1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Coprolites

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COPROLITES (from Gr. κόπρος, dung, and λίθος, stone), the fossilized excrements of extinct animals. The discovery of their true nature was made by Dr William Buckland, who observed that certain convoluted bodies occurring in the Lias of Gloucestershire had the form which would have been produced by their passage in the soft state through the intestines of reptiles or fishes. These bodies had long been known as “fossil fir cones” and “bezoar stones.” Buckland’s conjecture that they were of faecal origin, and similar to the album grecum or excrement of hyaenas, was confirmed by Dr W. Prout, who on analysis found they consisted essentially of calcium phosphate and carbonate, and not infrequently contained fragments of unaltered bone. The name “coprolites” was accordingly given to them by Buckland, who subsequently expressed his belief that they might be found useful in agriculture on account of the calcium phosphate they contained. The Liassic coprolites are described by Buckland as resembling oblong pebbles, or kidney-potatoes; they are mostly 2 to 4 in. long, and from 1 to 2 in. in diameter, but those of the larger ichthyosauri are of much greater dimensions. In colour they vary from ash-grey to black, and their fracture is conchoidal. Internally they are found to consist of a lamina twisted upon itself, and externally they generally exhibit a tortuous structure, produced, before the cloaca was reached, by the spiral valve of a compressed small intestine (as in skates, sharks and dog-fishes); the surface shows also vascular impressions and corrugations due to the same cause. Often the bones, teeth and scales of fishes are to be found dispersed through the coprolites, and sometimes the bones of small ichthyosauri, which were apparently a prey to the larger marine saurians. Coprolites have been found at Lyme Regis, enclosed by the ribs of ichthyosauri, and in the remains of several species of fish; also in the abdominal cavities of a species of fossil fish, Macropoma Mantelli, from the chalk of Lewes. Professor T. Jäger has described coprolites from the alum-slate of Gaildorf in Württemberg; the fish-coprolites of Burdiehouse and of Newcastle-under-Lyme are of Carboniferous age. The so-called “beetle-stones” of the coal-formation of Newhaven, near Leith, which have mostly a coprolite nucleus, have been applied to various ornamental purposes by lapidaries. The name “cololites” (from the Greek κῷλον, the large intestine, λίθος, stone) was given by Agassiz to fossil wormlike bodies, found in the lithographic slate of Solenhofen, which he determined to be either the petrified intestines or contents of the intestines of fishes. The bone-bed of Axmouth in Devonshire and Westbury and Aust in Gloucestershire, in the Penarth or Rhaetic series of strata, contains the scales, teeth and bones of saurians and fishes, together with abundance of coprolites; but neither there nor at Lyme Regis is there a sufficient quantity of phosphatic material to render the working of it for agricultural purposes remunerative.

The term coprolites has been made to include all kinds of phosphatic nodules employed as manures, such, for example, as those obtained from the Coralline and the Red Crag of Suffolk. At the base of the Red Crag in that county is a bed, 3 to 18 in. thick, containing rolled fossil bones, cetacean and fish teeth, and shells of the Crag period, with nodules or pebbles of phosphatic matter derived from the London Clay, and often investing fossils from that formation. These are distinguishable from the grey Chalk coprolites by their brownish ferruginous colour and smooth appearance. When ground they give a yellowish-red powder. These nodules were at first taken by Professor J. S. Henslow for coprolites; they were afterwards termed by Buckland “pseudo-coprolites.” “The nodules, having been imbued with phosphatic matter from their matrix in the London Clay, were dislodged,” says Buckland, “by the waters of the seas of the first period, and accumulated by myriads at the bottom of those shallow seas where is now the coast of Suffolk. Here they were long rolled together with the bones of large mammalia, fishes, and with the shells of molluscous creatures that lived in shells. From the bottom of this sea they have been raised to form the dry lands along the shores of Suffolk, whence they are now extracted as articles of commercial value, being ground to powder in the mills of Mr [afterwards Sir John] Lawes, at Deptford, to supply our farms with a valuable substitute for guano, under the accepted name of coprolite manure.” The phosphatic nodules occurring throughout the Red Crag of Suffolk are regarded as derived from the Coralline Crag. The Suffolk beds have been worked since 1846; and immense quantities of coprolite have also been obtained from Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. The Cambridgeshire coprolites are believed to be derived from deposits of Gault age; they are obtained by washing from a stratum about a foot thick, resting on the Gault, at the base of the Chalk Marl, and probably homotaxeous with the Chloritic Marl. An acre used to yield on an average 300 tons of phosphatic nodules, value £750. About £140 per acre was paid for the lease of the land, which after two years was restored to its owners re-soiled and levelled. Plicatulae have been found attached to these coprolites, showing that they were already hard bodies when lying at the bottom of the Chalk ocean. The Cambridgeshire coprolites are either amorphous or finger-shaped; the coprolites from the Greensand are of a black or dark-brown colour; while those from the Gault are greenish-white on the surface, brownish-black internally. Samples of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk coprolite have been found by A. Voelcker to give on analysis phosphoric acid equivalent to about 55 and 52.5% of tribasic calcium phosphate respectively (Journ. R. Agric. Soc. Eng., 1860, xxi. 358). The following analysis of a saurio-coprolite from Lyme Regis is given by T. J. Herapath (ibid. xii. 91):—

Water  3.976
Organic matter  2.001
Calcium sulphate  2.026
Calcium carbonate 28.121
Calcium fluoride not determined
Calcium and magnesium phosphate  53.996
Magnesium carbonate  0.423
Aluminic phosphate  1.276
Ferric phosphate  6.182
Silica  0.773

An ichthyo-coprolite from Tenby was found to contain 15.4% of phosphoric anhydride. The pseudo-coprolites of the Suffolk Crag have been estimated by Herapath to be as rich in phosphates as the true ichthyo-coprolites and saurio-coprolites of other formations, the proportion of P2O5 contained varying between 12.5 and 37.25%, the average proportion, however, being 32 or 33%.

Coprolite is reduced to powder by powerful mills of peculiar construction, furnished with granite and buhrstones, before being treated with concentrated sulphuric acid. The acid renders it available as a manure by converting the calcium phosphate, Ca3P2O8, that it contains into the soluble monocalcium salt, CaH4P2O8, or “superphosphate.” The phosphate thus produced forms an efficacious turnip manure, and is quite equal in value to that produced from any other source. The Chloritic Marl in the Wealden district furnishes much phosphatic material, which has been extensively worked at Froyle. In the vicinity of Farnham it contains a bed of “coprolites” of considerable extent and 2 to 15 ft. in thickness. Specimens of these from the Dippen Hall pits, analysed by Messrs J. M. Paine and J. T. Way, showed the presence of phosphates equivalent to 55.96 of bone-earth (Journ. R. Agric. Soc. Eng. ix. 56). Phosphatic nodules occur also in the Chloritic Marl of the Isle of Wight and Dorsetshire, and at Wroughton, near Swindon. They are found in the Lower Greensand, or Upper Neocomian series, in the Atherfield Clay at Stopham, near Pulborough; occasionally at the junction of the Hythe and Sandgate beds; and in the Folkeston beds, at Farnham. At Woburn, Leighton, Ampthill, Sandy, Upware, Wicken and Potton, near the base of Upper Neocomian iron-sands, there is a band between 6 in. and 2 ft. in thickness containing “coprolites”; these consist of phosphatized wood, bones, casts of shells, and shapeless lumps. The coprolitic stratum of the Speeton Clay, on the coast to the north of Flamborough Head, is included by Professor Judd with the Portland beds of that formation. In 1864 two phosphatic deposits, a limestone 3 ft. thick, with beds of calcium phosphate, and a shale of half that thickness, were discovered by Hope Jones in the neighbourhood of Cwmgynen, about 16 m. from Oswestry. They are at a depth of about 12 ft., in slaty shale containing Llandeilo fossils and contemporaneous felspathic ash and scoriae. A specimen of the phosphatic limestone analysed by A. Voelcker yielded 34.92% tricalcium phosphate, a specimen of the shale 52.15% (Report of Brit. Assoc., 1865). Phosphatic beds, supposed to have had a coprolitic origin, are found in the Lower Silurian rocks of Canada.

See T. J. Herapath, Chem. Gaz., 1849, p. 449; W. Buckland, Geology and Mineralogy (4th ed., 1869); O. Fisher, Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc., 1873, p. 52; J. J. H. Teall, On the Potton and Wicken Phosphatic Deposits (Sedgwick Prize Essay for 1873) (1875) and “The Natural History of Phosphatic Deposits,” Proc. Geol. Assoc. xvi. (1900); L. W. Collet, Proc. Roy. Soc. Edin. xxv. pt. 10, p. 862; T. G. Bonney, Cambridgeshire Geology (1875); L. Gruner, Bull. soc. géol. franc. xxviii. (2nd series), p. 62; J. Martin, ibid. iii. (3rd series), p. 273.