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10 Sturdy Facts About Sauropelta

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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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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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