Dinosaurs Had Dandruff Problems, Too

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One of the most compelling aspects of paleontology is its ability to surprise even the most well-versed dinosaur scholars. Every fossil holds the potential to shed new light on how these prehistoric creatures lived, ate, and thrived.

Now, scientists have learned some dinos would have benefited from a medicated shampoo.

A study published in Nature Communications examining 125-million-year-old fossils discovered in China demonstrates that dinos expressed a condition common to humans: Their skin would flake off, creating tiny dandruff specks. The paper helps provide an explanation for how dinosaurs managed to molt, or shed skin in an effort to create tougher exterior tissue.

The specimens consisted of skin and feathers from three different non-avian dinosaurs—the crow-sized Microraptor and the larger Beipiaosaurus and Sinornithosaurus—and one bird, Confuciusornis, all from the Early Cretaceous period. The feathers were dotted with white, 1-2 millimeter blobs that initially puzzled scientists, who eventually visualized them with an ion beam microscope. Researchers confirmed them to be flakes of skin composed of corneocytes, tough cells containing keratin. The flecks suggested that these dinosaurs molted by shedding skin like modern birds instead of casting off chunks of skin like other reptiles.

The corneocytes of today's birds contain fats and loosely packed keratin, which allows birds to stay cool during heat-intensive activity like flying. The dino corneocytes were densely packed with keratin, and they probably wouldn't have provided much of a cooling effect. That tells scientists that the bird-like dinosaurs didn't spend too much time in the air.

If they didn't fly, why the feathers? It probably had to do with keeping warm and providing camouflage from both predators and prey. Researchers hope to continue their studies on the plumage to see what else they can learn.

[h/t Popular Science]

The Fossil of a Human-Sized Penguin Has Been Unearthed in New Zealand

DurkTalsma/iStock via Getty Images
DurkTalsma/iStock via Getty Images

Penguins are known for looking cute and cuddly, but if the monster penguins of the Paleocene epoch were still around today, they might have developed a different reputation. As The Guardian reports, the fossil of a new species of one of these giant prehistoric penguins was recently discovered in New Zealand, and scientists say it would have gone head-to-head with many adult humans.

The bird, dubbed Crossvallia waiparensis, stood about 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed about 175 pounds. For comparison, emperor penguins weigh up to 88 pounds and can reach 3 feet 8 inches in height. The prehistoric bird waddled the Earth some time between 66 and 56 million years ago—shortly after the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs and marine reptiles, which were probably its main predators.

An amateur paleontologist named Leigh Love discovered the creature's fossilized leg bones on New Zealand's South Island. From those fossils alone, a team of scientists from the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand and the Senckenberg natural history museum in Germany were able to estimate the penguin's height and weight and determine that it belonged to a previously undiscovered species. The large leg bones also indicate that the animal was more reliant on its feet for paddling through the water than the penguins of today.

Crossvallia waiparensis is massive by today's penguin standards, but it's not even the largest prehistoric penguin that we know of. When carnivorous reptiles began disappearing from the world's oceans, the waters opened up for new predators like penguins to flourish. Kumimanu biceae is estimated to have weighed about 223 pounds; Palaeeudyptes klekowskii may have weighed 253 pounds and stretched 6 feet 5 inches long.

[h/t The Guardian]

College Student Finds a 65-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Skull During Paleontology Dig in North Dakota

Harrison Duran with a partial Triceratops skull.
Harrison Duran with a partial Triceratops skull.
Fossil Excavators

Paleontology is often a game of luck, and an undergraduate student at the University of California, Merced recently hit the jackpot. As CBS News reports, Harrison Duran, a fifth-year biology student with an emphasis in ecology and evolutionary biology, was on a dig in the Badlands of North Dakota when he struck upon the partial skull of a 65-million-year-old Triceratops fossil.

Duran trekked out to the Badlands with "bone digger" and Mayville State University biology professor Michael Kjelland expecting to find plant fossils on their two-week dig. Among the fossilized wood and leaves, they discovered something else: the remains of a Triceratops, one of the most iconic dinosaurs of all time.

Duran, whose passion for dinosaurs predates his academic career, was ecstatic. “I can’t quite express my excitement in that moment when we uncovered the skull,” he told UC Merced. “I’ve been obsessed with dinosaurs since I was a kid, so it was a pretty big deal.”

The specimen was named Alice in honor of the owner of the land where it was found. After a week-long excavation, the partial skull was covered in foil and plaster and transported by truck to Kjelland's lab. Kjelland noted that such fossils are susceptible to theft (Triceratops skulls can be worth a quarter-million dollars), but he hopes to eventually make Alice viewable to the public. His ideal scenario would be touring the skull around various locations, but the fossil must be further analyzed and prepared for display before that can happen.

The Dakotas are famous for their dinosaur fossils. Triceratops are especially prevalent there—in South Dakota, the species is the official state fossil.

Michael Kjelland with Triceratops skull treated with foil and plaster.
Michael Kjelland with Triceratops skull treated with foil and plaster.
Fossil Excavators

[h/t CBS News]

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