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Nigersaurus, the 500-toothed dinosaur, has eleven facts

  • Nigersaurus was one of the strangest dinosaurs ever discovered.
  • Nicknamed the "Mesozoic Cow," this dinosaur would once have been very common in today's part of the Sahara Desert.
  • But what made this creature so strange?

Nigersaurus was a sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) that lived during the middle Cretaceous period (roughly 115 to 105 million years ago). Originally discovered in Niger's Gadoufaoua region, it was first officially identified in 1999 by the American paleontologist Paul Sereno and has, to this day, fascinated dinosaur experts and enthusiasts for more than two decades.

But why? Let's take a look.

1. Nigersaurus had an enormous battery of teeth

VIDEO: Nigersaurus: The Dinosaur with 500+ Teeth | Dinosaur Documentary
Dinosaur Discovery
11 facts about Nigersaurus: The dinosaur with 500 teeth

Frontal view of the skull of Nigersaurus. Note its many teeth and broad mouth.

Nigersaurus (meaning "Niger reptile") is one of the strangest sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs) discovered to date. Characterized by its broad, straight-edged muzzle, the front of its head resembles a pair of straight-edged giant shovels. In fact, the snout was wider than the back of the creature's head on the original fossil skull.

But that's not all; within its oddly shaped muzzle, the dinosaur was equipped with no less than 500 teeth (both "active" and replacement). The upper jaws contained 60 rows of small, needle-shaped teeth, while the lower jaws had no less than 68 very sharp teeth.

These teeth were also replaceable (like sharks' teeth), meaning Nigersaurus constantly required fresh teeth as older ones were worn down or lost. Animals that so this are technically known as a polyphyodonts, and most toothed fishes exhibit the ability, along with many reptiles, such as crocodiles and geckos, and most other vertebrates. Mammals, like us, are the exception.

It is believed that these sauropod dinosaurs gathered food using their big, broad mouths, similar to grazing in modern cows. They would likely have been "nonselective" in their diet.

2. Nigersaurus was one of the first dinosaurs to get a CT scan

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Julien Miquel

Only a partial skull and numerous postcranial (bones beyond the skull) have been found. Yet, this was one of the first dinosaurs to be studied using computerized tomography (CT) scans.

3. Nigersaurus was probably more like a cow than a typical sauropod

VIDEO: Bringing Back Nigersaurus | Nat Geo Live
National Geographic

Using evidence from CT scans and 3D/computer modeling, researchers have determined that the sauropod likely habitually held its head downwards, toward the ground — although this is hotly debated. If true, it would starkly contrast with most sauropod reconstructions, showing the animal holding its head horizontally.

11 facts about Nigersaurus: The dinosaur with 500 teeth

Closer view of Nigersaurus' many teeth. You can also see how "hollow" its skull was.

After conducting a biomechanical analysis, one team of researchers concluded that the head and muzzle were habitually oriented 67° downwards and close to the ground due to adaptation for ground-level browsing. However, this claim has been contested by other researchers who believe Nigersaurus was probably more typical of other sauropods.

4. Nigersaurus replaced its teeth every 14 days

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Nigersaurus was named after the West African country where its fossils were discovered: the Republic of Niger. During this creature's time, the landscape (now part of the Sahara Desert) is believed to have been covered with forests and braided rivers. As we've seen, Nigersaurus had a wide muzzle and numerous teeth perfectly suited for consuming low-lying plants.

This diet and lifestyle would have required the creature to have a steady supply of replacement teeth, as it would have worn out its tooth crowns rapidly. A study published in the journal PLOS One 2013 revealed that Nigersaurus probably replaced each "new" tooth after just 14 days.

5. Nigersaurus was about the weight of a modern elephant

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Nigersaurus was around 30 feet (9.1 meters) long and 8 feet (2.4 meters) at the hip and is believed to have weighed only between 1.9 and 4 tons. That's roughly equivalent to a modern-day elephant. But why was it so light for its size?

11 facts about Nigersaurus: The dinosaur with 500 teeth

Image of Nigersaurus' excavation.

The secret lies in the creature's bones. Scientists might have discovered more Nigersaurus fossils if the animal had not had such a delicate bone structure. According to a study by Sereno et al. 2007, this creature had an incredibly lightweight skull. Many of the bones in Nigersaurus' head were less than 0.08 inches (or 2 millimeters) thick! In fact, many of its backbones appear to have been more air than bone (when measured by volume).

6. Nigersaurus was only officially recognized in 1999

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Dread Loop

French paleontologists found the first fossils of Nigersaurus in the Nigerian Sahara during the 1950s. However, since many of the bones were either isolated or incomplete (due to their fragility), it was impossible to identify the species.

In 1997, a Sereno team member discovered Nigersaurus skull bones. Two expeditions later, enough material was found to reconstruct 80% of the beast's skeleton. In 1999, the discovery of more fossils gave paleontologists a first glimpse of the dinosaur's complex dental batteries and vacuum-like mouth.

Sereno named the species in honor of French paleontologist Philippe Taquet — Nigersaurus taqueti.

11 facts about Nigersaurus: The dinosaur with 500 teeth

Artist's impression of Nigersaurus in life.

7. Nigersaurus lived in a dangerous neighborhood

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The area that Nigersaurus roamed all those millions of years ago may have been idyllic in certain ways, but it was not without its many significant dangers. While home to other large herbivorous dinosaurs, it was also inhabited by theropods (a group of bipedal, three-toed carnivorous dinosaurs that include Tyrannosaurus Rex), such as Kryptops, Suchomimus, and Eocarcharia.

Various crocodylomorphs (crocodile-like creatures), including the 30-foot (9-meter) long Sarcosuchus and smaller Anatosuchus and Araripesuchus, also lived in the area.

8. Scientists have found a Nigersaurus baby

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According to Paul Soreno, his team has also found evidence of baby Nigersaurus. The remains are, however, pretty sparse, with only the upper jaw of a baby Nigersaurus thus far discovered. In total, the remains are small enough to fit on a silver dollar.

9. Nigersaurus had a short neck for its species

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Sauropods are famed for their long necks, with some exceptional species, like Mamenchisaurus, having necks over 50 feet (15 meters) long from head to shoulders. However, Nigersaurus and its closest relatives, which formed a sub-group called Rebbachisauridae, had relatively short necks (about 6 feet/1.8 meters) compared to other sauropods.

10. It had a poor sense of smell

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Reconstructions of Nigersaurus' brain reveal that it likely had a very poorly developed sense of smell. This revelation comes from the fact that, despite its elongated nostrils, the olfactory (smelling) region of its brain was relatively small for its size.

11. Nigersaurus could probably see nearly 360 degrees while feeding

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Global Data

Experts have observed that the position of the eyes on Nigersaurus' skull was higher and located farther above the muzzle compared to other sauropods. This suggests that its visual fields overlapped, resulting in a near 360-degree field of view (much like modern cows). As it was a prey animal, it was crucial for Nigersaurus to have motion hypersensitivity to detect any potential threats.

And that's your lot for today.

While much debate remains about its posture in life, Nigersaurus' funny-looking skull, battery of teeth, and small size for a sauropod have certainly won it a place in the annals of dinosaur oddities.

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