Sauropods (or “long-necked” dinos) were a magnificent group which included the largest land animals to have ever walked the earth. But not every species was an awe-inspiring behemoth: Some, like the smallish, “vacuum-mouthed” Nigersaurus, almost seem like evolution’s idea of a joke.
1. Good Grief, Those Jaws Were Weird!
Where to begin? Thanks to its eccentric maw, Nigersaurus is among the strangest-looking dinosaurs known to man. Five hundred teeth were stored in the thing’s muzzle-like jaws, where they were divvied up into 50 vertical columns. That might sound a tad excessive but, according to some estimates, each Nigersaurus tooth had a two-week shelf life before a replacement shoved it out (think of conveyor belts).
Where Nigersaurus truly diverges, however, is in the orientation of these teeth. Like two bony hair combs, the animal’s chompers were arranged in broad, horizontal rows anchored onto jaws which kept all of them at the very front of its snout. Freakishly, this tooth-filled section is wider than the rest of Nigersaurus’ skull!
2. Nigersaurus was Fairly Light-Headed.
Its noggin featured some abnormally-thin cranial bones; in fact, many are almost translucent.
3. It Took Scientists Decades to Realize Just How Odd This Critter Was.
Nigersaurus received its scientific name in 1976, but paleontologists wouldn’t get a decent idea of what the animal looked like until the late 2000s. Why? This dino’s skeleton was, in many places, hollow, making it vulnerable to shattering and distortion. Before 1997, though specimens were common, no decent ones had turned up—so for years, few suspected that Nigersaurus was anything other than some run-of-the-mill, Plain Jane sauropod.
4. Nigersaurus Has been Called a “Mesozoic Cow.”
Lawn-mower impersonations seem to have been its forte: Nigersaurus’ wide muzzle and shredding teeth were clearly designed for nomming on ground-level vegetation (for the record, grass-guzzling wouldn’t have been an option, as the earliest grasses hadn’t yet begun evolving in its day).
5. Its Eyes Were Disproportionately Large.
Granted, not much about Nigersaurus looks proportionate, but, for reasons unknown, this dino’s cartoonish eye sockets were atypically huge by sauropod standards.
6. Nigersaurus' Spine Was Partially Filled with Air.
Its neck vertebrae are little more than delicate skeletal shells. Like many other dinos (and all modern-day birds), many of Nigersaurus’ bones were hollow and likely indicate the presence of a complicated, avian-style respiratory system.
7. Nigersaurus’ Sense of Smell Left a Lot to be Desired.
Nigersaurus probably didn’t spend much time following its nose. An examination of its brain cavity reveals that, despite having elongated nostrils, this herbivore’s olfactory lobes (which help the brain perceive scent) were noticeably small.
8. Nigersaurus was a “Short-Necked” Long-Necked Dinosaur.
Try repeating that sentence five times fast! Sauropods are usually associated with extensive necks; some well-endowed species even placed over 35 feet between their heads and shoulders. But Nigersaurus and its closest relatives (which together formed a sub-group called the “Rebbachisauridae”) had little to brag about in this department.
9. Much Ado Has Been Made About its Posture.
Did Nigersaurus habitually slump or hold its head high? At first, some scientists speculated that the short-necked Nigersaurus kept its skull perpetually drooped at a 67 degree downward angle to better facilitate ground-level foraging [PDF]. On the other hand, subsequent researchers have argued that, although it could certainly strike such a pose from time to time, this animal’s vertebrae allowed for a much wider range of motion than was previously supposed. Hence, they maintain, Nigersaurus could have also preferred keeping its chin up (so to speak) like a more typical sauropod.
10. We’ve Found Pieces of Tiny Nigersaurus Babies.
Though adults were roughly 30 feet long, the itsy-bitsy fossilized jawbone of a hatchling Nigersaurus was so small that, according to paleontologist Paul Sereno, it could “fit on top of a silver dollar.” Aww!