Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

Research Article

The roles of herbivory and omnivory in early dinosaur evolution

Paul M. Barretta1, Richard J. Butlera2 and Sterling J. Nesbitta3a4

a1 Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK Email:

a2 Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie, Richard-Wagner-Straße 10, 80333 Munich, Germany Email:

a3 Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin, TX 78712, USA

a4 Division of Paleontology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY 10024, USA Email:


Herbivorous and omnivorous dinosaurs were rare during the Carnian stage of the Late Triassic. By contrast, the succeeding Norian stage witnessed the rapid diversification of sauropodomorphs and the rise of the clade to ecological dominance. Ornithischians, by contrast, remained relatively rare components of dinosaur assemblages until much later in the Mesozoic. The causes underlying the differential success of ornithischians and sauropodomorphs remain unclear, but might be related to trophic specialisation. Sauropodomorphs replaced an established herbivore guild consisting of rhynchosaurs, aetosaurs and basal synapsids, but this faunal turnover appears to have been opportunistic and cannot be easily attributed to either competitive interactions or responses to floral change. Consideration of diversity patterns and relative abundance suggests that the ability to eat plants might have been a major factor promoting sauropodomorph success, but that it was less important in the early evolution of Ornithischia. On the basis of current evidence it is difficult to determine the diet of the ancestral dinosaur and scenarios in which omnivory or carnivory represent the basal condition appear equally likely.

Key Words:

  • Early Jurassic;
  • Late Triassic;
  • Ornithischia;
  • Sauropodomorpha;
  • Silesauridae