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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

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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

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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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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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