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10 Motherly Facts About Maiasaura

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Maiasaura ’s name literally means “good mother lizard.” But was it really all that parental? Read on to find out.

1. It’s the State Fossil of Montana.

The Blue Sky state bestowed this honor upon Maiasaura in 1985.

2. Some Maiasaura Bones Have Been Sent into Outer Space.

That year also saw NASA propel a Maiasaura bone fragment and partial eggshell into orbit during one of their missions.  Not even Marty McFly had such an eventful 1985. 

3.  Maiasaura is One of the Only Dinos With a Female-Oriented Name.

Dinosaur suffixes can seem awfully monotonous. By far, the most common name ending is “-saurus,” which descends from the Greek word for “lizard.” For reasons we’ll explore later, paleontologist Jack Horner defied this trend and used the term’s female form—“saura”—when naming Maiasaura.

4. Fossilized Feces Imply that Maiasaura Chowed on Woody Foods.

Prehistoric poop can tell you a lot. A remarkable fossilized leaving—or “coprolite”—from Wyoming has long been attributed to Maiasaura. Weirdly, this specimen is loaded with wood fragments, revealing that whatever left it had just finished off one barky breakfast.

5. Maiasaura Built Great Nests (Possibly Even in Colonies).

Several well-preserved, crater-shaped Maiasaura nests have been discovered since 1979. Amazingly, fossilized plant material’s been reported inside a few of them, which presumably helped incubate their eggs. Also, because these structures are often found less than 7 feet apart, Horner has claimed that Maiasaura mothers would flock to communal nesting sites en masse in a kind of dinosaurian maternity ward.  

6. Baby Maiasaura Might Have Been Quite Helpless.

In addition to nests, dozens of infant Maiasaura skeletons have been discovered. As time has gone by, these wee beasties have proven slightly controversial. Early analysts argued that, thanks to some weak limb bones, they were incapable of walking about on their own and therefore depended upon adults for food. But later studies drew the opposite conclusion, reimagining baby Maiasaura as being much more independent.

7. There’s a Bizarre Notion that Maiasaura Used Reptilian “Milk.”

Okay, let’s look at the evidence (such as it is). Certain modern birds (like pigeons, doves, and flamingos) secrete a fatty, liquid-like substance called “crop milk” for their hatchlings. Did dinosaurs do this too? Dr. Paul L. Else thinks at least some species might have produced their own crop milk, citing Maiasaura as a probable example.

But while the idea’s certainly interesting, no compelling, non-speculative evidence currently exists to support it, so Else’s hypothesis hasn’t been taken seriously in paleontological circles.

8. Maiasaura ’s Closely Related to Some Mesmerizing Dinosaur Mummies.

Bones are great, but nothing can “flesh out” our understanding of an extinct animal quite like muscles. In recent years, “mummified” specimens of Brachylophosaurus and Edmontosaurus—two of Maiasaura ’s North American cousins—have turned up, complete with fossilized skin, tissue, and even organs.

9. The Site Maiasaura Was Originally Discovered in is Now Called “Egg Mountain” in Its Honor.

Located near the picturesque city of Choteau, Montana, Egg Mountain’s presently closed to the public. But fear not, paleo-tourists: you can still visit plenty of top-notch museums throughout the state.

10. An Animated Maiasaura Raises a Baby T. rex in You Are Umasou (2010).

Not to nitpick, but Maiasaura technically went extinct roughly 76 million years ago, well before Tyrannosaurus evolved. Still, dinosaur-lovers and anime fans alike will probably get a kick out of this eccentric Japanese film based on a popular book series of the same name.  

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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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