Thanks to its excellently preserved stomach contents, we now know what this dinosaur consumed 110 million years ago shortly before its death.
It’s 2011. And researchers in western Canada are finding the fossilized remains of a huge herbivorous, armored dinosaur called Borealopelta markmitchelli. The unfortunate beast – which must have weighed about 1300 kilograms in life – was killed some 110 million years ago, but not before he had eaten his belly one more time.
And researchers have now – thanks to the fact that the dinosaur’s stomach has also been excellently preserved – to find out exactly what the dino had on the menu. It’s extraordinary, according to Jim Basinger, one of the researchers who had the dubious honor of diving into the 110-million-year-old stomach contents. “It is very rare to find the stomach contents of a dinosaur. And the stomach we have extracted from this fossilized Nodosauridae (a group of armored dinosaurs, which includes B. markmitchelli, ed.) is by far the best-kept dinosaur stomach that has been recovered to date.”
The stomach contents
An analysis of the stomach contents reveals that this dinosaur worked in the last meal of quite a few leaves of ferns. Some twigs and remains of mosses were also found. “In addition, there was also quite a bit of charcoal in the stomach, coming from burnt fragments of plants,” says researcher David Greenwood. “This indicates that the animal was looking for food in a recently burned-down area and, as it were, made good use of the fire and subsequent rapid rise of ferns, something you often see happening in a burnt landscape.”
In addition, the researchers also found stones in the dinosaur’s stomach. Probably the dinosaurs swallowed these to promote their digestion. We also know this behaviour from contemporary bird species, such as geese.
However, anyone who thinks that this dinosaur worked in all kinds of vegetation is wrong. Everything indicates that B. markmitchelli was quite picky. Researchers draw that conclusion after they reconstructed what was growing in the dino’s habitat using fossilized plant remains found near the dinosaur. The study found that there were several types of ferns growing in the area. But the dinosaur ate mostly only one species. He also left behind the frequent conifers and cycads found in the area.
Previously, researchers could speculate about what they ate mainly based on the teeth of herbivorous dinosaurs, for example. But with the discovery of this stomach and content, researchers can for the first time determine with certainty – and very detailed – what such a herbivorous dinosaur was working in. “This new study changes what we know about the diet of large herbivorous dinosaurs,” said researcher Caleb Brown. “Our results are also remarkable because they can tell us more about the interaction between the dinosaur and its environment, something we often can’t say anything about based on the skeleton of a dinosaur alone.”
Thanks to the stomach contents of B. markmitchelli, researchers can also accurately determine when this dinosaur died. For example, the well-preserved plant fragments indicate that it must have been shortly after his last meal. And investigators even think they know what season it happened in. “The plants indicate that the animal’s last meal and death must have taken place sometime between the end of spring and the heart of summer,” Brown said.