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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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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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