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10 Domed Facts About Stegoceras

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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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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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