Clawed Dinosaur Caught in the Act of Digging for Prey

Scientists didn't have bones of the dinosaur, but from fossilized claw marks found, here's what they think the raptor relative may have looked like when alive and digging for its mammalian prey. (Image credit: Max Needle.)

A clawed, predatory dinosaur may have been caught in the act of digging for mammalian prey, scientists now reveal.

The fossils showing the paleo-scene were discovered within sandstone layers in southern Utah, and date back 75 million to 80 million years ago, when the area consisted of windblown dunes.

"We found them about four years ago in July, in 100 degree F (37 degree C) heat," said researcher Edward Simpson, a geologist at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. "We had scorpions, rattlesnakes, and swarms of gnats."

One set of fossils consists of claw marks from a predatory theropod dinosaur that stood roughly 3 feet (1 meter) tall (at the hips) and 6 feet (2 meters) long — possibly a raptor relative of Deinonychus or Velociraptor. The way these marks are oriented suggest they were made by the creature digging to reach down for something.

Two fossilized burrows were spotted nearby. When compared with other burrows researchers have uncovered over the years, the size and complexity of these newfound ones suggest they belonged to mammals — the smaller burrow to a mouse-sized creature, the larger one to a guinea-pig-sized animal.

The fact these fossils are so close together suggests they are evidence of dinosaurs scrabbling down to prey on mammals, the researchers suggested. Although these fossils could have been made thousands of years apart, if one considers how these dinosaurs lived in the same area as burrowing mammals, "one can then ask why the dinosaurs might have been digging," Simpson said. "If you eliminate other prospects — these aren't footprints, and they're not in symmetrical patterns as we've seen when raking aside earth for a nest — you're left with predatory actions."

"It's often hard to capture the behaviors of dinosaurs in the fossil record to see what they were doing," Simpson told LiveScience. "This is one of the few examples where one might see the impact of their behaviors, which is really cool."

The scientists detailed their findings in the August issue of the journal Geology.

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.