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The 10 Coolest Dinosaur Discoveries of 2014

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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. 

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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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