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Dinosaur not guilty of cannibalism

27 September 2006

Scientists have re-examined fossils of the dinosaur Coelophysis and found that it wasn't a cannibal after all.

In the 1940s, a huge area of bones containing skeletons of the dinosaur Coelophysis were found in New Mexico, USA. Two skeletons were found with small bones in the area of their stomachs. Scientists believed that the bones belonged to a young Coelophysis and so began the species portrayal as a fierce cannibal.

Crocodile-like reptile

New examinations, carried out by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, found that some of the fossil bones belong to a crocodile-like reptile and not to Coelophysis . Scientists could not identify many of the other small bones.

The team question whether some of the bones in one of the skeletons were found in the stomach at all and think they were more likely to have been outside the stomach.

A larger leg bone, too big for Coelophysis to eat, found in the stomach area of one of the skeletons, is thought to have got there when an adult Coelophysis died on top of the other dead dinosaur.

The scientists concluded there is no evidence for cannibalism in Coelophysis .

Portrayal as a cannibal

Since this diagnosis in the 1940s, Coelophysis has had a fiersome reputation and has been portrayed as such in many children's books, popular films and exhibitions around the world.

Coelophysis in Dino Jaws
The sleek-looking Coelophysis appears in the Natural History Museum's Dino Jaws exhibition.

The sleek-looking Coelophysis appears in the Natural History Museum's Dino Jaws exhibition.

The Coelophysis display is one of the scariest parts of the Dino Jaws exhibition at the Natural History Museum. The latest animatronic technology brings to life a gruesome scene set in the Triassic period 210 million years ago, where an adult Coelophysis devours its young.

A replica of one of the fossils re-examined by the American Museum of Natural History scientist is also on show.

'This new work shows that our previous ideas about Coelophysis were mistaken,' says Paul Barrett, dinosaur expert at the Natural History Museum. 'In fact, it casts doubt on the idea that any dinosaur was a cannibal.'

Exhibition staff are working hard to update Coelophysis in the Dino Jaws exhibition so that it reflects this new research.

'This discovery is very exciting,' says Julie Becker, Exhibition Curator at the Museum. 'It shows that scientists are constantly finding out more about dinosaurs and what they ate. We want our exhibition to reflect the latest science and we will be working hard in the next weeks to update the display.'

This research is published in the September issue of Biology Letters.

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