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10 Fun Facts About Nigersaurus

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Sauropods (or “long-necked” dinos) were a magnificent group which included the largest land animals to have ever walked the earth. But not every species was an awe-inspiring behemoth: Some, like the smallish, “vacuum-mouthed” Nigersaurus, almost seem like evolution’s idea of a joke.

1. Good Grief, Those Jaws Were Weird!

Where to begin? Thanks to its eccentric maw, Nigersaurus is among the strangest-looking dinosaurs known to man. Five hundred teeth were stored in the thing’s muzzle-like jaws, where they were divvied up into 50 vertical columns. That might sound a tad excessive but, according to some estimates, each Nigersaurus tooth had a two-week shelf life before a replacement shoved it out (think of conveyor belts).

Where Nigersaurus truly diverges, however, is in the orientation of these teeth. Like two bony hair combs, the animal’s chompers were arranged in broad, horizontal rows anchored onto jaws which kept all of them at the very front of its snout. Freakishly, this tooth-filled section is wider than the rest of Nigersaurus’ skull!

2. Nigersaurus was Fairly Light-Headed.

Its noggin featured some abnormally-thin cranial bones; in fact, many are almost translucent.

3. It Took Scientists Decades to Realize Just How Odd This Critter Was.  

Nigersaurus received its scientific name in 1976, but paleontologists wouldn’t get a decent idea of what the animal looked like until the late 2000s. Why? This dino’s skeleton was, in many places, hollow, making it vulnerable to shattering and distortion. Before 1997, though specimens were common, no decent ones had turned up—so for years, few suspected that Nigersaurus was anything other than some run-of-the-mill, Plain Jane sauropod.

4. Nigersaurus Has been Called a “Mesozoic Cow.”

Lawn-mower impersonations seem to have been its forte: Nigersaurus’ wide muzzle and shredding teeth were clearly designed for nomming on ground-level vegetation (for the record, grass-guzzling wouldn’t have been an option, as the earliest grasses hadn’t yet begun evolving in its day).

5. Its Eyes Were Disproportionately Large.

Granted, not much about Nigersaurus looks proportionate, but, for reasons unknown, this dino’s cartoonish eye sockets were atypically huge by sauropod standards.

6. Nigersaurus' Spine Was Partially Filled with Air.

Its neck vertebrae are little more than delicate skeletal shells. Like many other dinos (and all modern-day birds), many of Nigersaurus’ bones were hollow and likely indicate the presence of a complicated, avian-style respiratory system.

7. Nigersaurus’ Sense of Smell Left a Lot to be Desired.

Nigersaurus probably didn’t spend much time following its nose. An examination of its brain cavity reveals that, despite having elongated nostrils, this herbivore’s olfactory lobes (which help the brain perceive scent) were noticeably small.

8. Nigersaurus was a “Short-Necked” Long-Necked Dinosaur.

Try repeating that sentence five times fast! Sauropods are usually associated with extensive necks; some well-endowed species even placed over 35 feet between their heads and shoulders. But Nigersaurus and its closest relatives (which together formed a sub-group called the “Rebbachisauridae”) had little to brag about in this department.

9. Much Ado Has Been Made About its Posture.

Did Nigersaurus habitually slump or hold its head high? At first, some scientists speculated that the short-necked Nigersaurus kept its skull perpetually drooped at a 67 degree downward angle to better facilitate ground-level foraging [PDF]. On the other hand, subsequent researchers have argued that, although it could certainly strike such a pose from time to time, this animal’s vertebrae allowed for a much wider range of motion than was previously supposed. Hence, they maintain, Nigersaurus could have also preferred keeping its chin up (so to speak) like a more typical sauropod.

10. We’ve Found Pieces of Tiny Nigersaurus Babies.

Though adults were roughly 30 feet long, the itsy-bitsy fossilized jawbone of a hatchling Nigersaurus was so small that, according to paleontologist Paul Sereno, it could “fit on top of a silver dollar.” Aww!  

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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iStock

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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