V is for Variety

Prize-winning weird deinocheirus, from Discover magazine.

Gone are the days when all the dinosaurs were drawn the same way… green, tail-draggin’, oversized lizards. If there’s one thing the dinosaurs ought to be known for — other than not being green, tail-dragging, or lizards — it’s that there were a ton of them, all shapes and sizes. So, as we approach the end of the world of dinosaurs, this is the perfect opportunity to do a little guinness record thing. I”m going to keep that lower-case because I wouldn’t want to be rivaling the actual World Record people. I did get some of these answers from them, though.

This will be about the -ests. The biggest, smallest, smartest, dumbest, earliest, and so on. I start with the weirdest, the deinocheirus. The name means horrible hand, and the skeleton itself looks like a patchwork quilt. It had an upturned claw on a hand, but also had a ducky bill, long tail, and a hump thing on its back. Or you could call those back spines “sails,” if you like. I have to trust the paleontologist that they got this right. There have been many instances of skeletons being mixed and mashed together, though, but this is not one of them.

Here’s our deino, without the skin. See? Still looks weird.

Deinocheirus skeleton, a weird theropod, photo from Wikipedia.

Size Matters

Way back at “B,” we talked about the biggest dinosaurs. The biggest among the titanosaurs was either Argentinosaurus or Patagotitan, both of them from Argentina, both of them weighing somewhere around 70 to 90 tons. They might be metric tons or regular tons, but it didn’t really matter. They were realllly big. Puny man was smaller than a tibia (shin bone). I’m getting nervous just looking at the silhouette of him under that long tail–look out, dude!

There are other ways to define big. The tallest dinosaur was 60 feet off the ground, Sauroposeidon proteles. Godzilla territory–the first Godzilla, that is. Even bigger than the brachiosaur, which once was thought to be the tallest. The longest tail, we’ve already mentioned, is Diplodocus–he got his own entire post. The longest end-to-end was Supersaurus, maybe 40 meters. That’s nearly half a football field.

But they weren’t all big. The big ones were easier to find, since their bones were gigantorus. Much harder to find were the really little ones. How would they even know they were dinosaurs? Those paleontologists were quite clever. The smallest dinosaur discovered to date is the microraptor zhaoianus, although officially is a little tricky. There have been several microraptors identified in digs in China, but some of them are believed to be mixtures, or perhaps all related back to M. zhaoianus. They appeared to have a feathery tail, at least in some of the fossils, like this one. Chicken-sized. Probably tasted just like ….

Smallest dinosaur candidate, m. zhaoianus, from wikipedia.

Brain Matters, Too, But…

If you try to find the “dumbest” dinosaur, there is only one candidate and for only one reason. The stegosaurus has long been known to have a tiny brain, or certainly a tiny space in its itty bitty skull for a brain. It carries the distinction for having the biggest contrast between braincase and body size of pretty much any known creature.

They do know that there was another place along the stegosaurus back for a second nerve group, a “second brain,” if you will. But we’re talking brains, so it’s kind of hard to know how much soft tissue there really was. Generally speaking, smaller animals have smaller brain capabilities. On the other hand, it’s not just size that matters, but how many wrinkles the brain has, how many different brain regions named after French and German Enlightenment biologists. Maybe stego actually had a very wrinkly brain! We don’t know. Maybe he was shamming, and just pretending to be dumb. Maybe he really had light brites all over his back…. we are guessing.

Stego likes purty lights! Drawing from Reddit.

The argument on behalf of the Troodon is exactly the reverse. It was thought to be the smartest dinosaur because although it was medium-sized, it had a large space for a brain. Another of the theropods–the T-rexes, the birds, the dromosaurs–it had teeth and probably feathers.

Troodon reciting the Pythagorean theorem. From wikipedia.

What’s in a Name?

The dinosaur naming conventions are complicated and involved. Often the last names, the species name, refers to the discoverer or to what inspired the discoverer. Or just the place, which is less memorable but at least descriptive. So the question of “What’s the longest name” would surely be some sort of Greek-Latin-Chinese combination. (Tyrannosaurus is Greek, but Rex is Latin). These dinosaurs studied a lot of classical languages!

This is the arguably longest-named dinosaur. He is micropachycephalosaurus hongtuyanensis. There was haranguing about the name and whether he was a real skeleton; eventually, the paleontologists agreed on the name and the bone structure. But, oddly enough, even though he was named and officially entered into the giant log book of names, 30 years later, they decided he wasn’t actually a pachycephalosaur. The pachy’s were the dudes with the round bony heads. This guy was much smaller, and they became convinced that he did not have a bony head. And he had a feathery fluff on his tail, at least according to the person with the colored pencils.

Micropachycephalosaurus, drawing in wikipedia.

The opposite name, the briefest name in this case, was also found in China. This is the dinosaur with the shortest name: Yi Qi. Sounds so exotic! As though dinosaurs weren’t exotic enough, this theropod had one of those long proto-fingers. Yi was like a bat, a little like a pterosaur, a little like a bird. But the skeleton is not decided for flight even if it did have webbing. They think it was a tree-dweller–arboreal–and may have moved like a flying squirrel.

Yi Qi, shortest-named dinosaur. Wikipedia.

And Ever So Much More So…

We’ve already talked about Sue, the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found, the T Rex at the entrance to the Chicago Field Museum. Sue cost a pretty penny (or 760,000,000 pennies). But Stan was even more expensive. Where do you suppose $32 million Stan, the most expensive dinosaur in the world, is going to end up? Where else? Abu Dhabi! They’re building what will surely be an astounding museum, to be opened in 2025.

I put it out there that the strangest dinosaur was, up top, the deinocheirus. But there’s a dinosaur with even weirder hands. This one had three foot claws. Therizinosaurus had the weirdest looking front arms of any of the bunch.

Therizinosaurus, the weirdest. Wikipedia.

Aging Gracefully

There are more than 1000 distinct species of the dinosaurs, these terrible lizards. The oldest one, the one dating back to the earliest time in the Triassic, was this little fella, the Eoraptor. He was a sauropod, but not a large one. Human-sized, perhaps 5ft long and 3 ft tall. They knew it was bipedal, with somewhat small front hands. 230 million years old, give or take a few hundred thousand.

Eoraptor, the oldest or earliest, from Reddit.

So what was the most recent dinosaur, the last one to go extinct? As I mentioned when discussing Extinction and the K-T boundary, there was this big ball of dirt that slammed into the earth. The Asteroid! I’ll tell a bit more of that story before we’re done, but suffice it to say that lots of the late Cretaceous species disappeared roughly at the same time. We don’t really know, then, what was the last non-avian dinosaur.

The mammals made it through. Also, there were aves already, birds existing before the end of the Cretaceous, so they made it through as well. The avian dinosaurs were thought to be non-fliers, early cousins like the emu and the ostrich who scavenged off the ground. There really weren’t flying birds because the pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus were pretty big and dominated the skies. Birds had to wait for them to be taken out by the You-Know-What in order to start launching upward.

So the birds from the Cretaceous were pretty small and unimpressive, like Asteriornis maastrichtensis.

All the better to hide from the T Rex and the flaming sword of death, aka the meteor. Kind of clever. Might give that brainy Troodon a run for its money.

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