Bacterial Decomposition of Avian Eggshell: A Taphonomic Experiment

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Dinosaurs, like modern birds, produced enormous quantities of eggshell as part of the reproductive process. Sometimes this eggshell was fossilized but most commonly was destroyed by weathering. The degree to which bacteria may have contributed to this weathering process has not been explored. In this study, fresh glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) eggshell fragments were collected from the surface of a breeding colony in Washington, sterilized, and buried in sterile soil. The soil surrounding replicate experimental fragments was inoculated with a culture of one of five species of soil bacteria isolated from other eggshell fragments collected on the colony surface. Replicate control fragments received the same treatment minus the bacteria. Weekly changes in protein concentration and fragment mass, as well as in soil pH and calcium concentration, were measured for experimental and control fragments over 10 weeks. The presence of all five types of bacteria degraded the eggshell and produced corrosion patterns similar to those seen in naturally weathered eggshell. On the basis of the results we postulate that bacterial decomposition of the eggshell protein matrix produces organic acids, which, in turn, dissolve the CaCO3 of the shell. The dissolved CaCO3 and NH3 from protein degradation increase the pH of the surrounding sediment. These results and interpretations are discussed in view of dinosaur eggshell fossilization. This paper provides the first evidence that bacteria significantly impact eggshell preservation.

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