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Bizarre New Dinosaur Discovered in Chile

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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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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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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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