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Dinosaurian and mammalian predators compared

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2016

Blaire Van Valkenburgh
Department of Organismic Biology, Ecology, and Evolution, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095-1606. E-mail:
Ralph E. Molnar
Museum of Northern Arizona, 3101 North Fort Valley Road, Flagstaff, Arizona 86001


Theropod dinosaurs were, and mammalian carnivores are, the top predators within their respective communities. Beyond that, they seem distinct, differing markedly in body form and ancestry. Nevertheless, some of the same processes that shape mammalian predators and their communities likely were important to dinosaurian predators as well. To explore this, we compared the predatory adaptations of theropod dinosaurs and mammalian carnivores, focusing primarily on aspects of their feeding morphology (skulls, jaws, and teeth). We also examined suites of sympatric species (i.e., ecological guilds) of predatory theropods and mammals, emphasizing species richness and the distribution of body sizes within guilds. The morphological comparisons indicate reduced trophic diversity among theropods relative to carnivorans, as most or all theropods with teeth appear to have been hypercarnivorous. There are no clear analogs of felids, canids, and hyaenids among theropods. Interestingly, theropods parallel canids more so than felids in cranial proportions, and all theropods appear to have had weaker jaws than carnivorans. Given the apparent trophic similarity of theropods and their large body sizes, it was surprising to find that species richness of theropod guilds was as great as or exceeded that observed among mammalian carnivore guilds. Separation by body size appears to be slightly greater among sympatric theropods than carnivorans, but the magnitude of size difference between species is not constant in either group. We suggest that, as in modern carnivoran guilds, smaller theropod species might have adapted to the threats posed by much larger species (e.g., tyrannosaurs) by hunting in groups, feeding rapidly, and avoiding encounters whenever possible. This would have favored improved hunting skills and associated adaptations such as agility, speed, intelligence, and increased sensory awareness.

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