The natural world is full of oddities. From the largest creatures to the smallest microbes, the Earth is full of extraordinary animals, people and things. This principle was no different during the time of the dinosaurs, when the world was populated with weird and wonderful creatures. In a series of articles over the next month, I will share my top picks for the most peculiar dinosaurs known to science and talk about what exactly made them so odd….
When the fossils of a relatively small sauropod were discovered in the deserts of Niger in 1976, they were mostly nondescript. Based on the fossil material, it was clear that the expedition led by Philipe Taquet had unearthed a new species. There was a problem though: the animal was missing its skull. While this may seem odd, its actually quite common for sauropod fossils to be found “decapitated” (a subject for another article).
While similar fossils appeared in the years that followed, they were all poorly preserved, and as such, could not be formally described. That changed in 1999, when paleontologist Paul Sereno discovered new material of the mystery sauropod, allowing him to formally describe and classify it as a new species, calling it Nigersaurus. His subsequent descriptions of Nigersaurus have painted a picture of one of the oddest dinosaurs of all time, with the skull in particular coming into focus.
Upon first glance of the skull, one might be forgiven for thinking that Nigersaurus isn’t a dinosaur at all. For some, the skull is reminiscent of a giant vacuum cleaner. For others, the cubic shape and varying width of the skull conjures an image of Darth Vader. Regardless of the imagery evoked by the odd skull, what is abundantly clear is its apparent abnormality. The back of the skull is rather small in width, leading paleontologists to believe that Nigersaurus had a small brain. The eye sockets are massive for a sauropod and aside from making Nigersaurus look like a power puff girl, they were unlikely to have been highly developed in their capabilities of sight. The skull has 4 large holes in front of the eyes, all of which are far larger than what is commonly found amongst sauropod species.
The jaws of Nigersaurus were the most distinct feature of this spectacular animal. While most other sauropod dinosaurs only have a few dozen peg-like teeth, the jaws of Nigersaurus would have contained over 500 teeth at a time. Over 60 columns of teeth lay within the jaws of Nigersaurus, with 9 replacement teeth waiting behind each one. When a tooth became worn down from eating, it would fall out and immediately be replaced, a process which is theorized to have occurred every two weeks. While this ‘dental battery’ is common amongst ornithischian dinosaurs, such as the ceratopsians and hadrosaurs, Nigersaurus is the only known species of sauropod to possess such trait. While the head is the defining feature, the rest of the body is also quite strange.
The neck of Nigersaurus is quite short (for the longneck dinosaurs) and would have been rather stiff when it was alive. It’s more than likely that Nigersaurus wouldn’t have been able to lift its skull far above the shoulders, and as such, likely fed on low-lying and mid-ground vegetation. The skeleton is rather small (at only 9 meters long) and possessed hollow bones; this indicates that Nigersaurus had a respiratory system similar to that of birds. This type of respiratory system fills in the hollow areas with air sacs, which allows for a more active lifestyle. In addition, Nigersaurus was only as tall as a human, weighing roughly 4 tons. While this size was average for a dinosaur, it’s strange considering that some close relatives of Nigersaurus grew to be 100 tons in weight and 35 meters in length. While not technically a dwarf, the comparatively diminutive size of Nigersaurus helps add to its profound mythos as the so called ‘lawn mower’ dinosaur.
Nigersaurus is a prime example of just how bizarre dinosaurs could become. This article provided you with a glimpse into the peculiar word of dinosaurs, but there are plenty more oddities to come! In my next article, I will discuss the odd features of a notorious group of dinosaurs, the ceratopsians.