By Abby Telfer, FossiLab Manager, Paleobiology Department
We have been thinking a lot about picnics and barbecues lately in FossiLab. Not only is it summer, but a grill-worthy hunk of fossil marine reptile recently arrived in the lab. As a volunteer chips away at the rock matrix that covers the fossil, it looks as if a butcher’s cut of meat were appearing before our eyes, all ready for barbecue sauce. The fossil dates from the Cretaceous, and that got us wondering… if you were time-transported into the Cretaceous, say 130 million years into the past, and wanted to throw a summer party, what kinds of food could you serve?
If your idea of the perfect summer meal
is a clam bake or a crab or crawfish boil, then you'd be in luck because shellfish, early lobsters, crabs and crayfish were already on the scene. Grilling would be an option, of course, but the menu would need some tweaking; dinosaurs and the early birds evolving from them might make chicken lovers happy, and there would be plenty of fish, but forget about pork and beef. The fossil record tells us that it wouldn't be possible to make pulled pork sandwiches until pigs evolved during the Oligocene (23-34 million years ago), and you'd have to wait until the Miocene (about 20 million years ago) for the bovids, the group that includes cattle, to appear.
The most serious meal-planning issues, though, would be in figuring out what to serve as side dishes and condiments. Fruits, vegetables, and most of the ingredients in barbecue sauces, salads, and breads all come from flowering plants, but this plant group (the angiosperms) was only just beginning to evolve 130 million years ago. So while your more adventurous friends might enjoy munching on seaweeds, fern fronds and pine nuts, summer essentials like watermelon, tomato salads and corn on the cob could not grace your table.
As for Cretaceous drink options, well, how would you feel about serving warm water? Ice tea, lemonade, beer and wine would be off the menu thanks to that not-yet-evolved-angiosperm problem, and finding ice would be very difficult -- the Cretaceous climate was so much warmer than today that a quick trip out for ice would turn into an expedition to the highest mountains of Antarctica.
In FossiLab, we think it would be awesome to visit the Cretaceous. But if we ever get invited to a Cretaceous barbecue, we will plan to pick up a few things at the market before we go.