Unusual gut contents in a Cretaceous ichthyosaur
Despite ichthyosaurs being one of the most extensively studied Mesozoic marine reptile groups, there is little documented direct evidence of dietary habits in most taxa. Here, we report the discovery of hatchling-sized marine protostegid turtle remains and an enantiornithine bird (in association with actinopterygian fish and phosphatic nodules) within the body cavity of a gravid female ichthyosaur (Platypterygius longmani) from the Lower Cretaceous of Australia; this is the first evidence, to our knowledge, of feeding by ichthyosaurs upon both turtles and birds. The exceptionally preserved gut contents show little evidence of digestion, suggesting consumption shortly before the ichthyosaur's death. Poor swimming ability may have made hatchling turtles easy prey that could have been either swallowed whole or processed by shake feeding. Ingestion of bird remains probably occurred through scavenging. Opportunistic feeding on vertebrates is at odds with existing interpretations of dietary habits in Cretaceous ichthyosaurs, which favour predation primarily upon cephalopods. Such specialization is considered a contributing factor in the group's ultimate extinction. However, the evidence here that at least some forms were able to use a wide range of available food types suggests that the decline of ichthyosaurs in the mid-Cretaceous may be linked to other factors such as competition with ecologically analogous pursuit predators.