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10 Sturdy Facts About Sauropelta

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Wikimedia Commons

Proving that herbivorous animals can look just as threatening as any flesh-eater is Sauropelta, a North American dinosaur with some major-league body armor.

1. It Hails from a Very Successful Dino Family Called “The Nodosaurs”

These tank-like creatures first evolved during the late Jurassic period and stuck around until roughly 67 million years ago.

2. Sauropelta’s Terrifying Spikes Might’ve Helped it Deceive Predators

Carnivores beware! When viewed from the front, the rows of upward-pointing spikes on Sauropelta’s backside likely made the animal look much larger than it actually was. Sometimes, sheer intimidation can be an awfully effective weapon.

3. Sauropelta Had to Wait Several Decades Before Getting a Name

Despite having been discovered during the Great Depression, this animal wouldn’t receive its official scientific name until 1970.

4. Sauropelta Probably Dined Selectively

Nodosaurs are known for sporting relatively narrow snouts, yet another group of heavily-armored dinos—the Ankylosauridae—had wide, blunt muzzles instead. This has led some experts to deduce that Sauropelta and company fed more discriminately than their ankylosaurid counterparts (whose mouths appear built to shovel in food haphazardly).

5. Nodosaur Footprints Tend to Get Mixed Up with Some Very Different Dinosaurs’

Their fossilized tracks bear a close resemblance to those of “horn-faced” (“ceratopsian”) dinos like Triceratops. Naturally, this has caused some confusion over the years, but a few key differences may be spotted if you know what to look for.

6. One of Sauropelta’s Bigger Relatives Was Almost Called “Denversaurus”

Colorado’s capital once came heartbreakingly close to getting a cool dinosaur named after it. In 1988, paleontologist Robert Bakker announced the discovery of an allegedly new nodosaur genus he dubbed “Denversaurus.” But, alas, the name’s since been terminated. Current consensus holds that Bakker’s critter was really just a species of Edmontosaurus. Sorry, Denver.

7. Sauropelta May Have Gotten Pretty Cheeky

Though modern reptiles lack cheeks, some experts have argued that nodosaurs and some other groups of herbivorous dinos had them anyway; a claim that’s been met with controversy over the years.

8. Sauropelta had More Vertebrae in its Tail Than You Do in Your Entire Body

If you tallied up every single bone in a normal human spinal column, you’d end up counting 33 individual vertebrae. Sauropelta’s tail alone, meanwhile, had at least 40!

9. The American Museum of Natural History Features a Very Special Sauropelta Display

One of the best-preserved nodosaur skeletons ever found —a partial Sauropelta specimen—is currently on display in this Manhattan museum. Dinosaur fans living near the greater NYC area are encouraged to drop what they’re doing and go check it out.

10. Some Nodosaurs Seemed to Bloat (and Possibly Explode) After Death

The bottom of the sea seems like no place for a stout, heavily-armored dinosaur to wind up. Yet, nevertheless, ankylosaur and nodosaur fossils are occasionally unearthed in the marine sediments left by ancient oceans.

How’d they get that far offshore? Here’s one hypothesis which gives a whole new meaning to the term “breaking wind.” When an animal starts to decompose, internal gasses begin building up, causing the body to swell. So, let’s say an unlucky nodosaur decides to go wading near some prehistoric beach and suddenly drops dead. The animal’s corpse then starts bloating until it physically floats away.

But all that gas has to go somewhere. Like an over-pumped balloon, the mounting pressure eventually rips through our dino’s skin in a fleshy explosion. Afterwards, its carcass finally sinks.

For you visual learners out there, here’s some graphic footage of a dead sperm whale suddenly erupting thanks to this process:

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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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