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Tulsa Professor Publishes Study Of 'Good Mother Lizard' Dinosaur

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Photo of Dr. Ballard at a maiasaur dig site. She's pointing at the fossil they are uncovering. Photo of Dr. Ballard at a maiasaur dig site. She's pointing at the fossil they are uncovering.
TULSA, Oklahoma -

A Tulsa professor led the research team that published the most detailed account ever of the life of a dinosaur known as "good mother lizard."

The study recounts the life of Maiasaura peeblesorum, which lived millions of years ago in Montana.

Holly Woodward Ballard, Ph.D. is assistant professor of anatomy at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences. She led the research as part of her doctoral thesis in paleontology at Montana State University. Ballard is one of four co-authors of the study recently published in Paleobiology, the quarterly journal of the international Paleontological Society, a news release said.

“You can only learn so much from a bone by looking at its shape. But the entire growth history of the animal is recorded within the bone. By looking within the bones, and synthesizing what previous studies revealed, we now know more about the life history of Maiasaura than any other dinosaur,” said Ballard. “Our study makes Maiasaura a model organism to which other dinosaur population biology studies will be compared.”

The other researchers involved in the study were Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, curator of paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and adjunct professor at Montana State University, John Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies and Regents Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University, and James Farlow, professor emeritus of geology at Purdue University.

The study examined the fossil bone microstructure of 50 Maiasaura tibiae to determine information about the growth rate, metabolism, age at death, sexual maturity, skeletal maturity and length of time for the species to reach adult size.

“A sample of 50 might not sound like much, but for dinosaur paleontologists dealing with an often sparse fossil record, the Maiasaura fossils are a treasure trove,” said Ballard. “No other histological study of a single dinosaur species approaches our sample size.”

Scientists say Maiasaura was about 18 feet long and adults walked on all four legs. Scientists first discovered their fossils in 1978. They named it "good mother lizard" because evidence indicates it fed her young while they were in the nest, a first for a dinosaur.

The news release says researchers discovered that Maiasaura had bird-level growth rates throughout most of its life and that its bone tissue most closely resembled that of modern day warm-blooded large mammals such as elk. Previous studies indicate Maiasaura were social, nested in colonies and ate rotting wood. 

The average mortality rate for Maiasaura under a year of age was 89.9 percent. If they made it past a year, they typically enjoyed a six-year window of peak physical and reproductive fitness as the average mortality rate was just 12.7 percent.

“Our study kicks off The Maiasaura Life History Project, which seeks to learn as much as possible about Maiasaura and its environment 76 million years ago by continuing to collect and histologically examine fossils from the bone bed, adding statistical strength to the sample,” she said.

The Maiasaura Life History Project also will provide opportunities for college students to accompany Ballard during excavations to learn about the fields of ecology, biology and geology and encourage younger generations to pursue careers in science.

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