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SYFY WIRE Jurassic Park

Dinosaur vs. Mammal, a Fight Etched in Stone

Newly described fossil shows a dinosaur and mammal locked in deadly combat.

By Cassidy Ward
Jurassic Park

For most of us, Jurassic Park (streaming now on Peacock!) was the first time we ever saw dinosaurs and mammals locked in a mortal struggle for survival. Now, scientists have found a blockbuster battle between prehistoric creatures, beautifully preserved in the fossil record.

150-Million-Year Battle Between a Dinosaur and a Mammal, Preserved in a Fossil

The combined specimen was discovered by farmers in Liaoning, China, in 2012. It was later transferred to Gang Han, researcher at the Hainan Vocational University of Science and Technology, and lead author of a new paper describing the fossil, published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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The conventional picture of the Mesozoic (the age of dinosaurs) is that dinosaurs tromped across the landscape unfettered, while newly emerged mammals stuck to the shadows, crawling through underground burrows or scurrying in the treetops, waiting for their opportunity to take the crown. The newly described specimen, however, clearly shows a small mammal (Repenomamus) in the process of chowing down on a larger, herbivorous dinosaur (Psittacosaurus). It paints an unconventional picture of prehistory, one in which mammals staged a much more active coup to overthrow the existing dinosaurian power structure.

Dino-mammal illustration

Considering the impeccable preservation of the two animals, paleontologists spent more time than typical confirming the veracity of the find. There is a not-so-proud history of fossil forgeries, and a find of this quality practically begs skepticism. Researchers dug into the rock surrounding the bones to confirm that the fossil is, in fact, submerged in the rock media. They also compared the surrounding rock with the fossil bed where the specimen was found, to confirm they are the same. Based on all of the evidence they've found so far, it's either real or it's the most impressive fossil forgery of all time.

A Nearly Perfect Dinosaur-Mammal Fossil Find

The fossilized Psittacosaurus (a bipedal relative of armored dinosaurs like Triceratops) is entirely intact and, based on examination of the thigh bones, estimated to have been between 6.5 and 10 years old at the time of death. The Repenomamus (one of the largest mammals from the Mesozoic, comparable in some respects to a modern badger or wolverine) is nearly complete, missing only the end of its tail. In life, it would have been a few centimeters longer at the tail.

Examination of the fossil reveals that the left hand of the Repenomamus is grappling the lower jaw of the Psittacosaurus. Meanwhile, their legs are intertwined, and the mammal's jaw is biting down on two of the dinosaur's ribs. The ribs appear to be broken at the bite site, but it's unclear if they were broken during the struggle or post-mortem.

Dino-mammal fossil

There are a few interpretations of the find. It's possible that the mammal was scavenging an already dead Psittacosaurus, but the lack of any other bite marks on the bone make it unlikely that the dinosaur was dead at the time of attack.

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The mammalian-dinosaurian combat may represent an opportunistic scuffle in which both animals would have walked away with their lives if they hadn't been buried. Researchers, however, favor a predatory interpretation in which the Repenomamus was actively hunting a living Psittacosaurus.

Based on the fossil characteristics, paleontologists believe the two animals were locked in combat when a mudslide filled with volcanic ash caught them unawares. There's no telling who might have won the fight had they been given the opportunity to go 12 rounds. Alas, the fight was cut short, called on account of inclement weather, and both animals forfeited.

Still, the one thing we now know for sure is that mammals played a lot more offense than we once believed.

Take the fight straight to the dinosaurs, in Jurassic Park, streaming now on Peacock!