What Did Dinosaurs Eat?

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Order Up! Here's What Dinosaurs Had for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

All living things have to eat in order to survive, and dinosaurs were no exception. Still, you'd be surprised at the specialized diets enjoyed by different dinosaurs, and the sheer variety of live prey and green foliage consumed by the average carnivore or herbivore. Here's a slideshow of the 10 favorite foods of the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era--slides 2 through 6 devoted to meat-eaters, and slides 7 through 11 on the lunch menu of herbivores. Bon appetit!

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Other Dinosaurs

Triceratops, trying not to get eaten (Alain Beneteau).

It was a dinosaur-eat-dinosaur world back during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods: large, lumbering theropods like Allosaurus and Carnotaurus made a specialty of chowing down on their fellow herbivores and carnivores, though it's unclear whether certain meat-eaters (such as Tyrannosaurus Rex) actively hunted their prey or settled for scavenging already-dead carcasses. We even have evidence that some dinosaurs ate other individuals of their own species, cannibalism not being proscribed by any Mesozoic moral codes!

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Sharks, Fish, and Marine Reptiles

Gyrodus, a tasty fish of the Mesozoic Era. Wikimedia Commons

Oddly enough, some of the biggest, fiercest meat-eating dinosaurs of South America and Africa subsisted on sharks, marine reptiles and (mostly) fish. To judge by its long, narrow, crocodile-like snout and its presumed ability to swim, the largest meat-eating dinosaur that ever lived, Spinosaurus, preferred seafood, as did its close relatives Suchomimus and Baryonyx. Fish, of course, were also a favorite food source for pterosaurs and marine reptiles--which, while closely related, technically don't count as dinosaurs.

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Mesozoic Mammals

Purgatorius would have made a tasty snack for the average raptor. Nobu Tamura

Many people are surprised to learn that the earliest mammals lived alongside the dinosaurs; however, they didn't really come into their own until the Cenozoic Era, after the dinosaurs went extinct. These small, quivering, mouse- and cat-sized furballs featured on the lunch menu of equally petite meat-eating dinosaurs (mostly raptors and "dino-birds"), but at least one Cretaceous creature, Repenomamus, is known to have turned the tables: paleontologists have identified the fossilized remains of a dinosaur in this 25-pound mammal's stomach!

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Birds and Pterosaurs

Dimorphodon, a typical pterosaur. Dmitry Bogdanov

To date, the direct evidence is scarce for dinosaurs having eaten prehistoric birds or pterosaurs (in fact, it's more often the case that larger pterosaurs, like the enormous Quetzalcoatlus, preyed on the smaller dinosaurs of their ecosystem). Still, there's no question that these flying animals were occasionally munched on by raptors and tyrannosaurs, perhaps not while they were alive, but after they had died of natural causes and plunged to the ground. (One can also imagine a less-than-alert Iberomesornis accidentally flying into the mouth of a large theropod, but only once!)

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Insects and Invertebrates

A Mesozoic insect preserved in amber. Flickr

Because they weren't equipped to take down larger prey, many of the small, birdlike, feathered theropods of the Mesozoic Era specialized in easy-to-find bugs. One recently discovered dino-bird, Linhenykus, possessed a single claw on each of its forearms, which it presumably used to dig into termite mounds and anthills, and it's likely that burrowing dinosaurs like Oryctodromeus were also insectivorous. (Of course, after a dinosaur died, it was as likely as not to be itself consumed by bugs, at least until a larger scavenger happened on the scene.)

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Try making a salad out of this cycad. Wikimedia Commons

Way back during the Permian period, 300 to 250 million years ago, cycads were among the first plants to colonize dry land--and these strange, stubby, fernlike "gymnosperms" soon became a favorite food source of the first plant-eating dinosaurs (which quickly branched off from the slender, meat-eating dinosaurs that evolved toward the end of the Triassic period). Some species of cycad have persisted down to the present day, mostly restricted to tropical climates, and surprisingly little changed from their ancient ancestors.

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An ancient (and smelly) Ginkgo tree. Wikimedia Commons

Along with cycads (see previous slide) ginkgoes were among the first plants to colonize the world's continents in the later Paleozoic Era. During the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, these 30-foot-high trees grew in thick forests, and helped to spur the evolution of the long-necked sauropod dinosaurs that feasted on them. Most ginkgoes went extinct at the end of the Pliocene epoch, about two and a half million years ago; today, only one species remains, the medicinally useful (and extremely stinky) Ginkgo biloba.

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A typical fern, ripe for a trip to a dinosaur's stomach. Wikimedia Commons

Ferns--vascular plants lacking seeds and flowers, which reproduce by disseminating spores--were particularly appealing to the low-slung, plant-eating dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era (such as stegosaurs and ankylosaurs), thanks to the simple fact that most species didn't grow very far off the ground. Unlike their ancient cousins, the cycads and ginkgoes, ferns have prospered in modern times, with over 12,000 named species around the world today--perhaps it helps that there are no longer any dinosaurs around to eat them!

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A conifer forest. Wikimedia Commons

Along with ginkgoes (see slide #8), conifers were among the first trees to colonize dry land, first popping up toward the end of the Carboniferous period, about 300 million years ago. Today, these cone-bearing trees are represented by such familiar genera as cedars, firs, cypresses and pines; hundreds of millions of years ago, during the Mesozoic Era, conifers were a dietary mainstay of plant-eating dinosaurs, which munched their way through the immense "boreal forests" of the northern hemisphere.

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Flowering Plants

A calla lily. Wikimedia Commons

Evolutionarily speaking, flowering plants (technically known as angiosperms) are a relatively recent development, with the earliest fossilized specimens dating to the late Jurassic period, about 160 million years ago. During the early Cretaceous, angiosperms quickly supplanted cycads and ginkgoes as the main source of nutrition for plant-eating dinosaurs worldwide; at least one genus of duck-billed dinosaur, Brachylophosaurus, is known to have feasted on flowers as well as ferns and conifers.

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Strauss, Bob. "What Did Dinosaurs Eat?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-did-dinosaurs-eat-4050559. Strauss, Bob. (2021, February 16). What Did Dinosaurs Eat? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-did-dinosaurs-eat-4050559 Strauss, Bob. "What Did Dinosaurs Eat?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-did-dinosaurs-eat-4050559 (accessed May 29, 2023).