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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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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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