Carnivorous dinosaurs that roamed the planet 150 million years ago may have resorted to cannibalism when food was scarce, scientists believe.
A new study suggests flesh-eating creatures from the late Jurassic Period, such as the Allosaurus, may have been scavengers rather than active predators when it came to consuming another individual of the same species.
The findings, published in the journal Plos One, are based on an analysis of more than 2,000 bone fragments found in the Mygatt-Moore Quarry in western Colorado in the US – an active archaeological site which has produced numerous fossils, consisting mostly of dinosaurs.
A team of researchers led by Stephanie Drumheller, of the University of Tennessee, examined the tooth marks on the fossil bones, which the scientists say can provide “excellent evidence of ancient feeding habits”.
They found 684 specimens from the quarry had at least one bite mark from a carnivorous, or theropod, dinosaur, which the scientists believe to be Allosaurus.
Observed bite marks include punctures, scores, furrows, pits, and striations, the researchers said.
Most of the bites were found on the bones of plant-eating reptiles.
Bite marks on an Allosaurus bone © Julia McHugh/Stephanie Drumheller-Horton/University of Tennessee
However, the researchers also uncovered tooth impressions made by flesh-eating dinosaurs on the bones of other theropods, which accounted for 17 per cent of the bites.
Around half of these bites targeted less nutritious body parts, the researchers said, suggesting the action of scavengers and may be the result of a stressed ecosystem.
Although animal cannibalism has been seen in dinosaurs before, the scientists say that these findings show the first evidence of cannibalism among the Allosaurus.
Dr Drumheller said: “Big theropods like Allosaurus probably weren’t particularly picky eaters, especially if their environments were already strapped for resources.
“Scavenging and even cannibalism were definitely on the table.”
Reader Q&A: What would dinosaurs have tasted like?
Asked by: Peter Makepeace, Northamptonshire
Dinosaurs probably would have tasted like chicken. Okay, so everybody always says that everything tastes like chicken. But I’m not being facetious. Birds evolved from dinosaurs, which means that they’re essentially modern-day dinosaurs.
Of course, not all birds taste like chicken, though. So maybe some dinosaurs would have tasted like duck or turkey or game birds, depending on the dinosaur’s diet and fat content. Plant-eating dinosaurs such as Triceratops and Diplodocus probably would have been tastiest.
The animal fat in the diet of carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor would have given them an overly ‘gamey’ flavour (one of the reasons we eat cows but not wolves).