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10 Monstrous Facts About Megalosaurus

This English predator was among the first dinosaurs ever discovered—and, back in those early days of paleontology, its fearsome jaws must have fueled countless Victorian nightmares.

1. Megalosaurus Used to Be Called “Scrotum humanum.”

The illustration on the left was drawn by an artist/naturalist named Robert Plot in 1676. At the time, scholars hadn’t yet learned of the existence of dinosaurs, so nobody could identify the fossil Plot’s picture depicts. For his part, Plot theorized that this bone (which had turned up in an Oxfordshire quarry) once belonged to a Roman war elephant. 

Nearly a century later, physician Richard Brookes copied Plot’s sketch, but didn’t buy his interpretation. To Brookes, it looked suspiciously like a certain piece of masculine anatomy, so he dubbed the specimen “Scrotum humanum.” Today, most scientists agree that the fragment in question actually came from a Megalosaurus leg bone.

2. It was The First Dino to be Scientifically Described.

In 1824, a large jawbone from some ancient reptile emerged near Oxford, prompting British geologist William Buckland to do something that had never been done before: formally describe a dinosaur specimen in an academic paper. His paper, “Notice on the Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield,” saw publication via the Geological Society of London. 

3. Megalosaurus Was Named by a Guy With Really Weird Dietary Habits.

Buckland’s quirks were legendary. When he wasn’t examining fossils or coining the word “Megalosaurus,” he enjoyed dressing up his pet bear (!) in academic robes. He owned a table made with dinosaur droppings which “was often much admired by persons who had not the least idea of what they were looking at” [PDF]. And, stranger still, the man literally attempted to eat his way through the animal kingdom. Striving to sample every living thing in existence, Buckland devoured such main courses as panthers, crocodiles, and toasted mice. Apparently, the nastiest entrees he ever tried were mole and blue-bottle fly.

4. Megalosaurus was Mentioned in a Charles Dickens Novel.

Published serially between 1852 and 1853, Bleak House is, among other things, notable for having one of the world’s first literary dino references. While describing a gloomy day cloaked in fog, Dickens writes:

“As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

5. Scientists Aren’t Exactly Sure What Its Skull Looked Like.

Aside from some bits of snout and upper and lower jaw, no significant cranial material has been attributed to Megalosaurus.

6. Megalosaurus Helped Inspire the Word “Dinosaur.”

In 1842, Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus were three recently-discovered prehistoric reptiles which many scientists imagined as little more than overgrown lizards. Sir Richard Owen felt very differently. Seeing them as dynamic, active animals, he lumped them together in a brand-new group he called the “Dinosauria.”

7. … And Buckland’s Son Believed it May Have Also Inspired European Dragon Myths.

Franklin Trevelyan Buckland followed in his father’s footsteps and became an accomplished zoologist in his own right. At one point, he posited that dinosaurs like Megalosaurus may well have given rise to Europe’s greatest mythical monsters.

“May not the idea of the dragons,” he wrote, “curious stories of which are chronicles in various parts of England, owe their origin, in some way or other, to the veritable existence of these large lizards in former ages? To point out the train of ideas or circumstances which led to these ancient dragon stories is of course impossible, particularly as man was not coexistant with Megalosaurus and Co.—still there is a certain shadow of connexion [sic] between them.”

8. Scientists Have Dramatically Reduced Megalosaurus’ Top Length Estimates.

William Buckland suggested that adult Megalosaurus were about 40 feet long, though newer specimens indicate a maximum measurement closer to 21.

9. History Buffs Can See a Bear-Like Megalosaurus in London’s Crystal Palace Park.

During the 1850s, sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build more than 30 life-sized prehistoric animal models which were to populate a glasshouse inside this historic English park. The house burned down in 1936, but the statues survived and are still being enjoyed (thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of local volunteers). Because scientists hadn’t yet learned that predatory dinosaurs were bipedal, Waterhouse’s Megalosaurus stands stoutly on all fours.

10. The Protagonist of TV’s Dinosaurs Sitcom is Purportedly a Dim-Witted Megalosaurus.

In 1991, ABC premiered Dinosaurs, a nuclear family-style comedy revolving around sentient dinos. Originally conceived by Jim Henson, the program’s patriarch is one Earl Sinclair, a beer-drinking, lunchbox-toting, television-loving Megalosaurus with less-than-exemplary parenting skills. 

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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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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]

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The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
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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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