A prehistoric snake is poised to make a meal of a newly hatched dinosaur in this life-size reconstruction of 67-million-year-old fossils unearthed in India. (Read full story.)
Before the snake could strike, though, a surge of mud—washed out of a nearby channel by heavy rains—smothered the nest, killing both snake and prey and entombing them together.
The snake's interrupted meal offers a rare glimpse into the feeding behavior of ancient snakes—and the dangers newborn dinosaurs faced, said Jeffrey Wilson, a co-author of the new study on the discovery, to be published in this week's issue of the journal PLoS Biology.
"It's actually one of the very few examples that we have of anything other than a dinosaur eating a dinosaur," Wilson said.
Dinosaur Nest, With Visitor
These chunks of rock extracted from India's Gujarat Province contain the bones of the 11.5-foot (3.5-meter) snake and the sauropod hatchling that the serpent failed to eat before both were killed. Three unhatched sauropod eggs were also buried.
Scientists have dubbed the new species of snake Sanejeh indicus, or "ancient-gaped one from India."
Young dinosaurs were also vulnerable to attack by egg-snatching dinosaurs and mammals as well as snakes, scientists believe.
"It's a rough life if you're a juicy little dinosaur," said Wilson, whose work was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
A diagram shows how the snake's body was positioned at the moment it died. Scientists think the snake slithered into the unguarded nest after detecting the motions of the sauropod as it struggled to break free from its egg. Sauropods were giant long-necked plant-eaters (sauropod picture).
Due to the sauropod's young age, the team couldn't determine the dinosaur's species.
The researchers think the hatchling was a titanosaur, a group of sauropods that grew to lengths of 65 feet (20 meters) or longer—titanosaurs were common in the region, previously discovered fossils suggest. (See "Eggs Hold Skulls of Titanosaur Embryos.")
Field assistant Shiva Rathore holds up two recently excavated dinosaur egg fossils. Thousands of the eggs have been recovered from western and central India. The snake and dinosaur fossils were also discovered in India's western Gujarat Province.
Before they were identified as dinosaur eggs, people in India had called the lumpy rocks cannonballs, study co-author Wilson said.
"These cannonballs have been known in India since the 1980s, but they've been known elsewhere for a long time, all the way back to the 1800s," he said.
Posed next to an Indian coin for comparison, three sauropod eggshell fragments unearthed in India are visible in this photograph of the fossilized dinosaur nest scene.
The eggshell pieces have a bumpy texture and are highly porous, indicating that the nest was probably covered by a thin layer of sediment or vegetation.
The new snake species and sauropod fossils are evidence that "some snakes made a living by hanging out in dinosaur nesting grounds and taking advantage of unattended eggs," study co-author Wilson said.