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10 Frilled Facts About Protoceratops

Emily Willoughby

Scarcity attracts people. What’s common is often ignored, overshadowed by the exotic and unusual. But sometimes—as this week’s featured dinosaur demonstrates—familiar things can teach us far more than the rarest of the rare. 

1. Protoceratops  Was a Desert Dino.

Seventy million years ago (during the late Cretaceous period), much of central Asia was covered in a vast prehistoric desert inhabited by such reptilian residents as the plant-shearing Protoceratops, the bird-like Shuvuuia, and the sickle-clawed Velociraptor.

2. An Unusual Protoceratops Skeleton May Have Literally Stopped Dead in Its Tracks.  

Fossilized footprints reveal a lot about how extinct creatures behaved, but paleontologists can’t say for certain which species left which track. However, in 2011, one very special footprint was found directly underneath a Protoceratops skeleton, and it’s entirely possible that the two specimens are directly connected.

3. A Nest Full of Adorable Protoceratops Toddlers Has Turned Up.

Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez

In November 2011, scientists announced the discovery of a nest containing 15 youngsters. Cooler still is the fact that the wee beasties weren’t newborn hatchlings: They seem to have been growing up a bit before striking out on their own, probably with a little help from their folks. “These animals definitely grew at the nest,” says the University of Rhode Island’s Dr. David Fastovsky, “…the implication is there [was] some kind of parental care involved.” 

4. Protoceratops Was So Common That It’s Been Dubbed “The Sheep of the Cretaceous.”

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The Gobi Desert has yielded hundreds of specimens over the past century, making Protoceratops an unusually well-represented dinosaur. And while we’re on the subject of livestock references, paleontologist Anthony J. Martin once called Protoceratops “Mesozoic Mutton.”

5. It’s Been Argued that Protoceratops Was Built for Tunneling. 

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This might explain the superabundance of Protoceratops bones. After all, a dead animal resting in an underground burrow is much less likely to get picked apart by scavengers or demolished by the elements than an exposed corpse on the surface. So, what’s the evidence? Paleontologist Nicholas Longrich notes that these dinos are often found buried in a strange “upright” position, indicating that they might’ve been standing in cavernous tunnels when they died. 

6. One Protoceratops Species was Named in Honor of a Real-Life Indiana Jones.

Karen

Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) was an explorer who carried a bullwhip, wore a broad-brimmed hat, regularly cheated death, and traveled the world searching for age-old treasures. Heck, the man even hated snakes! Protoceratops andrewsi—a dino discovered on an expedition he spearheaded—was named after him in 1923. 

7. In 1971, a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor Were Found Locked in Combat.

Yuya Tamai

A carnivorous Velociraptor sinks one of its curved toe claws into your neck. What do you do? Well, if you’re a Protoceratops, try chomping down on its arm. The beaked herbivore had some powerful jaws built to slice through sturdy vegetation. As this incredible discovery—unearthed by a Polish-Mongolian crew—demonstrates, they could also help it take a bite out of predators.

How did such an astonishing duel get frozen in time to begin with? One hypothesis claims that the fighters were slugging it out at the base of a waterlogged dune when a sudden mudslide instantly smothered them in fossil-friendly sediment. 

8. Protoceratops “Eye Rings” Have Been Uncovered.

The “sclerotic ring” is a bony circle found within the eyeballs of many vertebrates (including numerous dinosaurs), which helps these sight organs retain their shape. 

9. Protoceratops Noggins Were Fairly Diverse.

Thanks to a wealth of material, scientists have found that some Protoceratops have broader frills and steeper arches above the nose than their neighbors. Do these groups represent the two different sexes? Two different sub-species? Nobody knows.    

10. There’s a Decent Chance that the Griffins of Ancient Folklore were Inspired by Protoceratops.

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In The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, historian Adrienne Mayor suggests that the mythical griffin—rumored to stalk the Gobi—was born when ancient travelers stumbled across Protoceratops remains. Like the legendary monster, she observes, this local dinosaur had four strong legs and a bird-like beak. 

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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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