New Evidence for Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs

July 17, 2013 — University of Adelaide research has shown new evidence that dinosaurs were warm-blooded like birds and mammals, not cold-blooded like reptiles as commonly believed.
In a paper published in PLoS ONE, Professor Roger Seymour of the University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, argues that cold-blooded dinosaurs would not have had the required muscular power to prey on other animals and dominate over mammals as they did throughout the Mesozoic period.

“Much can be learned about dinosaurs from fossils but the question of whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded is still hotly debated among scientists,” says Professor Seymour.

“Some point out that a large saltwater crocodile can achieve a body temperature above 30°C by basking in the sun, and it can maintain the high temperature overnight simply by being large and slow to change temperature.

“They say that large, cold-blooded dinosaurs could have done the same and enjoyed a warm body temperature without the need to generate the heat in their own cells through burning food energy like warm-blooded animals.”

In his paper, Professor Seymour asks how much muscular power could be produced by a crocodile-like dinosaur compared to a mammal-like dinosaur of the same size.

Saltwater crocodiles reach over a tonne in weight and, being about 50% muscle, have a reputation for being extremely powerful animals.

But drawing from blood and muscle lactate measurements collected by his collaborators at Monash University, University of California and Wildlife Management International in the Northern Territory, Professor Seymour shows that a 200 kg crocodile can produce only about 14% of the muscular power of a mammal at peak exercise, and this fraction seems to decrease at larger body sizes.

“The results further show that cold-blooded crocodiles lack not only the absolute power for exercise, but also the endurance, that are evident in warm-blooded mammals,” says Professor Seymour.

“So, despite the impression that saltwater crocodiles are extremely powerful animals, a crocodile-like dinosaur could not compete well against a mammal-like dinosaur of the same size.

“Dinosaurs dominated over mammals in terrestrial ecosystems throughout the Mesozoic. To do that they must have had more muscular power and greater endurance than a crocodile-like physiology would have allowed.”

His latest evidence adds to that of earlier work he did on blood flow to leg bones which concluded that the dinosaurs were possibly even more active than mammals.

Big-Nosed, Long-Horned Dinosaur Discovered in Utah: Dinosaur in Same Family as Triceratops

July 17, 2013 — A remarkable new species of horned dinosaur has been unearthed in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southern Utah. The huge plant-eater inhabited Laramidia, a landmass formed when a shallow sea flooded the central region of North America, isolating western and eastern portions for millions of years during the Late Cretaceous Period. The newly discovered dinosaur, belonging to the same family as the famous Triceratops, was announced today in the British scientific journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The study, funded in large part by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Science Foundation, was led by Scott Sampson, when he was the Chief Curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah. Sampson is now the Vice President of Research and Collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Additional authors include Eric Lund (Ohio University; previously a University of Utah graduate student), Mark Loewen (Natural History Museum of Utah and Dept. of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah), Andrew Farke (Raymond Alf Museum), and Katherine Clayton (Natural History Museum of Utah).

Horned dinosaurs, or “ceratopsids,” were a group of big-bodied, four-footed herbivores that lived during the Late Cretaceous Period. As epitomized by Triceratops, most members of this group have huge skulls bearing a single horn over the nose, one horn over each eye, and an elongate, bony frill at the rear. The newly discovered species, Nasutoceratops titusi, possesses several unique features, including an oversized nose relative to other members of the family, and exceptionally long, curving, forward-oriented horns over the eyes. The bony frill, rather than possessing elaborate ornamentations such as hooks or spikes, is relatively unadorned, with a simple, scalloped margin. Nasutoceratops translates as “big-nose horned face,” and the second part of the name honors Alan Titus, Monument Paleontologist at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for his years of research collaboration.

For reasons that have remained obscure, all ceratopsids have greatly enlarged nose regions at the front of the face. Nasutoceratops stands out from its relatives, however, in taking this nose expansion to an even greater extreme. Scott Sampson, the study’s lead author, stated, “The jumbo-sized schnoz of Nasutoceratops likely had nothing to do with a heightened sense of smell — since olfactory receptors occur further back in the head, adjacent to the brain — and the function of this bizarre feature remains uncertain.”

Paleontologists have long speculated about the function of horns and frills on horned dinosaurs. Ideas have ranged from predator defense and controlling body temperature to recognizing members of the same species. Yet the dominant hypothesis today focuses on competing for mates — that is, intimidating members of the same sex and attracting members of the opposite sex. Peacock tails and deer antlers are modern examples. In keeping with this view, Mark Loewen, a co-author of the study claimed that, “The amazing horns of Nasutoceratops were most likely used as visual signals of dominance and, when that wasn’t enough, as weapons for combatting rivals.”

A Treasure Trove of Dinosaurs on the Lost Continent of Laramidia

Nasutoceratops was discovered in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), which encompasses 1.9 million acres of high desert terrain in south-central Utah. This vast and rugged region, part of the National Landscape Conservation System administered by the Bureau of Land Management, was the last major area in the lower 48 states to be formally mapped by cartographers. Today GSENM is the largest national monument in the United States. Sampson proclaimed that, “Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the last great, largely unexplored dinosaur boneyard in the lower 48 states.”

For most of the Late Cretaceous, exceptionally high sea levels flooded the low-lying portions of several continents around the world. In North America, a warm, shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway extended from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, subdividing the continent into eastern and western landmasses, known as Appalachia and Laramidia, respectively. Whereas little is known of the plants and animals that lived on Appalachia, the rocks of Laramidia exposed in the Western Interior of North America have generated a plethora of dinosaur remains. Laramidia was less than one-third the size of present day North America, approximating the area of Australia.

Most known Laramidian dinosaurs were concentrated in a narrow belt of plains sandwiched between the seaway to the east and mountains to the west. Today, thanks to an abundant fossil record and more than a century of collecting by paleontologists, Laramidia is the best known major landmass for the entire Age of Dinosaurs, with dig sites spanning from Alaska to Mexico. Utah was located in the southern part of Laramidia, which has yielded far fewer dinosaur remains than the fossil-rich north. The world of dinosaurs was much warmer than the present day; Nasutoceratops lived in a subtropical swampy environment about 100 km from the seaway.

Beginning in the 1960’s, paleontologists began to notice that the same major groups of dinosaurs seemed to be present all over this Late Cretaceous landmass, but different species of these groups occurred in the north (for example, Alberta and Montana) than in the south (New Mexico and Texas). This finding of “dinosaur provincialism” was very puzzling, given the giant body sizes of many of the dinosaurs together with the diminutive dimensions of Laramidia. Currently, there are five giant (rhino-to-elephant-sized) mammals on the entire continent of Africa. Seventy-six million years ago, there may have been more than two dozen giant dinosaurs living on a landmass about one-quarter that size. Co-author Mark Loewen noted that, “We’re still working to figure out how so many different kinds of giant animals managed to co-exist on such a small landmass?” The new fossils from GSENM are helping us explore the range of possible answers, and even rule out some alternatives.

During the past dozen years, crews from the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and several other partner institutions (e.g., the Utah Geologic Survey, the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology, and the Bureau of Land Management) have unearthed a new assemblage of more than a dozen dinosaurs in GSENM. In addition to Nasutoceratops, the collection includes a variety of other plant-eating dinosaurs — among them duck-billed hadrosaurs, armored ankylosaurs, dome-headed pachycephalosaurs, and two other horned dinosaurs, Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops — together with carnivorous dinosaurs great and small, from “raptor-like” predators to a mega-sized tyrannosaur named Teratophoneus. Amongst the other fossil discoveries are fossil plants, insect traces, clams, fishes, amphibians, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, and mammals. Together, this diverse bounty of fossils is offering one of the most comprehensive glimpses into a Mesozoic ecosystem. Remarkably, virtually all of the identifiable dinosaur remains found in GSENM belong to new species, providing strong support for the dinosaur provincialism hypothesis.

Andrew Farke, a study co-author, noted that, “Nasutoceratops is one of a recent landslide of ceratopsid discoveries, which together have established these giant plant-eaters as the most diverse dinosaur group on Laramidia.”

Eric Lund, another co-author as well as the discoverer of the new species, stated that, “Nasutoceratops is a wondrous example of just how much more we have to learn about with world of dinosaurs. Many more exciting fossils await discovery in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.”

Tooth Is ‘Smoking Gun’ Evidence That Tyrannosaurus Rex Was Hunter, Killer

July 16, 2013 — Tyrannosaurus rex has long been popular with kids and moviemakers as the most notorious, vicious killing machine to roam the planet during the age of the dinosaurs.


So, it may come as a shock that for more than a century some paleontologists have argued that T. rex was a scavenger, not a true predator — more like a vulture than a lion. Indeed, a lack of definitive fossil proof of predation in the famous theropod has stirred controversy among scientists — until now.

“T. rex is the monster of our dreams,” said David Burnham, preparator of vertebrate paleontology at the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. “But ever since it was discovered in Montana and named in the early 1900s, there’s been a debate about whether these large carnivores were scavengers or predators. Most people assume they were predators, but the scientific evidence for predation has been really elusive. Yes, we’ve found lots of dinosaur skeletons with tooth marks that had been chewed up by something. But what did that really prove? Yes, these large carnivores fed on other dinosaurs — but did they eat them while they were alive or dead? That’s where the debate came in. Where was the evidence for hunt and kill?”

Now, Burnham is part of a team that has unearthed “smoking gun” physical proof that T. rex was indeed a predator, hunter and killer. In the Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota, Burnham and colleagues discovered the crown of a T. rex tooth lodged in the fossilized spine of a plant-eating hadrosaur that seems to have survived the attack. The team describes the find in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Burnham’s KU co-authors are Bruce Rothschild and the late Larry Martin, along with former KU student Robert DePalma II of The Palm Beach Museum of Natural History and Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

“Robert DePalma was a student here at KU doing his master’s thesis in the Hell Creek formation,” said Burnham. “He found a specimen that represents the tail of one of these hadrosaurs. It had a distorted-looking bone growth. He came to me and said, ‘What do you think is causing this?’ So we cleaned it and could see a tooth embedded in one of these duck-billed dinosaur vertebrae. Then we went to Lawrence Memorial Hospital and used a CT machine to scan the bones — and we saw all of the tooth.”

Previous evidence for predation included T. rex fossil discoveries with preserved stomach contents that included the bones of a young ceratopsian (e.g., Triceratops or one of its kin). However, there was no evidence to conclude whether the ceratopsian was alive or dead when the T. rex made a snack of it.

By contrast, Burnham said the tooth was definitive evidence of hunting, after carefully measuring its length and the size of its serrations to ensure that it came from the mouth of a T. rex.

“Lo and behold, the tooth plotted out just exactly with T. rex — the only known large theropod from the Hell Creek formation,” he said. “We knew we had a T. rex tooth in the tail of a hadrosaur. Better yet, we knew the hadrosaur got away because the bone had begun to heal. Quite possibly it was being pursued by the T. rex when it was bitten. It was going in the right direction — away. The hadrosaur escaped by some stroke of luck. The better luck is finding this fossil with the preserved evidence.”

Because T. rex regularly shed its teeth, the predator went away hungry, but otherwise no worse for the encounter. It would have grown a new tooth to replace the one left behind in the hadrosaur’s tail. This could have been a typical example of T. rex’s hunting efforts, even if it didn’t result in a meal.

“To make an analogy to modern animals, when lions go attack a herd of herbivores, they go after the sick and the slow,” Burnham said. “Most of the time, hadrosaurs traveled in packs. This hadrosaur may have been a little slower, or this T. rex may have been a little faster — at least fast enough to almost catch a duck-billed dinosaur.”

This concrete proof of T. rex’s predation continues a long relationship between KU paleontologists and the theropod, which lived in North America during the Late Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago. KU graduate Barnum Brown discovered the first documented remains of the dinosaur in Wyoming in 1900.