My job is full of fossilized poop, but there’s nothing icky about ichnology

If you had told me as an 18-year-old that I was going to be an ichnologist one day, I wouldn’t have believed you—or even known what that was. But, more than 15 years later, may I suggest myself as an ichnologist

Like me as a teenager, many people outside the discipline don’t know, or have a limited understanding of, what ichnology is. It is the study of the tracks and traces made by animals and plants in the fossil record, also known as trace fossils. These can range from animal footprints (tracks/spores), invertebrates tracks, food tracks on fossil leaves, fossilized excrement (coprolites), tooth marks (gnaw/bite marks) on bone/wood, to burrows and bores all preserved in the sedimentary rock. file. When someone talks about seeing a “dinosaur footprint”, they are talking about ichnology.

It may seem strange to spend so much time looking at fossils from a distant past. But this doesn’t just help scientists understand animals and plants that existed long ago: it also gives us insight into the environments they were in and other aspects of the past world, such as extinction events or climate change. That can help us understand how things might change in the future.

A rich source of information

Perhaps this all sounds rather dry; fossil bones tend to capture people’s imaginations much more. But ichnology is a very rich source of information about an animal that could not be derived from the bones alone. A once-living animal leaves an idea of ​​what it did, the way it did it, and the circumstances surrounding it.

Trace fossils even preserve shapes and casts of body parts – for example, a fossil footprint can be thought of as a partial 3D shape of the animal’s foot, its flesh and bones.

My current work in ichnology deals with fossil footprints (tracks) of one of the largest animals to have walked the earth: the sauropoda† These dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods (~200 and 150 million years ago) are like nothing we know today.

Some, like the Titanosaurswere colossal. others were the size of a cow or smaller. Our knowledge about sauropods has been gathered from their bodies and fossil traces. Sauropod tracks tell us the morphology of the feet, anatomical details such as toes and claws, and sometimes, with exceptional preservation, the texture of the skin via skin impressions

Traces can reveal how the animal gripped the substrate as it walked, how fast it was moving, or simply show it was there, especially if no body fossils are available. In northern Zimbabwe, for example, body fossils of sauropods are very rare, but traces of sauropods have been found indicating huge animals with feet 94 cm long and 54 cm wide† In comparison, an African elephant has a footprint length between 30-40 cm. Collections of tracks and tracks may act as circumstantial evidence of sauropods moving together in a herd, something that’s harder to deduce from their body fossils alone.

While fossil footprints can indicate an animal’s movement and other associated behavioral features, a fossil burrow is another type of trace fossil and provides evidence for the excavation of a dwelling, a refuge or even a trap for prey (to name a few). to call) . In South Africa’s Karoo Basin are some of the world’s most beautiful and unusual fossil caves† The walls, lining and filling of caves may retain traces of excavation with scratches from claws and teeth and even the print of an animal’s ass being kept. These are crucial in identifying a potential burrower and its behavior.

Ichnologists examine an area of ​​trace fossils – a way to reconstruct ancient life even when there are no body fossils.
Jurassica Museum

And while the idea of ​​fossilized feces might infuriate you, coprolites reveal what that animal ate and may contain fragments of fossil bone, insects and plant matter. A coprolite may even show traces of other trace fossils, such as traces related to the beetle bores – insects that eat and digest the coprolite while it was still fresh. It can even show that it was stepped on by another animal. An incredible example was: recently discovered in Vietnam. It shows evidence that it was produced and trodden by a crocodile; a fossil footprint and fossil manure in one.

Collectively, this evidence helps paint a picture of long-gone landscapes and the creatures and plants that inhabited those spaces.

Another branch of ichnology, neoichnology, studies the modern tracks and tracks of animals. It’s a very relevant area of ​​research, as we know how and why modern animals move and interact with different substrates, informing us of how existing animals may have done this.

For centuries, people have researched the tracks and traces of animals and plants. Today, only a few people worldwide have this specialized knowledge and skill. In Botswana, for example, trackers from the indigenous !Xo and /Gwi countries use their superior neo-tech tracing knowledge as citizen scientists in wildlife management and conservation. Using tracks, droppings (dung), and other evidence of animal behavior, these neoichnologists know and interpret the movement, sex, species, timing and speed of animals moving through an area.

Create a career

So, how do you go from high school to a career in technology like I did? There is not always a single, linear route.

Ichnology often requires an understanding of biological and abiotic (related to the sedimentary processes leading to conservation) processes in the fields of geology, zoology (biology), and botany – as well as in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. There is a wide variety of subjects you could study to pursue a career in ichnology and you certainly don’t need to be an expert in all of these subjects. You just have to be curious!

As an example, I have studied sedimentary geology, which is used in dissecting information about fossil traces, as it is often preserved in sedimentary rock. Sedimentary geology can help explain how sediment and animals interact and what processes were involved in forming and preserving a trail such as a footprint or cave. Geology will help in reading the rocks in which the trace fossils are kept. Biology and zoology will help understand the behavior of animals that make and leave those marks in the sedimentary rock.

All in all, ichnology is an important field of study that helps us examine our near or distant past in order to learn from it. A trace fossil is a little secret snapshot of an animal’s day: its own take on who it was and what it was up to.

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