by Greg Mayer
Earlier this year my friend Chris Noto and his colleagues Derek Main and Stephanie Drumheller published a paper describing injuries to turtle and dinosaur bones from the Cretaceous that show evidence that they were preyed upon by crocodiles. Besides the irresistible alliteration, their paper serves to show that we can sometimes learn much more about extinct animals than merely their skeletal morphology, and, with the right sorts of evidence, can learn about their behavior, ecology, and physiology as well.
The fossils were recovered at a site in Texas known as the Arlington Archosaur Site. Modern crocodilians feed on turtles, and also on dinosaurs, if you think of birds as dinosaurs (which, in a sense, they are). They will seize turtles side to side (as shown in the reconstruction) or top to bottom. American alligators are particularly fond of turtles, and, compared to some other crocodilians, their rear teeth are especially blunt and peg-like (sort of like molar teeth). This helps to crush the shells of turtles they are eating (which, I have been told, break with a popping sound). E.A. McIlhenny, the great naturalist of hot sauce fame, wrote:
I have seen alligators catch large terrapins and turtles of considerable size and crush their hard shells as if they were made of paper, swallowing them whole.
Noto et al’s study is a nice example that shows we can learn about more than just the morphology of extinct creatures, but can also learn about thier biology and the paleocommunities they lived in, including (in other studies) ecology, behavior, and even color (see, for example, Matthew’s recent post here, and earlier posts by Jerry here and here).
McIlhenny, E.A. 1935. The Alligator’s Life History. Christopher Publishing House, Boston. (Reissued in a facsimile edition in 1976 by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, with a foreword by the great herpetologist and conservationist, Archie Carr.)
Noto, Christopher R., Derek J. Main, and Stephanie K. Drumheller. 2012. Feeding traces and paleobiology of a Cretaceous (Cenomanian) Crocodyliform: Example from the Woodbine Formation of Texas. Palaios 27:105-115. (abstract)