Questions related to dinosaur behavior can be difficult to answer conclusively by using morphological studies alone. As a complement to these approaches, carbon and oxygen isotope ratios of tooth enamel can provide insight into habitat and dietary preferences of herbivorous dinosaurs. This approach is based on the isotopic variability in plant material and in surface waters of the past, which is in turn reflected by carbon and oxygen isotope ratios of animals that ingested the organic matter or drank the water. Thus, it has the potential to identify and characterize dietary and habitat preferences for coexisting taxa.
In this study, stable isotope ratios from coexisting hadrosaurian and ceratopsian dinosaurs of the Hell Creek Formation of North Dakota are compared for four different stratigraphic levels. Isotopic offsets between tooth enamel and tooth dentine, as well as taxonomic differences in means and in patterns of isotopic data among taxa, indicate that primary paleoecological information is preserved. The existence of taxonomic offsets also provides the first direct evidence for dietary niche partitioning among these herbivorous dinosaur taxa. Of particular interest is the observation that the nature of this partitioning changes over time: for some localities ceratopsian dinosaurs have higher carbon and oxygen isotope ratios than hadrosaurs, indicating a preference for plants living in open settings near the coast, whereas for other localities isotope ratios are lower, indicating a preference for plants in the understory of forests. In most cases the isotope ratios among hadrosaurs are similar and are interpreted to represent a dietary preference for plants of the forest canopy. The inferred differences in ceratopsian behavior are suggested to represent a change in vegetation cover and hence habitat availability in response to sea level change or to the position of river distributaries. Given our current lack of taxonomic resolution, it is not possible to determine if dietary and habitat preferences inferred from stable isotope data are associated with single, or multiple, species of hadrosaurian/ceratopsian dinosaurs.