Tag Archives: keratine

Heavily armored dino might’ve used its plates as status symbols, to attract mates, intimidate rivals

Dinosaurs’ thick, bony armor plates seem custom-tailored to absorb damage and deter predators. But a new paper describing the keratin layer adorning these plates in Borealopelta markmitchelli reports their armor might have had an even more important role: helping the dinos get some action.

Image credits Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada.

The bone plates of armored dinosaurs were covered in a more flexible tissue made predominantly of keratin. This formed all sorts of shapes and structures, such as caps and horns. Up to now, it’s been impossible for paleontologists to say how big or varied these structures are, simply because they almost never find them preserved in fossils.

We actually very rarely get a good impression of what dinosaurs outwardly looked like from fossils. The size, shape, and overall structure of the dinos you see in museum exhibits can be reliably observed from them. But stuff like their color, the texture of their skin or scales, the color of their eyes, those are, for the most part, our imagination at work. Fossilization requires quite a fair bit of luck and time, and the process involves high pressures, temperatures, as well as some pretty aggressive chemical substitutions. So by their very nature, fossils are bad at preserving the soft bits that give organisms their distinctive flair.

Researchers at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Canada, however, were lucky enough to get their hands on a Borealopelta markmitchelli fossil that beautifully preserves some of these characteristics. Discovered by a Suncor Energy mining machine operator Shawn Funk at an oil sand mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, it preserves not only the bony armor but also much of the layer of softer, keratin-rich tissue covering it.

The team reports that the structures are very reminiscent of the growth patterns of antelope horns and other defense-and-display structures in animals today, suggesting that dinosaurs did not shy away from using their looks to get attention.

“They might have been billboards, basically, to advertise for the animal,” says Caleb Brown, a vertebrate palaentologist at the museum.

One of kind

Armored dino.

This beast had a lot of armor. Scale bar is 10 cm / 4 in.
Image credits Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada.

This is actually the first B. markmitchelli ever found. The animal likely lived some 110 million years ago and belonged to the nodosaur family of dinos. Measuring in at some 5,5 meters (18 feet) in length, weighing over 1,300 kg (2,800 pounds), and clad in thick bone plates, this was a tank of a beast. Fortunately for us, it found its end in an environment that swallowed it up before fully decomposing. The fossil’s exquisite condition allowed Brown and his team to measure both the bone plates and keratin caps from the animal’s snout to the hips.

They report that the flat-ish bone plates closer to the animal’s tail were covered in a thin layer of keratin-rich material, likely there to protect it from wear and tear and provide some structural rigidity. This crust of keratin, however, got much thicker towards B. markmitchelli‘s shoulders and head. It formed large ornaments which capped the bone spikes on the dinosaurs’ neck plates, and represented up to one-third in length of the tusk-like spines on its shoulders. Wherever you look on the body, the taller the bone plate’s spikes jutted out, the thicker its keratin cap on top, according to the team.

Brown says this structure is very similar to what we see in horns and antlers today, both of which are used to fend off attackers but also serve to show off to potential mates and rivals. The fact that B. markmitchelli‘s most elaborate decorations are near the front of the animal (much like modern antlers and horns) also suggests that they were used for social signaling. Two male rivals facing off, for example, would have ample opportunity to see (and be intimidated by) each other’s thickest, most lavish stretch of armor.

All in all, these characteristics suggest that B. markmitchelli‘s spikes might have evolved (at least in part) as a means of social communication, a way for them to impress mates, scare off rivals, or both. However, Brown agrees that this remains largely speculative while working from a single specimen. We’ll have to find other fossils in a similarly good condition to know for sure.

Until then, the findings will further our understanding about the patterning on dinosaurs’ armor, and how it evolved over time. Previously, Brown showed evidence of countershading camouflage in use by the species, showing just how dangerous carnivorous dinosaurs must’ve been to force such a heavily armored beast into hiding.

The paper “An Exceptionally Preserved Three-Dimensional Armored Dinosaur Reveals Insights into Coloration and Cretaceous Predator-Prey Dynamics” has been published in the journal Current Biology.


How you get Ingrown Toenails, explained by Science

Having a ingrown toenail could ruin your day and a lot after if you don’t have it fixed. Yet, even though ingrown nails and other nail-related conditions are common and pesky, very little is known about them. Now, a team at University of Nottingham have published a mathematical model that explains what forces are tugged beneath your finger nails and what exactly happens when this delicate interplay is upset. Of course, there’s a piece of practical advice: always trim your nails with the curve bits following a parabola.

A gruesome pain at your fingertips


The Greek physician Paul of Aegina was among the first to discuss surgical treatments for nail conditions in the 7th century, but humans have been forced to live with annoying pain long before. To understand how ingrown nails come to be, we first need to discuss, however, how nails are formed and what causes them to grow and pop from under your skin.

Basically, nails are nothing but dead skin cells coated with a hardening protein called keratin that stick out from the half-moon-shaped “lunula” at the base of the nail toward the fingertip. On average, fingernails grow by 0.1 to 0.2 millimeters per day, but it’s no smooth sailing. Keeping the nail in place are adhesive molecules behave like ratchets: They grab onto the nail above them, and as the nail slides forward during growth, they tilt and stretch, trying to hang on, until eventually the bond breaks. Once this happens, the molecules just attach themselves to another piece of nails.

Sometimes, though, the balance between nail growth and adhesion is interrupted. When this happens, the nail might change shape to compensate and end up in all the wrong places – like under your skin and into live flesh!

“We have discovered that three well-known conditions– ingrown nails, pincer nails, and spoon-shaped nails — are essentially three faces of the same coin,” says Cyril Rauch, lead author on the new paper. “They are related by the physics.”

“Ingrown nails, pincer nails, and spoon-shaped nails are essentially three faces of the same coin.”

Ingrown toenails happen when the nail extends into the flesh alongside the nail. Kids, teenagers, and pregnant women are among the most vulnerable because raging hormones are causing the nail’s growth to outpace adhesion, according to the University of Nottingham model. Pincers result from the opposite problem. In this condition, the sides of the nail curve down and towards each other, forming a “C” shape. Rauch’s model suggests that in this condition, adhesion overpowers growth, which may explain why pincers are more commonly found in the elderly, whose growth is slower.

How to stop ingrown nails

Overall, nail problems are predominantly caused by biological factors that are outside our control, yet with proper hygiene, it’s possible to minimize the risk of ingrown or pincer nails. Here’s the best way to trim your nails:

“Imagine you can flatten your nail out on your desk,” says Rauch. “The curved bits should follow a parabola shape.”

If you’re having an ingrown toenail (the most common sort), here’s what you can do:

  • Soak your foot in a mixture of hot (or as hot as you can stand it) water and Epsom salt. Do this for 15-30 minutes at least twice daily. The goal here is twofold: to soften the toenail and prevent the ingrown nail from becoming infected.
  • Trim your toenail, taking extra care around the ingrown section. Make sure your toenail is cut perfectly straight without any pointed parts near the edges. Toenails that are rounded off have an increased likelihood of growing into the skin, causing ingrown nails.
  • Keep your toenail slightly raised. Putting a small piece of cotton between your toenail and the skin should keep the ingrown toenail from coming back. Remove the cotton daily to prevent infections.
  • In fact, you should apply infection-preventing ointment to the site and keep it bandaged. Neosporin works fine for these purposes.
  • Don’t wear socks or shoes, at least when you’re at home.

Rauch is actually a veterinarian and is currently adapting the model for animals, where nail health is a big problem and can cause serious financial deficits.

“When animals develop hoof problems, it costs a lot of money,” says Rauch. It turns out the horse hoof is actually pretty similar to the human nail. “The main difference, of course, is that the horse walks on its nail and the human doesn’t, so we need to add that new stress to the model.”

The findings were reported in the journal Physical Biology. [via PopSci]