An illustration of Microraptor chowing down on a mammal foot.

An illustration of Microraptor chowing down on a mammal foot.
Illustration: Ralph Attanasia

Paleontologists taking a second take a look at a species of small, four-winged dinosaur have discovered a fossilized mammalian foot within the predator’s abdomen.

It’s the primary concrete proof of dinosaurs consuming mammals, the researchers say. Specimens of the dinosaur, Microraptor zhaoinus, have been found containing historical birds, fish, and lizards, so the mammalian discover is simply the newest recognized supply of protein for this spunky hunter. The staff who re-scrutinized the Microraptor fossil published their findings immediately within the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“It really demonstrates the generalist diet in this small feathered dinosaur,” mentioned Hans Larsson, a paleontologist at McGill University and the examine’s lead creator, in an e mail to Gizmodo. “Adding mammals to the menu shows just how un-specialized this dinosaur was.”

The tree-dwelling Microraptor lived through the early Cretaceous, and specimens have been discovered throughout what’s now northeast China. The fossil-rich area is named the Jehol Biota, and its well-preserved treasures are an important useful resource for understanding nuances of dinosaur anatomy, in addition to particulars about totally different animals’ ecological niches.

Microraptor is assumed to have lived in bushes, gliding across the Cretaceous forests in search of morsels on branches in addition to on the bottom. The not too long ago studied specimen is the holotype, which means it was first of its species to be discovered and named. It’s solely not too long ago been revisited after its discovery again in 2000. The new evaluation revealed the mammalian foot—a seemingly unprecedented discover.

The mammal foot (center) within the Microraptor fossil.

The mammal foot (middle) inside the Microraptor fossil.
Photo: Hans Larsson

The researchers couldn’t determine the explicit mammal species, however the foot’s preservation inside Microraptor allowed them to grasp its ecological area of interest and, clearly, its predators.

“Gut contents are amazing snapshots into the diet of fossil animals, but they are so rare that it can be difficult to figure out whether the preserved ‘last meal’ represents the animal’s normal diet or a weird, one-off event that lucked into getting fossilized,” mentioned Stephanie Drumheller-Horton, a paleontologist on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who was not affiliated with the latest paper, in an e mail to Gizmodo.

“Microraptor is shaping up to be a very interesting exception to that rule, with multiple, beautifully fossilized specimens preserving different ‘last meals,’” Drumheller-Horton added. “Taken together, the authors make a compelling case that this little theropod wasn’t a particularly picky eater, eating all sorts of small-bodied animals in its environment.”

Another illustration of Microraptor with its prey.

Another illustration of Microraptor with its prey.
Illustration: Hans Larsson

The mammal foot apparently didn’t belong to a distant human ancestor; the staff mentioned it had similarities to the morphologies of Sinodelphys, Yanoconodon, and Eomaia, all historical species of early mammals that appeared roughly like opossums or rodents.

The foot belonged to an animal concerning the dimension of a mouse. The staff’s evaluation discovered the critter wouldn’t have been a great climber—an indicator that Microraptor could have sometimes swooped all the way down to the forest flooring for feeding.

“The foot seems completely intact, and thus was swallowed whole. How much of the mammal was swallowed is unknown,” Larsson mentioned. “However, there were several other unidentified bones around the foot in the rib cage, so I suspect that more of that mammal was consumed.”

The researchers couldn’t decide whether or not the animal was hunted and killed or if the feathered dinosaur had scavenged its physique.

Given the luck paleontologists have had with the Jehol Biota up to now, it might simply be a matter of time earlier than one other meal-laden specimen gives extra insights concerning the Cretaceous meals scene.

More: A Shark, Eating a Squid, Eating a Lobster, in One Fossil

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