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NYTimes.com Article: Study: Cousin of Tyrannosaurus a Cannibal

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Study: Cousin of Tyrannosaurus a Cannibal

April 2, 2003


Filed at 3:36 p.m. ET 

New fossil evidence suggests a distant cousin of the
Tyrannosaurus rex that roamed the plains of Madagascar
millions of years ago regularly dined on its own kind to
survive during hard times. 

The discovery is the strongest evidence yet that some
carnivorous dinosaurs were cannibals. Dinosaur experts say
it sheds light on the hardships predators faced in the late
Cretaceous period when dinosaurs vanished, possibly as a
result of asteroid impacts, widespread climate change and

``This is the first strong, convincing evidence of
cannibalism within theropod dinosaurs,'' said Thomas Holtz,
a paleontologist at the University of Maryland who was not
part of the study. 

Scientists working in Madagascar uncovered evidence of
cannibalism in fossilized bones of Majungatholus atopus, a
toothy beast the size of a small school bus that was the
top hunter 70 million years ago on the island off east

The research appears in the current issue of the journal

Majungatholus is a distant relative of T. rex, the fierce
hunter that ruled what is now North America. Scientists
have speculated that T. rex also was a scavenger and may
have eaten other T. rexes killed in fights, but the
evidence is not conclusive. 

During the late Cretaceous, Madagascar was semiarid and
subject to severe climate swings that led to dramatic
fluctuations in essential resources. Fossil evidence showed
dinosaurs and other creatures were victims of massive

When food and water were scarce, scientists believe
Majungatholus fed on the remains of other dinosaurs like
titanosaurs -- gigantic, long-necked plant-eaters -- and
even scavenged the carcasses of its own dead. 

``It appears as though Majungatholus atopus exploited all
available resources during stressful episodes, even if it
meant dining on members of its own species,'' said Raymond
Rogers, a geologist at Macalester College in St. Paul,
Minn., and lead author of the study. 

Scientists have long considered the smaller dinosaur from
the earlier Triassic period, Coelophysis bauri, to be a
cannibal because of juvenile remains preserved in the
stomach of an adult specimen. However, a recent
reexamination cast doubt about whether it actually ingested
its young. 

Cannibalism is not uncommon in the animal kingdom today,
with more than a dozen species practicing it for a variety
of ecologic and evolutionary reasons, scientists say. For
example, a male lion sometimes devours the cubs of a female
lion in order to mate with her and maintain his genetic

But in ancient Madagascar, the reasons behind
Majungatholus' cannibalism appear to be much more basic.
Researchers examining 21 bones from two nearly full-grown
specimens taken from separate quarries on the island found
evidence of intensive feeding in the backbone area. 

Rogers said sets of parallel tooth marks on the spine and
ribs of the specimens matched the size and spacing of
Majungatholus' blade-like teeth, suggesting a hungry member
of the species stripped the flesh off the bones. 

The specimens do not show whether the dinosaur actually
hunted down the other Majungatholus as prey or scavenged
their carcasses. 

Researchers ruled out the only other known meat-eating
dinosaur in the area -- Masiakasaurus knopfleri -- because
its teeth were too small. They also discounted carnivores
like crocodiles that have blunt, irregular teeth. 


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