Here at Cosmos we love a good dinosaur story – who doesn’t? These prehistoric creatures capture everyone’s imagination. This year was a bumper one for dinosaur research, from new species uncovered to footprints discovered to insects found in dinosaur dung. Let’s recap!
1. Meet Australia’s largest dinosaur
Perhaps our favourite dinosaur story this year was when massive plant-eater from southwest Queensland stomped into the record books.
Palaeontologists officially named and described Australia’s biggest dinosaur – Australotitan cooperensis, the southern titan.
This colossal sauropod was as long as a basketball court (25–30 metres) and up to 6.5 metres tall at the hip. This places it in the top 15 largest dinosaurs around the globe – and makes it the largest ever found in Australia.
2. How many T. rexes ever lived? Billions
A lot of research came out this year about the iconic carnivore, the T. rex, but one cool paper made some speculative (but science-based) calculations to figure out how many T. rexes ever wandered this planet.
This new study, published in Science, estimates that about 20,000 adult T. rexes lived at any one time and that the species persisted for about 127,000 generations – meaning at least 2.5 billion walked the Earth in total.
The question is, if 2.5 billion T. rexes existed during their tenure on the Earth, give or take a few billion, where are all their remains?
3. Arctic dinosaur ‘nursery’ discovered
Life in the Arctic is tough: brutal winds, freezing temperatures and months of utter darkness. For a long time, palaeontologists believed no dinosaurs could have lived in such icy extremes, until researchers in the 1950s discovered the first fossils in the polar region.
Now, thanks to a decade of painstaking research in Alaska, scientists from the University of Alaska and Florida State University have uncovered a trove of baby dinosaur bones and teeth, proving that not only did dinosaurs live and thrive in the frigid north – which, though milder than today, still averaged 6°C across the year – they reproduced there, too.
4. Dinosaurs take a hike
Apparently drops in carbon dioxide levels may have allowed herbivorous dinosaurs to get to Greenland, suggesting that climatic changes may have determined dinosaur migration patterns.
It was previously known that sauropodomorphs – a clade of herbivorous dinosaurs that later evolved into Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus, among others – first emerged in modern-day South America and then migrated north between 225 and 205 million years ago.
This research narrows that dinosaur migration estimate down to 214 million years ago.
5. World’s smallest stegosaur footprint
Speaking of dinosaur feet, this year palaeontologists discovered a single footprint of a tiny stegosaur, left 100 million years ago in what is now the Xinjiang Province in northern China.
“This footprint was made by a herbivorous, armoured dinosaur known broadly as a stegosaur – the family of dinosaurs that includes the famed stegosaurus,” says Anthony Romilio, a palaeontologist from the University of Queensland who was part of the research team.
“Like the stegosaurus, this little dinosaur probably had spikes on its tail and bony plates along its back as an adult.”
The footprint is the smallest known stegosaur print in the world, measuring just under 6 cm in length. The dinosaur it belonged to may have only been 60 cm long; it’s thought to be a juvenile.
6. Chicken-sized dinosaur hunted at night
A little dinosaur called Shuvuuia may have hunted in the dark using night vision and super hearing.
This chicken-sized therapod lived in the deserts of what is now Mongolia. Its skeleton has a seemingly fragile bird-looking skull and brawny arms with only a single claw. It also had long roadrunner-like legs.
The team of researchers, led by Jonah Choiniere and James Neenan of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, found the length of the Shuvuuia’s lagena (a cochlea-like organ birds have to process incoming sound) was very similar in relative size to the barn owl, which is an excellent night hunter with extraordinary hearing.
7. Dinosaur dung is the new amber
Palaeontologists have found a 230-million-year-old beetle species, with legs and antennae intact, preserved within fossilised dinosaur poo.
The discovery, published in the journal Current Biology, opens up the possibility that fossilised dinosaur droppings – known as coprolites – could be a rich new source of information about ancient insects otherwise inaccessible to science.
The most common source of information about ancient insects is amber, the hardened tree sap that can preserve insects and other tiny creatures almost perfectly.
But while insect fossils from amber date as far back as about 140 million years, this new research suggests coprolites may offer researchers an even deeper view of the past.
8. Odd jobs: paleodermatologist
Sure, discovering new species of dinosaurs is cool, but have you ever spared a thought for the guy who studies their skin?
Phil Bell, of the University of New England, is a dinosaur-skin specialist – a field so niche that he’s the only person in Australia who can claim the title. This type of specialisation doesn’t even have a name, although Bell jokes that it could be “palaeodermatologist”.
While many of us think of palaeontology as a study of bones and fossils, Bell sees a beauty in the finer, and more fragile, parts of dinosaurs. “There has been a dismissive attitude towards skin,” he says. “Everyone is interested in the bones.”
9. Can we really extract ancient DNA from dinosaurs?
No dinosaur list would be complete without a reference to Jurassic Park. From million-year-old dinosaur remains to ‘resurrecting’ mammoths, stories in the news about ancient DNA make it seem as though creating theme parks of ancient species is just around the corner.
But ancient DNA is also an important tool for viewing the past. The only problem is that it’s not quite as abundant or easy to use as some think.
Let’s delve into the science behind ancient DNA – what exactly is it, and how easy is it to extract from remains?