Skip to content

Evidence For Diet

Updated Tuesday 24th August 2004

Palaeobiology - a look at the evidence of the diet of prehistoric organisms

Direct evidence for diet

There are different types of evidence for links between an organism and what it eats (trophic links). Direct evidence is the most useful, such as fossilised stomach contents, or distinctive bite marks on the fossil prey.

Indirect evidence for diet

There are also a number of indirect pieces of evidence that can help us work out what an organism ate. We can analyse how the shape of a structure (known as morphology), such as a tooth or the whole body shape, is designed for a particular function - this is called a functional analysis. Close association of fossil finds, when they are found in rocks of the same age and place, can be useful. It is also possible to compare extinct animals with living or ‘extant’ animals. We can either compare animals that are related (homologous) or animals that are similar in size and shape (analogous). Stones found inside the stomach may indicate diet.

Geochemical data

Studying the elements, such as carbon, found in fossilized bone and teeth can also give us clues to what the animal ate. Elements occur in different forms known as isotopes, carbon for example has three isotopes. Different foods have distinctive ratios of isotopes, and they are passed on to animals when they eat the food. This ‘chemical fingerprint’ can be preserved in fossils and measured using a machine known as a mass spectrometer. This calculates the ratios of isotopes by measuring their relative mass.

Next: Working out speed of extinct organisms


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?