24-06-2016

100th piece of fossilised hyena dung found on Maasvlakte beach

Fossil explorer, Walter Langendoen found his first fossilised hyena dung in 2012 on the freshly sprayed Maasvlakte beach. At that time he thought it was a strange stone. He recently found his 100th.
 

Naturalis Biodiversity Center has conducted extensive tests on the fossilised droppings that Langendoen has found in recent years. Barbara Gravendeel, Biodiversity lecturer at Leiden University of Applied Science and Naturalis Biodiversity: “This research has delivered surprising results.” Together with Langendoen and Naturalis, FutureLand information centre on Maasvlakte has established a mini exposition.

100e fossiele hyenakeutel

Research

On Maasvlakte, customs pass the sea containers through a scanner. Using a comparable but somewhat smaller scanner, Naturalis examined whether there were still bone remains in the fossilised hyena droppings. This proved to be the case in a number of the droppings. These droppings were then opened and the contents were further investigated using microscopic and chemical analysis. Barbara Gravendeel, Biodiversity lecturer at Leiden University of Applied Science and Naturalis Biodiversity: “This research has delivered surprising results. The dung is older than originally thought and the cave hyena ate more species of animal than known until now.”

Calcium eaters

The cave hyena (Crocuta crocuta spelaea), is one of the most well-known predators from the last Ice Age, the Late Pleistocene. The North Sea was then just a steppe on which woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses grazed. The North Sea only filled the area later, when the ice caps melted. Scratches and other bite marks on fossilised bones of mammoths and rhinoceroses show that hyenas feasted on these carcasses. As they gnawed at the bones, they ate a lot of calcium. And as not all the calcium is absorbed by the body, there is a lot of calcium in the faecal matter. That’s why modern hyena droppings are often light grey or white in colour. It is exactly because of the high calcium levels that the hyena droppings fossilise easily and some ten thousand years later wash up on Maasvlakte beach.

Until 2010, the fossilised droppings of the cave hyena were mainly known from finds from Germany and Russia. The first Dutch ‘coprolite’ was found during a fishing trip for fossils in the sand extraction area on the North Sea for the construction of Maasvlakte 2. Scientists borrowed coprolite from the Greek word for fossil dung, literally known as ‘poo stone’. The first sample has been incorporated in the Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam collection.

As Walter Langendoen has regularly found the droppings on Maasvlakte beach, he finds it really exciting that Barbara Gravendeel from Naturalis is conducting research on the coprolites. Langendoen: “I can quite understand that the Natuurhistorisch museum didn’t want to cut open the first sample. But now the stock in the Netherlands is growing continuously, I think it’s important that we learn as much as possible from it.” Langendoen has been on the beach every day since his first discovery, and is now an enthusiastic amateur palaeontologist.

See and smell droppings

The majority of the now 100 samples in the collection can be seen in FutureLand this summer, the information centre about the construction and use of Maasvlakte 2. As well as the fossilised samples from cave hyenas, fresh droppings from modern spotted hyenas are available as comparison. Anyone wishing to smell the difference can use the sniff covers to satisfy their curiosity.

About FutureLand

FutureLand is accessible for young and old and you can experience the port of the future here. FutureLand is located in the heart of the Port of Rotterdam and offers views across the developing Maasvlakte 2. The information centre is open from Tuesday to Friday and on Sundays. Admission is free. The FutureLand Express and the FutureLand Ferry are also available for trips and tours in the new ports throughout the year. You can also take part in a fossil expedition, led by fossil explorer, Walter Langendoen. On Maasvlakte beach, he provides an explanation about searching for archaeological and palaeontological treasures. In the ANWB vote for the Most Fun Day Out of 2015, the information centre was voted second most fun day out of South Holland. Address FutureLand: Europaweg 902NL-3199 LC Maasvlakte Rotterdam Port number no. 8360.