August 31, 2012
Earlier this week, I got into a snit over the blinkered assertion that feathery dinosaurs are lame. I argued the opposite point–as I wrote at the time “Feathered dinosaurs are awesome. Deal with it.” How fortunate that a new paper this week offers proof of fuzzy dinosaur superiority. The evidence comes in the form of gut contents found within predatory dinosaurs that stalked Cretaceous China around 125 million years ago.
The carnivores in question are a pair of Sinocalliopteryx. These dinosaurs were close cousins of the much earlier Compsognathus, albeit quite a bit larger. While Compsognathus was turkey-size, about three feet long, Sinocalliopteryx grew to be about eight feet long. And this big predator was fluffy. The original description of the dinosaur mentioned the vestiges of simplified dinofuzz around the body of Sinocalliopteryx, and this makes sense given the dinosaur’s relationships. While considerably bigger than its close relatives, Sinocalliopteryx was a compsognathid–a group of theropod dinosaurs that also includes fuzzy forms such as Sinosauropteryx and Juravenator. Big or small, the compsognathids were hunters wrapped in wispy plumage.
And the initial description of Sinocalliopteryx mentioned something else. The skeleton that formed the basis of the original paper contained the leg of an unidentified dromaeosaurid dinosaur in its gut contents. Even though dromaeosaurids have long been cherished as sickle-clawed uber-predators, Sinocalliopteryx had clearly eaten the drumstick of one of the smaller feathered predators. Since then, paleontologists have identified a second Sinocalliopteryx with gut contents, and the two dinosaurs form the basis of a new PLoS One study by University of Alberta paleontologist Lida Xing and colleagues.
Looking back at the first Sinocalliopteryx, Xing and colleagues identified the victim as Sinosauropteryx. The second Sinocalliopteryx specimen had a different menu before it perished–its stomach contains the remains of two Confuciusornis, an archaic bird, and bones from an unidentified ornithischian dinosaur. But these gut contents invoke an aggravating mystery. Did these Sinocalliopteryx hunt their dinosaurian prey, or did they scavenge their meals?
This isn’t the first time paleontologists have puzzled over the meaning of predatory dinosaur gut contents. Earlier this year, Dave Hone and collaborators investigated a pterosaur bone found inside a Velociraptor, and last year Jingmai O’Connor and colleagues described a Microraptor with the remains of a bird in its gut (just to pick two examples of many). Frustratingly, though, it’s difficult to say how the dinosaurs obtained the meat. In the case of the Velociraptor, the researchers could not rule out hunting even though scavenging seemed the more likely option. Likewise, even though O’Connor and co-authors suggested their Microraptor hunted birds in the trees, the non-avian dinosaur could have just as easily scavenged a dead bird that fell to the forest floor. Gut contents tell us about what dinosaurs consumed, but they almost never provide direct evidence of how carnivores obtained flesh and bone to eat.
In the case of Sinocalliopteryx, the PLoS One study concludes that the dinosaur may have been skilled at catching live avian prey. The fact that one Sinocalliopteryx fed on two Confuciusornis in quick succession could mean that the large dinosaur was adept at nabbing early birds. “[T]he evidence of bird predation in Sinocalliopteryx,” Xing and colleagues conclude, “suggests that it was a highly capable stealth hunter.” Then again, the same researchers also note that their scenario “is speculative.” While it may seem improbable, the Sinocalliopteryx in question could have scavenged one or both of those birds, as well as the non-avian dinosaur remains in its stomach. We just don’t know. Like many predators, Sinocalliopteryx most likely hunted live prey and took advantage of carrion. Frustratingly, these fossil gut contents can’t tell us what happened in each case. Sinocalliopteryx may very well have been a skilled bird-slayer. Or perhaps not. The fact is that we don’t know for sure.
Perplexing feeding habits aside, there’s something else about the gut contents of Sinocalliopteryx that can give us a closer look at the dinosaur’s biology. In the dinosaur that ate the two birds and the ornithischian, the bone of the ornithischian dinosaur was corroded by stomach acid. The more delicate bird bones, by contrast, had not been so damaged. This means that the Sinocalliopteryx ate the ornithischian first, followed by one bird and, later, another. More than that, the acid damage indicates that at least some dinosaurs had highly-acidic foreguts where bone was broken down–comparable, but not exactly like, the stomachs of crocodilians and perhaps some bone-eating birds like the bearded vulture.
All of which is to say that Sinocalliopteryx is a great example of a fluffy dinosaur you wouldn’t want to mess with. Even if we can’t discern the backstory of each meaty morsel, the variety of prey in the Sinocalliopteryx stomachs shows that this dinosaur wasn’t a picky eater and may have even been a quick hunter that specializing in snapping up other feathery dinosaurs. For our fuzzy mammalian predecessors, hiding the Cretaceous forests, this would have been one scary dinosaur.
Xing L, Bell PR, Persons WS IV, Ji S, Miyashita T, et al. (2012) Abdominal Contents from Two Large Early Cretaceous Compsognathids (Dinosauria: Theropoda) Demonstrate Feeding on Confuciusornithids and Dromaeosaurids. PLoS ONE 7(8): e44012. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044012