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10 Awesome Facts About Anchisaurus

Accidental discoveries are the lifeblood of science. We can all thank New England metalworkers and a controlled explosion for bringing today’s dino to light. Granted, dozens of its bones were banged up in the process, but what survived is awesome.   

1. Anchisaurus Had to Be Re-Named Twice.

Scientific names are like parking spaces: the good ones are often taken. In 1865, geologist Edward Hitchcock dubbed this then-new dinosaur “Megadactylus.” However, since another animal already went by that name, a colleague later rechristened it “Amphisaurus”—which was also taken. Ultimately, the third try proved to be the charm. 

2. Anchisaurus May Have Switched Between Standing on Two Legs and Four.

Odds are Anchisaurus could assume both positions, though it probably saved sprinting for its hind limbs once danger struck. 

3. It Had a Ferocious Claw on Each Hand.

Whether they evolved to help grasp tree limbs, rip open logs, or fight off predators, these wicked things were no doubt, er, handy.

4. Anchisaurus Used to be Thought of As a Bipedal Flesh-Eater.

Of course, claws can also be useful if your dinner needs disemboweling.  As recently as the 1950s, at least a few paleontologists believed this animal primarily ate meat, including Richard Swan Lull of Yale. In his mind, Anchisaurus was “an alert, active dinosaur preying upon the smaller vertebrates of his generation, as the powerful claws and well-developed teeth imply.” Maybe not so much. Most scientists consider it an herbivore today.

5. It Was First Found During a Massachusetts Blasting Operation.

In 1855, the historic Springfield armory conducted some on-site explosives work. In the aftermath of blasts that had been set off around a foraging facility, mysterious bones emerged. Unfortunately, many were demolished and many more taken home by workers before an expert was notified. Superintendent William Smith eventually contacted Hitchcock, sending the scientist as much (battered) material as he could find.  

6. Apparently, We’ve Been Lowballing its Age.  

Many books cite Anchisaurus as an animal that lived around 190 million years ago. Yet, according to new dating data collected in 2013, the northeastern rocks in which it’s been found are anywhere from 201.6 to 200.9 million years old. Looks like a few rewrites are in order. 

7. Anchisaurus-like Footprints Have Appeared in Nova Scotia.

These tracks are from the right period in time and nicely match up with Anchisaurus’ feet, but there’s no way to be 100 percent sure which prehistoric critter left a particular print.

8. Anchisaurus Had a Few Advanced Features.

Despite being a primitive sauropodomorph (or “long-necked” dino), Anchisaurus did share certain anatomical traits with later members of the group. For instance, its hands were proportionally short relative to the arm as a whole.

9. Connecticut’s Most Complete Dino Skeleton to Date Belonged to an Anchisaurus.

The Nutmeg State gave the world its first good look at Anchisaurus during the 1880s, when decent specimens started emerging near Manchester. One was especially impressive

10. Anchisaurus May Have Been Built Into a Bridge.

Those Manchester dinos came from a quarry which broke down Jurassic stone into large blocks that could be sold off for building purposes. On October 20, 1884, fossils were discovered inside several of these, and before long, Connecticut’s most esteemed paleontologist took notice. Yale professor Othniel Charles Marsh (1832–1899) got his hands on a block which contained a mid-sized dinosaur’s rear end. At first, he believed that this was a species of Anchisaurus, but subsequently changed his mind and named the creature "Ammosaurus." Several modern experts, however, think Marsh got it right the first time—which would render "Ammosaurus" invalid.   

So what happened to the other half of that skeleton? In the 1960s, another famed fossil hunter spent two years looking for it. Paleontologist John Ostrom learned the block had been purchased by bridge builders who used it in a local project. Ostrom exhaustively surveyed more than 60 bridges throughout the region and concluded “with 95 percent certainty” that the bones were trapped inside an overpass near Hop Brook.  

By 1969, that old bridge was marked for demolition. Hearing this, Ostrom persuaded the highway department to let his crew examine the structure beforehand. A handful of "Ammosaurus”/Anchisaurus bones were recovered, but we still don’t know if they actually came from the same individual. Still, it makes you wonder how many other dinosaurs are lodged in manmade structures. 

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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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