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William Buckland & The Noble Art of Coprology

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Approach, approach, ingenuous youth,
And learn this fundamental truth:
The noble science of Geology
is founded firmly in Coprology
P.B. Dunacn quoted in BUCKLAND, F. 1883 

Coprolites, from the Greek “kopros” and “litos” (or dung-stone), can be regarded as a variety of ichnofossils (trace fossils), defined more precisely as fossilized, large biodepositional structures, documenting the presence, behaviour and physiology of an animal (PEMBERTON & FREY 1991). 

The scientific term was introduced by the notorious eccentric, but also ingenious British Reverend William Buckland (March 12, 1784-1856).

Buckland’s interest in animal faeces arose from his studies on cave deposits and intermixed organic remains. In various caves that he visited he noted scattered bones and white deposits, which he interpreted to be droppings of carnivores preserved on the cave floor. To verify this hypothesis, Buckland actually fed a spotted hyena from a travelling menagerie with ox bones and on the next day compared the gnawed bones and the new available droppings with the old coprolites, concluding that there was “no difference between them, except in point of age” (BUCKLAND 1823).

Despite the modern approach and the astounding result – Buckland could demonstrate that the bone accumulations of caves where not caused by a biblical flood, the still proposed explanation of the time – his friend the chemist William Wollaston, who accepted to analyse the droppings (resulting of phosphatic composition, similar to the fossil ones), confessed to Buckland:

though such matters may be instructive and therefore to a certain degree interesting, it may as well for you and me not to have the reputation of too frequently and to minutely examining faecal products.

In May 1829 Buckland began to write down the research on coprolites in some preliminary papers, in his final draft of the work published in 1835 he included his cave experiences and the research on the fossil faeces of Ichthyosaurus from the Lyme Regis area in Dorset, region he visited guided by the famous amateur fossil collector Mary Anning. Curious to note that until the study of Buckland the faeces fossils found at Lyme Regis were regarded as fossil fir cones.

It has long been known to the collectors of fossils at Lyme Regis, that among the many curious remains in the lias of that shore, there are numerous bodies which have been called Bezoar stones, from their external resemblance to the concretions in the gall-bladder of the Bezoar goat, once so celebrated in medicine: I used to imagine them to be recent concretions of clay, such as are continually formed by the waves from clay on the present beach; but I have now before me sufficient evidence to show that they are coeval with the lias, and afford another example of the same curious and unexpected class of fossils with the album graecum which I first discovered in 1822 in the cave of Kirkdale, being the petrified faeces of Saurian animals, whose bones are so numerous in the same strata with themselves.” (BUCKLAND 1835)

Buckland, observing the narrow spatial context between the bones of the Ichthyosaurs and the excrements, coins even one of the first Ichnogenera, letting no doubt what he is referring at:

I propose to assign the name Ichthyosauro-coprus to the fossil faeces which are thus evidently derived from ichthyosauri.” (BUCKLAND 1835)

I need only refer to the account given in my Reliquiae Diluvianae, of the faeces of hyaenas in the Cave of Kirkdale, and to the large quantities of the same substance that have subsequently been discovered at Torquay and Maidstone, an din the Cave of Lunel, to show how frequent is the occurrence of Hyaeno-coprus in diluvial mud and gravel.” (BUCKLAND 1835)

Buckland adopted also in the liassic case his actualistic – comparative method to infer a possible behaviour of the extinct animals:

Dispersed irregularly and abundantly throughout these petrified faeces are the scales, and occasionally the teeth and bones, of fishes, that seem to have passed undigested trough the bodies of the Saurians, just as the enamel of teeth and sometimes fragments of bone are found undigested both in recent and fossil album graecum of hyenas..[]..The bones are chiefly vertebrae of fishes and of small Ichthyosauri;…[]..still are sufficiently numerous to show that these monsters of the ancient deep, like many of their successors in our modern oceans, may have devoured the small and weaker individuals of their own species...”

The author concludes that he has established generally the curious fact, that, in formations of all ages, from the carboniferous limestone to the diluvium, the faeces of terrestrial and aquatic carnivorous animals have been preserved; and proposes to include them all under the generic name of Coprolite.” (BUCKLAND 1835).

Fig.1. Copy of the plate illustrating coprolites of Tertiary Strata, from BUCKLAND 1835. Buckland fashioned a large collection of coprolites from the Lias of Lyme Regis, but also from Carboniferous and Tertiary strata. Some examples in this plate however are artificial ones, fabricated by Buckland to prove his argument. The ingenious Buckland filled the intestine of sharks and dog-fishes with plaster and later sectioned the animals to recover the resulting cast and compare them to the fossil ones (image in public domain).  

Despite his scientific approach to the matter, Buckland (like in many other subjects) never take it and his research to serious. His Son, Frank Buckland, remembers:

Some of these coprolites have been turned to purpose of art, under the name of “Beetle-stones”. Dr. Buckland had a table in his drawing-room that was made entirely with these coprolites; . . and which was often much admired by persons who had not the least idea of what they were looking at.” (BUCKLAND, F.T. 1883)

It’s seems obvious that contemporaries would make fun of this dedication to the art of coprology – and one of the most fitting cartoons regarding Bucklands’ passion comes from the geologist, and good friend of Buckland, Henry De la Beche -”A Coprolitic Vision“, lithograph print ca. 1829.

Although he appreciated the value of his friend’s scientific insights, De la Beche could not resist the temptation to caricature this “Coprolitic Vision”. he produced a lithograph (ca. 1829) showing the “Reverend Professor of Mineralogy and the Geology in the University of Oxford”, dressed in gown and mortar-board, and standing on a flat rock at the opening of a long cavern shaped like the nave of a cathedral. The columns supporting the roof where bloated spiral-shaped bezoars, and Buckland, with a geological hammer in his right hand, as it were conducts a service attended by animals – a deer, a bear, hyenas, a leopard, crocodiles, ichthyosaurs and pterodactyls. Every member of the choir and congregation are shown in the act of defecating. There are even large cylindrical shapes on the rock in the foreground, and one beneath Buckland’s own legs.” (McCARTNEY 1977)

Bibliography:

BUCKLAND, F.T. (1883): Curiosities of Natural history. Second Series. Richard Bentley and Sons. London: 360
BUCKLAND, W. (1823): Reliquiae Diluvianae; or Observations on the Organic Remains Contained in caves, Fissures, and Diluvial Gravel, and on Other geological Phenomena, Attesting the Action of an Universal Deluge. John Murray. London: 303
BUCKLAND, W. (1829): Additional remarks on coprolites and fossil sepia. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 11: 142-143
BUCKLAND, W. (1835): On the discovery of coprolites, or fossil faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis, and in other formations. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, second series 3: 223-236
McCARTNEY, P.J. (1977): Henry De la Beche: Observations on an Observer. Friends of the National Museum of Wales. Cardiff: 77
PEMBERTON, S.G. & FREY, R.W. (1991): History of Ichnology: William Buckland and his “Coprolitic Vision”. Ichnos 1: 317-325

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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