Quirks & Quarks

A dinosaur's last meal of fresh ferns fossilized in incredible detail

Dinosaur died on a full stomach, before being trapped in mud for 100 million years

Dinosaur died on a full stomach, before being trapped in mud for 100 million years

Life reconstruction of the Cretaceous Period armoured dinosaur Borealopelta markmitchelli, which lived 110 million years ago in what is now Alberta, Canada, eating ferns. (Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology/Illustration by Julius Csotonyi)

Researchers studying an exceptionally well-preserved dinosaur have uncovered the dinosaur's last meal. It's the first time that scientists have been able to definitively study what a herbivorous dinosaur was eating.

"This specimen is kind of the gift that keeps on giving." Dr. Caleb Brown told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. 

This dinosaur is a nodosaur, a type of ankylosaur — a low slung, heavily armoured animal. It was found by a worker digging at a mine in Fort McMurray in 2011, and is now on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta. Because it had been trapped in thick mud for over 100 million years, it remains in exceptional condition.

A photo of the nodosaur specimen, currently on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. (Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology)

"What we have is exquisitely preserved — all the bones, all the skin, all the armour. They're preserved in place and they're preserved in three dimensions. So it's kind of the closest you'll ever get to seeing what a dinosaur actually looked like." said Brown, a curator at the museum.

Learning about what — and how — the dinosaur ate

Inside the abdomen was a soccer ball-sized stomach, and inside that was the nodosaur's last meal, which consisted of mostly leaf tissue from ferns, as well as pollen, stones to aid in digestion, and charcoal.

"That was a weird surprise. So what the charcoal means to us is that the animal was feeding in an environment or in a form that had recently undergone a wildfire," he said.

A slide showing the stomach contents of the nodosaur. (Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology)

The team from Royal Tyrrell also worked with paleobotanists from Brandon University and University of Saskatchewan to get as much information about the plant material as possible. 

It's still a mystery as to why the nodosaur was snacking on ferns, but not any of the other nutritious plant material around. "We're not sure if this abundance of certain types of food in the stomach is directly related to an individual preference the animal had, or just what was both within reach and locally available," said Brown. "And until we get a better sample size and more evidence, it could go either way." 

The research was published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz.


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