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.
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.”
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!”