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A feature about Karen Chin, coprolite expert.

Below article from AAP NEWSFEED reprinted for fair use purposes only -- copyright acknowledged.

This Megalania page has been visited times since April 30, 1998.


Copyright 1998 AAP Information Services Pty. Ltd.

April 29, 1998, Wednesday

SECTION: Nationwide General News; Features


by Rose DeWolf

PHILADELPHIA - California paleontologist Karen Chin is THE world expert on dinosaur dung.

This is a subject that, before Chin, had been pretty much ignored. "The typical museum dinosaur exhibit is so sanitised, we've tended to overlook that aspect of dinosaur life," she notes.

It's not that scientists hadn't found fossilised faeces at dinosaur digs - it's that they didn't bother to analyse it and didn't include it in museum re-creations of dinosaur environments.

But Chin believes petrified poo can yield all sorts of information about dinosaur diets and doings.

And she is undeterred by the fact that most descriptions of what she does contain outrageous puns: like "An Endangered Faeces" or "delving into the bowels of prehistory".

How is it possible to tell that you are looking at something a dinosaur deposited maybe 95 million a years ago?

"It's not always easy," she said. A fossil coprolite looks and feels like a rock. It's not necessarily a suggestive shape. It may have been stepped on and crushed flat. It's not necessarily very large, although some are.

Still, there are clues. One, says Chin, is the presence of calcium phosphate, which is not usually found in the sandstone or shale or other rock where dinosaur bones are typically discovered.

It's likely that rock-like hunks containg calcium phosphate were left behind by carnivorous dinosaurs, who swallowed prey calcium-filled bones and all.

There also are markings that, to the knowledgeable, indicate a particular route of passage. Chin has identified teeth, seeds, leaves, fish scales and snail and clam shells in the petrified material that once made its way from one end of a dinosaur's digestive system to the other.

Her most puzzling content so far: "Solid masses of conifer wood tissue found in a coprolite in Montana."

"It's unusual for a dinosaur to ingest that much wood," she explained. "It's not digestible." Her theory: this hungry herbivore made a meal of the scaly leaves of a juniper tree even though he had to eat a lot of wood to reach them.

"Modern elephants sometimes end up eating twigs as they go after leaves," she noted.

Chin has discovered evidence that dung beetles - insects that to this day recycle faecal material in the wild - did the same job on dinosaur droppings. She consulted a leading authority on dung beetles to confirm that the burrows she found could only have been made by them.

Chin worked as a naturalist and National Park Service ranger before taking a job in 1989 assisting Jack Horner, director of the Museum of the Rockies, discoverer of dinosaur eggs and model for the paleontologist in Jurassic Park.

Horner showed her some rocks he suspected were dinosaur coprolites and Chin was hooked.

She went on to earn a doctorate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and, with the aid of chemical tests and an electron microscope, launched the first serious dinosaur dung data bank.

Has her work revolutionised paleontology? Well, several museums have added coprolites to their previously sanitary dinosaur displays.

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