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10 Primitive Facts About Herrerasaurus

Dinosaurs are often said to have “ruled” the earth throughout their tenure upon it. Yet, as we’ll see, the boxy-headed Herrerasaurus hailed from a time in which dinos were hardly dominant.

1. It’s One of the Fossil Record’s Earliest Dinosaurs

South America may very well be the place where dinosaurs made their grand debut. Herrerasaurus, Eoraptor, and Panphagia—which rank among the earliest dinos yet unearthed—emerged there roughly 231 million years ago.

2. Herrerasaurus Was Discovered by a Goat Herder

1959 saw Argentinian rancher Victorino Herrera happen upon the fossilized creature that would later be named in his honor.

3. It Had a “Sliding” Lower Jaw

Helpful joints allowed Herrerasaurus’ lower jawbones to flex about considerably for added leverage while ensnaring its quarrelsome prey.

4. An Important Herrerasaurus Specimen was Briefly Impounded in Buenos Aires

During the late fifties, when very little was known about this animal, a partial Herrerasaurus skull and skeleton were found by Harvard paleontologist Alfred Romer. Unfortunately, these remains were confiscated by the local authorities and held in their custody for two years until Romer’s institution finally claimed them.

5. Herrerasaurus Defied Easy Categorization

For several years, scientists couldn’t agree about how to classify this odd-looking critter. Some felt that Herrerasaurus was closely akin to the gigantic, long-necked herbivores known as sauropods. Others felt the animal couldn’t even be considered a proper dinosaur at all, but was instead a humble precursor. Today’s general consensus, however, cites Herrerasaurus as a basal theropod (or “meat-eating” dino).

6. It Walked in the Shadows of Some Much Larger Predators

Herrerasaurus was somewhere in the ballpark of 12 feet long, yet it would’ve been dwarfed by such non-dinosaurian predators as the 20-foot quadruped Saurosuchus, which also inhabited its territory. Carnivorous dinos wouldn’t start topping food chains until the stage was set by a mass extinction that wiped out these competitors 201 million years ago.

7. Herrerasaurus Also Co-Existed With Some Weird, Mammal-Like Animals

Get ready to meet some distant relatives, folks! Mammals are the last surviving members of a larger group known as the “therapsids.” Though non-mammalian species were largely on the decline when Herrerasaurus came along, fossils from a few varieties have been found in the same deposits as this South American dino.

8. Scientists Had to Wait for Nearly Three Decades Before a Decent Herrerasaurus Skeleton Showed Up

Before 1988, Herrerasaurus—like many prehistoric creatures—was exclusively known from a smattering of very incomplete specimens.  Thankfully, an American team dug up a reasonably complete Herrerasaurus skeleton that year.

9. Herrerasaurus Wasn’t the Only Herrerasaurid

The amazing Herrerisauridae family also includes two other genera: Staurikosaurus of Brazil & Argentina’s Sanjuansaurus.

10. Herrerasaurus Helps Explain the Evolution of Modern Bird Wings

Herrerasaurus’ wrist and lower arm look fairly unusual for a reptile from its period, yet they do crudely resemble those of 21st-century avians. Herrerasaurus forelimbs utilized a similar range of motion, folded up like a modern pigeon’s, and may have even been decorated with lengthy feathers. What we’re almost certainly seeing here, therefore, is an early step down the evolutionary path to bird wings and, eventually, flight.

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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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