A 110-million-year-old fossil discovered 9 years in the past at an open pit mine in Alberta is offering fascinating new particulars in regards to the dietary habits of plant-eating armored dinosaurs and the environments by which they lived.
“This is among the best-preserved dinosaurs on the planet,” Caleb Brown, a paleontologist at Royal Tyrrell Museum, told Gizmodo again in 2017 when the beautiful fossil was first unveiled. Courting again to the Early Cretaceous, the nodosaur skeleton—a sort of ankylosaur—retained options not often seen in an armored dinosaur fossil, together with pores and skin and scale preservation, intact horn sheaths, and its unique form.
On the time, Brown and his colleagues have been hopeful that additional evaluation of the fossil would possibly reveal much more particulars, such because the contents of its digestive system. And right here we’re, three years later, reporting on this very factor. The brand new examine, describing the abdomen contents of a fossilized Borealopelta markmitchelli specimen, was revealed at the moment in Royal Society Open Science.
Jelle Wiersma, a geoscientist and Ph.D. candidate at James Cook dinner College in Australia, stated the examine is providing new insights into dinosaur diets.
“This examine is essential as a result of, typically, little or no is understood what precisely dinosaurs ate past the final scope of vegetation or meat,” Wiersma, who’s not affiliated with the brand new analysis, informed Gizmodo. “What or whom dinosaurs ate is commonly an informed guess primarily based on the fossil vegetation and animals that happen collectively in the identical place and time and are preserved within the rock report. One of these proof is oblique, and paleontologists can typically solely infer what was on the menu of dinosaurs primarily based on such fossil associations.”
This fossil was discovered at an open pit mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, again in 2011. Its outstanding preservation was attributable to a collection of lucky occasions—lucky, at the least, for paleontologists. Shortly after foraging, the two,900-pound (1,300-kilogram) behemoth died near shore, and its physique drifted out to sea. Finally, the physique settled to the seafloor the place it turned preserved in mud, a patch of Early Cretaceous actual property now referred to as the Clearwater Formation.
Evaluation of the nodosaur’s stomach cavity, roughly the scale of a basketball, yielded new insights into the dietary preferences of those creatures. To research the cololite—i.e., fossilized abdomen contents—the researchers took a number of skinny sections lower from the specimen, which have been then noticed underneath a microscope. In a press launch, David Greenwood, a co-author of the brand new examine and a biologist at Brandon College, stated, “we have been shocked to see superbly preserved and concentrated plant materials,” including that marine rocks virtually by no means present “such excellent preservation of leaves, together with the microscopic, spore-producing sporangia of ferns.”
The cololite primarily consisted of chewed leaf materials, however it additionally retained proof of stems and twigs. Microfossils discovered inside this stomach mass have been then in comparison with vegetation identified to exist on this area 110 million years in the past. In complete, the researchers recognized 48 distinct microfossils, together with proof of ferns, moss, conifers, and flowering vegetation. Curiously, this animal was a picky eater, ignoring particular varieties of ferns and conifers identified to exist in its foraging grounds.
Wiersma, who in 2018 analyzed a stunning skeleton belonging to a unique sort of ankylosaur, Akainacephalus johnsoni, was notably stoked in regards to the new examine owing to the rarity of those creatures within the fossil report.
“We all know that armored dinosaurs had small, leaf-shaped tooth, and traditionally it was assumed that due to these small tooth they have been seemingly not able to processing exhausting and fibrous vegetation and as an alternative consumed principally softer varieties,” he informed Gizmodo. “Latest research analyzed their tooth extra intently and instructed that these animals may the truth is eat more durable plant materials than was beforehand assumed. The info from this examine undeniably confirms this and visually exhibits that armored dinosaurs really consumed fairly a various number of vegetation, together with some powerful ones.”
However that’s not all they discovered.
The researchers additionally documented the presence of gastroliths, referred to as gizzard stones. Some herbivores, each extinct and extant, wish to swallow stones, which helps them digest meals. Incredibly, the researchers additionally discovered traces of charcoal, specifically burnt plant fragments. This explicit Borealopelta specimen was seemingly foraging in an space lately scorched by wildfires and was munching on ferns, a plant that’s identified to benefit from burnt landscapes, in response to the brand new analysis.
“This adaptation to a fireplace ecology is new data,” defined Greenwood. “Like giant herbivores alive at the moment, similar to moose and deer and elephants in Africa, these nodosaurs by their feeding would have formed the vegetation on the panorama, presumably sustaining extra open areas by their grazing.”
This creature seems to have died shortly after its final meal. What’s extra, the situation of the consumed vegetation suggests the nodosaur died sooner or later between late spring and the center of summer time.
“I feel the authors do an excellent job justifying why these plant fossils are precise abdomen contents, versus one thing that received washed in [after death],” stated Randall Irmis, a paleontologist on the College of Utah, in an electronic mail to Gizmodo. “This new discovery supplies way more element about what ankylosaurians ate… however a lot of the plant matter was unidentifiable, so it was exhausting to conclude precisely why kind of vegetation it was consuming.”
The new findings aren’t essentially indicative of all armored dinosaurs and even of all members of the species. When taking a look at one fossil, it’s exhausting to know whether or not you’re seeing an outlier.
“This examine is predicated on a single fossil specimen, and because the authors level out, the meals in its abdomen was seemingly its closing meal shortly earlier than it died, so it actually represents a really temporary second in time,” stated Wiersma. “To raised perceive the long-time period weight loss plan of Borealopelta on a species stage and even for armored dinosaurs as a gaggle, we would want much more information from many extra fossil specimens with related, or completely different, intestine contents.”
Sadly, given how not often paleontologists discover these creatures, it is likely to be a very long time earlier than we will acquire that data, he stated.
“However that’s okay, as a result of fossils actually inform us a narrative that displays a brief second in time, virtually like in stone,” he added. “Nonetheless, this examine supplies new and necessary information that improves our understanding of dinosaur conduct, which is at all times very thrilling for us paleontologists and most of the people alike.”
Trying forward, the researchers plan to check the fossil in hopes of detecting inside organs and gaining new insights into the composition of Early Cretaceous forests. Encouragingly, this unbelievable Borealopelta specimen nonetheless has tales to inform.