Dinos Dug Around for Prey

Fossilized mammal burrows reveal that some 

dinosaurs dug into dens in search of furry morsels.

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By Larry O’Hanlon Fri Jul 23, 2010 07:00 AM ET 0 Comments | Leave a Comment

  • Fossilized mammal burrows with claw marks from digging dinos have been discovered.
  • The likely digger was a velociraptor or troodont.
  • Other evidence of dinos eating mammals include teeth marks on bones as well as bones in fossil feces.

No actual mammal bones or teeth have been found, though the burrows match the complexity of those of other mouse or shrew-like mammals of that time and their present-day counterparts. Click to enlarge this image.
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Rare evidence has been found of dinosaurs preying on mammals. Fossilized mammal burrows that appear to have been clawed out by a predator suggests that some theropod dinosaurs dug into mammal dens to get furry morsels.
Since there were no large mammal predators 80 million years ago, the most likely candidates are dinosaurs. Making the connection even stronger is that claw marks in the burrows are a pretty good match to the claws of dinosaur fossils found in rocks nearby, though slightly later in time.
“It’s pretty tight,” said paleontologist Edward Simpson of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. “We can’t say whether it’s a troodont or a velociraptor,” because the claw bones of those found nearby have lost their nails, or cuticles. But otherwise the match is a good one, he said.
Simpson and his students have published their “trace fossil” discovery — that is, fossilized evidence of animal behaviors rather than the animals themselves — in the August issue of the journal Geology.
“To me there is almost no doubt,” agreed trace fossil expert Anthony Martin of Emory University. “It’s very good circumstantial evidence.”
No actual mammal bones or teeth have been found, though the burrows match the complexity of those of other mouse- or shrew-like mammals of that time and their present-day counterparts. The criteria for calling something a fossilized mammal burrow were laid out a few years ago in a separate paper by Martin.
With that criteria in mind, the team feels confident that they did find a mammal’s subterranean abode. The researchers could go even further to make their case.
“One of the things we could do is to take the burrows and cut them up,” said Simpson. There might be mammal teeth in them, which make an even stronger case.
However, he’s hesitant to do that since it’s a destructive process. There is also only a very small chance they will find any mammal bones or teeth. So far Simpson and his students haven’t even extracted the fossil burrow from the cliff in southern Utah in which it was found.
As for the dinosaur involved, it probably wasn’t very big, judging by the claw marks in the burrows, said Martin.
Other evidence that has been reported to support the dinosaurs-bites-mammal story include the specialized jaw, teeth and skulls of some dinosaurs; mammal bones with bite marks; fossilized gut content; and feces and trackways.
This case is different in that it points directly at how the dinosaurs hunted rather than just the fact that they ate mammals.
“This is an excellent example of how trace fossils can reveal animal behavior,” said Martin.

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