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10 Funky Facts About Shuvuuia

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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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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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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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