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10 Bone-Headed Facts About Pachycephalosaurus

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Pachycephalosaurus’ domed, heavily-built head looks like it was capable inflicting some serious damage. Unfortunately, trying to decipher how this animal used that noggin has given many poor scientists headaches of their own.

1. Its Skull Roof was Up to 10 Inches Thick.

Pachycephalosaurus heads only reached total lengths of two feet or so. In case you’re curious, human men and women have an average skull thickness of 6.5 and 7.1 millimeters, respectively.

2. Pachycephalosaurus Heads Were Once Mistaken for Dinosaur Kneecaps.

Dinosaurs—unlike mammals—lacked kneecaps altogether. However, during the late 19th century, this fact wasn’t widely known, and few non-skull-related Pachycephalosaurus bones had been found, so this weird hypothesis is pretty forgivable.

3. One of its Close Cousins Has the World’s Longest Dinosaur Name.

Try saying this five times fast: Micropachycephalosaurus. It means “small, thick-headed lizard.” What a flattering label!

4. Pachycephalosaurus May Have Drastically Changed Shape with Age.

Dr. John R. “Jack” Horner—who, among other accomplishments, served as the Jurassic Park trilogy’s dino consultant—maintains that Pachycephalosaurus and two similar creatures which shared its habitat were really the same animal. Stygimoloch and Dracorex are smaller and had much flatter skulls. If Horner’s correct, these represent two juvenile stages of Pachycephalosaurus. He expands upon his argument at the 8:30-mark of this TED clip: 

5. It Belongs to the Same Dinosaur Clade as Triceratops.

Triceratops and its horned/frilled kin are collectively known as “ceratopsians.” Together with the pachycephalosaurids, they form a diverse dinosaurian group called the marginocephalia (“ridged heads”).

6. Perhaps Pachycephalosaurus Butted Heads.

Paleo-artists have traditionally drawn Pachycephalosaurus ramming headlong into each other musk ox-style. Does the available evidence support this?  Some scientists think so, claiming that their domes were well-equipped for absorbing such brutal impacts. Others, meanwhile, have their doubts.

7. … Or, Alternatively, Pachycephalosaurus Might’ve Preferred Flanking.

Today’s giraffes violently slam their heads into rivals’ sides. Maybe Pachycephalosaurus behaved likewise. Many of its kin had conspicuously-wide ribcages, which could theoretically withstand this sort of abuse. Also, try making two bowling balls forcefully collide at point-blank range. You’ll notice that the spheres will only briefly connect before quickly sliding apart thanks to their curvature. Pachycephalosaurus domes were also quite rounded and potentially faced the same mechanical challenge. If so, “flanking” might’ve been a more effective undertaking when tempers flared.

8. Pachycephalosaurus Had to Worry About T. rex.

Tyrannosaurus and Pachycephalosaurus both dwelled in western North America during the late Cretaceous period around 65 million years ago. That thick head was therefore possibly employed as an anti-predator weapon. 

9. Regardless, Pachycephalosaurus Could Sustain some Serious Cranial Trauma.

In 2012, paleontologist Joseph Peterson subjected a Pachycephalosaurus skull to CT scanning and found numerous potential injury marks “clustered over the thickest region of the dome,” which—in his view—seemingly corresponded with the head-butting hypothesis.

10. Pachycephalosaurus is (Indirectly) Linked to the Harry Potter Series.

To honor its dragon-like appearance and a certain best-selling book series, one new pachycephalosaurid species was named Dracorex hogwartsia in 2006. Upon hearing the good news, J.K. Rowling proclaimed “[this] is easily the most unexpected honor to have come my way since the publishing of the Harry Potter books! I am absolutely thrilled to think that Hogwarts has made a small claw mark on the fascinating world of dinosaurs.” She also added that “I can’t help but visualizing [Dracorex] as a slightly less pyromaniac Hungarian Horntail.”

But don’t get too excited, Potter fans. Remember: Dracorex could simply be nothing more than a young Pachycephalosaurus, which would make the Hogwarts-themed moniker obsolete. 

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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iStock

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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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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