London, Feb 20 (ANI): Scientists have determined that the European woodmouse has a unique taste for ferns, a food once eaten by long-extinct dinosaurs.
According to a report by BBC News, the mouse regularly devours the spores of the endemic European fern Culcita macrocarpa, the only small mammal known to do so.
It is rare for modern vertebrates to eat ferns, due to the toxic chemical defences often contained within them.
But these ancient plants were a favourite of huge sauropod dinosaurs that used to eat them in bulk.
In the past, ferns are thought to have played an important role in the diet of dinosaurs, particularly huge sauropods such as Diplodocus, the longest dinosaur known from a complete skeleton.
Nowadays, invertebrates such as insects and gastropods consume ferns to some extent, but few vertebrate species are known to consume ferns regularly.
However, an international team of researchers led by Ms Marisa Arosa of the University of Coimbra in Portugal became suspicious when they noticed bite marks on fertile leaves of the rare fern C. macrocarpa, the only endemic member of a family of ferns called Dicksoniaceae in Europe.
They set out to find out which culprit was consuming the ferns, growing in Galicia, northwest Spain.
The researchers studied a set of fern plants, noting how their leaves and spores were removed, and then placed cotton under the plants to collect the droppings of any animal feeding on them.
Analysis of the droppings revealed them to have been left by the European woodmouse and that they contained the fern spores.
Foraging by the mice was greatest where most ferns grew.
Most spores has been digested, but it may be that the mouse helps disperse them, aiding the plant's reproduction.
The mice were picky about which parts of the fern they consumed, eating only the fertile parts of the plant, and they only ate the plant's spores between December and February.
But fern spores are rich in calories, lipids and proteins, providing a vital source of energy to woodmice in winter, according to the researchers.
Huge dinosaurs enjoyed ferns, which dominated much of the plant-life during the Triassic and Jurassic eras.
Sauropods couldn't chew, having no back teeth to grind with, so many species are thought to have used small peg or spatula-shaped teeth to rake and slice fern leaves.
Their huge size and digestive systems may have allowed them to process any toxins in the plants. (ANI)