Friday, 5 November 2010

Seeing Dinosaurs in a New Light

A controversial view in dinosaurology is the idea that the king of the tyrant lizards itself, Tyrannosaurus rex, was a scavenger rather than the expert hunter we all think of. If you want to annoy dinosaur palaeontologists, then express this as your own view and watch their blood boil. (For the record I do believe it scavenged, a lot too, but also hunted as it would have been very opportunistic and from time to time likely did not have to fight too much for its food, stealing off of others instead, but I have digressed from the point.) Another interesting view, one which I have only just stumbled upon and which, as far as I am aware, has not been published on, is the idea of those peaceful, grazing ceratopsians (Triceratops and friends) as omnivores, tearing the flesh off of carrion violently every now and again.

I found this idea when I saw an article on the Guardian website about dinosaurs having feathers, where the accompanying artwork by Mark Witton showed a Styracosaurus albertensis depicted scavenging a dead tyrannosaur. Some of the comments show that people found this outrageous, but when he first drew the picture he spent time justifying it, as you can see on his Flickr site.
I must admit that I like the idea, as the line between carnivory and herbivory is blurred in extant animals, with many herbivores occasionally eating meat, especially those which require a lot of calcium - acquiring it by munching on bones now and again. Ceratopsians appear to have had jaws which would have been quite effective at devouring flesh, perhaps even being overkill if used solely on plants. Of course, it is not being suggested that they only ate meat, far from it, but that they might occasionally have tore into some flesh if they happened upon it, giving them a more balanced diet. An implication of this is that they may have been much more aggressive creatures, as opposed to the docile grazers we usually imagine. Most large herbivores, not least the hippo, are quite aggressive creatures, especially when the need calls for it. Imagining a herd of Triceratops fighting over a carcass is quite thrilling compared to the classic plant munching and may even have actually happened.

For some interesting discussion about this, also see the Tet Zoo blog which featured the image and read the ensuing discussion here.

A Luis Rey image with some bone munching going on.

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