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10 Domed Facts About Stegoceras

Thanks to its similar-sounding name, today’s dino will always get mixed up with the spiky-tailed, crowd-pleasing Stegosaurus. If you caught these two standing side by side, however, you’d have no trouble telling them apart. Bipedal Stegoceras had a very different profile and led a very different lifestyle. 

1. Its Back Legs Were Three Times Longer Than Its Front Ones.

Stegoceras probably didn’t win many arm wrestling contests with those “short and weak” forelimbs.

2. A New Species Was Introduced in 2011.

Seventy-two million years ago, Stegoceras novomexicanum roamed the American Southwest. At around four feet long, it would have been dwarfed by Stegosaurus validum, a better-known species which measured in at just over six feet from end to end.

3. Stegoceras’ Name Means “Horned Roof.”

Coined by paleontologist Lawrence Lambe in 1902, the moniker references that bumpy dome on the dino's head.

4. The Creature Was a Heavy Breather.

“The biggest difference between Stegoceras and us (in terms of breathing) is that it would have breathed more like a bird or reptile in that it took longer, deeper breaths,” says Ohio University doctoral student Jason Bourke. When Bourke and his colleagues performed a CT scan of a Stegoceras skull last year, they sniffed out some amazing new facts about the way this dino breathed. For example, each breath likely helped keep its brain from overheating by cooling cranial blood vessels. Also, because reptiles lack nose hairs, Stegoceras must have relied heavily on mucous to avoid inhaling small, airborne objects.

5. Stegoceras had Decent Vision.

Both of Stegoceras’ eyes faced forward—which means this dino had depth perception. Not all were so lucky: Many primitive species had eyes that were oriented in slightly different directions. Though this let them take in more scenery, these guys would have struggled with discerning distances. 

6. Four Distinct “Zones” of Bone Were Present Inside its Dome.

As paleontologist Eric Snivley points out, one can see “alternating layers of stiff and compliant bone in the domes of these dinosaurs … It’s almost as if they are wearing a double motorcycle helmet.” For reasons we’re still figuring out, spongy skull material rested beneath a solid outer surface.

7. Its Range Stretched from Alberta to New Mexico.

Next time you’re in Edmonton, check out the University of Alberta’s excellent Stegoceras display. Two mounted specimens can also be seen at the Royal Tyrell Museum (located about 85 miles northeast of Calgary).

8. Stegoceras and A Famous Carnivore Were Briefly Mistaken For the Exact Same Critter.

Hey, hindsight is 20/20. Scientists now know that Troodon was a nimble, sickle-clawed predator, as evidenced by multiple skeletons. For many years, however, we had nothing but its isolated teeth to work with. In the early 20th century, a handful of these pearly whites were found near an assortment of partial Stegoceras skull remains. So, naturally, some paleontologists assumed that they all belonged to a weird, thick-headed chimera-saurus rather than two separate dinos.

9. Stegoceras Had an “S” or “U”-Shaped Neck

Older paintings of Stegoceras (and its relatives) show the animal keeping its neck perfectly straightened and parallel with the ground, ready to ram into whatever might be stupid enough to mess with it. But in life, the creature’s neck was habitually curved [PDF].

10. By Some Accounts, It Could Have “Out-Butted” A Modern Bighorn Sheep.

After scanning the skulls of Stegoceras, a similar dinosaur named Prenocephale, and 10 still-living hoofed mammals, an international paleontology team concluded that these dinos may have been even better at butting heads than today’s bighorn sheep or musk ox. Their research indicates that Stegoceras’ skull was great at dissipating impact forces caused by collisions with solid objects.

This doesn’t necessarily prove that these guys went on head-to-head ramming sessions. Some experts believe that Stegoceras preferred “flanking” each other by swinging those bowling ball-like heads into their rivals’ sides. Frankly, both techniques sound painful—be glad you’ll never have to worry about incurring the wrath of a belligerent Stegoceras.

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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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