CSI Fossils: Ancient Killers Caught in the Act
Depiction of a Cro-Magnon hunting party.Peet Simard/Corbis
Fossil evidence provides clues into cold cases that are millions of years old. Paleontologists cracking a case, without cracking a bone, have cleared the names of some species, while catching other prehistoric perpetrators stone cold.
DNA evidence recently acquitted humans of causing the extinction of the wooly mammoth. Research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggested that the prehistoric pachyderms were already on their way out by the time humans arrived on the scene.
Nonetheless, humans have mammoth murder on their rap sheet.
In 1977, Emanuel Manis, a farmer in Washington state, found Ice Age evidence linking humans to the killing of an American mastodon, a cousin of the woolly mammoth. At the Manis mastodon site, a rib bone from the deceased beast held a 3.5 centimeter-long (1.4 inches) broken spear point. The point was made from the bone of another mastodon.
Radiocarbon dating published in Science placed the time of death at 13,800 years ago.
Fossils of a hominid skull and a leopard mandible found at the Cradle of Humankind, World Heritage Site, South Africa.Tim Hauf/Corbis
Early Homo-cide Perpetrator: Leopard
Later humans made meals of mammoths, but an early human ancestor, Homo ergaster, was a leopard's lunch.
In the mid-20th century, scientists found fossil skulls of early human relatives, or hominids, in the recesses of Swartkrans cave in Africa. However, the bodies were frequently missing, according to Swartkrans.org. Then anthropologist Charles K. Brain noticed that cheetahs in a game park tended to crunch and devour the bones of baboons, leaving only the skulls. Swartkrans cave may have served as a big cat banquet hall where hominids were the hors d'oeuvres.
Further evidence supporting Brain's observation came when a fossilized infant skull was discovered with puncture wounds that matched the fang positions of a leopard.
An artists drawing of a Protoceratops and an Oviraptor.N. Tamura, spinops.blogspot.com
The bird-like dinosaur Oviraptor was wanted on charges of grand theft egg. The dinosaur, whose moniker means “egg-thief,” got its bad name because it was found in the vicinity of a nest of eggs that paleontologists originally believed belonged to Protoceratops, a small, hornless relative of Triceratops.
However, in the 90s, paleontologists Phil Currie and Zhi-Ming Dong cleared oviraptor's name after discovering a closely related dino associated with its own eggs that looked curiously like the ones Oviraptor had been found near. The wrongly accused oviraptor had actually been guarding its own eggs.
The Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences published the study.
A Yuriy Priymak/Getty Images
Likely Instigator: Velociraptor
Oviraptor wasn't after poor Protoceratops, but Velociraptor had a taste for them.
Velociraptors, although not as large as their silver screen representations, did sport wicked sickle claws on their feet, perfect for slashing prey. In 1971, paleontologists found fossils of a Velociraptor wrapped in a death embrace with a Protoceratops.
The Protoceratops clenched the predator's arm in its beak, while the Velociraptor grappled with the Protoceratops' face. Velociraptor's killing claw was extended into the neck area of the prey. Scientists found the prey animal laying on top of the predator.
In the journal Gaia, Ken Carpenter of the Denver Museum of Natural History suggested that the clamped jaw and weight of the dead Protoceratops may have trapped the Velociraptor until it died of thirst or some other cause.
People arrange the skeleton of the tyrannosaurus in Zhucheng, east China's Shandong Province, Aug. 27, 2010.Fan Changguo/Corbis
The backbones of a duck-billed dinosaur, a hadrosaur named Edmontosaurus, provide another clear example of dino-on-dino violence.
The spines rising from the vertebrae of the hadrosaur had been crushed and mutilated. The victim was an adult and only a very large predator could have done that kind of damage. However, the Edmontosaurus lived through the ordeal. Its backbones showed signs of healing, wrote Kenneth Carpenter in the journal Gaia.
In the late Cretaceous period precinct, paleontological police frequently pull in T-rex as the usual suspect. In the case of the hurt hadrosaur, T-rex seems to have been actively hunting. The healed wound suggests that the predator took down its own prey, at least some of the time, and wasn't solely a scavenger, as some have suggested.
An artist's model of the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs based on geographical placement of the fossils.Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc. and Katie Busch, Owner/Partner CK Preparations
Suspected Dino Regicide: Triceratops
Unidentified Victims: Nanotyrannus? Juvenile T-rex?
A triceratops and a predator with a regal heritage played out the final scene of Hamlet, Cretaceous style. The predator embedded one of its teeth in a neck bone of the triceratops, reported the BBC. The triceratops crushed its attacker's skull in the fight. The two died together on a river bank and sedimentary rock hid their tragic ending until they were uncovered by humans more than 65 million years later.
However, paleontologists aren't completely sure of the identity of the predator in this prehistoric who-done-it.
Paleontologists hope to determine from the fossils if the predator is a small species of tyrannosaur, known as Nanotyrannus. Scientists don't know if Nanotyrannus deserves to be considered a separate species. It may be just a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, the "king of the tyrant lizards."
Crucial evidence in this Mezozoic mystery may soon be out of scientists' reach. The fossils of the horn-headed herbivore and the tiny tyrannosaur will go up for auction in November. Scientists worry that a private buyer won't allow them access to the fossils.
A dinosaur model of Baryonx. Ballista, Wikimedia Commons
Fishing without a license: Baryonx
Dinosaurs didn't just hunt each other. One dino, Baryonyx, may have hooked fish with an abnormally long thumb claw on its forelimb. The 25-cm (9.8 in)-long claw may have served as a gaff. Baryonx's skull had long, narrow jaws. Numerous spiky teeth studded those jaws, similar to the dental design of modern fish-eating crocodilians, according to research in PLOS ONE.
A fossil Baryonx contained a mass of fish scales and bones in the belly region along with a chunk of dinosaur bone, perhaps one of the earliest examples of surf-and-turf.
An artist's drawing of the predatory Coelophysis.N. Tamura, spinops.blogspot.com
Accused Cannibal: Coelophysis
Like Oviraptor, Coelophysis may have had its reputation dragged through the dirt by paleontologists.
Originally, scientists interpreted the skeletal remains found inside the early predatory dinosaur Coelophysis as the remains of another of its own kind. However, a re-examination of those fossils by the American Museum of Natural History paleontologists helped Coelophysis beat a cannibalism rap.
One set of bones was actually from a primitive crocodile. The other bones, although from a smaller Coelophysis, seem to have actually been outside the other dino. When the larger animal fell on the other, the bones were crushed. As the two rotted together, the smaller corpse seemed to be inside the larger one.
These petroglyphs at Mouse's Tank in the Valley of Fire were seen through a patina layer of desert varnish coating immense slabs of fractured and uplifted sandstone. William James Warren/Corbis
Confirmed Cannibalism: Homo sapiens
Coelophysis was found not guilty of cannibalism, but the species that accused the dino committed that very crime.
Analysis of fossilized human waste from approximately 850 years ago, in what is now Colorado, provided evidence that humans in the area had eaten each other. The analysis, published in Nature, corroborated other archaeological signs of cannibalism, such as cut marks on bones.
Other examples of cannibalism in prehistory come from the Pleistocene epoch in Europe. In both Britain and Spain, hominid bones with distinctive butchering marks suggest cannibalism has deep roots in our family tree.
Shot near Klütz, Germany, this white stork had flown with an African spear in its neck.Ragnar K. Kinzelbach, University of Rostock
Multiple Counts of Stork Assault: Humans
On May 21, 1822, a white stork (Ciconia ciconia) was shot in near Klütz, Germany. The bird had an African spear embedded in its neck. At the time, naturalists didn't know where storks went during the winter.
The discovery of an African weapon lodged in a bird flying through Europe helped convince the scientific community of the birds’ annual migration to Africa. The speared specimen of stork, known as the Pfeilstorch, is now on display at the University of Rostock.