You may or may not know that there was a dinosaur meme doing the rounds on the internet not too long ago...the dinosaur with 500 teeth.
Is it real? Is it a prank? Why is it funny? What is the dinosaur with 500 teeth? Well, like any good teacher, I thought I'd use the opportunity to turn humour into boring ol' education...well, if you thought it was actually boring you wouldn't be here, would you? So let's talk about exactly what dinosaur has 500 teeth.
What is the dinosaur with 500 teeth?
Ok, let's just get this one out of the way and out of everyone's system.
The name of this dinosaur is...
(Cue the Jurassic Park theme being played poorly on the harmonica)
How do you pronounce the dinosaur with 500 teeth?
There. Happy? Clearly some kids saw this obscure dinosaur and thought it was hilarious that a dinosaur was named after a racial slur, but trust me, it wasn't. It was simply named after the country it was found in back in 1999, that being the Republic of Niger.
Ok, maybe it's a little bit funny, but only in that no-one double checked the name and who named Nigersaurus didn't think they should maybe reconsider. However, though it can read like a certain word at a glance, I would like to point out that it does indeed have one 'g', hence it is often pronounced incorrectly (to put it mildly).
The 'i' is actually a 'y' sound and the 'g' in Nigersaurus taqueti is actually pronounced 'je', much like the words 'gem', 'gentle' or, hey what d'you know, 'NIGERIA' (the country found just below the Republic of Niger, which is pronounced the same). So it's pronounced 'Ny-jeer-soar-us'.
Now that I've viciously sapped all hilarity for the giggling teenagers who spend too long looking at memes, let's talk about this dinosaur!
Racial slurs for certain ethnic groups aside, this dinosaur does have a funny face:
This meme does ring true with regards to one thing though, this dinosaur really did have 500 teeth. In fact, it had just over that number, varying on how many were in the process of being replaced. Many dinosaurs grew teeth in a different way to us humans. Where humans only get two of each tooth in their lifetime (i.e. baby teeth and adult teeth), whenever a dinosaur's tooth fell out, a battery supply of teeth was always ready to replace it (even as adults). The textbook examples of these were the hadrosaurs and ceratopsians whose teeth went through a lot of wear and tear munching through all of that vegetation all day long.
Nigersaurus was special though, not only by having over 500 teeth at any one time, but they were also replaced at an extraordinary rate, as Nigersaurus was predicted to have a brand-new set of gnashers every fortnight or so! The other thing that stands out with this fellow is the placement of them. All 500 teeth were positioned in a row along the front of the mouth, making for an excellent lawn mower.
Nigersaurus had the perfect body plan for standing in place, sweeping its head across a large area using that long neck and using that row of teeth to chomp down and strip any vegetation in sight. In other words, it could eat the maximum amount with minimal effort.
Was Nigersaurus a sauropod?
Nigersaurus taqueti belonged to a particular group of sauropods called diplodocoids, which were closely related to the group's namesake, Diplodocus. This particular group is characterised by their horizontally held necks, tails that were particularly long and whip-like and their teeth, namely that they were the only sauropods who had a tooth battery system like the aforementioned hadrosaurs and ceratopsians.
Nigersaurus was also special in that it was relatively small for a sauropod, being only 9m (30ft) long with a short neck for its size, as well as estimated to be only 1.9–4 tons (2.1–4.4 short tons).
Not only that, but the skull of this dinosaur with 500 teeth was uniquely delicate. The cranial portion, in particular, was mostly made up of fenestra (Latin for 'window', or holes), which were likely spaces reserved for sinuses. This would have made the skull very light and mobile, meaning it could move its head more quickly. You might notice as well that the entire neck and head region are built in a way that angles the mouth towards the ground, owing again to its ground-grazing nature.
Who named Nigersaurus?
Nigersaurus was actually found decades before it was described as a formal genus. Originally found by French paleontologist Phillipe Taquet in an expedition to the Republic of Niger between 1965-1972, Nigersaurus was actually formally named as a genus by Paul Sereno in 1999 who still wanted to honour the paleontologist who discovered the first remains by naming the species after Taquet.
It was actually later still that a proper description of the skull was published in 2005, showcasing just how weird this dinosaur's mouth actually was. Clearly at the time, Sereno had run out of energy for scientific nomenclature on the particular day he released a public statement on it, as he stated it was like a cross between "Darth Vader and a vacuum cleaner."
Since then, the most complete specimens found have remained within its country of origin, however, teeth and fragments of mandibles (lower jaw bones) have been found in many places around the world, from Brazil to the Isle of Wight in the UK, so similar animals may have been more common than we thought.
Where did Nigersaurus live?
Nigersaurus would have put those 500 teeth to work, but wouldn't have evolved them if the environment didn't warrant it, so it's always worth looking at a dinosaur's paleo-environment when studying its features.
Nigersaurus was found in the Elrhaz Formation, famous for its Gadoufaoua site, were many famous fossils have been found (many by the aforementioned Paul Sereno). Some of these animals were famous names such as Sarcosuchus, Suchomimus and the spine-backed Ouranosaurus. At the time of the formation's...well...formation, this area existed during the Aptian/Albian ages, around 125 - 112 million years ago and was a tropical/sub-tropical environment covered mostly by vegetation (trees, cyads etc.) with various winding and braided rivers, acting as a floodplain similar to the Okavango Delta.
The dinosaur with 500 teeth is a commonly found herbivore in this region, along with many other Mesozoic herbivorous archetypes. This leads me to believe it could support my (yet unproven) hypothesis of interspecies herding between herbivorous dinosaurs, given that its highly unique body plan for feeding meant it could enjoy the safety of multi-species numbers without stomping on other dinosaurs' toes when it came to eating.
So there we have it! You were led here by the dinosaur with 500 teeth meme, you came for a laugh and walked away smarter. Aren't I boring and nice?
I hope you enjoyed learning about this weird and wonderful fellow, until next time!