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10 Sharp Facts About Gastonia

Sorry, North Carolina: Today’s dinosaur has nothing to do with your charming city of the same name. It is, however, a very important animal—as any armored dinosaur expert can attest.

1. Gastonia Had a Wicked Tail.

Running down each side of this beast was a row of vaguely triangular plates with sharpened edges. According to paleontologist James I. Kirkland (who named the animal), these “overlap[ped] when flexed with a shearing action that certainly could have left huge gashes and chopped fingers off.”  

2. Rival Gastonia Might Have Butted Heads.

The evidence: Gastonia’s braincase was a bit on the flexible side, which would have made it great at absorbing shock, and the skull itself was pretty thick. And, unlike many herbivorous reptiles, Gastonia’s eyes faced directly forward—so opponents could have stared each other down while knocking noggins. 

3. It Was Discovered By Artist and Fossil-Hunter Robert Gaston.

Before Gaston made it big as a manufacturer of high-quality fossil replicas, he worked for a rock shop owner out in Moab, Utah. At one point during this gig, Gaston came across several bones which had once belonged to a then-unknown dinosaur. Kirkland later honored him by christening it Gastonia burgei.  

4. … And Introduced to the Scientific Community by a Star Trek Novelist.

Kirkland co-wrote First Frontier: Star Trek (#75) in 1995—three years before releasing a paper that broke the news of Gastonia’s discovery. Dirty Jobs fans also got to see Kirkland upstage host and handyman Mike Rowe during one 2011 episode:  

5. This Creature’s Remains are Quite Common.

In eastern Utah, paleontologist Kenneth Carpenter once worked on an uninterrupted layer of various Gastonia bones that was 75 yards wide.

6. An Enormous Raptor Stalked its Territory.

Given its 18-foot length, there’s a good chance that Utahraptor was the biggest dromaeosaur of all time. One hundred and twenty-six million years ago, the carnivore probably hunted Gastonia.

7. It’s Helped Challenge the Idea that Armored Dinosaurs Were Loners.

Gastonia and its tank-like relatives are collectively known as ankylosaurs. Traditionally, they’ve been envisioned as solitary drifters. However, we have, on many occasions, found ankylosaurs of the same species buried together at the same site. These include Utah’s Gastonia burgei, Mongolia’s Talarurus plicatospineus, and the European Struthiosaurus austriacus. So maybe they were pretty sociable after all.

8. There’s a Bony Shield Above Its Hips.

Dozens of bony plates were fused together into this broad, helpful covering which rested over Gastonia’s rump.

9. Drawings of Another Dinosaur Are Often Based (at Least in Part) on Gastonia.

The British ankylosaur Polacanthus has been known to science since Reverend William D. Fox happened upon it in 1865. Unfortunately, he never found a complete skull—and two World Wars, six moon landings, and 32 prime ministers later, one still hasn’t turned up. So when artists try to paint or sculpt it, they generally give it a Gastonia-esque head, because the two were close relatives

10. Gastonia Became Part of a Record-Setting Year.

Gastonia was just one dinosaur genus out of the 29 that were formally named in 1998. At the time, this was a groundbreaking haul: Never before had so many been coined during a single year. But since 2005, that number has been either matched or surpassed on an annual basis. Happy digging, everybody!

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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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