Original Paper

Naturwissenschaften

, Volume 101, Issue 11, pp 975-987

First online:

Direct evidence of trophic interactions among apex predators in the Late Triassic of western North America

  • Stephanie K. DrumhellerAffiliated withDepartment of Earth and Planetary Sciences, The University of Tennessee Email author 
  • , Michelle R. StockerAffiliated withField Museum of Natural HistoryDepartment of Geosciences, 4044 Derring Hall, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • , Sterling J. NesbittAffiliated withField Museum of Natural HistoryDepartment of Geosciences, 4044 Derring Hall, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Abstract

Hypotheses of feeding behaviors and community structure are testable with rare direct evidence of trophic interactions in the fossil record (e.g., bite marks). We present evidence of four predation, scavenging, and/or interspecific fighting events involving two large paracrocodylomorphs (=‘rauisuchians’) from the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation (∼220–210 Ma). The larger femur preserves a rare history of interactions with multiple actors prior to and after death of this ∼8–9-m individual. A large embedded tooth crown and punctures, all of which display reaction tissue formed through healing, record evidence of a failed attack on this individual. The second paracrocodylomorph femur exhibits four unhealed bite marks, indicating the animal either did not survive the attack or was scavenged soon after death. The combination of character states observed (e.g., morphology of the embedded tooth, ‘D’-shaped punctures, evidence of bicarination of the marking teeth, spacing of potentially serial marks) indicates that large phytosaurs were actors in both cases. Our analysis of these specimens demonstrates phytosaurs targeted large paracrocodylomorphs in these Late Triassic ecosystems. Previous distinctions between ‘aquatic’ and ‘terrestrial’ Late Triassic trophic structures were overly simplistic and built upon mistaken paleoecological assumptions; we show they were intimately connected at the highest trophic levels. Our data also support that size cannot be the sole factor in determining trophic status. Furthermore, these marks provide an opportunity to start exploring the seemingly unbalanced terrestrial ecosystems from the Late Triassic of North America, in which large carnivores far outnumber herbivores in terms of both abundance and diversity.

Keywords

Loricata Phytosauria Tooth Computed tomography Apex predator