[Author’s note: I had no idea that getting my new apartment hooked up to the internet would be so difficult. Curse you, Comcast! I have been running to the local coffeeshop every morning to keep up with my correspondence and writing duties, and, combined with unpacking, I am in near-constant motion. With any luck, I’ll be wired and back to regular blogging here by Monday at the latest, but, for today, here’s a post from last summer about mammoths that recycled nutrients in an unusual way.
I have also been ramping up my freelancing efforts over the past few weeks. For those who may have missed them, check out my recent articles on crocodile cousins that walked like dinosaurs, the deep fossil record of parasites, the origins of worm lizards, and what the “dino gangs” of Mongolia mean for our understanding of dinosaur behavior. To keep up with my writing in other venues, keep checking my “Articles and Papers” page on my website.]
If you want to know about the life and habitat of a woolly mammoth, there is scarcely a better place to look than in its dung. Found frozen in the permafrost or extracted from the intestines of well-preserved specimens, mammoth coprolites are fecal records of the plants that existed in the animal’s local environment and what foods that individual was eating just prior to death. Twigs, fruits, seeds, and other plant bits are common components of mammoth coprolites, but there are also signs that mammoths sometimes picked up the dung of their own species for a little extra digestive processing.
A male woolly mammoth recently discovered in northern Yakutia, Russia ate feces shortly before it died. As reported in a 2008 issue of Quaternary Research by an interdisciplinary team of scientists, the “Yukagir mammoth” was well-preserved enough that paleontologists were able to extract a coprolite from its lower intestine and sort through the plant-rich material. Traces of willows, daisies, sorrel, sedges, rushes, sweet-grass, cinquefoils, and other plants indicative of an open, grassy landscape were found, but so was a fungus – Sporormiella – which is known to grow on deposited feces. Since the fruiting bodies of this fungus would have taken about a week to develop, and there was no sign of bile acids in the coprolite which would have signaled that the ingested dung had come from another species of animal, it appears that the Yukagir mammoth ate a one-week-old mammoth patty just prior to its death.
(In investigating the mammoth carcass, the paleontologists also found evidence that the Yukagir mammoth had back problems. The scientists proposed that it had reactive spondylarthropathy, which they said was “most probably associated with inflammatory bowel disease.”)
The Yukagir mammoth was not the only one to engage in coprophagy. Last year some of the same scientists reported another incident of feces-eating among woolly mammoths based upon their observations of a coprolite found with a partial mammoth skeleton in northwestern Alaska. Described in Quaternary Science Reviews, this dung ball contained plants representative of the open, dry “mammoth steppe” habitat preferred by these animals, as well as the fungi Sporormiella and Podospora conica. And, like the Yukagir mammoth coprolite, no bile acids were found in the coprolite, meaning that the Alaska mammoth also ate a coprolite which had been dropped by a mammoth (itself or another) a week or so before.
The exact reasons why these mammoths ate dung is difficult to discern, but this behavior is not as unusual as it sounds. Young herbivorous mammals sometimes populate their guts with the appropriate digestive bacteria by eating feces, and herbivore droppings can be rich sources of plant material and fermentation products. Even living elephants have been observed to consume dung from time to time, but how regularly mammoths did so is unknown. Perhaps, the scientists behind these reports speculate, the mammoths studied so far were in a state of nutritional stress and turned to coprolites as an easy source of food shortly before their deaths. Then again, perhaps paleontologists have just missed the clues that mammoth coprophagy was regular behavior. Further sampling and research will be required to find out just how often woolly mammoths consumed dung, but at least these two studies have given scientists an idea of what to look out for while picking through mammoth shit.
VANGEEL, B., APTROOT, A., BAITTINGER, C., BIRKS, H., BULL, I., CROSS, H., EVERSHED, R., GRAVENDEEL, B., KOMPANJE, E., & KUPERUS, P. (2008). The ecological implications of a Yakutian mammoth’s last meal Quaternary Research, 69 (3), 361-376 DOI: 10.1016/j.yqres.2008.02.004
van Geel, B., Guthrie, R., Altmann, J., Broekens, P., Bull, I., Gill, F., Jansen, B., Nieman, A., & Gravendeel, B. (2010). Mycological evidence of coprophagy from the feces of an Alaskan Late Glacial mammoth Quaternary Science Reviews DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.03.008
Post-script: As described by Sean, and as seen in the video below, some captive elephants go straight to the source when interested in a stinky snack:
For more on coprolites: