Forget the Pilgrims. The First Thanksgiving Dinner Was Eaten by Alligators and Sharks

The state of the universe.
Nov. 21 2012 10:02 AM

Enjoy a Delicious Dinosaur on Thanksgiving

What, beside humans, ate dinosaurs? Sharks!

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Beetles were among the most skilled of the dinosaur destruction crew. The prehistoric relatives of scarab, darkling, and dermestid beetles were around during the time of Protoceratops and Oviraptor. We know because when those beetles ran out of soft parts to eat, they began to burrow through bone. Some even left larvae inside dinosaur skeletons. A skeleton of Nemegtomaia—a feathery, beaked oviraptorosaur who died while sitting on a nest—was partially obliterated by dermestid-like beetles. Distinctive holes in the dinosaur’s skull and other bones gave the insects away. Exactly why these insects spent so much time dismantling dinosaurs is unclear—perhaps dinosaur carcasses were rare bonanzas in arid prehistoric environments—but beetles certainly left their mark.

Other insects harried dinosaurs while they were alive. Lice lineages began to diverge during the Cretaceous—the heyday of feathered dinosaurs. Paleontologists have yet to pick nits from fossils, but the lice, including the precursors of today’s bird-riding feather lice, required hosts. Fuzzy and fluffy dinosaurs may very well have been comfortable homes for archaic lice species. Inch-long fleas with awful, saw-toothed mouthparts certainly had the equipment to get through the plumage and hides of the Jurassic dinosaurs they lived alongside. While the prehistoric species were different from today’s pests, dinosaurs nevertheless faced familiar battalions of biting and sucking insects. The persistent of lice, fleas, and their ilk is a testament to the pests’ adaptive ability to switch hosts in the course of evolutionary time.

And then there were sharks. The huge “megatooth” shark Carcharocles megalodon evolved about 40 million years after the last non-avian dinosaurs died—the blood-soaked T. rex vs C. megalodon battle that kicks off Steve Alten’s cheesy horror yarn MEG never could have happened—but rare fossils nevertheless show that earlier sharks occasionally fed on dinosaurs. The trick was getting dinosaurs out to sea. There were no aquatic dinosaurs—aside from feathered gliders and flyers, every species we know of was terrestrial—but, now and then, rivers would wash dead dinosaurs out to the ocean. A specimen of the heavily-armored ankylosaur Aletopelta on display at the San Diego Natural History Museum, known as the “Carlsbad ankylosaur,” was found in Cretaceous marine rock. Shark teeth found with the skeleton indicate that sharks fed on the dinosaur when it settled on the bottom, where it played host to a temporary reef of clams and other encrusting organisms. An even more unfortunate juvenile hadrosaur didn’t even get to become a reef. Presented by paleontologist Jason Schein in a poster at last month’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Raleigh, N.C., a young hadrosaur limb bone found in the marine deposits of southeastern New Jersey looks like someone went at it with a Ginsu knife—the bone surface is sliced by multiple shark bites from when the poor dinosaur’s carcass floated into to Cretaceous Atlantic coast. To leave so much damage on the bone itself, the sharks and other marine scavengers must have stripped the dinosaur’s body in a feeding frenzy.

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In life and death, in forests as well as at sea, dinosaurs were food for a variety of other creatures. They were spectacular animals, but the fact that they were both the eaters and the eaten in the xhabitats they roamed makes them all the more real. Dinosaurs were not invulnerable monsters; Apatosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and the rest of their Mesozoic clan were actors in a more diverse cast on Earth’s evolutionary stage.

Even now, dinosaurs remain on life’s playbill in avian garb, and thanks to countless gustatory investigations, we know they’re quite tasty—so much so that we’ve organized a national holiday around picking flesh from their skeletons. I hope you enjoy your annual dinosaur dissection today, and when you snap the turkey’s delicate wishbone, remember to give thanks for the theropod on the table and all of its extinct dinosaurian kin.

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus and Written in Stone. He blogs at Laelaps on National Geographic's Phenomena.

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