Nautilus

Reading the Book of Life in Prehistoric Dung

Karen Chin doesn’t have all the answers, but she is willing to make those awkward phone calls that will give her the information she needs. There was the time back in 1998 when she needed to know what size animal could produce a fecal mass of 2.4 liters in one go. So she called a physician who studied bowel movements. “I said, ‘This is going to be a funny question, but I’m a paleontologist, and I’m interested in finding out what is the largest fecal mass that a human can produce. I wonder if I can talk to the doctor about this.’ ” She pauses in her anecdote, remembering the silence on the other end of the phone line. “It was a weird question.”

It took a while to convince the receptionist that Chin wasn’t making a prank call, but eventually the message was passed on to the doctor. The physician, driven by who-knows-what mixture of courtesy and curiosity, called her later that day. He explained that in his line of work he typically focused on the health of his patients, as revealed through their bowel movements, not on the volume of matter they produced. He couldn’t give Chin a precise figure. However, he told Chin, it just didn’t make sense for a man, or a man-sized animal, to produce 2.4 liters of excrement. That answer was enough to make Chin’s heart sing. Because she was pretty sure she’d identified the first fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex turd.

She can dig it: Paleontologist Karen Chin, who studies dinosaurs through their dung, examines a coprolite on a Utah hillside.Courtesy of Karen Chin

Chin isn’t the world’s only paleoscatologist—a handful of other researchers around

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