The 10 Coolest Dinosaur Discoveries of 2014


It’s been a great year for dinosaur buffs, and not just because the latest Jurassic Park movie unleashed an exhilarating new trailer. As January draws near, we’re taking a look back and counting down 2014’s ten awesomest dinosaur stories.

10. Long-Faced T. rex Cousin Unearthed

Dubbed “Pinocchio rex” by the media, China’s Qianzhousaurus sinensis was a tyrannosaurid with a noticeably elongated snout. The animal stalked its prey roughly 66 million years ago and would have been about 29 feet (9 meters) long.

9. Awesomely-Named Dino Giant Discovered in Patagonia

Back in the Cretaceous period (145.5-66 M.Y.A.), South America had more than its fair share of humongous dinosaurs stomping around. But the fossil record hasn’t been kind to these behemoths; most varieties are only known from scrappy fragments and isolated bones. Dreadnoughtus schrani—a new super-sized herbivore—bucks this trend. Two specimens were announced this past September, including one in which nearly half (43 percent) of the skeleton was preserved, making Dreadnoughtus a dream come true for the scientific community. And, better still, this earth-shaking, 85-foot (25.9-meter) creature was given an epic genus name that literally means “fears nothing.”

8. Saudi Arabia Finally Gets some Dinosaur Material

Though rich in oil, the Arabian Peninsula has yielded few dino fossils. “To say that finds are rare is an understatement,” says paleontologist Benjamin Kear. “What’s been discovered you could almost fit inside a shoebox.” That changed in January, when a team led by Kear located multiple bones—including several vertebrae from some long-necked herbivore and the serrated teeth of a predator—near the Red Sea. Previously, no dinosaur remains had ever been documented within this region’s largest country.

7. X-Rayed Bird Legs Reveal Secrets of Dino Tracks

In a way, dinosaur footprints are more amazing than their skeletons: Unlike old, dead bones, they record prehistoric behavior. In order to better understand these fascinating fossils, a group of British scientists filmed a small, chicken-like critter called a guineafowl frolicking inside an x-ray machine. The avian was recorded leaving fresh tracks in soft sediment, granting biologists critical perspective on the motions its dinosaurian ancestors went through with every step. This study also explains some mysterious ridges left alongside several specimens, which bear a striking resemblance to the “exit” traces made when the test guineafowl lifted up its feet. 

6. “Duck-Billed” Dinos Were Apparently Built for Long-Distance Chases

When predators came prowling, hadrosaurs (a.k.a. “duck-billed” dinos) might have seemed like easy targets—after all, these plant-eating reptiles lacked horns, spikes, or any other weapons capable of making a hungry carnivore think twice. But they may have had one critical edge over their would-be attackers: endurance. Though theropods (“meat-eating” dinos) doubtlessly had higher top speeds, a computerized comparison of their limb proportions suggests that hadrosaurs could have kept running across much greater distances before getting worn out.

5. Spinosaurus Gets a Makeover

Spinosaurus just keeps getting weirder. Man-sized bony spines sprouted from the beast’s back and, despite being close to T. rex in size, its conical teeth imply a fish-based diet. Stranger still, this autumn a new paper announced some remarkable new remains and concluded (albeit controversially) that Spinosaurus preferred walking on all fours. The authors also revealed that, unlike most carnivorous dinos, this animal had solid limb bones and strange, potentially-webbed feet—perfect adaptations for an aquatic, crocodile-esque lifestyle. 

4. North America’s Oldest “Horned Dino” Comes to Light

Wikimedia Commons

Aquilops americanus was a crow-sized creature whose skull first turned up all the way back in 1997—but it received neither a name nor any significant scientific description until last week. A primitive ceratopsian (“horned dinosaur”), Aquilops hails from the same group as the beloved multi-ton Triceratops and currently represents North America’s earliest-known member of this gang.

3. Stegosaurus Hit Below the Belt, As Shown by Tell-Tale Fossil

Stegosaurus shared its range with a large carnivorous dinosaur called Allosaurus. Evidently, when the two clashed, things could get ugly. One recently inspected Allosaurus pubic bone displays a deep, cone-shaped wound which perfectly matches the dimensions of a Stegosaurus tail spike. To make matters worse, the surrounding area seems to have gotten infected, implying that after this predator was struck between the legs, its subsequent wound proved fatal.

2. Feathered Dinosaurs May Have Been Way More Common Than We Thought

If Kulindadromeus is any indication, the ever-growing list of fluffy dinosaurs is due to get a whole lot longer. Theropods gave rise to modern birds and, unsurprisingly, once held a monopoly on feathered dino specimens. However, this newfound Siberian species also rocked plumage despite belonging to the ornithischia: a group which split from theropods and their ilk at a very early stage in dinosaurian evolution. According to Belgian paleontologist Pascal Godefroit, this probably means that “the common ancestor of all dinosaurs had feathers … Feathers are not a characteristic of [just] birds, but of all dinosaurs.”

1. Mystery Dino’s Body Finally Surfaces

In 1965, a pair of gigantic, three-clawed arms were excavated in the Mongolian desert. Each was over eight feet long and therefore imposing enough to earn their owner the name Deinocheirus, or “terrible hand.” But astonishing as these were, the rest of the animal remained unknown.

Now, scientists can finally piece this whole puzzle back together. And the results are bizarre: Pot-bellied, hump-backed, and complete with a broad-muzzled, horse-like skull, Deinocheirus’ long-lost body has defied all reasonable expectations. Such are the joys of studying fossils. 

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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