Extraordinary Fossil Reveals Mammal Engaging in Mortal Combat with Dinosaur

by François Dupont
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prehistoric predator-prey dynamics

Description:
A fossil discovered from approximately 125 million years ago has unveiled a surprising scene: a carnivorous mammal locked in a battle with a dinosaur. This finding challenges the prevailing belief that mammals posed minimal threats to dinosaurs during the Cretaceous period. By shedding light on ancient predator-prey dynamics, this remarkable discovery offers valuable insights into the past.

Insights into Prehistoric Predator-Prey Interactions

Scientists from Canada and China have unearthed an extraordinary fossil dating back roughly 125 million years, depicting a carnivorous mammal engaged in an attack on a larger plant-eating dinosaur. This exceptional finding provides a frozen glimpse into a captivating moment in prehistoric history.

The fossil, which shows the intertwined skeletons of a Psittacosaurus dinosaur and a Repenomamus mammal, represents one of the first instances of documented predatory behavior by a mammal towards a dinosaur. Dr. Jordan Mallon, a paleobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature and co-author of the study published on July 18 in the journal Scientific Reports, explains the significance of this discovery.

Disrupting Conventional Perspectives

Contrary to the prevailing view that dinosaurs faced minimal threats from their mammal counterparts during the Cretaceous period, this fossil’s existence challenges the conventional wisdom. It is now clear that mammals, such as the Repenomamus robustus featured in this unique fossil, were capable of engaging in predatory behavior towards dinosaurs. The fossil is currently housed at the Weihai Ziguang Shi Yan School Museum in China’s Shandong Province.

Elaborate Details of the Fossil

Preserved within the fossil is a carnivorous mammal resembling a badger, known as Repenomamus robustus, in the act of attacking a Psittacosaurus dinosaur. The Psittacosaurus, roughly the size of a large dog, lived in Asia during the Early Cretaceous period between 125 and 105 million years ago. These horned dinosaurs are among the earliest known examples of their kind. Although not massive in dinosaur terms, Repenomamus robustus was one of the largest mammals during the Cretaceous period, a time when mammals had yet to achieve global dominance.

Previous evidence indicated that Repenomamus preyed on dinosaurs, including Psittacosaurus, as evidenced by the discovery of fossilized baby dinosaur bones in the mammal’s stomach. However, this particular fossil reveals the predatory behavior itself, marking a significant scientific breakthrough.

A Glimpse of the Past Unearthed

The fossil, collected in China’s Liaoning Province in 2012, is extraordinarily well-preserved, showcasing almost complete skeletons of both animals. The Liujitun fossil beds, where this specimen originated, are often referred to as “China’s Dinosaur Pompeii” due to the abundance of preserved fossils of dinosaurs, small mammals, lizards, and amphibians. These creatures were rapidly buried by mudslides and volcanic debris, ensuring their remarkable preservation. Dr. Aaron Lussier, a mineralogist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, confirmed the presence of volcanic material within the fossil’s rock matrix.

Dr. Gang Han, a study co-author, kept the Psittacosaurus-Repenomamus fossil in his care in China, and it caught the attention of Dr. Xiao-Chun Wu, a paleobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature who has worked extensively with Chinese researchers. Dr. Wu immediately recognized the fossil’s significance upon seeing it.

Deciphering the Predation Scene

Upon detailed examination, the fossil presents the Psittacosaurus lying prone, with its hindlimbs folded on either side of its body. The Repenomamus is depicted coiling to the right, perched atop its prey. It firmly grips the larger dinosaur’s jaw and bites into its ribs, while also using its hind leg to secure its position. Dr. Mallon asserts that the evidence strongly suggests an active attack was underway.

The research team, which includes Mallon and Wu, dismissed the possibility of the mammal merely scavenging a deceased dinosaur. The absence of tooth marks on the dinosaur’s bones, for instance, indicates that scavenging was unlikely. The entangled position of the Repenomamus on top of the Psittacosaurus further supports the conclusion that it was the aggressor.

Modern Comparisons and Future Prospects

Analogous situations involving smaller animals attacking larger prey can be observed in the present-day natural world. For example, lone wolverines are known to hunt larger animals like caribou and domestic sheep. In the African savanna, wild dogs, jackals, and hyenas will attack live prey, often leaving them in a state of shock.

Dr. Mallon suggests that the fossil may depict a similar scenario, with the Repenomamus actively consuming the Psittacosaurus while it was still alive, before both creatures met their demise in the turbulent aftermath. The research team anticipates that the volcanically derived deposits from China’s Lujiatun fossil beds will continue to yield new evidence of interspecies interactions previously unknown to the fossil record.

Reference: “An extraordinary fossil captures the struggle for existence during the Mesozoic” by Gang Han, Jordan C. Mallon, Aaron J. Lussier, Xiao-Chun Wu, Robert Mitchell, and Ling-Ji Li, 18 July 2023, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-37545-8

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about prehistoric predator-prey dynamics

What does the fossil discovery reveal?

The fossil discovery reveals a carnivorous mammal engaged in a battle with a dinosaur, challenging the belief that dinosaurs faced minimal threats from mammals during the Cretaceous period. It provides evidence of predatory behavior by mammals towards dinosaurs and offers insights into prehistoric predator-prey dynamics.

What is depicted in the fossil?

The fossil captures the entangled skeletons of a Psittacosaurus dinosaur and a Repenomamus mammal. The Repenomamus, a badger-like mammal, is seen actively attacking the Psittacosaurus, a plant-eating dinosaur. The mammal grips the dinosaur’s jaw and bites into its ribs, indicating a predator-prey interaction.

How old is the fossil?

The fossil dates back approximately 125 million years, belonging to the Early Cretaceous period. It provides a glimpse into prehistoric life during this time.

Where was the fossil found?

The fossil was collected in China’s Liaoning Province in 2012. The area, known as the Liujitun fossil beds, is often referred to as “China’s Dinosaur Pompeii” due to the exceptional preservation of various fossils, including dinosaurs, small mammals, lizards, and amphibians.

What is the significance of this discovery?

The discovery challenges the conventional view that dinosaurs faced minimal threats from mammals during the Cretaceous period. It shows that mammals, such as Repenomamus robustus, were capable of engaging in predatory behavior towards dinosaurs. This finding sheds light on ancient predator-prey dynamics and provides new insights into the interactions between different species in prehistoric ecosystems.

How was the fossil preserved so well?

The fossil’s remarkable preservation is attributed to its origin in the Liujitun fossil beds, which were formed by mudslides and volcanic debris. This rapid burial process ensured the exceptional preservation of the entangled skeletons, offering scientists a unique window into the past.

What evidence suggests that the mammal was actively attacking the dinosaur?

The position of the Repenomamus atop the Psittacosaurus and the gripping of the dinosaur’s jaw and ribs by the mammal indicate an active attack rather than scavenging. The absence of tooth marks on the dinosaur’s bones further supports the conclusion that the dinosaur was being actively preyed upon.

Are there modern examples of smaller animals attacking larger prey?

Yes, modern examples of smaller animals attacking larger prey can be observed. For instance, lone wolverines are known to hunt larger animals like caribou and domestic sheep. In the African savanna, wild dogs, jackals, and hyenas often attack live prey, leaving them in a state of shock.

What can we expect from future discoveries in this area?

The researchers anticipate that the fossil-rich deposits from the Liujitun fossil beds will continue to yield fresh evidence of interspecies interactions previously unknown in the fossil record. Further discoveries in this area may provide additional insights into ancient ecosystems, predator-prey relationships, and the evolutionary history of various species.

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