"Cannibal" Dinosaur Wrongly Accused, Study Says

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 25, 2006

An infamous dinosaur "cannibal" that was long believed to have eaten its own young may have been given an undeserved reputation.

Coelophysis (SEE-loh-FIE-sis) were speedy, bipedal dinosaurs that roamed western North America more than 200 million years ago.

For nearly 60 years scientists have believed that fossils found in New Mexico showed juvenile Coelophysis skeletons in the gut contents of adults of the species.

(Read "Dinosaur Cannibal?—Mystery in New Mexico" [December 2002].)

But a new fossil study suggests that there is no proof that the meat-eating dino had an appetite for its own kind.

"Our research shows that the evidence for cannibalism in Coelophysis is nonexistent," said Sterling Nesbitt, a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City.

Nesbitt, who is also studying at the American Museum of Natural History's (AMNH's) division of paleontology in New York, co-authored the study.

The findings appear in the early online edition of the journal Biology Letters.

Croc, Not Baby, Bones

Coelophysis were turkey-size therapods—a group of bipedal meat-eating dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus—that sported long legs, tails, and necks.

The beasts burst into the paleontology spotlight in 1947 when a trove of skeletons was unearthed near the Ghost Ranch site just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico (map of New Mexico)—apparent victims of some type of mass mortality.

The site contained hundreds if not thousands of Coelophysis skeletons, more than exist for any other dinosaur species.

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