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Saturday
Oct162010

Tyrannosaurus Rex Was a Cannibal, Say Scientists

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(NEW HAVEN, Conn.) –- What did Tyrannosaurus rex eat? To some extent, say researchers, they ate each other.

The less-than-appetizing news, that T. rex may have been a cannibal, comes from Nicholas Longrich, a paleontologist doing his post-doctoral work at Yale University. He reports that he was sorting through 65-million-year-old fossils from Montana when he found the toe bone of a Tyrannosaurus rex with a gouge mark in it -- a small but clear sign that something else had been feeding on it.

"It was a V-shaped gouge, which is a classic bite mark," Longrich tells ABC News. "I thought, OK, it was a big carnivorous dinosaur that did this, and there was only one big carnivore at the time.

"It was not only the dominant carnivore -- it was the only carnivore."

That was two years ago. Since then, Longrich has combed the specimen collections of universities and museums and found three more fossils, all of T. rex arms or feet, all with the same kinds of markings.

"The marks are interpreted as feeding traces, and these fossils therefore record instances of cannibalism," he and three senior colleagues write in the online edition of the journal PLOS One. "Cannibalism seems to have been a surprisingly common behavior in T. rex, and this behavior may have been relatively common in carnivorous dinosaurs."

The scientists say they were not terribly surprised. "Big carnivores are designed to eat other big animals, and one of them is likely to be your own species," Longrich said. Modern alligators and other meat-eaters often feed on each other. But until Longrich stumbled across the gouge marks, there was no proof of how that greatest of the meat-eating dinosaurs behaved.

The researchers say they wanted to be careful, though. They spent time ruling out other explanations. They held off until Longrich had found several different examples of the same thing.

"It adds another piece to what we know about what was arguably the most famous animal in the world," said Gregory Erickson of Florida State University, who looked at the evidence and agreed to sign on as a co-author of the new paper. "It makes sense, but we needed empirical evidence."

"This is not consistent with just biting," Longrich said. "They were definitely feeding on each other. Whether they killed each other, or just fed on each other's dead carcasses, we don't know. But it's not like one of these animals would have just sat there while another one fed on his toe."

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