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10 Fanged Facts About Heterodontosaurus

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Wikimedia Commons

Heterodontosaurus was a weird little animal—one that has been surprising scientists since its discovery in 1962. Prepare to be perplexed.

1. Its Dentition Was Complicated (By Reptile Standards).

Imagine having a mouth filled with nothing but bicuspids. If you’re reading this sentence, we’re assuming you’re a mammal. And, like most mammals, your mouth contains several types of teeth. Reptiles, in contrast, have more uniform jaws. To them, one tooth variety per species is considered normal.

Yet Heterodontosaurus sported small peg-like teeth, enlarged canines (colloquially referred to as “tusks”), and a row of squarish shearing chompers. For those keeping score, that’s three very different-looking types. The neighbors must have been jealous…

2. Heterodontosaurus’ Hands Were Great at Grasping.

On each hand, Heterodontosaurus had five fingers, two of which were opposable. These doubtlessly made mealtimes a little bit easier.

3. It Had a Fairly Flexible Tail.

Many of Heterodontosaurus’ relatives featured something this turkey-sized dino lacked: long, bony tail tendons which, while stabilizing, arrested a certain degree of mobility. 

4. Heterodontosaurus Resided in Modern-Day South Africa.

You’ll have to visit Capetown, home of the Iziko South African Museum, to see the world’s best Heterodontosaurus specimens. For those interested, ostrich-like Nqwebasaurus and the long-necked Massospondylus also rank among this nation’s dinosaurs.

5. Those Frightening “Tusks” Could’ve Been Handy Digging Tools.

Perhaps Heterodontosaurus sifted through topsoil with its blade-like canines, scrounging for roots and other buried treasures. Maybe they were used to break into termite mounds or scare off would-be predators. We may never learn the “tooth” of the matter.

6. It Turns Out that Youngsters Had Tusks, Too.

The first known baby Heterodontosaurus skull was finally identified in 2008. Less than two inches long, this teeny, tiny fossil would’ve been dwarfed by a household teabag. According to paleontologist Richard Butler, the specimen “had relatively large eyes and a short snout when compared to an adult—similar to the differences we see between puppies and fully grown dogs.” And there was more. Some had previously argued that, as with modern warthogs, Heterodontosaurus’ tusks didn’t come in until after the critter reached maturity. Yet this little tyke proudly displayed a pair of those iconic canines, disproving that idea.

7. Heterodontosaurus Might’ve Been an Omnivore.

Heterodontosaurus is traditionally cited as an herbivore. But did the wee creature also gobble up insects or the occasional vertebrate from time to time? It’s entirely possible. After all, true herbivory is actually quite rare in today’s animal kingdom; even supposedly strict vegetarians like farm cows have been caught munching on live prey.

8. One of its Cousins Was Covered in Bristles.

Tianyulong of China had long, hollow, feather-like fibers all over its body. Though Heterodontosaurus died out approximately 60 million years earlier (during the early Jurassic period), the beastie may have had similar structures to those of its Asian relative.

9. Heterodontosaurus’ Family Has Huge Implications for the Origin of Feathers

We’ve known for decades that many non-avian dinosaurs had feathers. But evidence of plumage usually shows up within a very specific group, namely theropods—or “meat-eating” dinos—such as Velociraptor. However, Tianyulong and other heterodontosaurids were ornithopods, a clan which represents a very different branch of the dinosaurian family tree. Because such distantly-related animals have been found with somewhat similar coverings, it seems likely that feathers started evolving at a very early point in dinosaur history. 

10. The University of Chicago Recently Built an Amazing Heterodontosaurus Bust.

This behind-the-scenes video should be required viewing for anyone interested in the marriage of art and science. For this masterpiece, sculptor and fossil preparator Tyler Keillor won the 2012 Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize. 

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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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Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder
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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