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10 Facts About Leaellynasaura

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Leaellynasaura may seem like an unassuming little creature, but it tells a remarkable story—one that involves drifting continents, a snowy wonderland, and the world’s luckiest little girl. Here’s a quick crash course on this dino from Down Under.

1. Leaellynasaura Was a Polar Dinosaur.

To hear some B-movies tell it, the Earth of yesteryear was a uniform, Star Wars-esque planet completely over-run by tropical swamps. In Hollywood’s defense, global temperatures were indeed much warmer during the dinosaurs’ heyday. However, 110 million years ago, Leaellynasaura roamed Australia’s southern tip—a region then trapped inside the Antarctic Circle. Frozen ground and prolonged seasons of near-total darkness were among the special challenges it had to face.

2. Leaellynasaura’s Tail was Freakishly Long.   

El fosilmaníaco

In fact, the dino’s tail contained over 70 vertebrae and—according to some recent estimates—made up a stunning 75 percent of its total body length! So, what purpose did the thing serve? Scientists aren’t sure, but some argue that if the appendage was covered in bright downy feathers, it could’ve been used for sexual display. 

3. It’s One of Australia’s Most Famous Dinosaurs.

Despite boasting legions of fantastically-weird animals today, precious few dino bones have turned up on the continent: less than two dozen Aussie species are known. Among these, Leaellynasaura is a bona fide celebrity thanks to its marquee role in BBCs Walking with Dinosaurs series.

4. It Had Huge, Penetrating Eyes.

Leaellynasaura was blessed with a pair of unusually big eyeballs, which—apart from making it look downright adorable—helped this nimble herbivore peer through the wintery polar gloom. The dino’s brain cavity includes enlarged optic lobes, indicating that it was designed to process complex images in low-light conditions.  

5. It’s Part of a Wonderful “Dinosaur Petting Zoo.”

Created by Erth, an Australian theatrical company, the “Dinosaur Petting Zoo” is a live theatrical experience featuring oversized dinosaur puppets manipulated onstage by their human “handlers.” Kids are invited to walk up and touch them as a friendly zookeeper talks about each animal’s natural history. The bug-eyed Leaellynasaura is a particular fan favorite.  

6. Unlike Today’s Polar Animals, Leaellynasaura Probably Didn’t Hibernate.

Instead of going dormant during harsher seasons, a 2011 investigation argues that Leaellynasaura and other cold-weather dinosaurs likely remained active year-round. Previously, some thought that—because the thickness of the “growth rings” in its bones dramatically fluctuates—Leaellynasaura’s metabolism annually slowed down as winter arrived, putting the creature in a state of bear-like hibernation. This argument was derailed when an international research team discovered very similar patterns in several tropical and temperate-zone dinos, which would’ve had no reason to hibernate. It’s still possible that Leaellynasaura slept through the roughest months of each year, but we no longer have any persuasive evidence to support this notion.

7. Leaellynasaura Was Found in a Place Named “Dinosaur Cove.”

Anthony Martin

What are the odds, right? Nestled on the outskirts of Melbourne, “Dinosaur Cove” is a rich fossil bed named in 1980 to honor the site’s numerous reptilian remains. Other species found there include a speedy plant-eater called Atlascopcosaurus and an unnamed Allosaurus relative.

8. Leaellynasaura Might Have Been a Burrower.

After three fossilized burrows were found in Dinosaur Cove during the late 2000s, paleontologist Tony Martin speculated that Leaellynasaura may have dug them, perhaps in an effort to shield itself from the frigid climate. Believe it or not, subterranean dinos have turned up before: In 2007, three partial skeletons belonging to one of Leaellynasaura’s distant cousins were found huddled together inside a cavernous den the creatures had presumably made.  

9. Leaellynasaura Was Discovered by a Dino-Loving Couple ...

Fossils can really bring people together. Patricia and Thomas Rich are a pair of Australian paleontologists who’ve unearthed several all-new dinosaurs, including Leaellynasaura, which they scientifically described in 1989. 

10. … Who Named it After Their Daughter.  

“When I was two,” reminisced a young Leaellyn Rich in an open letter to Ranger Rick magazine, “I had a book called My Little Dinosaur. It was about a boy who found a live dinosaur in a cave near his house. I started wanting a dinosaur too. My dad worked with dinosaurs in a museum … so I asked him to get me one.” It was a dream her parents never forgot. Years later, the Riches decided to call their newly discovered species “Leaellynasaura” in her honor. “[You] can just imagine,” the excited girl wrote, “how I felt when I first saw the fossils of my very own dinosaur. Thanks, Mum and Dad!”

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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
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Imagine a world in which eagle-sized dragonflies buzzed through the air and millipedes as long as kayaks scuttled across Earth. "Ick"-factor aside for bug haters, these creatures aren't the product of a Michael Crichton fever dream. In fact, they actually existed around 300 million years ago, as MinuteEarth host Kate Yoshida explains.

How did the prehistoric ancestors of today’s itty-bitty insects get so huge? Oxygen, and lots of it. Bugs "breathe by sponging up air through their exoskeletons, and the available oxygen can only diffuse so far before getting used up," Yoshida explains. And when an atmospheric spike in the colorless gas occurred, this allowed the critters' bodies to expand to unprecedented dimensions and weights.

But that's just one of the clever adaptations that allowed some creatures to grow enormous. Learn more about these adaptations—including the ingenious evolutionary development that helped the biggest dinosaurs to haul their cumbersome bodies around, and the pair of features that boosted blue whales to triple their size, becoming the largest animals ever on Earth—by watching MinuteEarth's video below.

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