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10 Clawed Facts About Therizinosaurus

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If T. rex is the Citizen Kane of dinosaurs, Therizinosaurus and its kin are The Rocky Horror Picture Show: They’re strange-looking, slightly threatening, and command a dedicated fan base. Here’s some trivia guaranteed to impress your fossil-loving amigos.

1. Therizinosaurus Had the Longest Claws of Any Known Animal

The humongous claws on this dino’s hands were capable of reaching well over two feet in length. Appropriately, its name literally means “scythe lizard.”

2. Despite This, it Was (Probably) An Herbivore

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With fingers that seemingly belong in a slasher flick, you’d think these creatures were designed to slice and dice hapless victims. But most of its relatives had small, leaf-shaped teeth built to munch on foliage. (Scientists have yet to uncover a Therizinosaurus skull.) So what’s with those frightening digits? The theory is that, come mealtime, they might have helped the dinos pull down lush tree branches. For a cooler explanation, skip ahead to bullet point number nine.

3. Therizinosaurus Was Originally Mistaken for a Huge, Turtle-Like Reptile.

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In 1954, Russian paleontologist Evgeny Aleksandrovich Malayev concluded that the beast basically resembled a modern sea turtle. He wrote that its distinctive forelimbs were in fact “powerful swimming organs” with claws designed for “cutting aquatic vegetation.”

4. It’s Part of a Formerly-Baffling Family.

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When it became clear that these things were actually dinosaurs, scientists didn’t initially know how to classify the eccentric Therizinosaurids. Could they be related to the gigantic, long-necked sauropods like Jurassic Park’s Brachiosaurus? Or did they belong to the "bird-hipped" order of dinosaurs along with Stegosaurus and Triceratops?

Despite their plant-guzzling habits, closer examination revealed that therizinosaurs hailed from a group known as theropods, the vast majority of which (Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, etc.) were carnivores. Strange as this might sound, today’s pandas (which only occasionally eat meat) are similarly considered members of the mammalian "carnivora" order.

5. Some Therizinosaurs Were Covered in Feathers.

Danny Cicchetti

China’s Beipiaosaurus had multiple layers of primitive feathers, as seen in some beautifully-preserved fossils. Given its limb proportions, Beipiaosaurus definitely didn’t fly, so this plumage likely served to keep it warm and attract the opposite sex.

6. A Nest of Therizinosaur Eggs Was Found in 2013.

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After locating 17 clutches of dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert, Hokkaido University’s Yoshitsugu Kobayashi concluded that they’d been laid by indigenous therizinosaurs, a few bony remains of which had been unearthed nearby. If true, this would imply that the animals were somewhat social (at least, come nesting season).

7. Therizinosaurs Had Weird Feet.

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Ever the nonconformists, therizinosaur feet rested on four toes while standing and walking. Most theropods, meanwhile, only used three.

8. Therizinosaurus Was One Hefty Dino.

Scott Hartman

Let’s return to Therizinosaurus itself, shall we? The red areas in the above picture represent all of its presently-known skeletal material (the rest has yet to be found). Based on these partial remains, scientists have ascertained that the critter’s total length was somewhere in the ballpark of 10 meters (33 feet) while it could’ve weighed upwards of 5 tons. Not too shabby…

9. Therizinosaurus Had to Cope With a Huge T. rex Cousin.

Tarbosaurus bataar and Tyrannosaurus rex are so similar that they may have belonged to the same genus (though most experts disregard that idea). The former predator occupied Therizinosaurus’ Mongolian range roughly 70 million years ago, making this herbivore’s fearsome claws look all the more necessary. Here’s a cool (Greek language) clip from 2002’s Chased by Dinosaurs documentary in which these natural enemies spectacularly square off.

10. There’s a Life-Sized Therizinosaurus Statue in Poland.

Alina Zienowicz

Jurapark, located in the village of Bałtów, contains dozens of full-scale dinosaur models, including Allosaurus, Diplodocus, and the world-famous Iguanodon.

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AMNH // R. Mickens
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What It’s Like to Write an Opera About Dinosaurs
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AMNH // R. Mickens

There are many challenges that face those writing the lyrics to operas, but figuring out what can rhyme with dinosaur names isn’t often one of them. But wrangling multisyllabic, Latin- and Greek-derived names of prehistoric creatures into verse was an integral part of Eric Einhorn’s job as the librettist behind Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, a new, family-friendly opera currently running at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Created by On Site Opera, which puts on operas in unusual places (like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) across New York City, in conjunction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt follows the true story of Rhoda Knight and her grandfather, the famous paleoartist Charles R. Knight.

Knight worked as a freelance artist for the American Museum of Natural History from 1896 until his death in 1953, creating images of extinct species that paved the way for how we imagine dinosaurs even now. He studied with taxidermists and paleontology experts and was one of the first to paint dinosaurs as flesh-and-blood creatures in natural habitats rather than fantastical monsters, studying their bones and creating sculptural models to make his renderings as accurate as contemporary science made possible.

In the 20-minute opera, singers move around the museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, performing among skeletons and even some paintings by Knight himself. Einhorn, who also serves as the director of On Site Opera and stage director for the opera, wrote the libretto based on stories about the real-life Rhoda—who now goes by Rhoda Knight Kalt—whom he met with frequently during the development process.

Soprano Jennifer Zetland (Rhoda) sings in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.
AMNH // R. Mickens

“I spent a lot of time with Rhoda just talking about her childhood,” he tells Mental Floss, gathering anecdotes that could be worked into the opera. “She tells this great story of being in the museum when they were unpacking the wooly mammoth,” he says. "And she was just there, because her grandfather was there. It's being at the foot of greatness and not even realizing it until later.”

But there was one aspect of Rhoda’s childhood that proved to be a challenge in terms of turning her story into a performance. “Unfortunately, she was a really well-behaved kid,” Einhorn says. “And that doesn't really make for a good opera.”

Knight Kalt, who attended the opera’s dress rehearsal, explains that she knew at the time that if she misbehaved, she wouldn’t be allowed back. “I knew that the only way I could be with my grandfather was if I was very quiet,” she says. “Sometimes he would stand for an hour and a half discussing a fossil bone and how he could bring that alive … if I had interrupted then I couldn't meet him [at the museum anymore].”

Though Knight Kalt was never an artist herself, in the fictionalized version of her childhood (which takes place when Rhoda is 8), she looks around the museum for the missing bones of the dinosaur Deinocheirus so that her grandfather can draw them. The Late Cretaceous dino, first discovered in 1965, almost didn't make it into the show, though. In the first draft of the libretto, the dinosaur Rhoda is searching for in the museum was a relatively new dinosaur species found in China and first unveiled in 2015—zhenyuanlong suni—but the five-syllable name proved impossible to rhyme or sing.

Rhoda Knight Kalt stands next to the head of a dinosaur.
Rhoda Knight Kalt
Shaunacy Ferro

But Einhorn wanted to feature a real dinosaur discovery in the opera. A paleontologist at the museum, Carl Mehling, suggested Deinocheirus. “There are two arms hanging right over there,” Einhorn says, gesturing across the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, “and until [recently] the arms were the only things that had ever been discovered about Deinocheirus.” Tying the opera back to an actual specimen in the museum—one only a few feet away from where the opera would be staged—opened up a whole new set of possibilities, both lyrically and otherwise. “Once we ironed that out, we knew we had good science and better rhyming words.”

As for Knight Kalt, she says the experience of watching her childhood unfold in operatic form was a little weird. “The whole story makes me laugh,” she says. But it was also a perfectly appropriate way to honor her grandfather. “He used to sing while he was painting,” she says. “He loved the opera.”

Performances of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt will be performed at the American Museum of Natural History on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until October 15. Performances are free with museum admission, but require a reservation. The opera will later travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera.

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Denver Museum of Nature & Science
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Construction Workers in Colorado Discover 66-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Skeleton
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Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Construction projects have yielded some pretty amazing ancient finds: ancient ports, Stone Age homes, forgotten cemeteries, burial grounds, and even the bones of King Richard III. Now, The Denver Post reports that workers in Thornton, Colorado, just north of Denver, recently discovered a 66-million-year-old adult triceratops skull, along with other bones, while breaking ground for the city's new public safety facility. It's an incredibly rare find as most of the fossils found in the region are about 12,000 years old.

Instead of digging on—which may have destroyed the skeleton—the workers contacted experts to take a closer look. Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, was called to the scene to examine the bones.

"This is what we as curators dream about—getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it's not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!" Sertich said in a statement.

Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the Thornton triceratops skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

So far, scientists and volunteer diggers have unearthed the skull, two horns, a portion of the dinosaur's frill, shoulder bones, the beak at the front of the lower jaw, and ribs and vertebrae. The skeleton appears to be separated, indicating that the dinosaur may have died and lain on the ground for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, according to The Washington Post. As it decayed, its bones and flesh fell apart, and other dinosaurs, like T. rex, may have even taken a nibble at the corpse.

Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Experts say the triceratops skeleton could be the most complete Cretaceous dinosaur ever discovered in the Front Range region, and one of the oldest fossils. They've also noted that the newly discovered dino fits a larger pattern: When found in the Denver area, triceratops are typically half the size of similar ones that once lived in the Dakotas and Montana.

A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed in Thornton, Colorado.
A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

"We don't really know why," Sertich said in a Facebook Live broadcast. "Even though we have hundreds of triceratops from the American West, we only have three good skulls. And this might be one of the best skeletons to tell us why Denver triceratops are smaller than all of their cousins everywhere else."

[h/t The Denver Post]

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