10 Rough Facts About Majungasaurus

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Seventy million years ago, Madagascar’s top predator was a lumpy-headed oddball whose diet would have done Hannibal Lecter proud.

1. Majungasaurus practiced cannibalism. 

As far as we know, there weren’t any other large carnivores walking around on Majungasaurus' home turf, but many recovered Majungasaurus atopus bones had clearly been gnawed on by a meat-eating dinosaur—and a big one at that. What’s more, the incriminating bite marks perfectly match the teeth of this very same species, and the space between each wound lines up with M. atopus’ inter-tooth gaps.

You might assume the dinosaurs were merely fighting each other, but the evidence says otherwise. As paleontologist Scott Sampson explains in Dinosaur Odyssey, those scars “[couldn’t] have resulted from brief donnybrooks between competing adults, because many of the bites occur on limb bones” that would’ve been “inaccessible” to rivals in non-lethal combat.

2. Its skull exposed a 20-year-old mistake.

The first decent Majungasaurus skull appeared in 1996. Two decades before, in 1976, Philippe Taquet, a French dinosaur expert, got his hands on an incomplete cranial fossil from Madagascar’s Mahajanga province, where Majungasaurus had first been discovered eight decades prior. He and a colleague later mistook it for a dome-headed relative of the North American herbivore Pachycephalosaurus, whose skull was 9 to 10 inches thick. But the '96 noggin proved that Taquet’s beast (which he called Majungatholus) was actually Majungasaurus.

3. Jurassic World gave it a behind-the-scenes nod.

Apparently, the villain dino is part Majungasaurus. Called Indominus rex, the film's fearsome antagonist is a GMO whose horns were artificially derived from the DNA of “Carnotaurus, Majungasaurus, Rugops, and Giganotosaurus.” But bump is probably a better word for the lone protuberance that rested above and between Majungasaurus’ eyes.   

4. An injury or illness seems to have shortened one specimen’s tail.

Before it died, this poor dinosaur lost “at least 10” vertebrae near the tip somehow. Over 20 Majungasaurus with physical maladies are recognized, including another who’d broken a toe bone.

5. It was unusually stocky.

Relative to most theropods, Majungasaurus looks vertically challenged. Its legs are a bit shorter than average, giving the African killer a squat, stocky profile.

6. Majungasaurus’ eyes weren't exactly agile.

Deviant Paleoart, Flickr //CC BY-SA 3.0

Roll your eyes. You’ve just used a part of your brain called the flocculus. According to a 2007 skull cavity examination, Majungasaurus might have had trouble with this maneuver. As indicated by the animal's cranial dimensions, it probably harbored a small floccular process. Presumably, that rendered quick eye movements impossible.

7. Long before Majungasaurus evolved, its native land separated from India.

Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent officially split somewhere between 83 and 88 million years ago. Both had once belonged to a huge continent called Gondwana, which also included Africa, South America, and the Arabian Peninsula, among others. Members of Majungasaurus’ family—the Abelisauridae—have been located on all five landmasses

8. It had big shoulder blades but teeny arms.

D. Gordon E. Robertson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 3.0

Go ahead and make fun of T. rex’s forelimbs—at least they weren’t this ridiculous. Majungasaurus’ lower arm bones, wrist, and almost nonexistent fingers are puny enough to make scientists all over the world scratch their heads. Sarah H. Burch of SUNY Geneseo says “grasping was out of the question—there’s no way this animal was doing much manipulation with such a reduced hand. The joint anatomy suggests great mobility at the elbow and wrist, but the individual digits probably could not have moved independently.”

9. It breathed like a bird.

Chickens breathe way more efficiently than we do. Avian lungs are attached to a series of air sacs in which the animals store extra oxygen. These keep fresh air in near-constant circulation, even during high-altitude flights. They’re also directly connected to various hollow bones: break open a dead bird’s spinal column, and you’ll find several vertebrae lined with extra air sacs. Special indentations on Majungasaurus’ backbones have demonstrated that it, too, possessed this apparatus.

10. Majungasaurus and its prehistoric neighbors inspired a charity.

David Krause is a paleontologist at Stony Brook University, where a faux Majungasaurus mount stands inside the administration lobby. Krause—who works in the school’s anatomical science department—has been digging in Madagascar since 1991, and helped uncover the skull mentioned earlier. He also proved integral to the discovery of a weird, crocodile-like plant-eater and a 10-pound frog that probably ate baby dinosaurs.

Krause and his colleagues have mostly worked in the same field in Madagascar throughout the years, and the local community has offered unwavering assistance. So Krause started looking for ways to give back. “[One] day,” he recounted to National Geographic, “I arranged for a meeting with the village leaders and asked them what we could do to help. Their #1 priority was an education for their children.” His team got the ball rolling immediately. “When they informed me that we could start by hiring a teacher, which costs about $500 a year, it was a no-brainer. I went back to camp, and we raised the teacher's salary on the spot.”

In 1998, Krause founded the Madagascar Ankizy Fund (named after the Malagasy word for children). This initiative has built schools and provided life-saving health care in one of the poorest countries on earth.