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DINOSAURS & TERMITES
Dan Varner noted the absence of termite mounds in dinosaur
restorations. HOWEVER, there is a John Sibbick painting where two
_Massospondylus_ individuals are surrounded by a load of termite
mounds (one of the massospondylines is even extending its tongue,
apparently to lick up termite prey). There is also a Wayne
Barlowe painting of a therizinosaur digging at and feeding from a
termite mound AND a William Stout illustration of a _Shanshanosaurus_
investigating (but apparently not feeding from) a tall termite mound.
Stout was presumably inspired by Dong's (?) suggestion that
_Shanshanosaurus_ was insectivorous. This illustration is in Glut's
Whether or not termites that constructed tall mounds were present in
the Mesozoic, it seems very doubtful to me that dinosaurs like
therizinosaurs, ornithomimids or _Deinocheirus_ were true termite
eaters. This is because (1) they are just too big to have subsisted
on such tiny prey and (2) they lack, so far as we know, the
appropriate tools required to collect such prey.
A number of extant groups, including pangolins, aardvarks, echidnas,
numbats, myrmecophagids (true anteaters), aardwolves and the sloth
bear, feed predominantly on ants and termites. None of these animals
is any bigger than, I don't know, about 50 kg or so, so it seems
likely that this is the maximum size at which formicovo... ant eating
is possible. The dinosaurs we are thinking of here are much larger -
in the case of big therizinosaurs and _Deinocheirus_ much, much
larger. Unrealistic notions of ankylosaurs as possible insectivores
also fail on this possible criterion.
All modern ant eaters also have specialised mouthparts that allow
them to collect ants and/or termites with maximum efficiency.
Pangolins have absurdly long tongues that anchor to their
xiphisternum - located somewhere around the middle of their belly!
True anteaters of course, and aardvarks and echidnas also, have very
long tongues and possess elongate, tubular, almost or entirely
edentulous, skulls. Aardwolves (_Proteles_) do not have particularly
long tongues but have enlarged salivary glands, very small teeth and
unusual jaw musculature that allows them to chew at something
ridiculous like 30 bites a second. They are able to harvest termites
by licking and chewing almost simultaneously but are reported to live
on a metabolic knife edge. Sloth bears have elongate tongues. Numbats
have many teeth (more than any other extant marsupial), and also have
When we turn to the dinosaurs that have been proposed as
insectivores, we see that none of the more important of these
adaptations are present. Bakker (1986) said 'think tongues', but then
he would. Tongues can be vaguely reconstructed by looking at hyoid
bones and muscle scars on the lower jaw, and so far as I know there
is no indication that any therizinosaur or ornithomimosaur had a
particularly well developed tongue, nor do any have vertebral or
sternal modifications to anchor an elongate tongue deep in the body.
Those that have numerous teeth (therizinosaurs) are apparently too
large in body size to have subsisted on insects. _Pelecanimimus_ is a
stumbling block here though, but then how it got numerous tiny
insects into its mouth is a problem.
Perhaps like humans, chimps and many other animals, some dinosaurs
did feed opportunistically on termites.
BTW, has anyone ever wondered how zoos keep anteating animals alive
and well in captivity? Apparently, pangolins have been fed on minced
meat mixed with formic acid.
"In the future, the artificial barrier between the paleontologist and
neontologist will disappear" - - MacFadden, 1992.