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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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Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada
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paleontology
The Exquisitely Preserved ‘Mona Lisa of Dinosaurs’ Has Been Named
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Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada

Experts say the spectacularly well-preserved nodosaur now on display at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum (RTM) represents a new species—a hulking, armored beast that was not too proud to hide when predators were on the prowl. The research team described this "dinosaur equivalent of a tank" in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology.

The nodosaur's massive remains were uncovered by miners in Alberta in 2011 in what was a seabed about 110 million years ago, when the creature died. The enormous block of stone and fossil was transferred to the museum, where technician Mark Mitchell set about freeing the specimen from its final resting place.

A researcher with a small pick prepares a dinosaur specimen.

The task took Mitchell more than five years and 7000 hours. Every one of them was worth it: The results are breathtaking.

Closeup of a nodosaur fossil.

"This nodosaur is truly remarkable in that it is completely covered in preserved scaly skin, yet is also preserved in three dimensions, retaining the original shape of the animal. The result is that the animal looks almost the same today as it did back in the Early Cretaceous," museum scientist Caleb Brown said in a statement. "If you just squint your eyes a bit, you could almost believe it was sleeping. ... It will go down in science history as one of the most beautiful and best preserved dinosaur specimens—the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs."

While Mitchell chipped away at the stone tomb, Brown and his colleagues began trying to identify the animal inside. They knew it was a member of the stocky, heavily armored nodosaur family, but they couldn't figure out which one.

Eventually they realized why—it's not a species or genus anyone has ever seen before. Even so, the incredible quality of the museum's specimen made it possible for them to reconstruct what it might have looked like in life.

Chemical analysis of the nodosaur's scales and horn sheaths indicated the presence of a reddish-gold pigment called pheomelanin. In people, pheomelanin is what gives redheads their coppery locks and lends our lips and nipples their pinkish color. In nodosaurs, it probably turned them orange.

Some parts of them, at least. The researchers realized that their specimen, a herbivore, most likely had a pale belly, like a squirrel, and darker coloration on its back. This color patterning is called countershading. It's used to help animals blend into their surroundings and hide from predators.

That's right: Apparently the dinosaur's massive punk spikes and tough hide were not enough to keep it safe. It needed camouflage, too.

"Strong predation on a massive, heavily armored dinosaur illustrates just how dangerous the dinosaur predators of the Cretaceous must have been," Brown said.

The team named their new species Borealopelta markmitchelli. The genus name is a combination of "borealis" (Latin for "northern") and "pelta" (Greek for "shield'"). The species name is a tribute to Mitchell, the scientists write, for his "patient and skilled" revealing of their pride and joy.

All images courtesy of the Royal Tyrell Museum.

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What 6 Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park Really Looked Like
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Universal Pictures

by Alex Carter

In the 24 years that have passed since the original Jurassic Park hit theaters, what we know about dinosaurs has changed—a lot. Here's some of the new research that may change how you imagine these ancient animals, along with illustrations of what the animals may have looked like when they actually roamed the Earth.

1. VELOCIRAPTOR

Movie:

Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Velociraptor.
Matt Martyniuk, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

A far cry from the large and vicious hunters of the Jurassic Park movies, velociraptors were in fact small and covered in feathers. More like vicious turkeys, if you will. The dinosaur in the movies was based on the Deinonychus, a much larger species whose name, appropriately, means “terrible claw.” (Even Deinonychus wasn't quite as big as the raptors portrayed in the movie.) That said, other large raptors have since been discovered, including the entire genus Utahraptor. (Its discoverers originally considered naming the type species Utahraptor spielbergi in hopes that the director would finance their research, but the name-for-funds deal never went through, so it was ultimately called Utahraptor ostrommaysorum.)

2. TYRANNOSAURUS REX

Movie:

A T. Rex in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a T. Rex.
A feathered version of a T. Rex.

Large. Imposing. Fluffy? Apparently, the T. rex looked much, much stranger than the beast brought to life on the silver screen. Its face might have been covered with patches of armored skin and large scales, its eyes were placed much farther forward than other dinosaurs, and it carried itself rather horizontally, not upright, as most people still imagine it. It's thought from discoveries in close relatives that T. rex was covered in some feathers for a part of its life (especially as a juvenile, as seen in The Lost World), although the details remain hotly debated. Also debated are what it used its arms for: Hypotheses have ranged from a role in reproduction to lifting itself up (which is increasingly considered unlikely) to nothing at all.

3. COMPSOGNATHUS

Movie:

A Compsognathus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a Compsognathus.
A feathered version of a Compsognathus.

This dinosaur was actually bigger in real life, although not by much. The smaller version depicted in the movies was based on what is now believed to be a young (and therefore small) Compsognathus. While many dinosaurs of its type were covered in feathers, there has been a notable lack of evidence about whether compies, as they're known, had feathers or scales. Most artists tend to draw simple proto-feathers, though; the result is an animal that looks more furry than feathery—and remarkably like a stretched rat.

4. TRICERATOPS

Movie:

A Triceratops in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

These creatures are generally portrayed as leathery and pointy—a bit like a rhinoceros designed by committee. The reality is somewhat stranger: They actually resembled porcupines. Some paleontologists believe that several nipple-shaped protrusions in their skin suggest where bristles would have been. In other areas, their skin was likely scaled rather than leathery. Their horns are another mystery. A 2009 study indicated that they were used largely for combat with other Triceratops, but they probably had a role in courtship as well.

5. BRACHIOSAURUS

Movie:

A Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Brachiosaurus.

In Jurassic Park, the Brachiosaurus is the first dinosaur seen after everyone arrives on the island, memorably rearing up to get at some particularly delicious leafage. But that behavior is now considered unlikely. The book Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs attempted to calculate if Brachiosaurs were able to rear on their hind legs and concluded, “Brachiosaurus would have expended considerably more energy [than a Diplodocus], could not have attained a stable upright pose, and would have risked serious injury to its forefeet when descending too rapidly.” Dr. Heinrich Mallison noted that it “was probably unlikely to use a bipedal … posture regularly and for an extended period of time. Although this dinosaur certainly could have reared up, for example during mating, this was probably a rare and short-lived event.”

6. SPINOSAURUS

Movie:

A Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Spinosaurus.

Joschua Knüppe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

The Spinosaurus was discovered only a few years after the Tyrannosaurus, but it never attracted fans in quite the same way. The fossils were destroyed in World War II during an Allied bombing raid on Munich, and the dinosaur became largely forgotten. However, Jurassic Park III resurrected the dinosaur's fame with a showdown that saw the Spinosaurus kill a Tyrannosaurus. Many fans cried foul, and the size of the Spinosaurus was indeed a mistake … in reality, it was much bigger.

It would have been up to three times heavier and 20 feet longer; a creature on the higher end of that range would have been bigger than even Jurassic World's (invented) I. rex. But could Spinosaurus have taken on a T. rex and lived? Almost certainly not. While physically bigger and armed with a bigger jaw, it was much less powerful, as most paleontologists now believe Spinosaurus used its long jaws for fishing. It actually lived mostly in the water.

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