The year 2010 witnessed more than its share of amazing dinosaur and prehistoric life discoveries, ranging from humped, feathered theropods to mollusk-eating sharks to more ceratopsians (horned, frilled dinosaurs) than you can shake a stick at. Here, in no particular order, are the top 10 dinosaur-related news items of 2010.
1. Concavenator - The Humped, Feathered Theropod
It's rare enough to discover a new genus of dinosaur--so how about a new genus of dinosaur possessing not one, but two, never-before-seen anatomical features? Imagine the wonderment of the Spanish research team that dug up Concavenator, a large theropod of early Cretaceous Europe that sported 1) a triangular structure on its lower back, just above the hips, that may have supported a kind of sail or fatty hump; and 2) what appear to be "quill knobs" on its forearms, bony structures that probably sprouted small sprays of feathers (quill knobs have been identified on much smaller feathered dinosaurs, but never a genus as big as Concavenator).
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2. Triceratops, Torosaurus - What's the Difference?
Over the past couple of years, the famous fossil hunter Jack Horner has been shaking up the paleontology community by announcing that some dinosaurs may actually have been "growth stages" of other dinosaurs. He did it with Dracorex and Stygimoloch (which he claims were actually juveniles of of Pachycephalosaurus), and now he's done it with Torosaurus, which he says was "diagnosed" incorrectly based on superannuated Triceratops individuals. Not to worry, though: if Horner's research checks out, it's Torosaurus that will be exiting the Official Dinosaur List, not the venerable Triceratops.
3. Sinornithosaurus - The Venomous (or Not-So-Venomous) Dino-Bird
Remember that tiny, adorable Dilophosaurus from the first Jurassic Park movie that blinded Wayne Knight with venom and then ate him? Well, earlier this year, a team of scientists announced that they had identified the first venomous dinosaur, Sinornithosaurus, based on some characteristic grooves behind this dino-bird's front incisors, which could only have been used to store poison. Not so fast: about six months later, another research team claimed that these "grooves" were artifacts created when these oversized teeth slipped out of their sockets. (By the way, Dilophosaurus wasn't really venomous either; that little detail was fabricated by Jurassic Park's writers.)
4. Archaeopteryx - Too Frail for Flight?
Was Archaeopteryx a bird, or was it a dinosaur? A recent analysis has nudged this small reptile firmly back toward the "dinosaur" camp; it turns out that Archaeoptery'x feathers weren't nearly as robust as they would have needed to be for sustained bursts of flight, nor were the feathers of Confuciusornis, another, supposedly more advanced "dino-bird" that appears in the fossil record 50 million years later. The authors of this paper have used their calculations to cast doubt on the "ground-up" theory of powered flight, though few of their fellow paleontologists seem to be convinced.
5. The Mysterious Tyrannosaur from Down Under
Here's the accepted dogma about tyrannosaurs: these carnivorous dinosaurs evolved in Asia during the late Jurassic period (witness the tiny, feathered Guanlong) and then spread to Cretaceous western Europe and North America, where they attained plus sizes (as in the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex). The twist is, in 2010 paleontologists unearthed what appears to be a tyrannosaur hip bone from Australia's Dinosaur Cove, an unexpected, and some would say illogical, development. Not everyone is convinced; one paper speculates that this bone actually belonged to a "carcharodontid" dinosaur, perhaps related to the Australian (non-tyrannosaur) theropod Australovenator.
6. Asilisaurus - The Great, Great (etc.) Uncle of the Dinosaurs
The earliest dinosaurs, such as Herrerasaurus and Staurikosaurus, popped up in South America about 230 million years ago, during the middle Triassic period. The newly discovered Asilisaurus was an archosaur--specifically, a type of archosaur known as a silesaur--the remains of which were unearthed in sediments dating to the early Triassic period, 243 million years ago. So what's the punchline? Well, it's believed that dinosaurs and silesaurs both evolved from a common archosaur ancestor--and if Asilisaurus was prowling the woodlands of Africa over 240 million years ago, so was a primeval dinosaur ancestor that has yet to be discovered!
7. Those Dinosaur-Munching Snakes and Mammals
One usually pictures dinosaurs as preying on small, defenseless reptiles and mammals, not the other way around. Two discoveries in 2010 help to counterbalance that received wisdom: first, researchers unearthed an Indian snake of the late Cretaceous period, Sanajeh, the skeleton of which was curled around the newly hatched egg of an unidentified genus of sauropod. And second, paleontologists identified a number of late Cretaceous dinosaur bones bearing the unmistakable toothmarks of small Mesozoic mammals. Clearly, swarms of shrew-sized Alphadons didn't engulf and eat adult hadrosaurs, but gnawed their bones for nutrients after these bigger dinosaurs bit the dust.
8. A Stampede of Ceratopsians
2010 was a big year for ceratopsians, the horned, frilled dinosaurs best known to the general public by Triceratops and Pentaceratops. Coinciding with the publication of its scholarly tome New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs, the Indiana University Press arranged for the simultaneous announcement of three, count 'em, three new ceratopsians in the summer of 2010: Diabloceratops and Medusaceratops from the United States, and Coahiluaceratops from Mexico. The odd combinations of bumps, frills and horns on these (and other) horned dinosaurs has shed some much-needed light on the evolutionary relationships among this populous breed.
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9. A Giant Fish, a Giant Shark, and a Very Strange Menu
Dinosaurs weren't the only animals that attained gigantic sizes during the Cretaceous period, as two discoveries of 2010 show. In late February, researchers debuted Bonnerichthys, a 20-foot-long, thousand-pound prehistoric fish that fed not on smaller fish, but on tiny plankton. Then, a couple of days later, came the announcement of the nearly contemporary Ptychodus, a 33-foot-long, two-ton prehistoric shark that fed not on smaller fish (or smaller sharks) but on tiny mollusks, which it ground into paste between its blunt teeth. Clearly, there were a lot of plankton and mollusks waiting around to be eaten about 100 million years ago!
10. Hollywood Rediscovers Dinosaurs
Since the Jurassic Park craze peaked in the late 1990's, Hollywood put raptors and tyrannosaurs on the back burner as it pursued alien planets, end-of-the-world scenarios, and the best-forgotten genre known as "bromance." The tide has turned, though, with the news that Jurassic Park III director Joe Johnston has been planning a fourth installment in the series (though his last entry wasn't very good), and that Jurassic Park creator and all-around entertainment wiz Steven Spielberg will be debuting a special-effects-intensive dinosaur-themed TV show, Terra Nova, in 2011. Start collecting those action figures now!