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10 Fun Facts About Nigersaurus

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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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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