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Drexel University, Youtube

Humongous New Dinosaur Discovered in Patagonia

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Drexel University, Youtube

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Dreadnoughtus schrani, a newfound giant which—thanks to an amazing skeleton—can help us better understand some of the biggest dinosaurs that ever lived.

The species’ discovery was recently announced by an international fossil-hunting team, which excavated two specimens—including one that was unusually complete. A resident of modern-day Patagonia, this animal was roughly 86 feet in length and weighed an estimated 65 tons. At that size, Dreadnoughtus likely had few natural enemies when fully grown. Appropriately, therefore, its genus name literally means “fears nothing.”

Remember the Titanosaurs

Extra-large dinosaurs are nothing new in South America. Earlier this year, an eight-foot upper arm bone belonging to some huge herbivore was spotted in the vicinity of La Flecha, Argentina. Also, nearly man-sized backbones from a colossal creature called Argentinosaurus have been popping up since the 1980s.

Argentinosaurus and Dreadnoughtus are both classified as “titanosaurs”: a group of long-necked plant-eaters which started evolving during the early Cretaceous period around 100 million years ago. “Titanosaurs are… [remarkable] dinosaurs,” says Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologist Matthew Lamanna, “with species ranging from the weight of a cow to the weight of a sperm whale or more.”

Yet, larger titanosaur varieties usually haven’t been well-represented in the fossil record. Instead, amazing dinos like Argentinosaurus are largely known from scrappy material and isolated fragments.

But what makes the recent Dreadnoughtus discovery so exciting is the fact that nearly half (43%) of one skeleton has been recovered. For experts, this presents some exciting research possibilities.

Going Out on a Limb

Weighing a dinosaur is no simple task. Reimagining muscle mass is particularly tricky: when you’ve only got some skeletal remains to work with, it’s sometimes difficult to assess how slender or bulky their owner was.

However, limb anatomy can help point us in the right direction, especially when dealing with four-legged creatures like Dreadnoughtus. This new skeleton includes a humerus (“funny bone”) and femur (“thigh bone”), allowing paleontologists to take critical measurements designed to help ascertain how much heft these bones supported in everyday life. Therefore, Dreadnoughtus’ weight is, theoretically, far more calculable than that of most plus-sized titanosaurs.

So, Was this the Biggest. Dinosaur. Ever?

It’s far too early to say. Ultimately, we may never know for sure. As mentioned earlier, dinosaurian behemoths don’t tend to fossilize very completely. Ergo, adequate length and mass measurements are often impossible.

Consider, for example, a mysterious species called Amphicoelias altus. To date, this beast’s existence is evidenced by a single vertebrae, which went missing after its discovery and remains unaccounted for. By comparing the fossil’s size to that of a corresponding bone in its smaller relative Diplodocus, some researchers have claimed that Amphicoelias could’ve been over 190 feet long! However, in the absence of any complete Amphicoelias skeletons, we can neither confirm nor deny these speculations or start comparing it with other jumbo dinos.

Nevertheless, one thing is quite certain: in their heyday, Dreadnoughtus and its kin must’ve been a spectacular sight to see.

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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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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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