You might find this one hard to stomach. Scientists have analysed the fossilised guts of a 110-million-year-old dinosaur, revealing the beast’s final meal.
The football-sized stomach forms part of an incredibly well-preserved fossil of a stocky, heavily-armoured dinosaur known as a nodosaur, discovered in a Canadian mine in 2011.
After eating its final meal, the dinosaur, Borealopelta markmitchelli, died and got washed out to sea – perhaps during a flood. It sank to the seafloor and was quickly entombed by mud, where it remained for millions of years.
By the time it was uncovered, its seafloor burial site had become part of a mine in Alberta.
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“The finding of the actual preserved stomach contents from a dinosaur is extraordinarily rare,” said team member Dr Jim Basinger at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, “and this stomach recovered from the mummified nodosaur … is by far the best-preserved dinosaur stomach ever found to date.”
It appears that this dinosaur had a particular fondness for ferns.
“When we examined thin sections of the stomach contents under a microscope, we were shocked to see beautifully preserved and concentrated plant material,” said team co-leader Dr David Greenwood at Canada’s Brandon University.
“The last meal of our dinosaur was mostly fern leaves – 88 per cent chewed leaf material and seven per cent stems and twigs.”
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This is the first definitive evidence of the diet of a large, plant-eating dinosaur. This dino seems to have been a fussy eater, choosing to eat particular ferns over others, and turning up its nose at cycad and conifer leaves, which would have been common in its Early Cretaceous habitat.
Its stomach also contains charcoal from burnt plant fragments, indicating that the animal was grazing in a burnt landscape, perhaps taking advantage of the first flush of ferns following a wildfire.
Now, researchers will continue to analyse Borealopelta’s fossil, which promises to offer many more insights into the dinosaur’s environment and behaviour.
Reader Q&A: Could we bring back an extinct species using DNA, Jurassic Park style?
To ‘de-extinct’ an animal, you need a source of the animal’s DNA, which provides the blueprint for making it. DNA is sometimes preserved in fossils, and the oldest DNA extracted to date comes from a 700,000-year-old horse bone found in the Canadian permafrost.
However, DNA breaks down over time, and scientists think that it’s unlikely to be found in any specimen older than a million years. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. No dinosaur DNA, no dinosaurs. Sorry!
Some other species, however, are fair game. In 2003, scientists briefly de-extincted a type of goat, called the bucardo. DNA-laden cells, taken from the last living female before she died, were used to create a clone, and the resulting embryo was transplanted into the womb of a living domestic goat.
The bucardo was delivered by Caesarean section, but died shortly after birth due to lung defects. The bucardo was therefore the first animal to be de-extincted, but also the first animal to go extinct twice!
Other de-extinction projects include attempts to revive an Australian amphibian called the gastric-brooding frog, a North American bird called the passenger pigeon and the one and only woolly mammoth. These use a combination of cloning, gene-editing and stem cell methods, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the pitter-patter of tiny feet.
De-extinction is still very much in its infancy, so for now, take solace in the fact that dinosaurs never really left us. Birds are their direct descendants, and they’re everywhere.