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11 Towering Facts About Brachiosaurus

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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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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