Poo in a drawer

14-Oct-2016

A couple of months ago I had a fantastic behind the scenes tour of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (and it is with their courtesy that I can share these images). One of the many marvellous things in their storage drawers was this.

At first, this is a slightly baffling drawer full of sausage shaped creatures, some with a definite spiral shape to them. They are NOT fossils - which is notable in the museum stores of paleontology. They are part of the William Buckland collection from the mid 1800s. And as I hinted at in my title, they are a drawer of poos.

 

Okay, not quite poos.

 

They are casts of the final portion of the intestines of various species of aquatic animals (made with a custom recipe of water and cement powder). For example, the lovely spiral twisted example on the right is labelled Squalus, which is the family of sharks known as Spurdogs


William Buckland was investigating strange fossil forms that, thanks to his persistence, we now know are fossil poo - or coprolites (a term coined by Buckland). In order to investigate which animals were responsible for the fossils he found, he went out and designed experiments to shed light on the problem.
 

His initial investigation was of the Kirkdale cave deposits, which showed amongst bones of fossil animals, coprolites which hinted at the cave's historic occupants. By feeding ox bones to a travelling spotted hyena (Victorians!) and collecting the remains he commented that there was no difference aside from age (and presumably smell). Thus he documented evidence for the Cave Hyena, and incidentally, since hyenas are not known to frequent the Liverpool area by choice anymore, one of the cases arguing for a changing climate.

 

Despite snide comments and cartoons lampooning his work, he went on to systematically study, illustrate and publish his analysis of coprolites. The marvellous curator giving me the tour also pointed out a detail in an historic illustration that I remember from textbooks of my childhood. One of the early envisionings of palaeolithic life, based on William Buckland and Mary Anning's investigations of the Jurassic Coast in Dorset shows, as a joke, the animals all producing copious poos.

 

 For this, and many other reasons, William Buckland is a proper scientific hero!

 

 

 

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