termite coprolites under the microscope, I noticed tiny eggs. As it turns out, some species of termites are known to line their nests with fecal pellets. It kind of makes me glad I’m not a termite, but it is amazing to see.
Preparing a coprolite covered in matrix is like digging through a cereal box looking for the toy surprise. Last summer I acquired an interesting specimen from England. After slowly and painstakingly removing the hard stone surface entombing the specimen with an X-acto blade, I discovered a string of 8 fish vertebrae. Obviously, its creator didn’t chew its food.
I have recently come across a particularly intriguing specimen from the Triassic period that may contain traces from fur. This hasn’t been verified, and I am currently looking for a researcher at a museum or university interested in following this up. I don’t have the equipment to make a definitive determination myself; I prefer leave that to the real experts.
Q: How many coprolites do you have?
A: I don’t know exactly, but it’s in the hundreds. It is hard to keep track because I tend to give them away. There is something very satisfying about giving people crap! On a more serious note, I generally donate the more relevant specimens that I come across to museums or universities. The more common, carnivore coprolites I like to give to kids because they stick to your tongue!
Q: Why do you have a photo of yourself licking a coprolite?
A: They stick to your tongue when you lick them…seriously! That is one of the things I learned on my first dinosaur dig. It is kind of a quick field tests that is sometimes used by paleontologists. You see bone and carnivore coprolite contain a lot of calcium phosphate, which is more porous. So if you touch your tongue to it to one of these it sticks, where it won’t if you try this with petrified wood or concretions. However, whether or not this test works depends a lot on the fossilization process. Say for instance calcium phosphate is in the form of a mineral known as apatite or the specimen contains a lot of silica, this test won’t work. However, on the dig sites I worked on, it proved to be a pretty good indicator. In the case of coprolites, I would highly recommend that you insure your test specimen is indeed fossilized before trying this.
Q: Does coprolite have a smell?
A: Not a stinky one. All of the organic material that gives poop it’s foul smell is replaced by minerals. It just smells like a rock.
Q: What led you to write this book?
A: I had always wanted to write a children’s book, but never found just the right topic. Once I discovered coprolites, the book kind of wrote itself. I like to share my collection with kids in order to get them interested in science. I wanted to put together materials for presentations that would help children remember some of the scientific terms. Making up rhymes or funny sayings always worked with my own kids, so that is where I started.
Q: Were there any authors or other personalities that inspired your work?
A: I would say there were two: Dr. Seuss and Bill Nye. Dr. Seuss was always a favorite at our house, and I loved how moral messages were hidden behind silly rhyme. Bill Nye’s enthusiasm for science had my youngest daughter glued to the television when she was young. When the show was over, she would explore things she learned from the science guy. This book is how I imagine a collaborative effort between those two would have turned out.
Q: In your book title, you use the word “crappy.” Many people find this word vulgar, and don’t allow their children to say it. Do you think its use in the title of a children’s book is appropriate?
A: There are always going to be words in the English language that people find distasteful. When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to say the words “stupid” or “shut up.” Words such as “heck,” “darn” and “crap” were substituted for less acceptable four-letter curse words. There was a distinction drawn between saying “Ah crap,” when something went wrong and telling my brother he was a piece of crap, the latter being unacceptable. The discussion of poop, itself, is not considered a topic suitable in polite society. Yet it is a necessary bodily function that every member of the animal kingdom must do to survive.
I found it rather humorous that a teacher friend of mine had to black out the title in order to use it in her classroom. One library purchaser wasn’t interested in looking at it because of the word in the title. But it’s not just that word. While trying to enter the book description on a large online retail site, it kept getting rejected for “potty language.” Do you know how hard it is to describe a book about poo without using “potty language?” I went through the fecal descriptors one by one until I discovered the culprit. In that particular instance it was the word “turds.” To the best of my knowledge, neither word has been banned by the FCC. In my personal opinion, unless used with malicious intent, these words are simply slang descriptors. However, I do appreciate the fact that some people don’t like them. Personally, I don’t particularly care for the terms “pinch a loaf” or “butt nuggets.” It is all individual.