for National Geographic News
A weird-looking dinosaur with a muzzle resembling a vacuum cleaner suggests long-necked plant-eaters such as the well-known Diplodocus didn't always have their heads in the trees.
The findings are based on fossil analyses of a 110-million-year-old dinosaur found in the Sahara region of Africa by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Paul Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, and his colleagues. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)
(Related news: "'Wrinkle Face' Dinosaur Fossil Found in Africa" [June 2, 2004].)
Sereno named the dinosaur Nigersaurus, a younger cousin of Diplodocus, in 1999 from a handful of distinctive fossil remains, including a skull. (See photos of the weird dinosaur.)
The bones were first discovered in Niger in the 1950s by French paleontologists.
Research into the 30-foot-long (9-meter-long) sauropod has shown the dinosaur to have a range of extreme adaptations.
These include a broad, square-edged muzzle tipped with 500 to 600 replaceable teeth that were used like scissors to shear off vegetation—mostly ferns and horsetails.
"One of the stunning things about this animal is how fragile the skull is," Sereno told National Geographic News. "Some of the bones are so thin you can shine a light through them."
"It is just outlandish to think that an animal which weighs nearly as much as an elephant had a skull that was featherweight," he added.
New research indicates the dinosaur's anatomy was odder still, and casts new light on the feeding habits of big, plant-munching sauropod dinosaurs.
(See illustrations of other bizarre dinosaurs from National Geographic magazine.)
Sereno and colleagues' research appears online today in the journal PLoS One.
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