Dinosaur cleared of cannibalism

The victim of the slur is the earliest well-known dinosaur, the slender biped Coelophysis bauri, which gained notoriety in the 1950s as a cannibal content to feed even on its own young.

Fossil hunters have unearthed what they believe to be the oldest example of defamation of character amid a collection of bones dating back 210m years. The victim of the slur is the earliest well-known dinosaur, the slender biped Coelophysis bauri, which gained notoriety in the 1950s as a cannibal content to feed even on its own young.

The dinosaur's dietary behaviour emerged when paleontologists working in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, uncovered an enormous bonebed containing the skeletons of hundreds of Coelophysis. Some appeared to have remnants of their own kind in their stomach regions.

The tale has become one of the most widely covered from prehistory and has been perpetuated in children's books and museum exhibitions. At the Natural History Museum in London, the Dino Jaws display shows a Coelophysis tucking into a juvenile shortly after it has clambered from an egg.

But in research published today, paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York claim the Coelophysis has been badly wronged. They re-examined the fossils found in New Mexico and concluded that although Coelophysis was a meat eater, there was no evidence it was a cannibal after all.

Two skeletons in particular cleared the Coelophysis' name. One, a near complete adult lying on its left side, was previously believed to have a leg bone from its own species in its stomach. But the latest study in Biology Letters shows the size of the leg and the positioning of the adult makes it almost certain the adult merely died on top of the limb rather than ingested it.

A second adult skeleton added further evidence of Coelophysis' good character. Bones confirmed to be inside the dinosaur's stomach were analysed and found to be from an entirely different species, with bone details indistinguishable from those of early crocodilians.

"Coelophysis is held up as the foremost example of cannibalistic behaviour in dinosaurs, but our work suggests that isn't true," said Sterling Nesbitt who led the study.

Because there is little other evidence that dinosaurs engaged in cannibalism, the researchers conclude it may have been extremely rare or non-existent.

The discovery will not only require a more sympathetic update of the dinosaur's behaviour in textbooks. It is causing ripples through the world of museums. "We've got a Coelophysis eating one of its own at our museum, so we'll be looking at changing that pretty soon," said Mr Nesbitt.


Ian Sample

The GuardianTramp

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