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10 Wonderful Facts About Miragaia

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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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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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