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10 Hearty Facts About Thescelosaurus

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Thescelosaurus means “wonderful lizard”—and by the end of this article, you'll know why.

1. The First-Known Specimen was Stuffed into Shipping Crates and Forgotten About for Over 20 Years.

During the summer of 1891, a small skeleton belonging to this then-unidentified plant-eating dinosaur was found in Wyoming. The remains were carefully boxed up and arrived at what’s now called the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History—where they languished, unopened, until 1913! 

2. T. rex and Triceratops Were Among Its Neighbors.

Thescelosaurus often gets sidelined in books and museums. This likely has something to do with the fact that, 66 million years ago, it shared Western North America with several infinitely more popular creatures like Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, and Pachycephalosaurus. Tough break.

3. Thescelosaurus Had a Robust Build.

With surprisingly thick ribs and limb bones, this cow-sized dinosaur was sturdily-constructed. Such stout, muscular body types have their advantages—Thescelosaurus might have used its heft to overpower small tyrannosaurs and other predators.

4. …And It Wasn’t Especially Fast.

Since its discovery, Thescelosaurus has been compared to vaguely similar-looking dinosaurs such as Hypsilophodon of Europe. However, unlike that critter, Thescelosaurus clearly lacked an affinity for speed. First of all, its femur (thigh bone) is similar in size to its tibia (shinbone). But in hardcore runners like Hypsilophodon, the latter bone is significantly longer. Also, Thescelosaurus’ toe bones were—unhelpfully—on the short and stubby side.

Obviously, Thescelosaurus was no marathon contender. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be evasive: When necessary, a low center of gravity enabled this animal to make sharp, maneuverable turns.

5. Thescelosaurus Possessed Strong Arms, but Wimpy Fingers.

Given its broad shoulder blades and bulky arm bones, you’d think that Thescelosaurus was doing something strenuous with those forelimbs. So why did they come with small fingers and dinky claws? And while we’re on the subject, could Thescelosaurus walk around on all fours? Some paleontologists think it did so often, while others find a permanently-bipedal stance more likely. 

6. Thescelosaurus Probably Preferred Waterside Property.

A 2010 study proposed that, given the types of rocks their fossils are normally found in, Thescelosaurus usually lived around streams and rivers while “horned” dinosaurs (eg: Triceratops) targeted drier real estate. To each their own…

7. Its Skin May Have Had Hard Lumps of Armor.

Ryan Somma, Flickr

Isolated blobs of armor plating have been found in close proximity to a few Thescelosaurus skeletons. But some argue that these didn’t necessarily belong to the actual dinos; the corpses in question likely came to rest in bodies of water and, at some point, it’s possible that bony plates called “scutes” popped off of some nearby crocodilian cadavers and drifted over post mortem.

8. A New Species was Recently Announced.

In 2011, Thescelosaurus assinoboiensis was named. According to paleontologist Tim Tokaryk, “there are features in the cranium, the back end of the skull, and a few features in the pelvis” which separate T. assinoboiensis from the other known Thescelosaurus species (T. neglectus and T. garbanii).

9. “Willo”—A Very Famous Thescelosaurus Specimen—Contains “Cell-Like” Structures.

Taking a Tar Heel State road trip anytime soon? Be sure to swing by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. On the third floor, you’ll get to meet “Willo,” a dinosaurian celebrity. First uncovered in 1993, Willo is the most complete Thescelosaurus skeleton ever found, and looks plenty compelling to the naked eye. But things get even more interesting at the microscopic level: What’s been described as “cell-like” material has been spotted on “his” bones. Did this stuff actually belong to Willo himself? We can’t ascertain its origin just yet; it could have belonged to a plant he happened to have died around.

10. Also, Many Scientists Once Thought That Willo Had a Fossilized Heart.

Ryan Somma, Wikimedia Commons

Back in 2000, the world freaked out when a strange-looking lump inside his chest was interpreted as the preserved remains of a genuine dinosaur heart. Better still, it seemed like this so-called circulatory organ was of the powerful, four-chambered variety, much like ours.

Unfortunately, since then, this idea has been flatlined: A 2011 re-analysis concluded that Willo’s new claim to fame was really nothing more than a rocky concretion. Still, even without this heart of stone, Willo—like every Thescelosaurus—remains a “wonderful lizard” indeed. (Of course, dinosaurs weren’t actually lizards—they were much more akin to crocodilians. But that’s a topic for another day…)  

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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iStock

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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