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Bizarre New Dinosaur Discovered in Chile

Gabriel Lio / University of Birmingham via Discovery.com

From the club-tailed Ankylosaurus to the long-necked Brachiosaurus, dinosaurs came in countless shapes and sizes. An especially diverse suborder is called the “theropoda.” The phrase “meat-eating dinosaur” usually refers to some sort of theropod, such as T. rex or Velociraptor. And yet, not all of these guys were built to dine on flesh. The ostrich-like ornithomimids, for example, seem to have had herbivorous dietary preferences, as evidenced by some tantalizing stomach contents discovered millions of years later. Therizinosaurs were also predominantly plant-eaters (as well as scythe-clawed weirdos).

Today, an exciting paper published in Nature has unveiled a strange new theropod, whose carnivorous ancestors decided, at some point, to go vegetarian.

According to Argentinian paleontologist Fernando Novas, the Chilesaurus diegosuarezi's small, leaf-shaped chompers reveal that the bipedal beast was “a strict plant-eater.” One hundred and forty five million years ago, Chilesaurus roamed present-day Patagonia—hence, the name's Chile prefix—a region that has become world-famous as a treasure trove for dinosaur fossils. (The "Diego" included in the second part of the dinosaur's tag is for a 7-year-old named Diego Suarez, who, in 2004, discovered fossilized bones belonging to the creature while visiting the Andes with his parents, geologists Manuel Suarez and Rita de la Cruz.)

By herbivorous theropod standards, Chilesaurus is fairly unusual, as the varieties mentioned above emerged tens of millions of years after this little critter evolved. When it first showed up, only a few other theropods had made the switch to a plant-eating lifestyle (among them: China’s birdlike Limusaurus). 

In addition to its distinctive dental anatomy, Chilesaurus’ features included a beak, a small, rounded skull, and modest forelimbs topped with two clawed fingers apiece. 

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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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