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10 Rough Facts About Majungasaurus

Seventy million years ago, Madagascar’s top predator was a lumpy-headed oddball whose diet would have done Hannibal Lecter proud.

1. Majungasaurus practiced cannibalism. 

As far as we know, there weren’t any other large carnivores walking around on Majungasaurus' home turf, but many recovered Majungasaurus atopus bones had clearly been gnawed on by a meat-eating dinosaur—and a big one at that. What’s more, the incriminating bite marks perfectly match the teeth of this very same species, and the space between each wound lines up with M. atopus’ inter-tooth gaps.

You might assume the dinosaurs were merely fighting each other, but the evidence says otherwise. As paleontologist Scott Sampson explains in Dinosaur Odyssey, those scars “[couldn’t] have resulted from brief donnybrooks between competing adults, because many of the bites occur on limb bones” that would’ve been “inaccessible” to rivals in non-lethal combat.

2. Its skull exposed a 20-year-old mistake.

The first decent Majungasaurus skull appeared in 1996. Two decades before, in 1976, Philippe Taquet, a French dinosaur expert, got his hands on an incomplete cranial fossil from Madagascar’s Mahajanga province, where Majungasaurus had first been discovered eight decades prior. He and a colleague later mistook it for a dome-headed relative of the North American herbivore Pachycephalosaurus, whose skull was 9 to 10 inches thick. But the '96 noggin proved that Taquet’s beast (which he called Majungatholus) was actually Majungasaurus.

3. Jurassic World gave it a behind-the-scenes nod.

Apparently, the villain dino is part Majungasaurus. Called Indominus rex, the film's fearsome antagonist is a GMO whose horns were artificially derived from the DNA of “Carnotaurus, Majungasaurus, Rugops, and Giganotosaurus.” But bump is probably a better word for the lone protuberance that rested above and between Majungasaurus’ eyes.   

4. An injury or illness seems to have shortened one specimen’s tail.

Before it died, this poor dinosaur lost “at least 10” vertebrae near the tip somehow. Over 20 Majungasaurus with physical maladies are recognized, including another who’d broken a toe bone.

5. It was unusually stocky.

Relative to most theropods, Majungasaurus looks vertically challenged. Its legs are a bit shorter than average, giving the African killer a squat, stocky profile.

6. Majungasaurus’ eyes weren't exactly agile.

Roll your eyes. You’ve just used a part of your brain called the flocculus. According to a 2007 skull cavity examination, Majungasaurus might have had trouble with this maneuver. As indicated by the animal's cranial dimensions, it probably harbored a small floccular process. Presumably, that rendered quick eye movements impossible.

7. Long before Majungasaurus evolved, its native land separated from India.

Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent officially split somewhere between 83 and 88 million years ago. Both had once belonged to a huge continent called Gondwana, which also included Africa, South America, and the Arabian Peninsula, among others. Members of Majungasaurus’ family—the Abelisauridae—have been located on all five landmasses

8. It had big shoulder blades but teeny arms.

Go ahead and make fun of T. rex’s forelimbs—at least they weren’t this ridiculous. Majungasaurus’ lower arm bones, wrist, and almost nonexistent fingers are puny enough to make scientists all over the world scratch their heads. Sarah H. Burch of SUNY Geneseo says “grasping was out of the question—there’s no way this animal was doing much manipulation with such a reduced hand. The joint anatomy suggests great mobility at the elbow and wrist, but the individual digits probably could not have moved independently.”

9. It breathed like a bird.

Chickens breathe way more efficiently than we do. Avian lungs are attached to a series of air sacs in which the animals store extra oxygen. These keep fresh air in near-constant circulation, even during high-altitude flights. They’re also directly connected to various hollow bones: break open a dead bird’s spinal column, and you’ll find several vertebrae lined with extra air sacs. Special indentations on Majungasaurus’ backbones have demonstrated that it, too, possessed this apparatus.

10. Majungasaurus and its prehistoric neighbors inspired a charity.

David Krause is a paleontologist at Stony Brook University, where a faux Majungasaurus mount stands inside the administration lobby. Krause—who works in the school’s anatomical science department—has been digging in Madagascar since 1991, and helped uncover the skull mentioned earlier. He also proved integral to the discovery of a weird, crocodile-like plant-eater and a 10-pound frog that probably ate baby dinosaurs.

Krause and his colleagues have mostly worked in the same field in Madagascar throughout the years, and the local community has offered unwavering assistance. So Krause started looking for ways to give back. “[One] day,” he recounted to National Geographic, “I arranged for a meeting with the village leaders and asked them what we could do to help. Their #1 priority was an education for their children.” His team got the ball rolling immediately. “When they informed me that we could start by hiring a teacher, which costs about $500 a year, it was a no-brainer. I went back to camp, and we raised the teacher's salary on the spot.”

In 1998, Krause founded the Madagascar Ankizy Fund (named after the Malagasy word for children). This initiative has built schools and provided life-saving health care in one of the poorest countries on earth.

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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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