A Blog Around The Clock

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Today is a super-exciting day for me and I hope you will find it exciting as well. Why?

Because today PLoS ONE published a paper I am very hyped about – Structural Extremes in a Cretaceous Dinosaur by Sereno PC, Wilson JA, Witmer LM, Whitlock JA, Maga A, et al.

Simultaneously with the publication of the paper at 10:30am EST today (and such perfect synchrony took a LOT of work, sweat and nail-biting!), the fossil itself will be unveiled at the National Geographic in Washington D.C. (and you’ll see some snippets from there on TV tonight – more information on channels and times later).

First, why is this dinosaur exciting and then, below, why is the publication of this paper so exciting to me personally.

A French paleontologist, Dr. Philippe Taquet, who led the first fossil expeditions to Niger in the 1960s., brought home some bone fragments that he never named. It took three decades until more of this dinosaur was found. In 1997., a member of Paul Sereno’s team discovered the skull of a bizzare-looking dinosaurus which they named Nigersaurus taqueti in honor of their French predecessor. In 1999., Sereno brought in a crew that dug out an almost complete skeleton of this animal, a younger, smaller cousin of the Diplodocus, one of my favourite dinos since I was a little kid.

i-03c78319708500ef669003aaacd4766c-Nigersaurus fleshed out.jpg
[image copyright Todd Marshall, courtesy Project Exploration – click for high-res image]

It usually takes some time for a big dinosaur skeleton to get cleaned and prepared, but in this case it also took some time to do serious head-scratching! The animal was so strange and difficult to interpret!

Although this is a large dinosaur, about elephant-sized, the bones, especially the vertebrae, are extremely hollow – mostly air. Obviously the animal existed and did fine (I believe they found remains of more than one, including babies) although it is hard to fathom that such a large animal could have such a hollow vertebral column without collapsing under the slightest outside pressure. This calls into question the understanding of what the minimal requirements for bone mass are for the skeleton to be useful.

i-f7daf54a6c76507566b4e6daf80df3a0-Nigersaurus skeleton .jpg[image copyright P. Sereno and C. Abraczinskas, courtesy Project Exploration]

The same goes for the skull which is so hollow and minimalistic in its structure that the bones are transparent (see pictures below)! Yet this extremely light-weight skull fed this large animal – again, questioning the current understanding of what the minimal requirements are for a skull to be functional.

The jaw was extremely wide, with about 500 teeth set in a ruler-straight line, being regularly replaced as they wore out. Moreover, the head is positioned in such a way that it strongly suggests that animal was feeding very close to the ground. Apparently, since Marsh uncovered the first Diplodocus in the 1800s, there has been a debate about the mode of feeding in diplodocids, some taking a “long neck = giraffe” view of high tree browsing, while others argued for low-browsing or even grazing close to the ground. The inability of Marsh and later Holland in 1924 to mount the skull of Diplodocus in straight line with the neck (the way usually portrayed in the books of your youth) suggests that the heads of animals in this group tended to point downward, indicating close-to-grouond feeding. Nigersaurus, with the most extreme example of such angle between the head and neck reinforces this notion further. A CT scan of the endocast shows the positioning of the inner ear that also supports this notion.

You can find a LOT of information about the find, pictures and movies, on a beautifully designed Nigersaurus homepage put together by Project Exploration, the science education organization led by Paul Sereno and his wife Gabrielle Lyons.

I got to know Paul Sereno some years ago through his wife who went to grad school at U of Chicago together with my brother. I met Paul in person at SICB meeting in 2000 and then again this summer at Scifoo. Remember this picture:

i-1d20daf6db8ba9a8b0c7d314e50569e6-Nigersaurus in a case at SciFoo.jpg

Yes, that is the Nigersaurus skull in a case I carried from the hotel to the Google campus in August. Here are the pictures I took there that I had to sit on for months now:

i-0bbe007ef02dea8983ccd2b3e4e103b2-Nigersaurus 1.jpg
i-2ead68cf8cd7dbdc2cc1b7111bbf22f6-Nigersaurus 2.jpg
i-39dd7419fe42595cfdbc8c51e256c5f3-Nigersaurus 3.jpg

During Scifoo, Paul became a strong proponent of Open Access and the publication of this paper in PLoS ONE is a big victory for PLoS, for Open Access and for me personally. In one of roughly 5 billion e-mails I exchanged with Paul over the past couple of months, when he first actually went to PLoS ONE and looked around at papers and author instructions, etc. he wrote back to me [a strong, exclamatory word omitted in order to retain the G-rating of this blog]:

“I have been looking over the PLoS ONE site, what can be attached, how it prints, how it reads online, how it cites, how it allow flexible organization and headings plus it’s commenting and rating tools, it’s so very nice, I don’t think I will ever leave!”.

So, if Sereno likes it, you should, too! Go and read the paper. Rate it. Annotate and comment. Blog about it (I will make a linkfest of all the blogospheric responses) and send trackbacks.

Other blog and media coverage:

Pixelshot: Dinosaur build
University of Chicago News Office: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘Mesozoic cow’
Latest from the Ann Arbor News: Eureka! New dinosaur discovered
Africasia: Anatomically odd African dinosaur sucked up the greenery
The Associated Press: Dinosaur Found With Vacuum-Cleaner Mouth
MLive.com: U-M researchers had role in Nigersaurus puzzle
Kalamazoo Gazette: Dinosaur hunter has deep roots in Kalamazoo
Newswise: Dinosaur from Sahara Ate Like a ‘Mesozoic Cow’ (press release)
EurekAlert: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘mesozoic cow’
New York Times: A Dinosaur That Grazed Like a Cow
Science Blog: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘mesozoic cow’
Raw Story: Anatomically odd African dinosaur sucked up the greenery
National Geographic: Dino With “Vacuum Mouth” Revealed
National Geographic: Bizarre Dinosaur Grazed Like a Cow, Study Says
Pharyngula: Nigersaurus, a Cretaceous hedge-trimmer
Scientific Frontline: Dinosaur From Sahara Ate Like A ‘Mesozoic Cow’
Tetrapod Zoology: The world’s most amazing sauropod
Health, Science, & Libraries: Very Interesting …
ScienceDaily: Dinosaur From Sahara Ate Like A ‘Mesozoic Cow’
Raeilgh News & Observer: Dinosaur had mouth like a vacuum cleaner
New Scientist: Odd-jawed dinosaur reveals bovine lifestyle
Pondering Pikaia: Nigersaurus: just when you thought you’d seen everything…
The Esoteric Science Resource Center: ‘…while Nursie is a sad, insane old woman with a dinosaur fixation.’
PLoS Blog: The Nigersaurus has landed
Reuters: Weird dinosaur was ‘cow of the Mesozoic’: report
Panda’s Thumb: Nigersaurus, a Cretaceous hedge-trimmer
Not I, Spake the Soothsayer: Meet A New Dinosaur
derStandard.at: Dinosaurus bizarrus
Nonoscience: Nigersaurus, the Open Access Dinosaur
Laelaps: Nigersaurus taqueti!
eFluxMedia: CT Imaging Sheds Light on Saharan Nigersaurus taqueti
Chicago Tribune: U. of C. scientist unveils skeleton of plant-eating dinosaur
Hairy Museum of Natural History: A Great Day for Goofy Sauropods
Clioaudio: The Open Access Dinosaur
Effect Measure: Lightweight dinosaur, heavyweight publishing event
Billy the Blogging Poet: The Mesozoic Nigersaurus Dinosaur
Integrated Sciences: The Open Access Dinosaur
Pixelshot: Nigersaurus – raising the bones!
Science After School: Youth Involved in New Dinosaur Discovery
Transcription Factor: Thanks, Bora!
The Esoteric Science Resource Center: More on Nigersaurus
The Beagle Project Blog: Open access science publishing lands a big one
The Tree of Life: Open Access dinosaurs and way to go Paul Sereno
The Great Beyond (Nature): Dinosaur of the Day: a ‘Flintstones lawnmower’
Wired Science: This Week in Dinosaurs: A Mesozoic Vacuum Cleaner, An Accidental Find
Popular Science Blog: Dinosaur That Munched Like a Cow
NPR Morning Edition: ‘Mesozoic Cow’ Rises from the Sahara Desert
Business|bytes|genes|molecules: Dinosaurs come with Creative Commons licenses too
When Pigs Fly Returns: Lawnmowers of the Early Cretaceous
Microecos: Pod People
DailyKos: Open Science Thread
Greg Laden’s blog: Hey, Sb Readers, Get With It!
Crooks And Liars: Mike’s Blog Round Up
Be openly accessible or be obscure: Nigersaurus, the OA dino
Braving the Elements: Strange New Dinosaur
Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Xenoposeidon week, day 5: the quest for glory
Curious Cat: Nigersaurus
Gypsy’s Blog: Dinosaur – Living Mower?
Hairy Museum of Natural History: Extreme, Bizarre, Goofy, and Strange
Self-designed Student: Nigersaurus…and a question…
Ocmpoma: I heart PLoS
Everything Dinosaur: Nigersaurus – An unusual long-necked Dinosaur that grazed like a cow

Project Exploration


  1. #1 Bjoern
    November 15, 2007

    Hmm, on the paper it reads:
    Received: November 2, 2007; Accepted: November 7, 2007
    That doesn’t sound like there was much peer-review. Is there a good reason why the usual anonymous peer-review was circumvented?
    This reminds me: I get asked a lot what percentage of papers in PLoS One receive the standard anonymous peer-review treatment? I have no idea…
    I think similar to “communicated” PNAS papers, those which did not get the-standard-treatment(TM) should be marked as such.


  2. #2 Coturnix
    November 15, 2007

    It was reviewed. We had a reviewer ready to do this really fast. PLoS works fast!

  3. #3 Bjoern
    November 15, 2007

    Wow! Very impressive! Sweet!
    I only suspected it, but was very doubtful.

  4. #4 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
    November 15, 2007

    More news coverage at the Chicago Tribune.

  5. #5 derek
    November 15, 2007

    Well done!

  6. #6 Jason Freeman
    November 15, 2007

    Not only is this a coup for the scientific community, but Paul and his wife Gabrielle Lyon run an amazing set of educational programs as well through Project Exploration. If you go to their website, you will see info about high school students who were involved in the project.

    My comments on the education program at my blog

  7. #7 Coturnix
    November 15, 2007

    Yes – I’ve had a button for PE on my sidebar for two years or so. I love what they do.

  8. #8 Jeb, FCD
    November 15, 2007

    The profile shot of the skull looks just like a bird’s, the top half especially.

  9. #9 Anna
    November 15, 2007

    Congratulations, Bora! That is a big reveal indeed! And to think that I was there for the initiation of this awesome event without realizing it! I am so happy that it worked out. Hope you have fun in DC. That is some serious press coverage. Really massive.

  10. #10 Mother
    November 16, 2007

    congratulations, dear son. I am proud of you. You seem to do great jobs.

  11. #11 Phila
    November 16, 2007

    Congrats! Very exciting.

  12. #12 Keely
    November 16, 2007


    Now this might be a ridiculous question, but I’ve been to a couple of sites and seen some pictures of this new beast. I have a question about the teeth, and if you’re the wrong guy, really sorry – but I thought I’d ask anyways:

    I’m coming from a bit more of a marine background, and the way the teeth are described (especially the ‘back-up teeth’ description) seems so similar to the teeth of sharks. I’m wondering how similar the two are? I didn’t find any conparisons to the teeth coming forward in the same way that the teeth do in sharks, but I just thought it was an interesting similarity, and it immediately makes me wonder if there’s somehow a kind of connection (though it’s highly unlikely I’m sure – but I still wonder).

    So could you answer to whether or not the system between the Nigersaurus and sharks is pretty similar?


  13. #13 David Marjanović
    November 18, 2007

    So could you answer to whether or not the system between the Nigersaurus and sharks is pretty similar?

    Let me try. It is similar, but not in detail. In Nigersaurus, the replacement teeth come from below as usual. In sharks they come from the side and are mounted on a conveyor belt.


    Concerning the article, let me mention that in English there are no periods in year numbers. In Serbocroatian BCSM, you really do say “in [the] [one] thousand nine hundred seventy-seventh year”, and (like in German but not in English) ordinal numbers are abbreviated with a period. In English you say “in nineteen seventy-seven” (or at most “in nineteen hundred seventy-seven”), so there is no ordinal number here in the first place, and in addition ordinal numbers are never abbreviated with periods but only with their endings spelled out and in superscript (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th).

  14. #14 David Marjanovi?
    November 18, 2007

    Oops, “Serbocroatian” should have been striked-through.

    Test if the preview function is to blame:


  15. #15 David Marjanovi?
    November 18, 2007

    So this HTML tag works only on Pharyngula. Bizarre.

  16. #16 Coturnix
    November 18, 2007

    PZ knows tricks that we mere mortals do not use…

  17. #17 Devilfish
    November 18, 2007

    With bones so weak and a mouth so wide and slupry, I almost wonder if it wasn’t some hippopotamus-like mostly aquatic animal. An amphibious life would mean lots of soft gooey food and no weight on its body. Weren’t there lots of bogs in the mesozoic?

  18. #18 George
    December 4, 2007

    I agree with Devilfish. When I first read about this beast and saw the drawing of it, I immediately thought “Not a cow; a Hippo with a motor.” The tail probably was the giant equivalent of a flagellum. The Great Swamp Lawn Mower.

  19. #19 Brian Beatty
    January 2, 2008

    I know this is a belated reply to all of this, but I heard a quote from Sereno about challenging the scientific community to understand the biomechanics of why Nigersaurus had these grazing teeth, but a lightly built skull unlike other grazers like cattle.
    Well, though I do not know much about the cranial mechanics of Nigersaurus, I would suspect that the difference between ingestion and mastication have something to do with the lightly built skull. Yes, cattle graze, but grazing is not the cause of their strongly built postcanine dentition and skull. They chew, actually quite a bit, and to my understanding no sauropods had posterior teeth at all. That would suggest that they didn’t chew, and perhaps did not need to build a skull to withstand stong occlusal pressures.
    Again, we know very little about sauropod jaw mechanics, but I would suppose that this challenge is not so difficult to explain. Still, Nigersaurus is impressive and weird, and I applaud Paul and others for bringing to light such a convergent ingestion method in an unexpected beast.

  20. #20 Nick Gardner
    June 23, 2009

    “The profile shot of the skull looks just like a bird’s, the top half especially.”

    Not especially.

New comments have been disabled.