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10 Monstrous Facts About Megalosaurus

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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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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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