Prehistoric shark poop in spotlight thanks to CSU professor

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 8, 2013 

Scientists usually don't like their work to be considered excrement, but when you help discover the significance of a hunk of prehistoric dung, you welcome the puns.

Columbus State University paleontologist David Schwimmer, has received major Internet publicity for his presentation during the 73rd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, in Los Angeles. He co-authored the study of a 70-million-year-old piece of shark poop that showed the predator's last meal was a baby turtle and the cause of death might have been an ancient case of indigestion.

The story has been featured on Yahoo.com and NBCnews.com. LiveScience.com originally reported Schwimmer's findings, summarized here:

The 1.5-inch-long piece of coprolite, the technical term for fossilized feces, was found near the South Carolina coastline. When this shark lived, the area was a tidal estuary, where the ocean met rivers.

Inside the coprolite were tiny turtle vertebrae, each about 0.1 inches long. Schwimmer and his colleagues hypothesized the turtle must have been very young, about 4 inches wide, and the shark probably was a newborn and not much bigger.

The vertebrae not being digested suggests the shark died soon after eating the turtle - and maybe because of it.

"It's possible the turtle was too much shell," Schwimmer told LiveScience.com. The shark "may have died from too much turtle."

In an interview Friday with the Ledger-Enquirer, Schwimmer laughed about the story going viral.

"It's fun," he said. "I knew this would be a potentially catchy story. After all, fossil poop has its own issues."

Beyond its entertainment value, Schwimmer explained why this study matters.

"For one thing, it helps us understand life of the past," he said. "It's just scientific knowledge, but here's the big picture: It goes back to the touchy subject of climate change, the fact that we're finding shark fossils 50 miles inland of the South Carolina shore. This little shark-turtle interaction could happen again in the same place, given the sea level rising. … To know the future and the present, we need to know the past."

The fossilized shark feces Schwimmer analyzed came amid a collection of a few hundred items he received last year from Al Sanders, a retired curator from the Charleston Museum. Amateur archaeologists found the items at Stokes Quarry in Darlington County, the northernmost part of South Carolina's coastal plain, Schwimmer said.

"About half of my work starts with amateurs," he said. "I can only cover so much space and have so much time."

Rob Weems, a retired turtle expert from the Smithsonian, is the study's other co-author.

"We could actually identify four of the turtle's vertebrae were completely intact," Schwimmer said. "They were in a line, which mean they were following the orientation of the original animal's neck. It was almost the whole neck. I don't think that's ever been seen before."

Schwimmer is writing the study into a paper to submit to a journal. Meanwhile, the shark poop is preserved in a baggie in his lab. He noted finding fossilized feces is common. They become useful props to spark his students' interest. He likes to take a piece out, announce what he is holding and dramatically bite it.

"It's 100 percent stone by now," Schwimmer said, "but the very best way to get their attention is to gross them out."

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