A baby turtle shell was found for the first time ever in fossilized poop! The Calvert Marine Museum announces the publication of a scientific paper documenting this find which was authored by Stephen J. Godfrey, the museum’s Curator of Paleontology, Robert E. Weems, and Billy Palmer and published in Ichnos, a scientific journal dedicated to the study of trace fossils.

During their analysis of the specimen, the authors determined that a predator swallowed a 2 1/2 inch-long whole baby turtle 60 – 70 million years ago in South Carolina. Remarkably, the shell passed through the digestive system of the animal intact, and apparently the feces fossilized shortly thereafter, preserving an impression of the turtle’s shell. The predator may have been either a mosasaur (an aquatic marine reptile from the time of dinosaurs) or a meat-eating dinosaur or bird. This is the first time a body impression of a vertebrate animal has been preserved in a coprolite.

Based on the texture of the fossilized shell impression, the tiny turtle lived for a few weeks after it hatched and before it was eaten. Embryonic turtle shell texture is different from hatchling shell texture. As turtles age, new growth occurs around the perimeter of the embryonic scutes, so it is very easy to distinguish between embryonic and hatchling turtle shell texture. In this unique fossil, the surface texture of the scutes is preserved, including its finely pitted embryonic texture and a narrow perimeter of hatchling scute texture.

There are two main groups of turtles. Those that retract their necks into their shells (the Cryptodires) and those that turn their necks to the side of their shell (the Pleurodires). We know from the pattern of the scutes on the shell that this turtle was a Pleurodire; a side-neck turtle. Modern pleurodires live only in the Southern Hemisphere, but were present in North America during the Cretaceous period and Paleocene epoch.

Two tyrannosauroids – Appalachiosaurusmontgomeriensis and Dryptosaurus aquilunguis are known from Late Cretaceous eastern North America. The bird-mimic dinosaurs, the Ornithomimids, were also apparently there during that time and certainly could have also eaten the turtle. A crocodile is not ruled out as the predator, although it is much less likely as the high acid content in their stomach almost always dissolves bone, and consequently would leave no bony shell to be voided to make an impression.

For more information, contact Stephen J. Godfrey (Stephen.Godfrey@calvertcountymd.gov or call 410-326-2042, ext. 28. To read the entire article in Ichnos, visit http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10420940.2017.1386662.