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10 Brainy Facts About Troodon

Today’s dinosaur is often saluted as one of the most intelligent to have ever lived. But just how smart was it? And can we possibly know for sure? These questions and others will be tackled as we explore the intriguing world of Troodon.

1. It Was Originally Mistaken for a Lizard.

A solitary, serrated tooth was discovered in Montana during the 1850s and given the name “Troodon formosus” (“beautiful wounding tooth”) by paleontologist Joseph Leidy, who promptly deduced that it came from some belly-dragging prehistoric lizard. That Troodon was really an active, bipedal, and bug-eyed dinosaur wouldn’t become apparent until more complete discoveries were made almost half a century later.   

2. Troodon May Have Been Nocturnal.

Speaking of those peepers, Troodon’s forward-facing eyeballs have inspired lots of speculation about its night-time habits … and a really fun musical number from PBS’ Dinosaur Train, which you can see above. 

3. One Troodon-Like Creature Probably Died in its Sleep.

With its legs neatly folded up and its nose tucked under one wing-like arm, an amazing Mei long (“soundly sleeping dragon”) specimen looks for all the world like some snoozing 21st century game fowl. By the way, this duck-sized Chinese troodontid also holds the distinction of having one of the world’s shortest dinosaur names (for those who may be curious, Micropachycephalosaurus is currently the longest).

4. Troodon Eggs Might Reveal a Lot About Dinosaur Parenting (and Lady Parts).

Eggs attributed to Troodon have been found in large clusters and were likely buried shortly after being laid. Interestingly, within these groups, they’re divvied up into pairs, suggesting that females laid their clutches two-by-two.

And let’s not forget about dad! A 2008 study compared Troodon clutch volumes with the dino’s adult body size and learned that this ratio compares favorably with modern-day bird species in which males provide extensive paternal care. That's a speculative notion, though.

5. Alaskan Troodon Were Noticeably Bigger.

Specimens from the 49th state are often almost twice as large as those dug up farther south. Why the discrepancy? Well, nature’s always hated vacuums.  

Much like today, northern Alaska was subject to extreme low-light conditions for months on end during Troodon’s reign in the late Cretaceous period (roughly 77-66 million years ago). Against such a gloomy backdrop, the animal’s enlarged eyeballs would have really come in handy. Yet this crushing darkness likely didn’t suit many big predatory dinos (eg: Tyrannosaurs), of whom very few Alaskan fossils are known. Therefore, perhaps local Troodon populations evolved bigger bodies to fill the all-but-vacant top carnivore niche. 

6. Was Troodon an Omnivore? Quite Possibly.

Like such plant-eaters as the dome-headed Stegoceras (not to be confused with Stegosaurus) and its kin, the dino displayed vaguely leaf-shaped teeth. These imply (at least to many) that, despite its nasty-looking claws, vegetation had a part to play in Troodon’s diet.

7. Alas, Its Name Might be In Trouble.

As we’ve mentioned, the name Troodon formosus was coined in honor of a single tooth. Since then, various similar specimens have been assigned to this moniker, but did these all really come from the same species? Some experts think not, feeling instead that material from several significantly different dinosaurs has been inappropriately lumped together under the T. formosus label. If true, Troodon’s name will have effectively out-lived its scientific usefulness. 

8. Troodon Had a Huge Brain (By Dino Standards).

Troodon’s brain-to-body ratio is comparable with that of today’s emus and ostriches. Also interesting are the dimensions of its brain case, which point to the conclusion that the creature had an enviable sense of balance but was rather poor at smelling.

9. Note, However, That We Can’t Accurately Determine How Bright it Really Was.

Animal intelligence is frustratingly-difficult to measure, a problem that’s magnified when the creature you’re dealing with went extinct 66 million years ago. With that said, scientists often speculate that Troodon was, at best, roughly as smart as modern opossums, whose cognitive abilities have also been debated about for decades—some say these mammals are on par with pigs and dogs in that respect, while others hold a less charitable viewpoint. 

10. One Bizarre Hypothesis Claims that, Were it Not for a Certain Extinction, Troodon Would Have Evolved into a Species of Sentient, Man-Shaped “Dinosauroids.”

In 1982, paleontologist and sci-fi buff Dale A. Russell proposed that, had they never mysteriously vanished, cranially-gifted dinos like Troodon might have evolved into big-brained, opposable-thumbed, humanoid beasts reminiscent of something you might see on Star Trek. The scientific community has widely panned his odd conjecture, claiming that Russell’s so-called “dinosauroids” are far too human in shape. For more info, skip ahead to the 2:00 mark in this clip:

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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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