Oh, oh, oh! This is an exciting one! Earlier this year, when the discovery that Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis) are venomous was published, I idly wondered if any dinosaurs were as well. Komodo Dragons and dinosaurs are not closely related, so there was no reason to make that leap, beyond the fact that they are (or, in the case of dinosaurs, were) both large terrestrial reptiles, and that I want it to be true.
Well, it turns out I might yet be onto a winner with that one. A recent publication by Enpu Gong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences documents fossil evidence that Sinornithosaurus, a small Cretaceous theropod from what is now China, possessed a venomous bite. The venom gland itself, being soft tissue, has not been preserved1, but the skull contains a cavity that Gong believes could have contained one. More convincingly, the animal had long, grooved upper teeth, like those used by extant rear-fanged snakes to inject venom into prey, with voids above them, which could have functioned as local reservoirs.
Not everybody’s convinced, and I’d categorise the evidence as ‘strongly suggestive’ rather than a slam-dunk, but it’s fascinating stuff and lends a big pile of credibility to an idea that I really want to be true.
- Which is not to say that soft tissue can never leave fossil evidence, in fact Sinornithosaurus is also famous for being one of the first dinosaurs to be discovered with fossilised feather-impressions, merely that it is significantly rarer. [↩]