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10 Sail-Backed Facts About Ouranosaurus

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If you could somehow take an African safari 125 million years ago, seeing Niger’s gorgeous Ouranosaurus in the flesh would be a real Kodak moment.

1. In Certain Places, Its Stunning Sail Was Almost Two Feet Tall.   

Jargon time! “Neural spines” is the technical term for those long attachments sprouting from Ouranosaurus’ backbones. Together, they (probably) formed a slender, fin-like accessory whose unknown purpose has scientists scratching their heads. The ornate sail is often viewed as a makeshift solar panel—in theory, blood was warmed or cooled there, and then redistributed throughout Ouranosaurus’ body to keep its temperature under control. That explanation may sound logical, but there’s no evidence of especially large or numerous blood vessels around these structures.

2. Ouranosaurus Came With High Nostrils.

Pavel Riha, via Wikimedia Commons// CC BY-SA 3.0

In this portrait’s upper left-hand corner, a disembodied Ouranosaurus head hovers. As you can see, the forest green animal has nasal openings that are relatively far away from the tip of its beak. Because the dino frequented river deltas, these strategically-placed nostrils may have helped it dine on low-lying plants in peace without inhaling mud by mistake.  

3. A Similar-Looking Dinosaur has Shown Up in South America.

Northeastern Brazil yielded some very Ouranosaurus-esque tail vertebrae during the early 2000s.

4. The Creature’s Name Means Something You Might Not Expect.

Nearly 40 years ago, paleontologist Philippe Taquet proudly presented his newly-discovered Ouranosaurus to the world. Its scientific moniker roughly translates to “brave lizard” and was—he says—partially “taken from the Arab word ourane, which signifies ‘valiant, courageous, bold.’” Incidentally, “ourane” is also a name by which some Nigerian nomads refer to local monitor lizards.  

5. We Only Have Two Skeletons to Work With.

Luckily, between them, experts have recovered the majority of Ouranosaurus’ bones (which is fairly rare for larger dinos like this 27-footer), including a complete skull.

6. Some Say that Ouranosaurus Was Built Like a Bison.

Sampsonchen, WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 3.0

“The Hump-Backed Dinosaur” sure has a nice ring to it. As Dr. Jack Bowman Bailey of Western Illinois University pointed out in 1997, Ouranosaurus' neural spines look similar to a modern bison’s. Maybe paleontologists were wrong to assume that this animal had some skinny, board-like sail. Instead, Bailey envisioned Ouranosaurus taking after its mammalian counterpart, with thick muscle and pockets of fat anchored to the specialized bones.

Today, his idea has attracted a few supporters in paleontological circles. But many more cast doubt on Bailey’s conclusion. First of all, bison primarily use their abundant back fat as a means to survive cold, dry seasons. But Ouranosaurus’ environment was chronically lush and swampy, so fatty reserves wouldn’t have been needed—or, at least, that's what the critics of his theory say. Also, while much of the muscle connected to bison humps supports their hefty heads, Ouranosaurus noggins were proportionally no larger than those seen in similar, sail/hump-free dinos.

7. Ouranosaurus Also Had Two Odd, Triangular Bumps In Front Of Its Eyes.

Function-wise, these seem suited for social tasks like attracting mates. They’re aesthetically pretty tame by dinosaur headgear standards—get a load of this guy!

8. There’s a Common Misconception that It Lived Alongside Another, More Famous Sail-Back.

Ouranosaurus and the predatory Spinosaurus aegyptiacus are frequently seen sharing their environment in dino books and TV documentaries, even though they were actually separated by a few million years. Also, they’ve never been found in the same deposits.

9. It Wielded a Pair of Rather Dinky “Thumb Spikes.”

Were these handy weapons? Nut-cracking tools? Tree bark-removers? Paleontologists aren’t certain. Like Europe’s iconic Iguanodon, Ouranosaurus possessed a conical spike on each hand, though the African dino’s were significantly smaller.

10. An Ouranosaurus Once Received a Strange, Patriotic Ceremony.

According to Taquet’s wonderful memoir, Dinosaur Impressions: Postcards from a Paleontologist, the first Ouranosaurus specimen ever unearthed “was placed in the National Museum of Niger in Niamey, inaugurated by the president of the National Assembly of that country, Boubou Hama. A small Niger girl, very timid and cute, with her plaited braids, dressed like an ouranosaur in silk colored like the Niger flag, presented the president with a pair of scissors to cut the ribbon across the entry door.”

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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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