Though the plant-eating dinosaur Ampelosaurus was among the largest to walk the Earth, it was equipped with a puny brain.
Artwork by Julius Csotonyi
Jurassic Dino Nesting Site
Jan. 23, 2012
-- The oldest known dinosaur nesting site, dating to 190 million years ago, has been unearthed in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa. The extraordinary site, described in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, includes multiple dinosaur nests, eggs, hatchlings and the remains of adults for this species, Massospondylus. Project leader Robert Reisz, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, told Discovery News that the dinosaur was herbivorous. Like its sauropod relatives, it had a very small head and an extremely long neck. The hatchlings walked on all fours, but adults were bipedal. "The transition from four legs to two during an individual's lifetime is a very unusual growth pattern that we rarely see in animals, but we do see it in humans," Reisz said. "The largest articulated skeleton of this animal was about 6 meters (19.7 feet) in length, but they probably grew even larger."
Dinosaur Nest The discovery provides evidence for "nesting site fidelity," according to Reisz, "as it looks like these dinosaurs liked this place and returned to it repeatedly to lay their eggs." It's also the oldest evidence in the fossil record for a highly organized nest, with eggs carefully laid in a single layer. Reisz and co-author David Evans, an associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, are shown here standing next to a nest in plaster at the site. Plaster protects the excavated nest, just like the broken bone in a human. The plaster cover is later removed in the lab for research. Reisz said clues about the nest are difficult to interpret, but what's known so far is that "the nests seem to be fairly shallow because all the eggs are in one layer," he said. "We do not know if the nests were covered by vegetation or if they were buried because the nature of the sediments preclude the preservation of plant fossil remains. It is quite possible that the mother guarded the nests." Nest guarding today is fairly common among living reptiles, such as crocodiles. It's also now known "that the hatchlings stayed around the nesting area long enough to at least grow to double in size."
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Adult Massospondylus Skull, Complete Embryo This photo compares the size of the skull of an adult next to the skeleton of an entire tiny embryo. The researchers believe each Massospondylus mother laid a lot of small eggs, at least 35, which was a probable survival strategy. "There were large and small meat-eating theropod dinosaurs around at the time Massospondylus lived,” Evans told Discovery News. "The smaller, more agile predator called Coelophysis, was much smaller than adult Massospondylus, but would have been a threat to the hatchlings and juveniles." So far, the researchers have found 10 dinosaur nests at the site, but they suspect many more are still embedded within the South African cliff. They predict many other nests will be eroded out in time, as the natural weathering process continues.
Dinosaur Embryo Close-Up This close-up of a Massospondylus embryonic skeleton reveals that the head was pushed out of the egg after death. The scientists suspect gases produced by decay caused this to happen. They also think the site was so well preserved because the dinosaur moms chose to lay their eggs in what was then, back in the Early Jurassic Period, a wet spot at the edge of a river. Reisz explained, "Periodically there was an unusually wet season and this area was flooded, drowning the unhatched eggs and embryos, and covering the nests with very fine sediment. Yet this turned out not to be such a horrible disaster for paleontologists." South Africa appears to have been a hotspot for Massospondylus, with other possible nesting sites for this dinosaur probably in existence. So far, however, the one at Golden Gate Highlands National Park is the only nursery to yield complete clutches, with eggs containing embryos, Evans said. He added that similar evidence for large-scale nesting among dinosaurs exists, for dinos such as duck bills and sauropods, but that evidence is about 100 million years younger than this South African site.
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Baby Dinosaur Handprint The discovery provides the world's oldest clear evidence for baby dinosaur footprints at a nesting site. The handprint seen here, as well as the other excavated baby prints, indicates that the infants stayed near the nest site after hatching and walked on all four limbs at first. Reisz said, "The overall body shape of the hatchlings with a large, toothless head, relatively long neck, and general look of helplessness suggests that parental care was very likely in Massospondylus. We think that the mother may have guarded the nest and the hatchlings, but may have also fed the babies with plant material." The paleontologists are now in the process of testing this hypothesis by preparing more embryos from different nests, to see if any of them have teeth. This ongoing research would be the first study of different embryological stages in a dinosaur.
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An advanced member of the largest group of dinosaurs ever to walk the Earth still had a relatively puny brain, researchers say.
The scientists analyzed the skull of 70-million-year-old fossils of the giant dinosaur Ampelosaurus, discovered in 2007 in Cuenca, Spain, in the course of the construction of a high-speed rail track connecting Madrid with Valencia. The reptile was a sauropod, long-necked, long-tailed herbivores that were the largest creatures ever to stride the Earth. More specifically, Ampelosaurus was a kind of sauropod known as a titanosaur, many if not all of which had armorlike scales covering their bodies.
Sauropod skulls are typically fragile, and few have survived intact enough for scientists to learn much about their brains. By scanning the interior of the skull via CT imaging, the researchers developed a 3-D reconstruction of Ampelosaurus' brain, which was not much bigger than a tennis ball.
"This saurian may have reached 15 meters (49 feet) in length; nonetheless its brain was not in excess of 8 centimeters (3 inches)," study researcher Fabien Knoll, a paleontologist at Spain's National Museum of Natural Sciences, said in a statement. (Gallery: Stunning Illustrations of Dinosaurs)
The first sauropods appeared about 160 million years earlier than this fossil.
"We don't see much expansion of brain size in this group of animals as they go through time, unlike a lot of mammalian and bird groups, where you see increases in brain size over time," researcher Lawrence Witmer, an anatomist and paleontologist at Ohio University, told LiveScience. "They apparently hit on something and stuck with it -- expansion of brain size over time wasn't a major focus of theirs."
For years, scientists have wondered how the largest land animals ever lived with such tiny brains. "Maybe we should flip that question on their end -- maybe we shouldn't ask how they could function with tiny brains, but what are many modern animals doing with such ridiculously large brains. Cows may be triple-Einsteins compared to most dinosaurs, but why?" Witmer said.
"Part of the inner ear is associated with hearing, so the fact it had a small inner ear means it probably wasn't all that good at hearing airborne sounds," Witmer said. "It probably used a kind of hearing we don't think much about, which depends on sounds transmitted through the ground."
The inner ear is also responsible for balance and equilibrium, Witmer said.
"Given what we know about its inner ear, Ampelosaurus probably didn't put a real premium on rapid, quick jerky eye or head movements, which makes sense — these are relatively large, slow-moving, plant-eating animals," he said.
Knoll and his colleagues had previously developed 3-D reconstructions of another sauropod, Spinophorosaurus nigeriensis. In contrast to Ampelosaurus, Spinophorosaurus had a fairly developed inner ear.
"It is quite enigmatic that sauropods show such a diverse inner ear morphology whereas they have a very homogenous body shape," Knoll said. "More investigation is definitely required."
Currently scientists are debating whether sauropods held their heads near the ground, grazing on low vegetation, or high up like giraffes to browse on high leaves. "It could be that learning more about the inner ear could tell us what sauropod neck posture was like," Witmer said.
The scientists detailed their findings online Jan. 23 in the journal PLOS ONE.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com.
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