“Courting” Dinosaurs Found in Mongolia?

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?”

Creative Beasts
These Scientifically Accurate Dinosaur Toys Are Ready to Rule Your Desk
Creative Beasts
Creative Beasts

In May 2016, we told you about Beasts of the Mesozoic, a line of Kickstarter-backed dinosaur toys that would reflect the feathery truth about the mighty beasts and provide an alternative to the Hollywood-enhanced glamour of the Jurassic Park franchise.

Then, absolutely nothing happened. Having being fully funded on the crowd-sourced platform, Beasts seemed to be mired in production issues. Now, nearly two years after designer David Silva announced the project, the toys are finally ready to hit shelves.

A Beasts of the Mesozoic action figure in retail packaging
Creative Beasts

The Beasts line will initially consist of 11 figures due to ship this month, with six more expected to arrive in May. Included in the first wave are Velociraptor mongoliensis, Atrociraptor marshalli, Balaur bondoc, Dromaeosaurus albertensis, Zhenyuanlong suni, Pyroraptor olympus, Linheraptor exquisitus, Velociraptor osmolskae (red), FC (Fan’s Choice) Dromaeosaurus albertensis, FC Pyroraptor olympus, and FC Zhenyuanlong suni.

In his updates, Silva said the delay was due in large part to how quickly the scope of the line grew. At the time the campaign started, he was planning on just three figures that would ship by May 2017. By the end, he had 25 items, including accessory packs.

You can pre-order the first wave ($35 to $40 each) at BackerKit.

Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows

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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