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Dinosaurs The Mesozoic Mailbag

The Best of Paleontology in 2020

A collection of the best headlines, species and research in the field of paleontology from 2020

Rejoice everyone, 2020 is over! I don’t know about you, but I could use a reset after the continuous insanity that was 2020. While the world grinded to a pandemic-induced halt, the field of paleontology was largely unencumbered. As always, new discoveries and cutting-edge research continued to expand our understanding of prehistoric life to heights previously thought impossible. In this article, I will highlight the five most interesting developments from in 2020.Let’s get into it!

A Year for the Babies…

© AMNH

In recent years, more research has been dedicated to the study of embryonic dinosaurs than ever before. This fact was exemplified in 2020 with the announcement of two tyrannosaurid embryos. These specimens – a claw from Alberta and a jaw from Montana – represent the youngest tyrannosaurids known to science (1). While tyrannosaurid fossils are relatively common across the northern hemisphere, juvenile individuals are exceedingly rare. The discovery of two embryos has allowed for paleontologists to finally establish the size and appearance of young tyrannosaurids, thus giving a complete picture of tyrannosaurid growth and development. This discovery shows that there is plenty of research to be undertaken on even the most famous of dinosaurs.

The Dino-Bird That Never Was…

One of the most anti-climactic discoveries of 2020 was a head trapped in amber. The Burmese skull – named Oculudentavis – garnered a great deal of excitement and media attention due its initial description as a dinosaur (2). Skeptics (including myself) weren’t convinced as multiple skeletal anomalies pointed towards Oculudentavis being a species of lizard, not a dinosaur or a bird. These questions were later confirmed when the publication describing Oculudentavis as a dinosaur was redacted (2). While Oculudentavis may not have been the world’s smallest and most beautiful dinosaur, it was still a magnificent find – albeit one that came as a result of inhumane conditions.

Commercial Paleontology Giveth, Commercial Paleontology Taketh Away

When high profile fossils are auctioned, there are typically two possible outcomes. Ideally, they are sold to an academic institution where they can be formally studied and displayed to the public. This outcome came to fruition with the “Dueling Dinosaurs”, a spectacular fossil of a Triceratops and a juvenile Tyrannosaurus locked in mortal combat. For over a decade the Dueling Dinosaurs have been subject to a variety of legal controversies stemming from their ownership rights. However, they were finally sold to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in 2020, thereby allowing paleontologists to get a true glimpse at this potentially ground-breaking specimen (3) (for more about the Dueling Dinosaurs, check out: The Dueling Dinosaurs are Finally Free!).

The other, more disastrous outcome is that the fossil is sold to a private individual, where they are inaccessible to both science and the public. Sadly, this outcome is what befell the fossil of Stan, one of the most complete specimens of Tyrannosaurus known. While the buyer has chosen to remain anonymous, the record-breaking $32 million dollar selling price indicates that they didn’t buy Stan on behalf of a museum (4). This sale seems to indicate that it will be almost impossible for paleontologists to conduct crucial research on Stan in the future. While commercial paleontology is an important element of the scientific field, it has the potential to go awry as was demonstrated by the sale of Stan (for more about Stan, check out: Tyrannosaurus For Sale!).

Dinosaur DNA?

Turns out Jurassic Park may have been onto something when it said we could find dinosaur DNA. Well,sort of. Analysis of 75-million-year-old juvenile hadrosaur skulls from Montana revealed the presence of small structures which bear a striking resemblance to animal cells (5). The cells are so detailed that some appear to be halfway through the process of cellular division, while others contain structures which are believed to represent the nucleus of the cell, the organelle which contains DNA. While this DNA cannot be extracted to synthesize a dinosaur genome and thus bring dinosaurs back from the grave, it is nonetheless an incredible and fascinating discovery. The presence of cells like these on fossils may not allow us to clone dinosaurs, but they may help reveal important information about the long-lost biology of extinct animals.

All Hail Spinosaurus, King of the Seas!

When it was announced that paleontologists discovered the tail of Spinosaurus, I spent a day fanboying about it. For years, it had been hypothesized that Spinosaurus was the first aquatic dinosaur known to science. While a specimen discovered in 2014 seemed to confirm this, subsequent research cast doubt on this assertion, particularly in Spinosaurus’ ability to swim. This doubt was finally silenced in 2020 when it was announced that the tail of Spinosaurus had been discovered in Morocco. The tail, which strongly resembles that of a crocodile, would have acted as a powerful paddle allowing Spinosaurus to be an efficient swimmer (6). Further evidence of aquatic behaviour came from the sediment of an ancient riverbed which contained an abnormally large amount of Spinosaurus teeth (7). While this is abnormal for land predators, it is completely within the range for aquatic predators. The confirmation of an aquatic Spinosaurus is monumental for the field of paleontology. Not only does this show the absolute extremes of dinosaur evolution, but it also shows that there is plenty of fossil material still left undiscovered across the world. (For more about Spinosaurus, check out: Hooray! Another Spinosaurus Article!)

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Sauropod Egg Tooth: Fossils of Sauropod embryos revealed the presence of an egg tooth, a specialized bone dinosaur used to break their eggshells when hatching (8). This is a trait shared with other reptiles and birds, adding further credence to their status as dinosaurian descendants.
  • A Year for Morocco: The fossils of the hadrosaur Ajnabia from Morocco reveal that these animals were more widespread than previously believed, indicating a possible land bridge between Africa and Europe (9).
  • Pathologies: Studies from the Royal Ontario Museum revealed the presence of osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, on the fossils of a ceratopsian (10). Additionally, evidence of blood parasites was found in the remains of a Brazilian sauropod (11). These two discoveries indicate that dinosaurs, like all life, were vulnerable to basic diseases and disorders and were not the ruthless and invincible machines we picture them as.
  • Coolest New Species: Named Ubirajara jubatus, this small theropod from Brazil represents one of the most unique dinosaurs known to science. In addition to being the only feathered non-avian dinosaur known from South America, Ubirajara possessed a pair of lengthy quills on each shoulder (12). These quills lend a unique appearance to this dinosaur, thus giving it the noted distinction of being the most notable new species discovered in 2020.

  • Oddest Moment/Meme of the Year: How do I explain the paleontological phenomenon that was the Mammoth Cube? Mammoth Cube refers to the remains of the Jarkov Mammoth. What makes this so notable is that the fossil of the mammoth is shaped like a cube, but with its tusks protruding from the block. Thus… Mammoth Cube! It isn’t really news (especially considering how it was discovered in 1997), but it was fun to see a block of mammoth on every paleontology page for over a month.

New discoveries like those listed above give hope to aspiring paleontologists like myself that there will still be plenty for us to do when our time as dedicated researchers arrives. 

Works Cited:

I do not take credit for any images found in this article.

Baby Tyrannosaurus found here, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History

Oculudentavis in amber found Here

Stan on display at Christie’s found here

Spinosaurus in its habitat illustrated by Mark Winton, found at his blog here

Ubirajara illustrated by Bob Nicholls of Paleocreations.com, found here

Jarkov Mammoth courtesy of (unknown), found here

  1. Black, Riley. “First Tyrannosaur Embryo Fossils Revealed.” National Geographic, 19 Oct. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/10/first-tyrannosaur-embryo-fossils-revealed/.
  2. Peretti, Adolf, and Michael Greshko. “The Smallest Known Dinosaur Is Actually a Peculiar Ancient Lizard.” National Geographic, 14 Aug. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/08/smallest-dinosaur-known-actually-peculiar-ancient-lizard/.
  3. Greshko, Michael. “’Dueling Dinosaurs’ Fossil, Hidden from Science for 14 Years, Could Finally Reveal Its Secrets.” National Geographic, 17 Nov. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/11/dueling-dinosaurs-fossil-finally-set-to-reveal-secrets/
  4. Small, Zachary. “T. Rex Skeleton Brings $31.8 Million at Christie’s Auction.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Oct. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/arts/design/t-rex-skeleton-brings-31-8-million-at-christies-auction.html
  5. Greshko, Michael, and Alida Bailleul. “Hints of Fossil DNA Discovered in Dinosaur Skull.” National Geographic, 3 Mar. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/03/hints-of-dna-discovered-in-a-dinosaur-fossil/
  6. Ibrahim, Nizar, et al. “Tail-Propelled Aquatic Locomotion in a Theropod Dinosaur.” Nature, vol. 581, no. 7806, 2020, pp. 67–70., doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2190-3.
  7. Greshko, Michael. “Case for ‘River Monster’ Spinosaurus Strengthened by New Fossil Teeth.” Science, 23 Sept. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/09/case-for-river-monster-spinosaurus-strengthened-by-new-fossil-teeth/.
  8. Koumoundouros, Tessa. “Incredibly Rare Dinosaur Embryo Reveals Hatchlings Possessed Strange Facial Horn.” ScienceAlert, 27 Aug. 2020, www.sciencealert.com/rare-dinosaur-embryo-reveals-biggest-land-dweller-hatchlings-had-a-strange-face-horn.
  9. McRae, Mike. “The Fossil of a Duckbill Dinosaur Has Been Found on The ‘Wrong’ Continent.” ScienceAlert, 6 Nov. 2020, www.sciencealert.com/pony-sized-duckbill-dinosaur-fossil-found-in-the-last-place-anybody-would-suspect
  10. Black, Riley. “Dinosaurs Suffered From Cancer, Too.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 3 Aug. 2020, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dinosaurs-suffered-cancer-too-180975467/
  11. Baraniuk, Chris. “Gruesome ‘Blood Worms’ Invaded a Dinosaur’s Leg Bone, Fossil Suggests.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 30 Oct. 2020, www.scientificamerican.com/article/gruesome-blood-worms-invaded-a-dinosaurs-leg-bone-fossil-suggests/
  12. Greshko, Michael. “One-of-a-Kind Dinosaur Removed from Brazil Sparks Backlash, Investigation.” Science, 23 Dec. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/12/one-of-a-kind-dinosaur-removed-from-brazil-sparks-legal-investigation/.

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