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10 Brainy Facts About Troodon

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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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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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