Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Written in poo: The story of prehistoric life

The mighty T-rex may be long gone, but descendents of its lowly pooper-scooper, the dung beetle, are alive and well and still telling tales.

By Eddy Von Mueller, Emory Magazine

An iridescent beetle, bright as a bead, has caught a whiff of paradise. She makes a beeline for a pile of fresh manure, high as a hill to her, recently left behind by 
a Maiasaurus striding through the rookery on some motherly errand.

It’s a noisy place, this. The herd is a big one, and there are hundreds of nests here. Adult animals rumble, or possibly honk or hiss as they jostle each other. Some of the nests are already full of broken eggshells and little Maiasaurs bawling to be fed.

The beetle takes no more notice of the clamoring dinosaurs than they do of her. She has family matters of her own to attend to. She’s a dung beetle, and, the risk of getting stepped on notwithstanding, hanging around a bunch of nine-meter-long herbivores the size of SUVs means living very large. She burrows eagerly into the heap.

Later, burrows and their chiropteran hardihood will help her million-times-great-grandchildren survive the asteroid impact that will doom Maiasaura and most of her kind 
to extinction.

Later, her descendants will be digging 
into the dung of proto-elephants on the savannahs where an ape will stand, starting no end of trouble.

Later, pyramids will rise, and the civilization that erects them will fall, having ironically put the humble dung beetle, the scarab, at the very center of their cosmology.

For now, a “now” seventy-five million years ago, this beetle will lay her eggs inside the tunnel she’s made, and seal it snugly behind her when she leaves, ensuring that the larva will 
be secure in a chamber literally made of food. “It’s dinner and a nursery,” notes Anthony 
Martin, professor of practice in the Department of Environmental Studies in Emory 
College of Arts and Sciences and the author 
of a new book, Dinosaurs without Bones.

It is coprolites, or fossilized dinosaur dung, that allow us to reconstruct the heartwarming domestic scene described above. Martin's book collects and describes these and scores of other fascinating finds that he and his fellow trackers are using to glean surprisingly intimate insights into how dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures moved, healed, hunted, ate and excreted.

Read the whole article in Emory Magazine.

Bringing to life Dinosaurs without Bones

Photo: iStockphoto.com

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