the final box in our count down is Massospondylus…
Massospondylus: the “Longer Vertebrae”
Massospondylus is among the first dinosaurs to be discovered and described. In the year 1854, paleontologist Sir Richard Owen was given a pile of 56 bones from South Africa to study, which was a disjointed mix of vertebrae, arms, hands, legs, and feet. At first he did not believe them to be dinosaur fossils, but said they looked like those of a “large, extinct, carnivorous reptile.” He named it Massospondylus, and it was a number of years before the creature was officially recognized for the dinosaur it was.
But don’t judge Sir Owen too harshly. Understand that paleontology as a science was still brand new. Just for reference, the very first dinosaur ever described was Megalosaurus in 1824, Iguanodon was named in 1825, and Hylaeosaurus was named in 1832. These three were then compared and the name Dinosaur was coined in 1842.
Massospondylus was an early sauropodomorph that lived in early Jurassic South Africa, and grew to about 13 feet long. Its teeth are very much like those of certain iguanas, and so it has been proposed that they would have been mostly plant-eaters, but supplemented their diet with the leftovers from local predators or occasional meaty snack. Since the area in which they lived is described as desert, it is likely that they could scavenge during seasons when greenery was scarce.
The long neck shows its relationship with the giant sauropods that would roam the land and, like them, Massospondylus has “air pockets” in its bones. In a nutshell, sauropod bones are very much like bird bones on a huge scale. Relatively hollow compared to mammal bones, with all sorts of little struts and supports like the steel structure that supports a skyscraper. This reduces as much weight as possible while keeping as much strength as possible. Unlike its much larger cousins, Massospondylus stood on its hind legs.
Articulated fossils (portions of a fossil that are complete and in life position) show that the arms had a rather limited range of movement. The palms face each other, as if they could clap, and the shoulders are not strong enough to bear any weight. Animals that walk on all fours must be able to walk with the palms of their front paws, or at least the pads of their toes, on the ground. It was once proposed that early sauropods were knuckle-walkers, but this takes very special adaptations that animals like Massospondylus do not have. At least not as adults.
Fossil nesting sites have preserved the oldest dinosaur embryos ever found. The eggs discovered were close to hatching, and were arranged in tight rows of up to 34 eggs in a grouping. The eggshells were very thin, and though there does not seem to be a true nest, they appear to have been at least partially buried near a lake. There also appears to be evidence of colonial nesting, with large groups of Massospondylus returning to the area every year for the breeding season. What’s more, the hatchlings were toothless, and tracks show that they had a cumbersome, four-legged gait. Add to this that they had overlarge heads and huge, watery eyes…baby Massospondylus were adorable.
Being adorable babies does not guarantee parental care, but it certainly seems to help, because these hatchlings tended to hang around the nest site until they were doubled in size.