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An Arizona museum tells the stories of ancient animals through their fossilized feces

An Arizona museum tells the stories of ancient animals through their fossilized feces

An Arizona museum tells the stories of ancient animals through their fossilized feces

WILLIAMS, Ariz. (AP) — One way to learn how a Tyrannosaurus rex digested its food is to look at its feces.

Bone fragments in a chunk of fossilized poop at a new museum in northern Arizona, aptly named Poozeum, are among the small pieces of evidence that indicate T. rex wasn’t a big chewer, instead swallowing chunks of prey whole.

The exhibit is one of more than 7,000 on display at the museum, which opened in May 2024 in Williams, a town known for its Old West shows along Route 66, wildlife attractions and a railroad to Grand Canyon National Park.

Poozeum’s sign features a bright green T. rex cartoon character sitting on a toilet to draw attention away from the vibrant neon lights and muted 1950s music emanating from other businesses.

Inside, the walls are lined with display cases filled with coprolites (fossilized feces from animals that lived millions of years ago). They range from tiny termite droppings to a massive specimen weighing 20 pounds (9 kilograms).

Poozeum president and curator George Frandsen bought his first piece of fossilized feces at a store in Moab, Utah, when he was 18, he said. He already loved dinosaurs and fossils, but had never heard of fossilized feces. From there, his fascination grew.

“It was fun and gross,” he said. “But I learned very quickly that it could tell us a lot about our prehistoric past and how important they are to the fossil record.”

Coprolites aren’t terribly common, but they can make up the majority of fossils found at some sites, and people have learned more and more about them in recent decades, said Anthony Fiorillo, executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

They can be difficult to identify, and in some cases specimens that looked like coprolites (with their pinched ends and striations) were examined further and eventually reclassified as something else.

“There are several sedimentary processes that can produce an extrusion of soft mud into a different layer,” he said. “Think of your toothpaste, for example. When you squeeze it, you can get some streaks in it.”

Fossil enthusiast Brandee Reynolds recently visited the museum with her husband after discovering it was a short detour from a road trip they had planned.

“I mostly find sharp teeth and things like that,” he said. “I haven’t found much coprolite, but who doesn’t like coprolite?”

A highlight of Frandsen’s collection is a specimen that holds a Guinness World Record for being the largest coprolite left by a carnivorous animal. Frandsen said it measures more than 24 inches long and more than 6 inches wide and is believed to belong to a T. rex, given where it was found on a private ranch in South Dakota in 2019.

Frandsen also holds the record for the largest certified collection of coprolites, with 1,277 pieces, obtained in 2015 when it was verified at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida.

His collection currently numbers about 8,000 copies. He does not have space to display them all at Williams’ museum, so he presents some online.

There’s no need to worry about odors or germs, Frandsen said. These evaporated millions of years ago, when the feces became covered with sediment and replaced by minerals, making them rock-hard.

Location, shape, size and other materials such as bones or plants can determine whether something is a coprolite, but not necessarily what creature deposited it, Fiorillo said.

“I think most of us would say, let’s stop that and just be happy if we could determine carnivores, herbivores and then look at possibly those food cycles within each of those broad groups,” said Fiorillo, a trained paleontologist and author of books on dinosaurs.

Ideally, Fiorillo said, fossils that are rare and can contribute to understanding the prehistoric world would find their way into the public sphere so researchers could use them in formulating hypotheses about life long ago.

Like Frandsen, Fiorillo said he was fascinated by fossils as a youngster. He pointed to the private Fossil Basin quarries in Wyoming, where the public can search for fossilized fish, plants and even coprolites. People can also visit a research quarry to learn about paleontology at nearby Fossil Butte National Monument.

If a child comes home inspired after finding a fossil or seeing one on display in a museum, then that’s fantastic, Fiorillo said.

“Maybe they are the next generation,” he said.

A fossilized coprolite in a mold at the “Poozeum” is displayed Friday, June 7, 2024, in Williams, Arizona. The museum in northern Arizona along Route 66 displays the fossilized feces of prehistoric animals. Frandsen has been collecting the fossils known as coprolites for nearly three decades. His museum displays about 7,000 fossils, including one suspected to be from a Tyrannosaurus rex. Frandsen holds two Guinness Book of World Records titles for parts of his collection. (AP Photo/Ty ONeil)