New beetle species discovered in fossilised poop of dinosaur ancestor

Researchers have discovered a 230-million-year-old beetle species by scanning a specimen of fossilised feces, or coprolites in Poland.  The findings were published last week in Current Biology.

Martin Fikácek from the National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan and one of the authors of the paper explains in an email to The Indian Express: “As far as I know, our fossils are the first ones described from a coprolite. Coprolites were largely omitted until now and just trashed. Our hope now is that people will realise they may contain valuable specimens and look inside them and analyse more of them.”

Named Triamyxa coprolithica, the beetle was found in the poop of Silesaurus opolensis. “Silesaurus opolensis was a relatively small dinosaur ancestor that lived in Poland approximately 230 million years ago. It was over two meters long including a long tail and neck, weighed perhaps between 15 and 20 kilos, and was a slender agile animal. Although it ingested numerous individuals of Triamyxa, the beetle was likely too small to have been the only targeted prey. Instead, the beetle likely lived in the environment where Silesaurus was foraging and got ingested along with bigger insects and other food items,” explains lead author Martin Qvarnström from Uppsala University, Sweden.

Dinosaur ancestor named Silesaurus opolensis Silesaurus opolensis was a relatively small dinosaur ancestor that lived in Poland approximately 230 million years ago. (Małgorzata Czaja)

The coprolite was scanned using a special technique called synchrotron microtomography. “It works on the same principle as the CT machines in hospitals. The machine basically scans the density of the material the X-rays go through. And if we find a good contrast between the density of the object inside of the coprolite (a beetle in our case) and of the coprolite ‘surrounding material’, we can digitally remove the coprolite around the beetle and get the 3D model of the beetle,” explains Dr Fikácek.

“The problem with our beetles, and insects in general, is that they are small. That is why we cannot scan it in the hospital CT machines, and we need machines with much higher resolution,” says, explaining this is why they scanned the coprolite in the synchrotron facility in Grenoble, France, which is at the moment “one of the best ones in the world, offering the highest possible detail we can do using today’s technology”.

The team has planned to further look at a large number of coprolites, analyse their contents, assign them to producers, and thereby try to reconstruct parts of ancient food webs. This will help get a better understanding of ancient ecosystems and how they changed through time.

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