Scientists have documented one of the rarest evidence of a dinosaur eating a mammal from a fossil specimen unearthed in the ancient forests of what is now China.
The study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, describes a small feathered dinosaur micro raptor preserved with the foot of a small mammal inside its rib cage.
Researchers including David Hone of Queen Mary University of London say the dinosaur lived in the early Cretaceous around 120 million years ago in what is now China.
“This study paints a picture of a fascinating moment in time – of a dinosaur eating a mammal – even if it’s not as scary as anything in Jurassic Park,” Dr Hone said.
The findings also match what is seen in other small dinosaurs whose stomach contents suggest they tended to eat a variety of other animals, especially those that were smaller than themselves.
Scientists say the micro raptor The dinosaur was the size of a crow with long feathers on its arms and legs, likely gliding from tree to tree and hunting small animals for food.
While the dinosaur was first described in 2000, scientists say key details about the remains of another animal inside were missed.
In the new study, the researchers found the foot of an ancient mammal preserved between the microraptor’s ribs.
“It’s so rare to find examples of food inside dinosaurs, so every example is really important because it gives direct evidence of what they ate,” Dr. Hone said in a statement.
“While this mammal absolutely would not have been a human ancestor, we can consider some of our ancient relatives as food for hungry dinosaurs,” he added.
The foot, found by scientists inside the remains of the dinosaur, likely belonged to a very small mammal, about the size of a modern mouse, the researchers said.
Analysis of foot bones suggests that the small mammal likely lived most of its life on the ground and was not a good climber.
Previous studies have documented micro raptor specimens containing a bird, a lizard and a fish, and with the new discovery of these dinosaurs also eating mammals, the researchers say the prehistoric reptiles had a varied diet and were not specialists.
However, it is not known if the dinosaur directly attacked the mammal or if it recovered the small animal.
“What’s great is that, like your house cat who was about the same size, micro raptor would have been an easy-going animal but a terror if it came out because it would chase everything from birds in your feeder to mice in your hedge or fish in your pond,” Alex Dececchi, another author of the Mount Marty study College, said.
“So, we have it, dinosaurs – perhaps unsurprisingly – ate mammals at least on occasion,” the researchers wrote in a blog post.