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10 Spiky Facts About Stegosaurus

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Poor Stegosaurus. Thanks its relative brain size, the Jurassic herbivore—while popular—has been slapped with prehistoric punchlines for over a century. Today, we’re saluting one of earth’s most misunderstood dinosaurs.

1. Stegosaurus’ Name is a Giant Anachronism.

Meaning “roof lizard,” it references the outdated idea that Stegosaurus’ characteristic back plates were arranged horizontally like enormous shingles. We now know these weird-looking bones stood upright, though what they were actually used for remains an open question.

2. No, Stegosaurus Didn’t Have a Second Brain Above its Butt. That Myth Needs to Go Extinct.

To be fair, the spinal columns of certain dinos—such as Stegosaurus—do have sizable cavities around their fannies. During the late 1800s, some briefly speculated that a ‘posterior braincase’ was housed there; after all, since Stegosaurus’ cranium wasn’t exactly plus-sized, backup grey matter seemed like a helpful feature.

Amusing as that notion is, there isn’t a shred of decent evidence to support it (for instance, no modern animals have one). Sadly, however, this two-brained dinosaur rumor persists.

3. Stegosaurus Did, However, Boast Pebbly Throat Armor.

Nobu Tamura

Circular lumps arranged on the neck’s underside would’ve assisted Stegosaurus in shielding its jugular from hungry predators.

4. It’s Also the State Fossil of Colorado.

Despite this, the Colorado Rockies’ current mascot is a purple Triceratops named "Dinger." At least with Stegosaurus, they could’ve thrown in some cheesy home "plate" puns. What a missed opportunity…

5. An Unlucky Allosaurus (Probably) Met the Business End of One.

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Wanna hear something scary? A noticeable percentage of known Stegosaurus tail spikes have broken and re-healed tips, indicating that, in life, their owners put them to good use. Furthermore, one famous Allosaurus vertebrae includes an unusual hole which was apparently made when the carnivore tangled with a feisty Stegosaurus and its well-armed hind end.

6. Stegosaurus Would’ve Had an Interesting Gait.

Because its front legs were significantly shorter than the rear ones, Stegosaurus was hardly speedy or agile. Realizing this, the animators of 1999’s Walking with Dinosaurs series gave the creature a frontal swagger to accommodate this difference in limb length.

7. It Wasn’t Much of a Biter.

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In 2010, using skull dimensions and tooth analyses, paleontologist Miriam Reichel found that Stegosaurus’ chompers didn’t exert much force, though being able to snip through “smaller branches” was still on their resume. 

8. In 1920, Stegosaurus was Reimagined as a Dinosaurian Hang-Glider.

Beneath one of the freakiest dinosaur drawings ever conceived, journalist W.H. Ballou wrote that—by "flapping" its plates—Stegosaurus could “[coast] through the air like some gigantic gliding machine” in an article submitted to the Standard-Examiner of Ogden, Utah.

9. Stegosaurus May Have Inhabited Portugal.

Although it was first found in the U.S. (and is usually seen as a quintessentially American dino), fragmentary remains unearthed across the pond strongly imply that Stegosaurus also roamed Portuguese terrain 150 million years ago.

10. It Has an Odd Connection to Gary Larson’s The Far Side.

In one of The Far Side’s classic 1982 strips, a Neanderthal is seen pointing to a Stegosaurus tail, remarking “Now this end we call the thagomizer… after the late Thag Simmonds.” Since then, many paleontologists have been using the term "thagomizer" to denote real-life stegosaur tails.

“I think there should be cartoon confessionals,” Larson himself later opined, “where we could go and say things like, ‘Father, I have sinned—I have drawn dinosaurs and hominids together in the same cartoon.’”

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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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