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Brown, Barnum,


Stomach stones and the food of plesiosaurs.

Science, 20(501):184-185.

Copyright © 2002-2009 by Mike Everhart

Created 01/12/2002: Updated 07/24/2009




LEFT: Gastroliths from a Styxosaurus collected from the Bearpaw Shale of Montana (Darby and Ojakangas, 1980)

184                              SCIENCE           [N. S. Vol. XX. No. 501.



     In a recent paper* on North American Plesiosaurs, Dr. S. W. Williston, in discussing the probable significance of the pebbles so often found associated with plesiosaur remains, says: "What the use of these pebbles was I will not venture to say. They may have served as a sort of weight to regulate the specific gravity of the animals or they may have been swallowed accidentally. If, as I believe probable, the plesiosaurs were in the habit of feeding upon invertebrate animals, seeking such in the shallow muddy bottoms, the pebbles may have been taken with the food unintentionally. I doubt this, however. I may add that all specimens do not reveal similar pebbles."

* Field Columbian Museum Publication number 73, page 75.

August 5, 1904]                   SCIENCE                                 185

     During the summer of 1903 the writer collected fossils in the Niobrara shales in South Dakota, finding the remains of many plesiosaurs. In nearly every instance a large number of siliceous stones were found associated with the bones, often embedded in the matrix en masse. In one specimen in which the largest dorsal vertebrę were four inches in diameter, there was at least half a bushel of these stomach stones, ranging from the size of a walnut to four inches across.

     Considering the weight of these stones, the wonder is that so many specimens contain them. One would expect that when the flesh began to decompose, the weight of these stones would be too great to be contained by the weakened tissues and that they would be lost before the animal reached its final resting place. This may well explain the absence of stones in some cases.

     Throughout the Niobrara formation in Dakota baculites are very abundant while scaphites are rare, especially in the shales. I would not be certain that any of the baculites associated with the plesiosaur remains had been eaten by these animals but in plesiosaur specimen number 5803 of the American Museum collection I found a variety of fossils representing this animal's last meal. Great numbers of fish vertebrę were scattered among the bones, while there were several pterodactyl bones, broken in small sections. But of chief interest were seven scaphites, more or less broken, which had without question been eaten by this animal. One other specimen had scaphites associated with it. The conclusion seems evident that invertebrate animals formed a large part of the food of plesiosaurs and that, in default of crushing teeth, the breaking up   of the food was effected by the aid of these stomach stones, the presence of which further implies a thick-walled, gizzard-like arrangement in the alimentary canal.

                                                      BARNUM BROWN

Referred paper: Williston, S. W., 1903. North American plesiosaurs, Field Columbian Museum, Pub. 73, Geological Series, 2(1):1-79, 29 plates.

For a rebuttal, see: Eastman, C. R., 1904. A recent paleontological induction, Science, N. S. 20(510):465-466.

In Brown's defense: Williston, S. W., 1904. The stomach stones of the plesiosaurs. Science N. S. 22:565.

Cannon, G. L. 1906. Sauropodan Gastroliths.  Science. N. S. 24(604):116. (Issue of July 27, 1906)

Moodie, R. L., 1912. The "stomach stones" of reptiles. Science 35(897)377-378.