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10 Funky Facts About Shuvuuia

FunkMonk (Michael B. H.), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

How bird-like can a dinosaur get before it crosses the line and becomes a true-blue avian? At one point or another, fuzzy little Shuvuuia, which lived 75 million years ago in what is now Mongolia, has been placed on both sides of the fence.

1. Shuvuuia Had Tiny, Rice-Shaped Teeth.  

A few dozen lay inside this dino’s narrow mouth. Unlike the flesh-slicing chompers of, say, Velociraptor, these teeth weren’t serrated, so tough meat probably wasn’t on the menu.    

2. It Was Turkey Sized.  

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge how outrageously diverse dinosaur body sizes were. Everyone loves gawking at giants like Argentinosaurus, which stretched over 100 feet long and probably weighed well over 50 metric tons. But then there’s Shuvuuia’s cousin Parvicursor, a 15-inch pipsqueak that was lighter than your average can of tuna. 

3. Its Arms Were Awfully Strange.

Shuvuuia’s forelimbs were short, stubby, and muscular with a peculiar peg shape. They jutted out from its torso and ended in bizarre hands with three digits—two useless dinky ones and one massive, clawed thumb.

4. Shuvuuia May Have Dug Up Termites.  

This is by far the most popular hypothesis about what they did with those puzzling arms. Advocates of the idea point to modern mammals called pangolins which rip apart insect mounds with their short, clawed, muscular front legs. 

5. Its Relatives Have Been Found on Four Continents. 

Shuvuuia is perhaps the best-known alvarezsaurid, an interesting, stout-armed gang which also includes Canada’s Albertonykus, the Transylvanian Heptasteornis, and Patagonykus of Argentina (pictured above). Shuvuuia itself hailed from Mongolia.

6. Uniquely, Shuvuuia Had a Hinged Upper Jaw.

Here’s a trait scientists haven’t yet found in any other non-bird dinosaur. Shuvuuia’s snout could bend upward independently of its skull—an adaptation made possible by special hinges near its eye sockets.

7. It Had Some Cozy Proto-Feathers.

It turns out Shuvuuia was rather fluffy, with a coat made of small, feather-like structures that had hollow, tubular shafts made of keratin—the same material that’s found in your fingernails.

8. Alvarezsaurids Like Shuvuuia Were Once Considered True Birds ...

Today they’re classified as non-avian dinosaurs, but back in the '90s, many scientists viewed them as primitive birds whose ancestors had forgotten how to fly. 

9. … And One Scientist Thought They Were Really “Ostrich Dinosaurs.”

In 1999, University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno opined that alvarezsaurids were modified members of another group called ornithomimidae. Known informally as “ostrich dinos,” these speedy creatures had long legs, swan-like necks, and long, grasping forelimbs. (A herd of them charge through Jurassic Park.) But there isn’t much evidence to support this idea. Instead, experts now see the alvarezsauridae as their own, independent lineage.

10. Shuvuuia’s Name Comes From Shuvuu, Mongolian for Bird.

Six-year-old dino-maniacs might not know it, but by boning up on the prehistoric beasts, they’re dabbling in Latin and Greek, the classical languages commonly used for taxonomy. But today other tongues are used too. Dilong, for example, was a small T. rex forerunner whose name means "emperor dragon" in Chinese. Likewise, when Shuvuuia was named in 1998, its discoverers took their inspiration from the local language

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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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