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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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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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In the early 2000s, a team of paleontologists inadvertently set the stage for a years-long scientific saga after they excavated a well-preserved partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana's Hell Creek formation. While transporting the bones, the scientists were forced to break a femur. Pieces from inside the thigh bone fell out, and these fragments were sent to Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, for dissection and analysis.

Under a microscope, Schweitzer thought she could make out what appeared to be cells and tiny blood vessels inside the pieces, similar to those commonly discovered inside fresh bone. Further analysis revealed what appeared to be animal proteins, which sent Schweitzer reeling. Could she have just discovered soft tissue inside dinosaur leg bone many millions of years old, found in ancient sediments laid down during the Cretaceous period? Or was the soft stuff simply a substance known as biofilm, which would have been formed by microbes after the bone had already fossilized?

Following a seemingly endless series of debates, studies, and papers, Schweitzer's hunch was proven correct. That said, this contentious conclusion wasn't made overnight. To hear the whole saga—and learn what it means for science—watch the recent episode of Stated Clearly below, which was first spotted by website Earth Archives.

[h/t Earth Archives]

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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum). These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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