240 Million-Year-Old Giant Prehistoric Toilet May Give Us A Glimpse Into The Earliest Ecosystem

By Ajit Jha on November 30, 2013 9:38 PM EST

Dinodontosaurus
The Dinodontosaurus frequented a defecation site that is 240 million years old. (Photo: Dmitry Bogdanov, CC BY 3.0)

A recent discovery in Argentina, thousands of fossilized fecal pieces - poos - may likely thrill anthropologists, historians, biologists and environmental scientists. Clustered together, they were likely left by rhino-like megaherbivores, according to scientists.

Scientists think of it as a gigantic "communal latrine" existing at the dawn of the dinosaurs. The 240 million-year-old site easily lays claim to the "world's oldest public toilet," providing clear evidence that ancient reptiles shared collective territory for defecation. Furthermore, the dung may likely reveal evidence of prehistoric disease, diet, and vegetation, according to the study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Modern animals, such as elephants, horses, and antelopes are known to share defecating space, perhaps to mark territory and also as a preventive measure against parasites. This newly discovered latrine dwarfs every other similar site found so far. Previously, the world's oldest toilet found was only 20 million years old.

The fossilized dung was found in seven massive patches - as wide as 40 centimeters and several kilograms in weight - across the Chañares Formation in La Rioja province. They varied in shape and colors, from pristine oval to sausage like, and from whitish grey to dark brown-violet. 

Dr Lucas Fiorelli, of Crilar-Conicet, who discovered the dung heaps, could easily identify the source of the dung. "There is no doubt who the culprit was," he told the BBC. "Only one species could produce such big lumps - and we found their bones littered everywhere at the site."

The source of the dung, according to Dr. Fiorelli, was the eight-foot-long Dinodontosaurus, which look quite like modern rhinos. These animals from the Triassic period are mammal-like reptiles also known as dicynodonts. They belong to the time period when the first dinosaurs came to inhabit this planet.

According to Dr. Fiorelli, the shared latrines indicate their gregarious instincts. In addition, there were other strategic reasons to poo at a common site. First, it helps avoid parasites, allowing the animals to avoid contaminating pastures. Next, the dung heap served as a warning signal to predators. It indicated the formidable presence of the herd to predators - usually the Luperosuchus, a huge crocodile-like carnivore that measured up to eight meters in length.

The dung patches were found in the high concentrations of 94 poos per square meter, spread across a recorded 900 square meters. According to Dr. Fiorelli this is a rare find among prehistoric coprolites due to its age and substantial accumulation.

Feces degrade easily but could be preserved in a sheet of volcanic ash. They are also considered to be time capsules, according to Martin Hechenleitner, a co-author of the study, because they could reveal fungi, gut parasites, and fragments of extinct plants. "Each poo is a snapshot of an ancient ecosystem - the vegetation and the food chain," he said.

The discovery will likely reveal the lost environment in which the dinosaurs emerged for the first time. In this phase of the evolutionary history, the first mammals had emerged along with the earliest dinosaurs.

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