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“Courting” Dinosaurs Found in Mongolia?

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iStock (hearts) / Wikimedia Commons (dinosaur) // CC BY 3.0

Stop the presses! A prehistoric power couple might have just been exposed. Fourteen years ago, paleontologists dug up the remains of two Mongolian dinosaurs who apparently died together some 75 million years BCE. This pair wasn’t given much thought until last week, when it began attracting global media attention.

Why the sudden interest? New research claims that maybe—just maybe—they were more than friends. In fact, they’ve even been nicknamed “Romeo” and “Juliet.”

Okay, time to break out your field guide. The species we’re dealing with is called Khaan mckennai—which, sadly, has no connection to everyone’s favorite Star Trek baddie. Khaan hails from a group of beaked, odd-looking dinosaurs known as “oviraptorids.” Paleo-enthusiasts adore these critters for their short snouts, toothless jaws, and the garish head crests that many of them sport.

Yet, if you really want to understand an animal (extinct or otherwise), outward appearances are just a small piece of a much larger equation. Blessedly, fossil clues also hint at oviraptorid behavior. For example, one skeleton from a genus called Citipati earned the nickname “Big Mama” because the valiant beast seemingly breathed its last breath while draped over a nest of eggs. Ergo, oviraptorids are now widely viewed as good parents, guarding their clutches until the bitter end.

But—at least in most cases—before she can lay fertilized eggs, a gal’s gotta get pregnant. Recently, much ado has been made about how oviraptorid studs wooed eligible babes. University of Alberta grad student Scott Persons thinks that, come mating season, these Casanovas put a unique spin on the phrase “chasing tail.”

“Their tails were not only very, very flexible, but quite muscular,” he noted in a 2013 presentation. Furthermore, fanning feather impressions are often found around oviraptorid tail tips. Persons added that, “in some oviraptors, the last few vertebrae were actually fused together to become one solid, rigid, bladelike structure.” Dubbed a “pygostyle,” you can see this feature in present-day birds. Function-wise, it’s designed to support the tail feathers.

So, theoretically, a male Khaan would attract bachelorettes by raising his tail and vigorously shaking its feathers in an unforgettable display. Enter, stage left, those two Shakespearean specimens.

After taking a good, hard look at the Khaan pair, a University of Alberta group led by Persons noticed some slight skeletal differences. “We discovered that, although both...were roughly the same size, the same age, and otherwise identical in all anatomical regards, Romeo had larger and specially shaped tail bones.” Juliet, on the other hand, “had shorter, simpler tail bones less suitable for ‘peacocking’ and was probably female.”

Did this pair—like the Bard’s lovers—die during courtship? The evidence suggests they were covered up pretty quickly when a waterlogged sand dune collapsed above them. Hence, if they didn’t perish together, at least they seem to have been buried together. However, figuring out a given dinosaur’s sex is flat-out impossible under most circumstances. Person’s argument may be persuasive, but both Khaan still could’ve been males or females.

Nevertheless, this study might be on to something. It's worth at least imagining our dino-Romeo and dino-Juliet as star-crossed lovers. “Oh, Khaan, Khaan! Wherefore art thou, Khaan?”

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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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Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder
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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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