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10 Thundering Facts About Apatosaurus

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Apatosaurus suffers from an identity crisis of epic proportions. Even today, many people only know this amazing animal as the Brontosaurus, a name that was discarded 111 years ago. Really, it’s a shame. The real Apatosaurus deserves way more respect for what it was as opposed to what it wasn’t.  

1. Scientifically, There’s No Such Thing as a Brontosaurus (But Apatosaurus is Legit)

While exploring Wyoming in 1879, a field crew organized by fossil hunter Othneil Charles Marsh found an impressive dino skeleton which he called Brontosaurus, or “Thunder Lizard.”

Fast forward to 1903. Paleontologist Elmer Riggs discovered that Brontosaurus was really a new species of Apatosaurus (“Deceptive Lizard”), another dinosaur Marsh’s men had discovered. Because the name Apatosaurus was older, it earned seniority, and Brontosaurus officially became an invalid genus.

2. Apatosaurus Was Accidentally Given the Wrong Head

Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Headless dinos rarely attract tourists. Though Marsh’s original Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus specimen was missing its skull, he believed the creature had a rounded noggin. So museum curators started giving their Apatosaurus mounts artificial heads modeled after a blunt-skulled creature called Camarasaurus. Apatosaurus’ true head (pictured directly above) wouldn’t be identified until the 1970s.

3. Apatosaurus Was Fairly Heavyset

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“I’m not fat; I’m just big-boned!” Despite being shorter in length than Diplodocus and Barosaurus—two close relatives that shared its habitat—Apatosaurus had a much beefier skeleton and probably outweighed them.

4. A Long-Standing Myth Claims That Apatosaurus Lived in Swamps

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News flash: Sauropods (“long-necked dinosaurs”) could get awfully big. In fact, some scientists briefly wondered if these beasties were too massive to walk about on dry land. Perhaps, it was suggested, they had to wallow in swamps and marshes to avoid collapsing under their own body mass. Today, there’s no reason to support this idea (fossilized track ways prove that sauropods could manage just fine terrestrially), but many keep buying into it anyway. 

5. Apatosaurus Had a Weird Neck

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This thing’s downright baffling! Apatosaurus, like many reptiles, had large, dangling structures called “cervical ribs” connected to its neck vertebrae. But in this particular dino, they’re abnormally massive—and nobody knows why.  

6. It Lived with a Rogue’s Gallery of Predators

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One hundred and fifty million years ago, the American west was a pretty wild place. Local carnivores included the 20-foot Ceratosaurus, the 28-foot Allosaurus, and the 30-foot Torvosaurus. As if this weren’t bad enough, smaller predatory dinos like Tanycolagreus, Marshosaurus, and Coelurus were also kicking around. Sheesh…

7. The British Successfully Cloned an Apatosaurus … According to Internet Pranksters

ibtimes.co.uk

Facebook recently gave everyone a big dose of face-palm fuel when users started denouncing Steven Spielberg en masse for supposedly killing a Triceratops. This wasn’t the first major dinosaur hoax of 2014. Here’s an actual excerpt from a sham article that went viral last March:  

Scientists at Liverpool’s John Moore University have successfully cloned a dinosaur, a spokesman from the university said today. The dinosaur, a baby Apatosaurus nicknamed "Spot" is currently being incubated at the University’s college of Veterinary Medicine.

The author(s) even included a picture… of a hairless baby kangaroo.

8. Apatosaurus Inspired one of the World’s First Cartoon Characters

Hand-drawn icons from Mickey Mouse to Homer Simpson owe a lot to an Apatosaurus named Gertie. Initially, the heroes and villains in animated cartoons were mere transplants from pre-existing comic strips. But 1914’s “Gertie the Dinosaur”—conceived by vaudevillian Winsor McCay—featured one of the first original characters created specifically for this exciting new medium.  

9. Apatosaurus Might Have Been Even Bigger Than We Imagined…  

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Last week, a team led by the Museum of Western Colorado finished unearthing a record-shattering Apatosaurus femur. At roughly 6 feet 6 inches long, this magnificent specimen indicates that Apatosaurus could have potentially reached over 80 feet in total length—noticeably longer than previous estimates had suggested.

10. A Vocal Scientific Minority Thinks Brontosaurus Should be Resurrected

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There’s one tiny glimmer of hope for all the Bronto fans out there. When the name was demoted, the animal it belonged to was re-dubbed Apatosaurus excelsus. Yet, a few paleontologists now argue that A. excelsus is different-looking enough from the other known Apatosaurus species (A. ajax, A. louisae, and A. parvus) to deserve its own genus. Brontosaurus would therefore be restored after a hiatus that’s lasted since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.

Granted, there’s little chance of this actually happening. The vast majority of paleontologists favor keeping A. excelsus right where it is classification-wise. Unless some conclusive evidence against this status quo turns up, that’ll likely never change. Still, perhaps “Brontosaurus” might make a thundering comeback after all…

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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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