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10 Little Facts About Leptoceratops

One of the last dinosaurs on earth, Leptoceratops roamed North America in the late Cretaceous 66 million years ago, but it looked like a throwback to an earlier time. 

1. Leptoceratops Lived in a Celebrity Cousin’s Shadow.

Few prehistoric animals can claim to be even half as famous as Triceratops. The big, beaked herbivore has provided South Dakota with an official state fossil and the Colorado Rockies with a mascot. As one of the most advanced ceratopsians (or “horned dinos”) we’ve ever found, its scientific value can’t be overemphasized.

And then there’s Leptoceratops, which looks surprisingly primitive by comparison. This little creature has several traits in common with very early ceratopsians, including a total lack of horns and an almost nonexistent frill. Nevertheless, it shared North America with Triceratops 66 million years ago. Size differences only heightened the contrast: a fully-grown Leptoceratops could’ve walked under the bigger dino’s belly. 

2. Most Scientists Think It Had Cheeks.

Scientific illustrators generally draw ceratopsians with fleshy “cheek tissues” covering the sides of their mouths. In life, this would’ve been a useful way to keep excess food from falling out. However, during the late 1990s, two paleontologists questioned the concept. Perhaps, argued Michael Papp and Larry Witmer, Leptoceratops and its brethren lacked cheeks altogether.  Maybe, instead, the horny sheaths over their beaks were tall enough to hold back those wandering morsels. However, most experts prefer the traditional idea.

3. It’s Primarily a Canadian Dino.

Though some Wyoming specimens are known, Alberta is where the very first Leptoceratops fossils turned up. Most subsequent individuals have emerged in that province as well. Two are now on display at the Ottawa-based Canadian Museum of Nature.

4. Leptoceratops' Palms Were Oriented Towards Each Other.

One 2007 analysis found that Leptoceratops habitually kept its hands in a “clapping” pose. This marks yet another dissimilarity from the more advanced ceratopsians, whose palms faced downwards. Speaking of limbs, the general consensus holds that Leptoceratops could’ve gotten around (at least for short distances) on both two legs and on all fours.

5. It Might’ve Lived in the Hills or Mountains.

In an attempt to explain why Leptoceratops bones aren’t nearly as common as material from Triceratops, field collector extraordinaire Charles M. Sternberg suggested that the two lived at very different elevations.  “One might hazard a guess,” he wrote in 1947, “that… the smaller and more primitive [ceratopsians] usually remained on the upland, and therefore, were not so often preserved as fossils.” If Sternberg was right, it’s tempting to speculate about a mountain goat–like existence for Leptoceratops while bulky old Triceratops meandered through the lower floodplains. 

6. It Was Originally Discovered On an Old Cow Trail...

Back in 1910, Barnum Brown, another legendary paleontologist, spotted two skeletons that belonged to an animal he dubbed “Leptoceratops gracilis” four years later. Unfortunately, the pair emerged beneath a pathway that had been frequented by cattle, which trampled the exposed pieces.

7. … Right Before a Horned Dinosaur Hot Streak.

The 1910s were a great time to be a ceratopsian fan. In the years 1913 and 1914 alone, North American scientists named Leptoceratops, Anchiceratops, Chasmosaurus, and Styracosaurus. The latter has gone on to enjoy a healthy cinematic career.

8. Leptoceratops Had a Leaf-Shaped Tail.

Jaime A. Headden, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Viewed in profile, it would’ve looked tall and flattened from side to side, courtesy of some elevated spines atop several vertebrae.  

9. The Leptoceratops Genus Once Lost a Species.

In 1942, Brown and his colleague Erich Schlaikjer formally described a 72-million-year-old animal they called Leptoceratops cereorhynchos. However, Sternberg subsequently decided that the creature deserved a genus of its own. So, he rechristened Brown and Schlaikjer’s beastie Montanoceratops cereorhynchos, as a tribute to its home state.

10. Leptoceratops Could Help Us Solve an Australian Mystery.

Australia is well known for its wide array of uniquely weird animals. Yet, for all its modern biological wealth, Australian dino fossils are frustratingly scarce. Just over a dozen native species have been found. In 2003, a new one entered the fold. But there wasn’t much to go by: just a single ulna (upper arm bone). Married paleontologists Patricia and Thomas Rich noticed that the ulna looked distinctly Leptoceratops-esque, so they identified it as a ceratopsian and named it Serendipaceratops.

If Serendipaceratops does, indeed, hail from the same gang as Leptoceratops and Triceratops, it could throw a monkey wrench into our perception of horned dinosaur evolution. (For starters, no other ceratopsians are known from Australia.) But the case is far from closed. In 2010, an international team argued that Serendipaceratops is too poorly understood to be commented upon with any authority.

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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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