Notes on fossil parasites in coprolites and gut contents

[¡Léalo en español!] [Przeczytaj to po polsku!] [pdf file v. 08.11.2016]

Enigmatic worm-like structure in a coprolite from the Permian of Russia (photo by K. Owocki; see Bajdek et al., 2016)

Parasites in fossil feces

The significance of coprolites, i.e. fossil feces, in the study of ancient food chains and physiology of extinct animals has been already discussed on the blog. Coprolites are indeed fascinating fossils for a number of reasons. For instance, feces often constitute an exceptional microenvironment allowing the preservation of extremely delicate remains, otherwise absent in the rocks. Let’s firstly discuss fossils of minute parasite eggs and soft bodies of worms.

In 2013, the team led by Paula C. Dentzien-Dias described well-preserved tapeworm eggs in a shark spiral bromalite from the Middle-Upper Permian of Brazil. I just briefly mention this paper because its full-version is freely available online. Apart from the amazing state of preservation of the eggs, it’s an interesting find as this is the earliest fossil record of tapeworm parasitism. In fact, Paula C. Dentzien-Dias has already published three important papers on the fecal material from the Rio Do Rasto Formation.

In the recent post of my blog I talked about bone fragments and the oldest possible hairs found in Upper Permian coprolites from the Vyazniki site, Russia. Well, the hair-like structures are important and I must admit I was very happy to see some media, including the National Geographic Traveler, to have noticed my research (Bajdek et al., 2016). However, I would like to highlight now that the coprolites we have studied have moreover yielded a great diversity of other interesting microfossils, described in the same publication (Bajdek et al., 2016).

Some of them represent possible parasites, as for example the rod-shaped and oval structures, typically 100–150 µm in length, which are interpreted as possible invertebrate eggs. Also, an enigmatic worm-like structure was found (picture above). I find this structure especially intriguing—it would be a worm body fossil (as a nematode) or alternatively a burrow. Ferreira et al. (1993) described nematode larvae preserved in coprolites from the Pleistocene of Italy. Moreover, a long, sinuous, 6 µm wide structure was found in one coprolite specimen from Vyazniki and indentified as a burrow.

These fossils might suggest that the coprolite producers had worm parasites. Yet, it’s hard to rule out entirely the opportunistic exploitation of feces by nematodes and other invertebrates after excretion. Such eggs could have belonged to parasites but alternatively they could be of coprophagous organisms, as for example insects. Nematodes and annelids decompose feces mostly in humid and cold ecosystems where coprophagous insects are less common.

ciliate-coprolite-vyaznikiMoreover, two different forms of putative ciliates were recognized (photo on the right; by K. Owocki; see Bajdek et al., 2016), 350 µm and 230 µm long. Some details as the cell shape and the position and length of cilia could be described. Once again, the interpretation as parasites is tantalizing but these microorganisms could have colonized the fecal matter after its excretion.

Within the coprolites from Vyazniki, there was also found a diversity of other microorganisms including bacteria, two kinds of cyanobacteria, and fungi, which would mostly have not represented parasites, as well as some indeterminate objects, possible arthropod remains and plant tissues. Cyanobacteria and fungi have been swallowed with food and water or colonized the fecal matter after its excretion. Bacteria preserved in coprolites may represent original microbiota of the gastrointestinal tract, yet our paper also discusses the possibility of contamination by environmental bacteria from the sediments. The role of bacteria in the fossilization of feces will be discussed in one of the forthcoming posts of the blog.

In conclusion, coprolites may constitute a valuable source of delicate fossil remains, including abundant microorganisms, otherwise usually impossible to detect in the rocks and study. Thus, coprolites are an incredibly rich source of paleoecologic information. I would differentiate three principal branches in my research on bromalites: (a) paleoecology (i.e. diet and other life habits of the source animals; environmental reconstruction; ecological relationships like parasitism, coprophagy, etc.), (b) physiology of the source animals, and (c) taphonomy and fossilization of feces and identification of coprolites.

In regard to fossil parasites and the significance of bromalites in general, there’s one very special find yet to be presented in this post…

Fossil parasites in gut contents


Trace fossils of possible parasites inside the gut contents of a hadrosaurid dinosaur from the Cretaceous of Montana (source; see Tweet et al., 2016)

To me personally, the most amazing dinosaur find ever. The specimen JRF 115H, known as „Leonardo”, is a skeleton of a subadult hadrosaurid dinosaur, Brachylophosaurus canadensis, from the Upper Cretaceous Judith River Formation of Montana, USA. First of all, the nearly complete skeleton of Leonardo, found in 2000, represents one of rather few „mummified” dinosaurs, what means that it’s excellently preserved showing some soft tissues. It moreover represents one of just a couple of known possible cases of preservation of gut contents in herbivorous dinosaurs.

Description of the probable gut contents of JRF 115H, which included leaf fragments and quartz grains encased in a clay matrix, was published back in 2008. Recently, in 2016, after a decade of work, came out a new paper in which paleontologists from the USA (J. Tweet, K. Chin, and A. A. Ekdale) describe trace fossils of possible parasites inside the gut contents of JRF 115H (photos above). The traces, about 0.3 mm in diameter, are interpreted most likely as burrows. The researchers had to carefully rule out other possibilities as traces of plant roots and fungi.

Most carcasses quickly attract a varied fauna of invertebrate scavengers, but only one type of trace fossil was found in the gut contents of JRF 115H. It should be also noticed that the state of preservation of JRF 115H suggests that it was buried rapidly. Thus, more likely the gut contents were burrowed either by (a) worms living in the sediment that buried the dinosaur carcass or (b) parasites of the gastrointestinal tract of the hadrosaurid (which survived the host’s death, or else newly hatched ones that emerged after the dinosaur’s death).

Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of the traces is that some of them share walls showing identical changes in direction (picture above, on the right). The researchers suggest that it may reveal intentional contact between individuals, perhaps for mating. Traces of this kind have been never reported before in the scientific literature!

You can continue reading this story on the Justin Tweet’s blog: A locked dinosaur mystery and Reports of gut contents in herbivorous dinosaurs.

Acknowledgments–I thank Justin Tweet and Karen Chin who kindly permitted me to reproduce the images of the trace fossils in the gut contents of JRF 115H.

Piotr Bajdek


Bajdek, P., Qvarnström, M., Owocki, K., Sulej, T., Sennikov, A.G., Golubev, V.K., Niedźwiedzki, G., 2016. Microbiota and food residues including possible evidence of pre-mammalian hair in Upper Permian coprolites from Russia. Lethaia 49, 455–477. doi: 10.1111/let.12156

Dentzien-Dias, P.C., Poinar, G.Jr., de Figueiredo, A.E.Q., Pacheco, A.C.L., Horn, B.L.D., Schultz, C.L., 2013. Tapeworm Eggs in a 270 Million-Year-Old Shark Coprolite. PLoS ONE 8 (1), e55007. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055007

Ferreira, L.F., Araújo, A., Duarte, A.N., 1993. Nematode larvae in fossilized animal coprolites from Lower and Middle Pleistocene site, Central Italy. The Journal of Parasitology 79, 440–442.

Tweet, J.S., Chin, K., Braman, D.R., Murphy, N.L., 2008. Probable gut contents within a specimen of Brachylophosaurus canadensis (Dinosauria: Hadrosauridae) from the Upper Cretaceous Judith River Formation of Montana. Palaios 23, 624–635. doi: 10.2110/palo.2007.p07-044r

Tweet, J., Chin, K., Ekdale, A.A., 2016. Trace fossils of possible parasites inside the gut contents of a hadrosaurid dinosaur, Upper Cretaceous Judith River Formation, Montana. J. Paleontol. 90 (2), 279–287. doi: 10.1017/jpa.2016.43


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