Paleontology is a tricky business. While it's easy enough to study living animals -- because they're, you know, right there -- a paleontologist has to work with parts and pieces all smashed up and tossed about by millions of years of geological demolition derbies. However, every once in a while Mother Nature decides to cut your friendly neighborhood dinosaur hunter some slack by capturing a perfect snapshot of something awesome. Like ...
#5. Ancient Predators Caught in the Act of Murder
If you've ever been to a natural history museum, you've probably seen those giant skeletal reconstructions of dinosaurs rending each other's neck-meat in epic Tokyo-stomping battles for survival. Of course, dinosaurs never come straight out of the ground like that. The best a paleontologist can hope for is some tooth marks on bones -- anything more elaborate takes a cinematic eye and a whole ream of that wire they use to stitch the bones back together.
Except, that is, when they find something like this:
Dinosaur Kingdom Nakasato via University of British Columbia
"Say 'uncle'! Say it!"
Yep, that there is a protoceratops locked in vicious battle with a motherfuckin' velociraptor. This fossil turned up in the Gobi Desert in 1971, complete with the raptor's trademark death-sickle claw buried deep in its victim's neck and its arm broken in its victim's jaws (OK, so maybe "victim" wasn't the right word to use there). They were unexpectedly frozen in their never-ending battle royale when the collapse of a sand cliff buried them, and today "the fighting dinosaurs" are considered a national treasure of Mongolia.
But America wasn't about to be outdone by some Mongolians, and in 2006 a team in Montana went and dug up the classic tyrannosaurus vs. triceratops match-up dinosaur fans have been having stop-motion daydreams about for generations. The "Montana dueling dinosaurs" feature a showdown between a 30-foot nanotyrannus and an unidentified triceratops relative. This brutal battle between equal-and-opposite titans resulted in crushed bones, broken teeth, and mutual annihilation.
They basically found these fossils while digging through your childhood fantasies.
But dinosaurs had more to worry about than other dinos. In India, fossil hunters came across a dinosaur nest full of sauropod eggs. Sauropods were the famous "long-necks," the biggest land animals ever to crush the planet underfoot, and adults were as untouchable to predators as elephants are today. But as tiny 20-inch hatchlings, these would-be giants made easy snacks for all sorts of prehistoric monstrosities, including, in this case, snakes:
If you're thinking that looks more like a fossilized dino turd than a snake, here it is seen through Science's patented Fossil-o-Scope:
Wilson et al, PLoS Biology
Take note of Littlefoot's stubby arms pleading for mercy.
And if that's still not clear enough, here's a full 3D sculpt of the horrific scene:
Ximena Erickson and Bonnie Miljour; sculpture by Tyler Keillor
Snakes haven't evolved much since the age of dinosaurs. No need to change once you've perfected the art of being terrifying.
A mudslide interrupted the snake before it could gulp down the infant, meaning it's really only guilty of attempted baby dino murder.
#4. Two Mammoths Beating Each Other to Death (Over a Woman)
Velizar Simeonovski/The Field Museum via Smithsonian.com
In 1962, a surveyor working on a Nebraska range discovered some gigantic bones sticking out of the ground. The Dinosaur Police were called to the scene, and they found the skeleton of a 12,000-year-old mammoth. At first it was all standard procedure, but as the investigators kept digging, they noticed that something was a little off. Namely, that the mammoth seemed to have way too many tusks.
Bruce McIntosh via Rapid City Journal
"We're dealing with a mutant double-mammoth, or possibly some kind of land Cthulhu."
Digging deeper, they made a bizarre discovery that no one had ever seen before: The extra set of tusks belonged to a second mammoth, and the two had died with their tusks tangled up around each other's heads.
The detectives had an idea about how these behemoths might have ended up in such an awkward position: Males of modern animals such as elephants, moose, and frat-house jackasses often engage in savage head-butting contests to impress women, and they reasoned that these mammoths had (literally) joined in battle the same way. But they couldn't prove their hypothesis until 40 years later, when they ran the skeletons through a battery of modern tests.
Phil Hore/Bone Rooms
"Our core samples show conclusively that they were attempting to combine into a Megazord."
Dental exams revealed that the mammoths were both mature enough to enter their seasonal hormone rage, and that they died during the time of year when their murder-boners were pulsing at full power. After getting their faces tied up in a ridiculous knot, they fell and pinned each other down, exhausting themselves in their desperate struggle to escape.
Phil Hore/Bone Rooms
Believe it or not, this painting isn't on the side of a van.
It was a truly grueling death for our two hormone-fueled mammoth teenagers, but as miserable as it sounds, they were still probably better off than the wolf they squished as they went down.
#3. A Sudden, Mass Slaughter
Jupiterimages/Photos.com, Wikimedia Commons
A mere 10 or 12 million years ago, Mother Nature decided to toss modern paleontologists a bone by setting up perhaps the most elaborate fossil photo shoot of all time ... by going into full-on Extinction Mode.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
This is what a paleontologist looks like when he's giddy.
A volcanic hotspot in Idaho blew a hole out of the planet with the power of 100 Mount St. Helens explosions, puking debris across hundreds of square miles of North America. A thousand miles away in northern Nebraska, a cloud of fine volcanic ash drifted down like a snow day in Tartarus. The ash was no longer blazing hot, nor particularly poisonous -- which was too bad for the animals of a local watering hole. Denied a glorious fire-and-brimstone volcanic death befitting the circumstances, they were instead treated to a long and painful suffocation. By the time the dust had settled, the entire region was thoroughly buried in ash.
Fast-forward to 1971. Paleontologist Mike Voorhies was digging in a ravine that had been buried in 10 to 20 feet of ash and found a mass graveyard. Within three short seasons of digging, this virtually bottomless ash hole shat out 200 skeletons of at least 17 animal species -- an entire ecosystem of extinct American rhinos, horses, camels, birds, turtles, and more. Most of the skeletons were in perfect condition, and all had telltale growths on their bones indicating lung failure. Young rhinos were found beside their dead mothers still trying to nurse, and others nuzzled noses as if kissing each other goodbye.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Let's not desecrate this solemn scene with jokes about how it looks like they're humping.
The site is now the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park, and they're still digging up victims over 40 years after the initial discovery, including long-extinct oddities like giraffe-necked camels and saber-toothed deer. New finds are constantly uncovered and left in position so that anyone can take a joyous stroll through the park to witness Mother Nature's grim panorama of despair.