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10 Sail-Backed Facts About Ouranosaurus

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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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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