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10 Thick-Skinned Facts About Saltasaurus

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Saltasaurus challenged many assumptions about the largest land-dwelling animals of all time. Pretty impressive for a dino whose big screen debut was a low-budget bikini movie!

1. It was the First Armored Long-Necked Dinosaur Known to Science.

Before Saltasaurus came to light in 1980, most experts believed that when predators came calling, sauropods (long-necked dinos) simply fended them off with their sheer size and whip-like tails. But this creature took things up a notch: Saltasaurus’ hide, surprised paleontologists found, was chock full of thick, bony knobs. Clearly, biting into this animal would’ve required caution.

2. Some Isolated Saltasaurus Bones Were Mistaken for Pieces of a Very Different Creature. 

They say that when you hear hoof beats, you should think horses, not zebras. During the 1920s, fossil hunter Friedrich von Henne located samples of what we now know was Saltasaurus armor. But since armor-plated sauropods were unheard of back then, he deduced that these came from a tank-like critter called an ankylosaur.  

3. Saltasaurus was Relatively Small (Compared to its Cousins, That Is).

Some of the biggest dinos ever found hail from its impressive family. Known technically as titanosaurs, this group included thunderous giants like the 85-foot Dreadnoughtus and Argentinosaurus, a giant which may have been over 110 feet long—enough to rival a modern blue whale (though this marine mammal almost certainly out-weighed it). By comparison, 40-foot Saltasaurus seems downright dwarfish.

4.  Before Anyone Asks, Saltasaurus Is Not Named After Table Salt.

So far as we can tell, Saltasaurus lacked any special connection with that stuff vendors sprinkle over pretzels. It's named for Salta, the Argentinian city near where this beastie’s first remains were found. 

5. It Had Spongy Tail Vertebrae.

Smallish air-filled holes cover these bones, an adaptation that would have significantly lightened them.

6. It Also Had a Wide, Barrel-Shaped Body.

London looks, Flickr

Digesting enough food to keep a 40-foot vegetarian up and running requires lots of belly space—so, as you can see in this reconstruction, Saltasaurus had quite the bloated midsection.

7. Scores of Saltasaurus-Like Mothers Frequented the Same Nesting Grounds.

Aucha Mahuevo is a breathtaking Patagonian site in which hundreds of exquisite dino eggs have been found. And they’re not scattered around haphazardly, either—instead, they form neat clutches of 15-34 spaced roughly two to three yards apart.

8. A (Probable) Saltasaurus Embryo Has Been Unearthed.

Dinosaur eggs are cool, but their contents are cooler still. Aucha Mahuevo’s yielded a few fossilized embryos which look suspiciously like unborn Saltasaurus, complete with pebbly, well-preserved skin.

9. Those Armored Plates Might have Emerged as Saltasaurus Grew.

CameliaTWU, Flickr

Unlike adult Saltasaurus, the aforementioned embryos lacked genuine bone in their hides—but paleontologists Rodolfo A. Coria and Luis M. Chiappe argue that perhaps this dino’s famous dermal armor didn’t start developing until after it hatched.

10. Saltasaurus is Responsible for Much of What We Know About its Family.

The wilds of South America have produced several decent Saltasaurus skeletons—but the same can't be said for other titanosaurs. To date, Argentinosaurus, for instance, has left us with nothing but a partial leg bone, some vertebrae, and a few ribs. Thankfully, stunning Saltasaurus can help scientists fill these gaps in our knowledge as they try to decipher what these long-gone Goliaths really looked like.  

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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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