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10 Wonderful Facts About Miragaia

When people use the term long-necked dinosaurs, they’re almost always talking about sauropods, a group of gigantic vegetarians which included Brontosaurus. But sauropods weren't the only dinosaurs with generous necks. Over time, vastly different herbivores have also rocked this helpful feature—including Portugal’s Miragaia longicollum.  

1. Miragaia Was a Pretty Advanced Stegosaur.

Stegosaurus itself needs no introduction. One of the world’s favorite dinosaurs, this beaked beast has won over countless admirers with its spiky tail and broad, upturned back plates. By comparison, the dino’s closest relatives get much less fanfare, though together they formed a widespread gang that roamed several continents, including North America, Asia, and Africa. 

Before Miragaia’s discovery was announced in 2009, scientists knew nothing about European stegosaurs beyond the hints provided by a few scrappy skeletons. Based on these inadequate remains, most paleontologists wrote them off as being a touch on the “primitive” side. However, Miragaia is clearly one derived, specialized dino which—at the very least—proves that Europe’s stegosaurs were way more interesting than we’d assumed.

2. Miragaia Had a Crazy Number of Neck Bones …

Most mammals have seven individual neck vertebrae. Miragaia, on the other hand, had 17. Most dinosaurs fell far short of this number too, and only a few species—such as the Chinese sauropod Mamenchisaurus—could match it.

3. … Some of Which Were Stolen From Its Own Back.

As giraffes evolved, the seven vertebrae in their famous necks became stretched out over time. Other creatures, such as the aforementioned sauropods, lengthened their necks by adding extra vertebrae. Miragaia used a third method: as it evolved, several of its backbones migrated forward, becoming part of its neck. 

4. It’s Named After a Hilly Portuguese District.

This animal’s bones were found near the city of Porto, Portugal, specifically a gorgeous subdivision known as Miragaia. This name actually has a double meaning, and an evocative one at that: the mira- prefix is based on mirus, a Latin word for wonderful. Gaia, meanwhile, is an earth goddess from ancient Greek mythology. Therefore, Miragaia as a whole means “wonderful goddess of the earth.” Know what Stegosaurus means? “Roof lizard.”

5. Half of the Only Miragaia Skeleton Known to Science Was Obliterated by Roadside Construction.

Sometimes, infrastructure-related projects are a godsend for fossil-hunters. After all, these efforts do occasionally help uncover amazing new material. Then again, they can also have the opposite effect. Last Friday, we covered a Connecticut dinosaur that was partially stuck inside a bridge. A similar fate befell the world’s solitary Miragaia specimen, the rear end of which was completely destroyed during the creation of a road.

6. Scientists Don’t Know How Many Spikes it Had.

Stegosaurus had four, while an African cousin called Kentrosaurus had 14 running from midsection to tail tip, plus an extra one above each shoulder for good measure. Since Miragaia’s hindquarter anatomy is so mysterious, paleontologists aren’t sure what its arsenal looked like. 

7. Miragaia Might Have Spent Lots of Time On its Back Legs.

If it used its absurdly long neck—which probably represented a third of its total body length—to nibble on tree limbs, being capable of rearing up and walking around bipedally would have helped it reach higher branches. But once again, we can’t do much more than make educated guesses without those missing bones. 

8. The Museum of Lourinhã Has a Reconstructed Skeleton on Display.

The missing pieces of the Miragaia jigsaw puzzle didn’t stop this western Portuguese establishment from mounting an interpretation of what its full skeleton might have looked like anyway. As Miragaia’s co-discoverer Dr. Octávio Mateus explains above, visitors can see both the original remains and expertly-crafted casts.

9.  The First Recognized Stegosaur Skull Material From Europe Belonged to a Miragaia.

Assorted cranial bits (including an upper snout) were recovered with the maiden Miragaia skeleton. Although stegosaur fossils have been appearing in Europe since 1875, nobody had ever found any trace of a skull there until these surfaced during the mid-2000s.

10. Miragaia’s Neck Might Have Been Designed to Help Woo the Opposite Sex.

When Mateus and his colleagues formally introduced Miragaia to the scientific community, they speculated that the animal’s most recognizable feature might have developed primarily as a means of winning over potential mates. The more impressive (and/or colorful) the male dinosaur's neck, the more reproductive success it may have had. 

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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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