Paleontology

Herbivores, After All

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Science  02 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6183, pp. 451
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6183.451-c
CREDIT: JAIME CHIRINOS/SCIENCE SOURCE

After the mass extinctions of the Cretaceous, many terrestrial ecosystems were dominated by large flightless birds. Although the bill anatomy of some of these species suggest a carnivorous diet, the diet of the largest of these, Gastornis, has been debated. Angst et al. conducted carbon isotope analysis on fossils of Gastornis and several contemporaneous herbivorous mammals across several European sites and compared these to isotope profiles from extant birds with known diets. The analysis revealed that Gastornis had an herbivorous diet. In fact, in order for a carnivore to have shown similar values it would have needed to prey almost entirely on species that fed on a type of plant that did not evolve until approximately 14 million years after the sampled individuals lived. Isotope evidence was corroborated with morphological comparison of Gastornis bill anatomy relative to that of extant birds, which suggested that the large muscle attachment area in Gastornis jaws is similar to that found in herbivorous species. This firm placement of Gastornis as an herbivore suggests that the community structure of Paleocene Europe was different from that found in North America at the time, and may in fact have been quite similar to the later systems seen on islands, such as Madagascar, where large flightless birds filled many different niches.

Naturwissenschaften 10.1007/s00114-014-1158-2 (2014).

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