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Ancient poop yields clues

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Intestinal products tell quite a detailed story

By Kirsten Peters

My favorite epoch in Earth history is the Ice Age, the time in which saber tooth tigers and giant mastodons roamed the world. The Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago when – quite abruptly – the bitter temperatures of the time gave way to our present, balmy epoch.
Natural history museums often have the skeletal remains of Ice Age mammals. They are enough to inspire awe in part because many of the species alive during that time were much bigger than modern animals. The Ice Age was a time of giant deer and moose, with a species of beaver as large as a modern black bear.
In short, it was a time not long ago with a climate and ecology so different it intrigues both geologists and school children.
Imagine my pleasure, then, when I recently got to hold a sample of 16,000 year old woolly mammoth poop from the Ice Age. Talk about an intimate connection with the past!
Ancient poop is known to geologists as coprolite material. It can be truly fossilized as solid rock, or just preserved in glacial ice, permafrost or dry caves. One geology department softball team I knew proudly named itself the “Coprolites.” Such is geologic humor.


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