A prehistoric mega public toilet. That is what archaeologists in Argentina discovered, a field of communal latrines or dumping sites for rhinoceros-like dinosaurs 220 million years ago. They unearthed fossilized spherical or sausage-shaped poop that measured as little as half an inch to about a foot in diameter and weighing up to several kilos each.
Studying the environment and the size of the dung, the experts concluded that the frequent visitors in the area were Dinodontosaurus, a tusked dino with a beak-like jaw that is roughly 6,600 pounds or slightly smaller than the African elephant humans know of today. However, these dicynodonts are reptiles that roamed the region during the Triassic period.
"We describe here the geological and sedimentological characteristics of the communal latrine-bearing areas, the general features of the latrines and coprolites, and food habits and social behaviour of the producer-species. Defecation of dicynodonts in communal latrines reveals that this gregarious behaviour is not unique to mammals," stated the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The communal latrines found in the Chañares Formation, particularly in the locality of La Torcido, in the La Rioja Province is the first evidence that non-mammalian vertebrates also displayed such behaviors. According to experts, communal defecation spots are common in large mammal herbivores such as elephants, rhinoceros, and antelopes. It has also been seen in primates, marsupials, and rodents.
The coprolites, the term referring to fossilised dung, found in eight spots in the area also gave scientists a peek into the diet of the said group of dinosaurs. On average, the scientists found between 67 and 94 coprolites per square meter or roughly 30,000 coprolites in some areas. Upon analysis, the fossilized poop just contained plant materials and did not have a trace of animal bones.
"When cracked open they reveal fragments of extinct plants, fungi, and gut parasites. Each poo is a snapshot of an ancient ecosystem - the vegetation and the food chain. This was a crucial time in evolutionary history. The first mammals were there, living alongside the grandfather of dinosaurs. Maybe with these fossils we can glimpse into the lost environment which gave rise to the dinosaurs" said co-author Martin Hechenleitner in an interview with BBC.
The team plans to investigate the area further and do thorough analysis of the megaherbivore poop discovered in the area to know more about the ancient environment.