NEW YORK (AP) — An unusual find in China suggests some early mammals may have hunted dinosaurs for dinner.
The fossil shows a badger-like creature eating a small, beaked dinosaur whose skeletons are intertwined. The find comes from a place known as “China’s Pompeii,” where mud and debris from volcanoes buried living beings long ago.
“It looks like this is a prehistoric hunt captured like a still image in stone,” University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte, who was not involved with the study, said in an email.
The fossil was described in the magazine on Tuesday Scientific Reportsshows two creatures from the Cretaceous period about 125 million years ago.
Although the mammal is much smaller, researchers believe it attacked the dinosaur when both got caught in the volcanic flow, said study author Jordan Mallon, a paleobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature. The mammal sits atop the dinosaur, its paws clutching the reptile’s jaw and one hind leg, while its teeth sink into the thorax.
“I’ve never seen a fossil like this,” Mallon said.
That mammals ate dinosaur meat was previously suspected: Another fossil showed this A mammal died with dinosaur remains in its gut. But the new find also suggests that mammals may actually have been hunting dinosaurs many times larger than themselves, rather than just preying on already dead dinosaurs, Mallon said.
“It turns old history on its head,” Brusatte said. “We’re used to thinking of the age of dinosaurs as a time when dinosaurs ruled the world and tiny mammals crouched in the shadows.”
The study’s authors acknowledged that some fake fossils are known to exist from this part of the world, which Mallon said was worrying when they began their research. But after preparing the skeletons themselves and analyzing the rock samples, he said they are confident the fossil – found by a farmer in 2012 – is real and would like other scientists to examine the fossil as well.
The mammal in the fossil duo is the carnivorous Repenomamus robustus, about the size of a house cat, Mallon said. The dinosaur – Psittacosaurus lujiatunensis – was about the size of a medium-sized dog with a parrot-like beak.
This species was a herbivore, but other dinosaurs were carnivores or ate both. In the end, dinosaurs would probably still have eaten mammals more often than vice versa, Mallon said.
“Yet we now know that the mammals were able to fight back, at least at times,” he said.
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