Cretaceous Thanksgiving

Feathered dino ate true bird

More than 120 million years before the first Thanksgiving — before the first turkey even — at least one dinosaur was feasting on a bird.

FEATHER FIGHT An artist’s reconstruction of an ancient bird becoming dinner for Microraptor gui — still identified as a non-avian dinosaur despite the winglike feathers along all four of its limbs. Brian Choo

A fossil Microraptor gui from northeastern China — still a dinosaur despite winglike feathers on all four limbs — has bird bones in its abdomen, report Jingmai O’Connor and her colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. The position of the bird feet and partial wing suggest the dinosaur swallowed some now-extinct, tree-perching bird whole, the researchers contend in a paper published online November 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They propose that Microraptor frequented trees and hunted deftly enough to snag what was probably an adult bird.

Possible, but not the only possibility, cautions paleontologist Jerry D. Harris of Dixie State College in St. George, Utah. If the dino caught its lunch, he wonders why there weren’t more bird bones. Also, studies of Microraptors and their relatives suggest ground-based hunting.  Today’s cats certainly get into trees, and perching birds visit the ground, Harris says, but “bird remains in a cat’s guts don’t mean that it was hunting and catching birds in trees.”  

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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