Nigersaurus

nigersaurus
Nigersaurus (Australian Museum).

Name:

Nigersaurus (Greek for "Niger lizard"); pronounced NYE-jer-SORE-us

Habitat:

Woodlands of northern Africa

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (110 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 30 feet long and five tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Relatively short neck; hundreds of teeth in wide jaws

 

About Nigersaurus

Yet another Cretaceous feather in the cap of the globetrotting paleontologist Paul Sereno, Nigersaurus was a rather unusual sauropod, possessing a relatively short neck compared to the length of its tail; a flat, vacuum-shaped mouth packed with hundreds of teeth, arranged in about 50 columns; and almost comically wide jaws.

Putting together these odd anatomical details, Nigersaurus seems to have been well adapted to low browsing; most likely it swept its neck back and forth parallel to the ground, hoovering up any vegetation within easy reach. (Other sauropods, which had much longer necks, may well have nibbled on the high branches of trees, though even this remains a matter of some dispute.)

What many people don't know is that Paul Sereno didn't actually discover this dinosaur; the scattered remains of Nigersaurus (in northern Africa's Elrhaz formation, in Niger ) were described by a French paleontologist in the late 1960's, and introduced to the world in a paper published in 1976. Sereno did, however, have the honor of naming this dinosaur (after studying additional fossil specimens) and publicizing it to the world at large. In typically colorful fashion, Sereno described Nigersaurus as a cross between Darth Vader and a vacuum cleaner, and also called it a "Mesozoic cow" (not an inaccurate description, if you ignore the fact that a full-grown Nigersaurus measured 30 feet from head to tail and weighed up to five tons!)

Sereno and his team concluded in 1999 that Nigersaurus was a "rebbachisaurid" theropod, meaning it belonged to the same general family as the contemporary Rebbachisaurus of South America. Its closest relatives, however, were two intriguingly named fellow sauropods of the middle Cretaceous period: Demandasaurus, named after the Sierra la Demanda formation in Spain, and Tataouinea, named after the same bleak Tunisian province that may (or may not) have inspired George Lucas to invent the Star Wars planet Tatooine.

(Yet a third sauropod, the South American Antarctosaurus, may or may not have been a kissing cousin as well.)