An international team of scientists has recently uncovered an extremely rare piece of evidence that dinosaurs sometimes ate mammals. The experts discovered the foot of a tiny mammal approximately the size of a mouse preserved inside the gut contents of a Microraptor zhaoianus –a small feathered dinosaur that lived in the early Cretaceous period.
According to study co-author Corwin Sullivan, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta, it is extremely rare to find conclusive evidence of dinosaurs’ diets because of how difficult it is for a dinosaur’s gut contents to be preserved.
“There was always interest in [Microraptor’s] diet because there had been previous specimens that contained remains of different vertebrates inside the rib cage, but we have the first one that contains parts of a mammal,” he explained.
The fossils of this Microraptor were found within Jurassic and Cretaceous lake deposits in today’s northeast China. Previous fossils belonging to this species discovered in the same region have been found with gut contents of fish, birds, and lizards, suggesting that they had highly diverse diets. However, it is not yet clear whether Microraptor consumed these animals in a predator-prey relationship or by scavenging.
Information about dinosaurs’ diets is crucial for learning more about the inter-species relationships existing at the time these creatures roamed the Earth. “We’re slowly gathering pieces of information about these past ecosystems and the animals that inhabited them. So what this discovery does is fill in a little bit of information in that it’s showing the diet of Microraptor was even broader, even more generalist, than we thought previously,” Sullivan said.
“That tells us something about this animal and, by extension, tells us that there were generalist carnivores in these ancient ecosystems — that that niche existed,” he concluded.
The study is published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
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