Fang

Author’s Note: Ever since writing my first paleontologically-themed story “Inheritance of the Meek” several readers have requested a follow-up. At first, I had intended to write another adventure of Broken-Tail (the protagonist of “Inheritance”) but I eventually became interested in assembling an anthology of stories, each centered around a different prehistoric creature. “Fang” is the first in this new series, which I’ve tentatively titled Mesozoic Tales. The style and tone of this story are heavily influenced by Robert T. Bakker’s extraordinary novel Raptor Red.

 

China, 125 million-years-ago.

 

Unseen behind the cloud cover, the sun begins its slow sink below the horizon as dusk descends over the forest. Rain begins to fall. It has been showering on-and-off all day and the ferns and leaflitter of the forest floor are slick with moisture. As the afternoon fades into evening, most of the dinosaurs begin to bed down for the night. But for another kind of animal, today’s work is just beginning.

From a well-hidden den in a hollow underneath a tree stump, a pair of alert, intelligent eyes watch the rain drops fall. These eyes belonged to a Rapenomamus, a large carnivorous mammal. Rapenomamus would have looked, to human eyes, not unlike a wolverine, or perhaps a very large badger. In reality, it is not closely related to either. Rapenomamus belongs to a lineage of mammals called the triconodonts which will not survive the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. But right now, in the Early Cretaceous, Rapenomamus is the largest mammal on the planet.

This particular Rapenomamus (we’ll call her Fang) is very hungry. She’s an expectant mother. Triconodonts do not bring their young to term internally like modern placental mammals or nurture them in pouches like marsupials. Instead they lay rubbery-shelled eggs, not unlike the modern platypus or echidna, to which they are only distantly related. Fang is currently gravid with eggs. Very soon she will have to spend most of her time tending and guarding the nest, so for the last few days she’s been eating as much as she can, building up energy reserves so that she can fast during the incubation period. This evening she must hunt again.

The passing rain shower ends, the droplets slowly tapering off outside Fang’s den. She stirs. It is time for her to hunt. Fang leaves the hollow and looks around cautiously in the fading light. Everything seems all clear. She sniffs. No scent of predatory dinosaurs in the area. Her keen sense of hearing picks up the noises of some larger dinosaurs moving among the trees, but they are far enough away so as to be no concern of hers. She licks her lips and sniffs again, deeply this time. No danger is nearby.

Satisfied, Fang saunters ahead into the forest. She knows exactly what she’s looking for. She needs an easy meal that will be full of protein and keep her satiated until morrow evening’s hunt. And that can mean only one thing: baby dinosaurs.

Rapenomamus is one of the few Mesozoic mammals that can hunt small dinosaurs. They are expertly adapted for the job. Their stout, low-slung bodies are well-suited for close quarters combat. Their feet have toes tipped with sharp claws and they have mouths full of sharp stabbing and slicing teeth. It’s their teeth that set mammalian predators apart from their reptilian and dinosaurian counterparts. Unlike primitive reptiles and dinosaurs whose teeth are all roughly uniform and continually shed throughout their lives, mammals have only two sets of teeth: a juvenile set of “milk teeth” and an adult set. These teeth are not uniform but are segregated into different types that do different jobs: Incisors for gnawing, canines for stabbing and holding, premolars and molars for slicing and crushing.

The dinosaurs that Fang is hunting for are small herbivores called Psittacosaurus. These dinosaurs are numerous and diverse in Asia at this time. They are a highly successful genus with numerous species scattered across the continent, each occupying its own environmental niche. Psittacosaurs have a generalist diet, eating any kind of plant matter available, and are not above consuming insects, eggs, and small vertebrates when they need extra protein. This dietary flexibility is probably one of the reasons why Psittacosaurus has become such a successful genus. The particular psittacosaur species in the area is also one of the most numerous. It is a mottled dark brown in color with a lighter, cream-colored underbelly. They average about two meters long from snout to tail and are largely bipedal, although they often rest on all fours. In fact, their large, roundish heads and thick necks make psittacosaurs appear somewhat front-heavy when going on two legs. They have large eyes for their size and their short, deep snouts are tipped with formidable-looking beaks. Two tusk-like bony protrusions emerge from their flaring cheekbones. Perhaps Psittacosaurus’s most distinctive feature is the mane of long, quills that emerge from the spine of their tails. These quills are tipped with extremely tiny recurved barbs and can by wielded as a formidable defensive weapon, like the quills of a modern porcupine. This makes adult psittacosaurs too bothersome for most predators to deal with, but the quills of infants and juveniles are still soft. Separate a young psittacosaur from its parent and, aside from its speed, it’s a relatively easy kill.

As Fang approaches the territory of a local herd of psittacosaurs, she begins to slow her pace, moving stealthily and cautiously. The gregarious dinosaurs always have one or two sentries patrolling the fringes of the nesting ground for any sign of predators. It wouldn’t do to blunder into one unexpectedly and have it raise the alarm. Fang keeps to the undergrowth and shrubbery, trusting to the shadows of the forest to keep her hidden. The breeze is at her back. She has positioned herself so that when she emerges from the tree line, she will be upwind of the dinosaur nests. She hears a series of grunts nearby, a silence, and then more grunts, from farther away. Psittacosaur sentries calling to one another, giving the “all clear” signal. If only they knew that they had let one of the most formidable killers of baby dinosaurs slip right through their picket line.

Fang turns her attention to the sight before her. She gazes out from a thicket into a muddy clearing full of trampled ferns and a chattering brook skirting the far side. Twenty psittacosaur nests are scattered across the open space. The nests are decidedly simple affairs, merely shallow depressions scraped into the soft clay soil and lined with dried ferns and leaflitter. The infant psittacosaurs are surprisingly precocial and at only a few weeks old are beginning to explore the area around their nests.

A nearby psittacosaur mother is distracted, warding off an inquisitive pterosaur. Some of the smaller species of flying reptile frequent dinosaur nesting grounds, hoping to snack on centipedes and other large invertebrates that feed on the insects and other tiny parasites found in dinosaur nests. As the mother’s attention is focused on the intruder, one of the down-clad hatchlings begins to inch farther away from the nest and towards Fang’s hiding place beyond the tree line. Just the kind of opening she’s been waiting for.

Fang tenses. Steady, she thinks. Strike too soon and the young psittacosaur could still escape, and an entire hunt would be wasted. But she can’t delay too long, she is losing light fast. Her night eyes aren’t troubled by the dark, but if the psittacosaurs begin to settle down for the evening, they would be doubly on their guard over their chicks, and her chance to seize one of the nestlings would be lost.

The chick she’s been watching is almost in range. It has continued to move towards the edge of the clearing, eager to explore the boundaries of its world. The mother, having just finished seeing off the unwelcome pterosaur hasn’t had time to notice that one of its young is missing. Steady… Almost there….

The little dinosaur jumps in a puddle just within striking distance of Fang’s hiding place. It squeals with delight at this newly discovered game. It hops up and down, splashing muddy water and squeaking with joy, heedless of its surroundings…. NOW.

Launching herself with her powerful hind legs, Fang explodes from the thicket and bounds across the space between her and the chick, her mouth agape, her gleaming white teeth bared for the kill. The little dinosaur barely has time to squeak in alarm before she’s upon it, her jaws snapping tightly around its downy body, crushing the air from its lungs. Fang can feel its tiny bones snap and crunch in her vise-like grip. The chick is dead before it knows what’s happening.

Loud barking calls begin to fill Fang’s ears. She can feel dozens of pairs of eyes gazing intently in her direction. She looks up and sees that all the adult psittacosaurs within sight or earshot of the attack are aware of her presence. They place themselves between Fang and their nests, turning their backsides towards her and waving their heavy tails, brandishing their quills. They continue barking out furious alarm calls, recalling the male sentries to fight off the nest raider.

Fang knows better than to linger. She beats a hasty retreat into the brush, carrying her prize. In the growing twilight under the trees she easily avoids the returning sentries as they blunder through the undergrowth. Fang zigs and zags, in an effort to confuse any pursuers, but it soon becomes obvious that she has made a clean getaway. She slows her pace, warily making her way back to the safety of her burrow along the well-worn trail she has used on countless hunting trips. Twilight gives way to night and darkness falls over the forest.

As Fang nears a glade not far from her home, she pauses listening. Something’s not right. The surrounding woods are eerily quiet. The usual night speech of insects, frogs, and other nocturnal creatures is missing. The moon appears from behind the clouds. A stiff breeze wafts new scents in her direction. Fang sniffs the air. She immediately identifies the familiar and alarming scent that fills her nostrils. Predatory dinosaurs. Sinovenator. And they are close. Fang hesitates and then she steps cautiously into the glade. They are waiting for her.

On the far side of the moonlit glade stand a pair of female sinovenators, one adult and one slightly smaller subadult. These lithe, two-meter-long, bipedal dinosaurs are members of a group of predators known as troodontids. Closely related to the famous dromaeosaurids – Velociraptor and its kin – troodontids are remarkably birdlike in their anatomy. They are lightweight and built for speed. Although flightless, their bodies are covered with feathers, including long “wing feathers” on their arms and legs. Their plumage is slate gray with darker splotches and bands in irregular patterns. Perfect for camouflage in the forest night. Like many troodontid species, sinovenators are nocturnal hunters. Their large, yellow eyes, perfect for spotting prey in the gloom, convey a cunning intelligence. Troodontids are among the smartest dinosaurs on the planet. And they have to be, because their prey is intelligent as well. Troodontids are specialist mammal-hunters.

The two sinovenators begin to close in on Fang, while a third (a second adult female) emerges from the trees behind her, cutting off her escape. Sinovenator hunting parties often consist of at least two or three individuals. Their normal strategy involves one or two hunters flushing out their victims, driving them towards a third member of the pack waiting in ambush. This usually works for most mammals, but the sinovenators know that Rapenomamus cannot be taken this way. When confronted, the large, ornery mammalian hunters stand and fight as often as run. In the case of the former, the troodontids adopt a strategy of surrounding their quarry and rushing in to attack from multiple directions. In a one-on-one confrontation, a Sinovenator would sooner retreat than risk serious or even deadly injury from the claws and teeth of Rapenomamus. But with numbers on their side, the troodontids are confident they can overcome this challenging opponent.

The corpse of the baby psittacosaur still held in her jaws, Fang utters as deep a growl as she can muster. The subadult to her front and right pauses, its hesitation betraying its inexperience. The adult to her front and left doesn’t flinch but keeps advancing in a crouching stance, preparing itself to strike.

Fang drops her food to the ground and whirls just in time to face the second adult Sinoventator before it can attack her undefended hindquarters. She lunges snarling, jaws agape, baring her impressive set of teeth. The fleet-footed troodontid leaps backward, just avoiding her onslaught. Fang swerves around again to face the first adult. Hopefully, her vigorous display of defiance will convince the sinovenators to seek easier prey. If not, then she certainly won’t die without a struggle. With any luck she’ll take at least one of her enemies with her.

Seeing an opening for a quicker, easier meal, the subadult darts forward to seize the unattended psittacosaur carcass. But the juvenile’s inexperience with Rapenomamus has led it to make a deadly miscalculation. Distracted by the prize it scoops up in its claws, the young troodontid cannot react in time as Fang jukes hard to her right and leaps upon the dinosaur. It cries out in terror and stumbles, landing hard on its back, its long, birdlike legs shooting into the air.

Fang closes her jaws around the subadult’s left leg and clamps down hard just above the ankle joint. She can feel the snapping and cracking of hollow bones as the troodontid’s tibia and fibula are crushed in her death-grip. The dinosaur screams in pain and fear. Fang shakes her head and shoulders from side to side, dragging the young Sinovenator­ across the ground, nearly dislocating its leg.

At last, Fang releases her grip. The troodontid begins to go into shock, squealing pitifully. Fang turns swiftly to face the two remaining dinosaurs, snarling and hissing. Rather than aid their fallen comrade, they’ve retreated to the edge of the clearing, and are staring at her, their baleful eyes shining in the moonlight. They look to each other and bob their heads a few times, chirping. They look at Fang and hiss, showing rows of serrated, recurved teeth and flexing their claw-tipped hands in a final threat display. Then they turn and slink away quietly into the trees.

Fang barks and growls after them, arching her back in her own show of menace. Satisfied that the dinosaurs won’t be coming back, Fang turns around and, ignoring the baby psittacosaur lying nearby, saunters over to the dying subadult Sinovenator. Its body is still twitching, its eyelids fluttering and its jaws opening and closing in involuntary muscle spasms. Fang has come through this battle and won an even bigger prize than she’d hoped for when she set out on her hunt at sundown. If she can manage to drag the troodontid back to her larder, she won’t have to hunt for several more days. She’ll have time to rest before laying her eggs. She sniffs the body and licks her chops. Then seizing it by its uninjured leg, Fang begins to drag the dinosaur in the direction of her burrow. Luckily, it’s not far. After several minutes hard work, she arrives. She makes herself comfortable and begins to eat. In the sky, the moon is once again hidden behind low-hanging clouds. It begins to rain again, and Fang hears the soft patter of the droplets on the foliage outside her burrow. She continues feeding. In the morning she will rest. She is content.

 

©2020 Thomas J. Salerno. All rights reserved.

 

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