For the first time, scientists have found direct evidence for a dinosaur eating a mammal.
The fossilised remains of a Microraptor which would have lived in what is now China more than 120 million years ago has been shown by UK palaeontologists to have a little surprise in its tum. In the crow-sized dinosaur’s digestive system is the remains of another animal – a small mammal foot.
“It’s so rare to find examples of food inside dinosaurs, so every example is really important, as it gives direct evidence of what they were eating,” says lead author Dr David Hone from Queen Mary University of London.
While pale in comparison to the scenes from Steven Speilberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park of a lawyer being swallowed whole by a giant Tyrannosaurus rex, the discovery sheds important light on how these bird-like dinosaurs lived and ate.
“While this mammal would absolutely not have been a human ancestor, we can look back at some of our ancient relatives being a meal for hungry dinosaurs. This study paints a picture of a fascinating moment in time – the first record of a dinosaur eating a mammal – even if it isn’t quite as frightening as anything in Jurassic Park,” Horne adds.
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Microraptor made headlines after being first described in 2000 for being a four-winged dinosaur. Like many other small theropod (two-legged, mostly carnivorous) dinosaurs discovered in China in recent decades, Microraptor marks a clear point in the evolution of dinosaurs into modern birds.
With its four feathered limbs, Microraptor prompted theories suggesting flight may have evolved as a result of four-winged gliding.
The specimen studied by the Queen Mary University of London palaeontologists was first found in 2000, but it was many years later that the presence of the mammal foot was found between the dinosaur’s ribs.
Near complete, the mammal foot belonged to a tiny animal, about the size of a mouse. The bones suggest that the mammal predominantly lived on the ground and was not a good climber. It seems an interesting choice of food source for Microraptor which is believed to have soared from tree-to-tree hunting small animals.
Previous studies have revealed other Microraptor specimens with bird, lizard and fish in their stomach contents. Now, adding mammals to that mix tells of a dinosaur with a diverse diet, not a specialist.
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It’s not clear if the dinosaurs were hunting these animals, or scavenging the remains of dead animals they found. Nevertheless, the find does give some insight into how the dinosaurs lived and fed.
“The great thing is that, like your housecat which was about the same size, Microraptor would have been an easy animal to live with but a terror if it got out as it would hunt everything from the birds at your feeder to the mice in your hedge or the fish in your pond,” adds co-author Dr Alex Dececchi from Mount Marty University in the US.
Results of the study are published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.