Bite Marks: What They Can Tell Us About Prehistoric Life
When it comes to studying prehistoric life, scientists have a limited number of tools at their disposal. Fossilized bones and teeth can tell us a lot about the animals that walked the earth millions of years ago, but they only provide part of the story. That’s where bite marks come in.
Bite marks on fossils can reveal important information about how different species interacted with each other and their environment. By analyzing bite marks, scientists can learn about an animal’s diet, hunting strategies, social behavior, and even the size and shape of its mouth.
To learn more about this fascinating field of study, we spoke with Dr. Stephanie Drumheller-Horton, a vertebrate paleontologist and assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Q: Can you explain what bite marks are?
A: Sure! Bite marks are evidence left behind by predators or scavengers when they take bites out of bones or other hard tissues like shells or wood. These marks can range from small punctures to deep grooves depending on the size and strength of the animal doing the biting.
Q: Why are bite marks important for understanding prehistoric life?
A: Bite marks give us direct evidence of interactions between different species in ancient ecosystems. We can use them to reconstruct food webs, understand how animals hunted or scavenged for food, identify potential competitors or predators for certain species, and even infer social behavior based on patterns of biting.
Q: How do you go about studying bite marks?
A: There are several steps involved in studying bite marks on fossils. First, we need to identify which type(s) of animal made the bites by comparing them to known tooth morphologies from living animals or fossil specimens with identifiable teeth.
Next, we measure various aspects of the bites such as depth, width/length ratio (which tells us something about tooth shape), and the orientation of the bite in relation to the bone. We also look for patterns of multiple bites on a single bone or across multiple bones from a single site.
Finally, we use all of this information to make inferences about what kind of animal made the bite, how it was using its teeth (for example, to crush bones or tear flesh), and what kind of behavior might be indicated by the presence or absence of certain types of bites.
Q: Can you give us an example of how bite marks have been used to learn something new about prehistoric animals?
A: Sure! One interesting example comes from a study I worked on that looked at dinosaur feeding behavior. We found several different types of bite marks on fossilized bones that suggested some dinosaurs were more specialized feeders than we had previously thought.
For example, some herbivorous dinosaurs left distinctive gouges in bones that matched up with their tooth shape. These gouges were probably made when they were trying to extract as much nutrition as possible from tough plant material like leaves or bark.
On the other hand, some carnivorous dinosaurs left puncture marks and grooves on bones that suggested they were using their teeth more like scissors than knives – possibly snipping off pieces of meat rather than tearing it apart with brute force.
This kind of information helps us build a more complete picture of how these animals lived and interacted in their environments.
Q: Can bite marks tell us anything about extinct species’ social behavior?
A: Yes! In fact, one recent study looked at gorgonopsid (a type of prehistoric mammal-like reptile) bite marks on therapsids (ancestors to mammals) from South Africa. The researchers found evidence for both predation and cannibalism among these creatures based on patterns in the bite marks.
The most striking finding was that many individuals had sustained injuries consistent with being bitten by members of their own species. This suggests that cannibalism may have been a common behavior among these animals, possibly as a result of resource scarcity or competition for mates.
Q: Are there any limitations to using bite marks as a tool for understanding prehistoric life?
A: Definitely. Bite marks can only tell us so much about an animal’s behavior since they don’t provide direct evidence of things like social structure or mating habits. Additionally, it can be difficult to identify the specific animal responsible for making a given bite mark without other supporting evidence (like fossilized teeth in the same layer).
Finally, we need to be careful not to read too much into individual bite marks or assume that every mark represents intentional hunting or scavenging behavior. Sometimes animals will accidentally leave behind tooth impressions when walking over bones or rubbing against them.
Q: What do you see as the future of bite mark research in paleontology?
A: I think we’re just scratching the surface (no pun intended) when it comes to understanding what bite marks can tell us about prehistoric life. As new techniques and technologies become available – like high-resolution CT scanning and 3D printing – we’ll be able to study bite marks in even greater detail and with more precision than ever before.
I also think there’s room for more interdisciplinary collaboration between paleontologists, ecologists, and other scientists who study modern ecosystems. By comparing patterns of biting across different time periods and environments, we can gain insight into how ecological relationships have evolved over millions of years.
In conclusion, while often overlooked by non-paleontologists studying fossils; bites are essential clues left behind from ancient creatures that help paint a picture of their lives long gone. They serve as important tools used by researchers today uncovering previously unknown behaviors such as cannibalism among gorgonopsids mentioned earlier in this article alongside many other examples found throughout history thanks to these remarkable impressions left on Earth’s finite remains.