10 Fanged Facts About Heterodontosaurus

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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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August 8, 2014 - 6:00pm
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