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Small Mammals Bit Down on Dino Bones

Mammals have long been characterized as the underdogs of the Mesozoic world. They diversified in habitats ecologically dominated by dinosaurs, but, even though most were small, they did not simply cower in their burrows until the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago. In fact, Mes...

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A comparison of the skull of a multituberculate mammal with tooth marks made on a dinosaur rib. From the Palaeontology paper.


Mammals have long been characterized as the underdogs of the Mesozoic world. They diversified in habitats ecologically dominated by dinosaurs, but, even though most were small, they did not simply cower in their burrows until the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago. In fact, Mesozoic mammals were more varied in anatomy and habits than is often appreciated, and, as has just been reported in Palaeontology, some small mammals gnawed the bones of the giant archosaurs.

As described by paleontologists Nicholas Longrich and Michael Ryan, a number of fossil bones from the Cretaceous rock of Alberta, Canada were damaged by bites which could only have been made by mammals. A dinosaur rib fragment, a piece of dinosaur limb bone, a partial lower jaw from the marsupial mammal Eodelphis and a femur from a reptile called a champosaur bear bite marks made by an animal with closely-spaced, paired teeth. This bite pattern matches the tooth placement of an extinct variety of mammal called multituberculates—these mammals had long incisor teeth at the front of their jaw separated from the other teeth by a gap, thus explaining why the only toothmarks on the bones were made by incisors. While other mammals could potentially have been the culprit, the anatomy of the multituberculates make them the best fit.

The multicuberculate-made toothmarks are, at present, the oldest known fossil traces of mammal toothmarks. More than that, the authors suggest that some multituberculates used their incisors to gnaw on hard, resistant food items, meaning that they were perhaps more versatile in their diets than had previously been presumed. From the traces on the bones it appears that these small mammals scavenged dead dinosaurs and other creatures for food (leaving behind the relatively shallow tooth marks on some of the specimens) and sometimes bit into the bone itself, perhaps to obtain minerals like calcium (as seen by the deeper bite marks). Now that these traces have been recognized, perhaps other paleontologists will see similar marks in bones they collect, potentially helping us better understand the lives of the mammals that lived alongside the dinosaurs.

LONGRICH, N., & RYAN, M. (2010). Mammalian tooth marks on the bones of dinosaurs and other Late Cretaceous vertebrates Palaeontology DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2010.00957.x
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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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