Fish was on the menu for early flying dinosaur

Artist’s conception of Microraptor, a small flying dinosaur, eating a fish
Artist’s conception of Microraptor, a small flying dinosaur, eating a fish it has caught. (Illustration: Emily Willoughby)

UAlberta research yields first evidence that "microraptors" could catch prey in the water as well as on land.

University of Alberta-led research reveals that Microraptor, a small flying dinosaur, was a complete hunter—able to swoop down and pick up fish as well as its previously known prey of birds and tree-dwelling mammals.

Scott Persons , a paleontology graduate student at the U of A, says new evidence of Microraptor’s hunting ability came from fossilized remains in China. “We were very fortunate that this Microraptor was found in volcanic ash and its stomach content of fish was easily identified.”

Before this discovery, paleontologists believed microraptors, which were about the size of a modern-day hawk, lived in trees where they preyed exclusively on small birds and mammals about the size of squirrels.

“Now we know that Microraptor operated in varied terrain and had a varied diet,” said Persons. “It took advantage of a variety of prey in the wet, forested environment that was China during the early Cretaceous period, 120 million years ago.”

Further analysis of the fossil revealed that its teeth were adapted to catching slippery, wiggling prey like fish. Dinosaur researchers have established that most meat-eaters had teeth with serrations on both sides, which helped the predator saw through meat like a steak knife.

But the Microraptor’s teeth were serrated on just one side, and were angled forward.

Microraptor seems adapted to impale fish on its teeth. With reduced serrations, the prey wouldn’t tear itself apart while it struggled,” said Persons. “Microraptor could simply raise its head back; the fish would slip off the teeth and be swallowed whole, no fuss, no muss.”

Persons likens the Microraptor’s wing configuration to that of a biplane. “It had long feathers on its forearms, hind legs and tail,” said Persons. “It was capable of short, controlled flights.”

This is the first evidence of a flying raptor, a member of the dromaeosaur family of dinosaurs, successfully preying on fish.

The research was published April 22 in the journal Evolution .

Department of Biological Sciences

Swimming dinosaurs help researchers track evolution

Small dinosaurs, big discovery

Dinosaur shook tail feathers for mating show

Feathered dinosaur feasted on flying food