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10 Thick-Skinned Facts About Saltasaurus

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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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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