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10 Bristled Facts About Psittacosaurus

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Despite being one of the most exhaustively studied dinosaurs on earth, Psittacosaurus has never spent much time in the public eye. Read on to find out more about this amazing critter you’ve probably been neglecting.

1. Its Name Means “Parrot Lizard”

Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935), who gave short-faced Psittacosaurus this moniker in 1923, had coined the most famous dinosaur name of all, Tyrannosaurus rex, 18 years earlier. Not a bad resume.

2. Bones from Over 400 Individual Specimens Have Been Unearthed

Psittacosaurus may no longer roam present-day Mongolia, China, and Russia as it once did, but thanks to the documented remains of several hundred individuals, this gazelle-sized dinosaur is in no danger of being forgotten anytime soon. For comparison’s sake, good old T. rex is known from fewer than 40 incomplete skeletons.

3. Psittacosaurus Got Leggier With Age

Psittacosaurus’ abundance makes the job of studying its growth patterns a whole lot easier. After comparing the arm and leg bones of 16 specimens, Dr. Qi Zhao of the Beijing-based Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology found that hatchlings would’ve been consummate crawlers thanks to their relatively long arms and short, stubby legs. However, he also noted that between the ages of four and six, Psittacosaurus' hind limbs underwent a massive growth spurt, eventually dwarfing the forelimbs. Therefore, adults likely preferred upright, bipedal poses.

4. Numerous Species are Known

At one point, fifteen were recognized, though the total’s since been reduced to nine. What happened? Some nullified species, like Psittacosaurus major, wound up getting merged with others—in this case, P. lujiatunensis. Due to the often distortive nature of fossilization, these originally looked like two different animals, but closer examination revealed that, in reality, they were identical.

5. …One of Which Might’ve Been a Dinosaurian Nutcracker

Psittacosaurus gobiensis chronically swallowed pebbles, as evidenced by the fact that several were found lodged inside a well-preserved specimen’s gut. This implies that the dinosaur either didn’t fully chew or had trouble digesting whatever foods it was scarfing down. In 2006, paleontologist Paul Sereno opined that P. gobiensis used its powerful, parrot-like beak to crack open tough nuts and seeds before the stones in its stomach mashed them up.

6. Psittacosaurus Had Quill-Like Bristles

A truly incredible Chinese specimen includes a series of long, tubular, and almost hair-like structures rooted above its tail. Their function is unknown, but sexual display stands out as a common interpretation.

7. It was a Distant Relative of Triceratops

The earliest-known ceratopsian (“horned dinosaur”) is Yinlong downsi of western China, which evolved about 159 million years ago. Its evolutionary cousins spread across Asia, Europe, and North America, giving rise to such dazzling dinos as Psittacosaurus, Triceratops, and the magnificent Styracosaurus.

8. Psittacosaurus Might’ve Been a Strong Swimmer

This idea’s been proposed on multiple occasions, with supporters pointing to Psittacosaurus’ broad feet and “deep” tail as a means of aquatic propulsion. Furthermore, some scientists even controversially believe that the animal spent much or most of its life paddling though lakes and river ways.

9. Youngsters Seemingly Banded Together for Protection

25 young Psittacosaurus were found huddled together in 2004, yet, interestingly, they appear too large to be hatchlings. One much larger individual is also present, but this specimen is likely a sub-adult rather than some single parent. What we may in fact be seeing here is a group of adolescents which, having left their nest(s), formed an impromptu coalition for mutual defense. After all, there’s safety in numbers.

10. One Luckless Little Psittacosaurus Became Mammal Chow

Mesozoic mammals did more than passively curry between the shadows of dinosaurs. In what journalists painted as a Cretaceous case of “man bites dog,” juvenile Psittacosaurus remains were found resting within the stomach of a meter-long mammal called Repenomammus.

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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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Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder
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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