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11 Towering Facts About Brachiosaurus

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Today, we’re stepping back and taking a good look at what must have been one of the most awe-inspiring dinosaurs of all time: the magnificent Brachiosaurus.

1. Its Name Means “Arm Lizard.”

Most sauropod, or long-necked, dinos had hind legs which were slightly longer than their forelimbs—but Brachiosaurus and its closest cousins reversed that trend with their tall, burly arms.

2. Paleo-Illustrators Might Have to Give Brachiosaurus a Nose Job.

Andy Hay, Flickr

The behemoth’s nasal openings are located on an enlarged “bump” in front of its eyes. For many years, scientists assumed that the creature’s nostrils must have been located there, an interpretation which has recently fallen under scrutiny. In 2001, paleontologist Lawrence Witmer examined muscle attachment scars in several dinosaur and present-day animal skulls, and based on this research, he concluded that Brachiosaurus’ nose holes weren’t pushed backwards after all, but instead held relatively close to the tip of its snout [PDF].

3. It Walked On Its Toes.

Be a good sport and stand up. Notice that after rising, the full length of each foot supports your body weight. That’s because we humans are “plantigrade” creatures.  As such, our heels and toes make direct contact with the ground while standing or walking. This setup works just fine for us, but dinosaurs favored a different approach.

These beasts utilized a “digitigrade” stance where, like modern dogs and cats, their toes/fingers did all of the mass-bearing, leaving the heels permanently raised.

4. Chicago’s O’Hare Airport Features a Resident Brachiosaurus.

If every terminal had one of these, traveling dino-maniacs would definitely miss more flights. A 40-foot-tall, 70-foot-long fiberglass Brachiosaurus skeletal replica was handed over to this airport when the nearby Chicago Field Museum started making room for a newly-acquired T. rex.

5. Brachiosaurus Probably Couldn’t Rear Up Very Well.

During this jaw-dropping scene from Jurassic Park (1993), a computer-animated Brachiosaurus stands upwards on its hind legs to snag a tasty leaf. But could the real animal have followed suit? Dr. Heinrich Mallison argues that, due to its top-heavy build, Brachiosaurus “was probably unlikely to use a bipedal … posture regularly and for an extended period of time. Although this dinosaur certainly could have reared up, for example during mating, this was probably a rare and short-lived event.”

6. It Inspired a Star Wars Creature.

Time for a geek test: In which Star Wars films did the beastie pictured above appear? If you guessed The Phantom Menace and A New Hope: Special Edition, congratulations—you’ve just won a virtual high-five! These hulking Tatooine denizens, officially called “rontos,” were loosely based on Jurassic Park’s digital Brachiosaurus models.

7. Its Genus Was Recently Split.

For several decades, paleontologists thought the Brachiosaurus genus included both a North American and an African species, B. altithorax & B. brancai, respectively. However, a 2009 analysis found that these two animals were quite different anatomically. To reflect this, “B. brancai” has since been given its own genus name and is now known as Giraffatitan brancai [PDF].

8. A Weird Notion Claims Brachiosaurus and Other Sauropods Had Trunks.

Every so often, the idea that these guys fed their faces with elephant-style trunks gets tossed around. However, the paleontological community has overwhelmingly panned this suggestion. For starters, an elephant’s schnoz is a heavy-duty instrument which leaves distinctive scars upon the mammal’s bones. There’s simply no evidence of these markings in Brachiosaurus or any of its brethren. Also, given the fact that sauropods doubtlessly used their impressively long necks for food-gathering purposes, they likely wouldn’t require trunks in the first place.

9. Brachiosaurus Played a Role in the Infamous “Brontosaurus” Kerfuffle.

Thomas Quine, Flickr

Sorry, folks, but there’s no such thing as a “Brontosaurus.” In the 1870s, that name was given to a headless sauropod skeleton which turned up in Wyoming. When illustrating the animal’s bones, fossil-hunter Othneil Charles Marsh included a speculative skull drawing modeled after some Brachiosaurus noggin scraps that had been found nearby. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that his “Brontosaurus” was really nothing more than a species of the previously-christened dino Apatosaurus.

10. One of its Relatives Was an “Island Dwarf.”

Big bodies become a handicap when you’re cut off from the mainland—so, when introduced to islands, larger animals tend to get smaller and smaller over time. Not even dinosaurs were immune to this evolutionary pressure: Europasaurus holgeri, a sauropod which once lived off the coast of Germany, reached a meager length of 20 feet! Classification-wise, this Deutschland dino resides within the Brachiosauridae family.

11. Brachiosaurus’ Skull Only Represented 1/200th of its Total Body Volume.

Wolfgang Jung, Flickr

Extremely small heads (proportionally speaking) are a trademark feature of sauropods in general. Why’d they have such puny skulls attached to those hulking bodies? A precise consensus on this point remains elusive, but their elongated necks almost certainly hold the answer. Far-reaching necks can, after all, swing across wide areas, enabling their wielders to nibble on a large sampling of vegetation while barely even moving their lazy feet. Nature often rewards efficiency.   

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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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