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Drexel University, Youtube
Drexel University, Youtube

Humongous New Dinosaur Discovered in Patagonia

Drexel University, Youtube
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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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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