Unlocking the mysteries of 150 million-year-old dinosaur poop (and other fossils)

By Kristy Bleizeffer Nov 21, 2016

CT technologist Brynn Meyer adjusts a fossilized Camarasaurus rib on a WMC CT scanner as the images appear on the computer screen in the viewing room.

Computed Tomography (CT) scanning is good for pinpointing life-threatening pulmonary embolisms as well as detecting evidence of calcium phosphate in coprolite. In laymen’s terms, a pulmonary embolism is a blocked artery in the lung; Coprolite is fossilized poop.

In this case, dinosaur poop. Likely from a sauropod.

On Nov. 10, Jessica Lippincott, education director at The Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, ran the poop and four other fossils to run through our CT scanner. All dated back to the Jurassic period, 165 to 150 million years ago. 

Jessica Lippincott of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center (at left) points out the areas of interest on a Stegosaurus vertebrae to CT technologist Brynn Meyer.

“It’s super interesting,” said Brynn Meyer, a CT technologist who scanned the fossils. “I love it because I used to want to be a paleontologist anyway, and it’s a real treat to get to scan something that helps piece together the dinosaur mystery.”

Meyer, who has worked at WMC for 21 years, figures the radiology department is asked to scan fossils about once a year. This summer, they also scanned specimens for the UW Geology Museum and Casper College Tate Museum. Discoveries made in the scans have the potential to make it into scientific research papers, which will be used by researchers around the world. 

“It’s pretty awesome to be part of that,” Meyer said. “She (Lippincott) offered to send us a small gift for our help, but we told her to bring more fossils instead.”

The Dinosaur Center typically scans fossils once or twice a year. The information they glean is invaluable to the science behind the impressive dinosaur mounts that fill the center’s showroom floor. 

Below is a closer look at the fossils Lippincott had scanned at  WMC. Who knows? The information gleaned deep inside could help write the story of the “terrible lizards.”

Camarasaurus rib

Camarasaurus lived about 150 million years ago in the late Jurassic. It was a sauropod, or one of the long-necked giants. Paleontologists found this fossilized rib bone in the B.S. Quarry near Thermopolis. (B.S. stands for Beside Sauropod).

You can see this particular Camarasaurus in the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, standing on its hind legs. They mounted it last August. So, if you haven’t been out there in a while, now is a good time.

  • Scanned for:  To determine what, if anything, is hiding in the rib shaft under a sign of pathology (or injury). Lippincott describes it as a “mark or divot going into the rib. We were wondering if there was something inside of it, hopefully a tooth.”
  • What they found: “We found that there is something there, because there is contrast between it and surrounding bone,” Lippincott said. She will compare measurements of the “thing” with measurements of Allosaur teeth, one of the great meat-eaters of the Jurassic. She also plans to prep the area more to remove dirt and other matter to get a better look.
  • Why it could be interesting: Evidence there could have been an attack or injury but the Camarasaurus lived to fight (more likely eat) another day. If the thing turns out to be a tooth, Lippincott can look at how the bone healed itself.   Lippincott is writing a research paper on this Camarasaurus and what she finds will be available to researchers around the world.

STEGOSAURUS TAIL BONE

Stegosaurus is the dinosaurs with the bony plates extending from head to tail, instantly recognizable by kids across the planet. The scanned caudal vertebrae (tail bone) was found  in the area of the famous Como Bluff Quarry outside of Laramie. If you haven’t heard of Como Bluff, look it up. A lot of fun history there.

  • Scanned for: Signs of healing after an attack by examining a bite mark on the neural spine.  
  • What they found: To be determined by closer examination in the museum.
  • Why it could be interesting: Comparing it to the rib bone of the Camarasaurus, she could have more material for her research paper. 

Three pieces of dinosaur poop

Coprolite is the polite, scientific way of saying fossilized poop. The three pieces Lippincott brought for scanning were about the size of tennis balls and encased in a concreated ball. They were found in a site set apart by its dinosaur dung.

“It’s actually a really cool site,” Lippincott said. “It’s only maybe 3 meters, but we’ve collect 50 to 100 samples out of it.”

  • Scanned for: Evidence of calcium phosphate which would help positively identify it as poop.
  • What they found: They did find evidence of calcium phosphate, but the images will be examined by a researcher for further analysis. The specimens will be made into thin specimens (cut into cross-sections) and studied under a microscope. That will help determine that it is definitely poop and what type of dinosaur made the drops. Lippincott says it was likely a sauropod or other plant-eating dinosaur because the samples appear to be mostly plant matter.
  • Why it could be interesting: This 3-meter poop pit would be the very first documented place of having so much poo packed so closely together. This might, eventually, lead to speculation about dinosaur behavior. Some horses and alpacas, for example, pick a place and poop there over and over. Or, it could be that rain washed dried poop into one drainage area.  

Belemnite 

Belemnites are conical squid-like creatures that lived in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. 

This particular specimen was found near Thermopolis, and is probably a species new to science, Lippincott said. 

  • Scanned for: Evidence of a possible injury on the conical tip and whether or not any septa (partitions separating two chambers) were visible.
  • What they found: The specimen was too dense to see anything in the scans. It will be sent to be micro CT scanned in Pennsylvania.
  • Why it could be interesting: Scientists studying this specimen have likely discovered a new species. The appearance of septa would help compare it to the big Belemnites that have been found in the United Kingdom and Russia. 

Femur from a juvenile sauropod, probably Diplodocus 

Diplodocus is one of the longest dinosaurs, and juvenile bones are much rarer in the fossil record.

Fun fact: The best specimen of Diplodicus carnegii, named for industrialist Andrew Carnegie, was found in Wyoming on July 4, 1889. Casts of it were mounted and shown around the world.

  • Scanned for: Evidence that the juvenile bones were hollow.
  • What they found: Though she needs to look closer at the images, Lippincott saw something that could definitely be a hollow cavity filled by the process of fossilization over the millennia.
  • Why it could be interesting: Hollow bones would add to the mountain of evidence that dinosaurs are closely related to birds (which have hollow bones themselves). 

Wyoming's Dino Allstars

Just for fun, check out this interactive web graphic from the Casper Star-Tribune highlighting 10 of Wyoming's most important dinosaur specimens. Click through to learn about Big Al, Jimbo the Supersaurus and the first Triceratops ever mounted in the world.

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