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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.

Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows

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]

The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic

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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