Fossilized Stomach Contents of Armored Dinosaur Reveal Its Last Meal

Nom nom nom nom. Illustration of Borealopelta markmitchelli dinosaur.
Illustration: Julius Csotonyi

A 110-million-yr-previous fossil found 9 a long time back at an open up pit mine in Alberta is delivering intriguing new facts about the nutritional routines of plant-having armored dinosaurs and the environments in which they lived.

“This is one of the best-preserved dinosaurs in the entire world,” Caleb Brown, a paleontologist at Royal Tyrrell Museum, explained to Gizmodo back in 2017 when the exquisite fossil was to start with unveiled. Relationship back to the Early Cretaceous, the nodosaur skeleton—a form of ankylosaur—retained options not often found in an armored dinosaur fossil, like skin and scale preservation, intact horn sheaths, and its primary shape.

At the time, Brown and his colleagues ended up hopeful that further more evaluation of the fossil may reveal even additional facts, these kinds of as the contents of its digestive technique. And here we are, 3 a long time later on, reporting on this very thing. The new review, describing the abdomen contents of a fossilized Borealopelta markmitchelli specimen, was released right now in Royal Modern society Open Science.

The Borealopelta markmitchelli fossil.

The Borealopelta markmitchelli fossil.
Impression: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology

Jelle Wiersma, a geoscientist and Ph.D. prospect at James Cook dinner College in Australia, claimed the review is presenting new insights into dinosaur diet programs.

“This study is crucial because, in general, very little is known what exactly dinosaurs ate beyond the general scope of plants or meat,” Wiersma, who’s not affiliated with the new research, told Gizmodo. “What or whom dinosaurs ate is often an educated guess based on the fossil plants and animals that occur together in the same place and time and are preserved in the rock record. This type of evidence is indirect, and paleontologists can often only infer what was on the menu of dinosaurs based on such fossil associations.”

This fossil was found at an open pit mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, back in 2011. Its remarkable preservation was due to a series of fortunate events—fortunate, at least, for paleontologists. Shortly after foraging, the 2,900-pound (1,300-kilogram) behemoth died close to shore, and its body drifted out to sea. Eventually, the body settled to the seafloor where it became preserved in mud, a patch of Early Cretaceous real estate now known as the Clearwater Formation.

Analysis of the nodosaur’s abdominal cavity, roughly the size of a basketball, yielded new insights into the dietary preferences of these creatures. To analyze the cololite—i.e., fossilized stomach contents—the researchers took several thin sections cut from the specimen, which were then observed under a microscope. In a press release, David Greenwood, a co-author of the new study and a biologist at Brandon University, said, “we were shocked to see beautifully preserved and concentrated plant material,” adding that marine rocks almost never provide “such superb preservation of leaves, including the microscopic, spore-producing sporangia of ferns.”

The cololite primarily consisted of chewed leaf material, but it also retained evidence of stems and twigs. Microfossils found within this abdominal mass were then compared to plants known to exist in this region 110 million years ago. In total, the researchers identified 48 distinct microfossils, including evidence of ferns, moss, conifers, and flowering plants. Interestingly, this animal was a choosy eater, ignoring specific types of ferns and conifers known to exist in its foraging grounds.

Wiersma, who in 2018 analyzed a spectacular skeleton belonging to a distinct form of ankylosaur, Akainacephalus johnsoni, was significantly stoked about the new review owing to the rarity of these creatures in the fossil history.

“We know that armored dinosaurs experienced small, leaf-formed enamel, and traditionally it was assumed that because of individuals small enamel they ended up probably not capable of processing hard and fibrous plants and as a substitute eaten largely softer types,” he explained to Gizmodo. “Recent research analyzed their enamel additional carefully and proposed that these animals could in actuality try to eat harder plant substance than was formerly assumed. The information from this review undeniably confirms this and visually displays that armored dinosaurs basically eaten fairly a assorted range of plants, like some tough types.”

But which is not all they found.

The researchers also documented the presence of gastroliths, regarded as gizzard stones. Some herbivores, each extinct and extant, like to swallow stones, which can help them digest food. Incredibly, the researchers also found traces of charcoal, namely burnt plant fragments. This individual Borealopelta specimen was probably foraging in an location not long ago scorched by wildfires and was munching on ferns, a plant which is regarded to take advantage of burnt landscapes, according to the new exploration.

“This adaptation to a fire ecology is new data,” described Greenwood. “Like massive herbivores alive right now, these kinds of as moose and deer and elephants in Africa, these nodosaurs by their feeding would have formed the vegetation on the landscape, potentially preserving additional open up spots by their grazing.”

This creature seems to have died soon following its last meal. What’s additional, the condition of the eaten plants indicates the nodosaur died at some position between late spring and the center of summer months.

“I believe the authors do a very fantastic job justifying why these plant fossils are true abdomen contents, as opposed to a thing that bought washed in [after death],” claimed Randall Irmis, a paleontologist at the College of Utah, in an electronic mail to Gizmodo. “This new discovery gives considerably additional detail about what ankylosaurians ate… but considerably of the plant subject was unidentifiable, so it was hard to conclude precisely why type of plants it was having.

The new findings are not essentially indicative of all armored dinosaurs or even of all associates of the species. When hunting at one fossil, it’s hard to know regardless of whether you are viewing an outlier.

“This review is centered on a single fossil specimen, and as the authors position out, the food in its abdomen was probably its last meal soon prior to it died, so it definitely signifies a very quick second in time,” claimed Wiersma. “To far better have an understanding of the extensive-phrase diet plan of Borealopelta on a species stage or even for armored dinosaurs as a group, we would want a large amount additional information from quite a few additional fossil specimens with very similar, or distinct, intestine contents.”

Regrettably, supplied how not often paleontologists discover these creatures, it may be a extensive time prior to we can gain that expertise, he claimed.

“But that is ok, because fossils definitely notify us a story that reflects a shorter second in time, virtually like a photograph in stone,” he included. “Nonetheless, this review gives new and significant information that enhances our knowing of dinosaur habits, which is often very remarkable for us paleontologists and the general general public alike.”

On the lookout forward, the researchers program to review the fossil in hopes of detecting inner organs and attaining new insights into the composition of Early Cretaceous forests. Encouragingly, this incredible Borealopelta specimen continue to has tales to notify.

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