Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dino Gum

Tip o' the hat to Lovely Package for this one: a product concept by Russian design firm BQB. If someone handed me a pack of this gum, I have no doubt that I'd take a piece and give it a good chew.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Todd VanDerWerff, One of Ours

Today's edition of the AV Club's weekly staff Q&A features a question about their automatic turn-ons and turn-offs. Todd VanDerWerff writes:
I wasn’t going to participate in this one, because I literally couldn’t think of anything: I’m too forgiving and too willing to watch everything at least once. But I realized when reading this news item (about Fox aiming to get Steven Spielberg on board for a TV series about a family that time travels to the prehistoric) that I will see or read literally anything featuring dinosaurs. The Jurassic Park trilogy? Own all three. Fragment, that weird book that came out last year about a secluded island where evolution had continued separate from our track for 500 million years? Read it and mostly enjoyed it, in spite of the intense shame I felt while reading it. And I’ve seen so many crazy stop-motion things purporting to show cavemen fighting dinosaurs that I’m sure I’ve forgotten most of them. It probably stems back to being a 4-year-old and thinking dinosaurs were the coolest thing ever (and having a friend who’s gone on to be a highly respected paleontologist), but something about giant reptiles just works for me. This and my love for time-travel stories, of course, blended into me seeing the absolutely awful A Sound Of Thunder, so this doesn’t always work out, but for the most part, if it’s got dinosaurs, I’m there.
That's the spirit, Todd.

For me? Dinosaurs, obviously. Also, I'd watch George Clooney churn butter for two hours. I'm comfortable enough in my sexuality to say that. Oh jeez, can you imagine if Spielberg and Joe Johnston got the Cloon to star in the possible new Jurassic Park trilogy? Celluloid candy. Sweet, sweet celluloid candy.

Aaaaaaand... I'm stopping now.

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Lou Bedford's Mesozoic Menagerie

Here's a charming little story I found in a 1941 issue of Pop Sci, available at Google books. I'm really curious about what happened to old Lou Bedford's fanciful dinosaur models. Mouldering in an basement? Auctioned off in an estate sale? Destroyed in a tragic inferno?

The article says that he worked in Hollywood as a special effects man, but the only Lou Bedford on IMDB is an actor born in 1930. Either this guy had a bad case of the Benjamin Buttons, or it's a different Lou Bedford.
This post was updated in 2012.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hell Bent for Feathers

Helmut Tischlinger's photo of Microraptor gui holotype specimen under UV light. From PLos ONE

The wave of feathered dino research probably isn't cresting any time soon. Beyond the fact that China's bounty of feathered dinosaurs doesn't seem to be abating, science is using new ways of examining them. The study of fossilized melanosomes is exciting, as is the use of UV light to reveal details our eyes can't discern unaided.

Dave Hone has written a series of posts at Archosaur Musings to accompany the paper he co-authored describing new UV photographs of the remarkably well-preserved holotype specimen of Microraptor gui. The photos grab you first with their simple beauty, then with the knowledge they impart. The feathers of "four-winged" M. gui are indeed attached to the body and oriented as they would have been in life: a small revelation, Hone admits, but the greater good is the publicity this will hopefully give to the UV photography technique in studying the Chinese feathered dinosaurs.

The use of UV light to examine fossils has a long history of slow progress. It's been advanced considerably by the work of Helmut Tischlinger, a German researcher. He's dedicated most of his time to the Solnhofen limestone of Bavaria. This limestone bears witness to a Jurassic lagoon. It consists of fine layers, some of which were deposited very quickly - possibly during a cycle of storms. The water at the bottom of this lagoon was very salty, and a lack of oxygen retarded bacterial decay. It's a good recipe for a high-res fossil. If you've seen Archaeopteryx, you've seen a Solnhofen fossil. If you've seen a Tishlinger photo of Archaeopteryx, you've seen a whole 'nother bird, so to speak.

Dave Hone has extensively written about Tischlinger, and was instrumental in bringing him to China. I've got to say, Tischlinger's work is pretty inspiring. It's another reminder that behind the big "names in lights" of science, there are many creative, hard-working people behind the scenes. Obtaining scientifically useful images with UV photography involves many variables, and requires long exposure times. But it's worth it, and we may very well have Tischlinger's dedication to thank for some important coming discoveries. The feathered dinosaurs are still relevant to the modern world. so it's only proper that they all be photographed in this manner, so critical details that look to the naked eye to be part of the matrix aren't lost in preparation. Hone reports that at least one museum is using UV lights in the preparation of fossils, minimizing the risk that this happens.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster has come through again with a long interview with Hone at Dinochick Blogs. More at Dinosaur Tracking as well. More of Tischlinger's images at Archosaur Musings, as well as in this paper about the pterosaur Jeholopterus from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, available free online.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dinosaur Odyssey: A Review

If you haven't noticed, feathered dinosaurs are one of the hottest topics in paleontology right now. There's so much juicy stuff there, from arguments over the origin of birds to using modern technology to answer questions past generations couldn't imagine resolving. Recently at his blog Whirlpool of Life, Scott Sampson broke down this flood of new research, viewing it with his favored macroscopic perspective.

This perspective will be familiar to readers of Sampson's recent book Dinosaur Odyssey (University of California Press). Largely avoiding the many opportunities to get lost in minutia, Sampson places dinosaurs within the larger context of the Earth's natural history. He boldly declares that the study of dinosaurs is no dead end, but rather of vital importance to the future of the human race.

Sampson introduces the reader to the life of a paleontologist through personal anecdotes from his time in Madagascar and Utah. There's almost a Spielbergian feel to the scene in which a massive specimen of Gryposaurus is airlifted out of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It's not all spectacle, though. Sampson gives credit to the local guides who help scientists negotiate unfamiliar terrain and the preparators whose labor we have to thank for the fossils we gawk at in museums. There isn't the level of personal detail you find in the work of say, Richard Fortey. But that's not the point here.

The point is always the big picture. As any dinosaur book for a popular audience should, and must, Dinosaur Odyssey provides solid introductions to the disparate disciplines that converge in the study of ancient life. Besides explaining evolution clearly and enthusiastically, Sampson lays out basic concepts of geology, climatology, thermodynamics, and botany. We meet gymnosperms, angiosperms, fungi, and bacteria. There is no facet of dinosaur life that isn't placed in its larger context. He makes clear comparisons between modern ecosystems, such as Africa's Serengeti-Mara, with those of the Mesozoic. The world around the dinosaurs is given life. This isn't a diorama.

Sampson is clearly aiming for a Sagan-like position as a popularizer of science, and his prose owes a definite debt to the revered astronomer There are stylistic debts, such as the phrase "in a very real sense," the very real meaning of which I don't know. More importantly, he seems to have been influenced by Sagan's efforts to help his fellow Earthlings understand their precarious place in this huge universe. There is no Dawkinsish acidity here, no baiting of anti-science pundits. The image presented is positive and accessible, tying in with his job as host of the PBS kids cartoon Dinosaur Train. One of the great revelations in my life was that what's happening under my feet is as interesting as what's happening around me. Dinosaur Odyssey, with its easily understood illustrations of the networks that make ecosystems work, has the potential to open plenty of eyes to that reality. This book should be in schools.

Indeed, reading Dinosaur Odyssey, I couldn't help but think that if I had a precocious kid or a science-minded teenager in my life, it would be the perfect gift for them. I remembered reading Stephen Jay Gould's essays in Natural History Magazine or Robert Bakker's Dinosaur Heresies when I was younger - readings that gave me a definite head-start in college science courses (a proud moment in my 100-level anthropology class was describing punctuated equilibrium to the group, receiving, I hope, some small measure of respect from the professor). It's too bad that Dinosaur Odyssey was just a bit early to incorporate the new breakthroughs in the study of feathered dinosaurs. But I imagine this isn't Sampson's last book.

I feel pretty lucky to be living at a time that we've got the experience and the technology to develop such a rich idea of how dinosaurs lived. Fifty years ago, they were fodder for B-movies. Now, they're a vehicle for delivering critical thinking skills, knowledge of the scientific process, and the wonder of nature to anyone willing to open their minds to the possibilities. And like Scott Sampson, I agree that these things are the true keys to our survival in an uncertain future.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Aloha, Abydosaurus

An amazing find from Dinosaur National Monument: four intact skulls of a new Cretaceous sauropod called Abydosaurus mcintoshi. The skulls of sauropods are delicate things, easily destroyed before getting a chance to fossilize. To find four of them in such close proximity is remarkable. Kudos to BYU for providing this here video.

The Onion

"Basically they scooted around by grabbing nearby vines with their mouths and pulling their bodies. Almost like a snake. What we used to think were legs were actually big flippers that flapped about in the air, driving them forward. Incredible."
From Paleontologists: 'We've Been Looking At Dinosaurs Upside Down' in today's Onion. Thanks to loyal reader Rebekah for pointing me in that direction!

And, just so you don't have to go through all of the trouble of typing "dinosaur" into the Onion's search engine:
Five-Year-Old Convinced Dinosaur Bones Are Buried In Backyard
New Triple-X Dinosaur Park Opens In Nevada
Stegosaurus Is My Second-Favorite Dinosaur
Video: Paleontologists Discover Skeleton Of Nature’s First Sexual Predator
Dinosaurs Sadly Extinct Before Invention Of Bazooka
Creationist Museum Acquires 5,000-Year-Old T. Rex Skeleton
Exxon Paleontologists Call For Increased U.S. Fossil Production
Report: Shopoholism May Have Killed The Shoposauruses

Monday, February 22, 2010

D.I.N.O.S.A.U.R. by Ke$ha

New fodder for the paleo-themed song parody industry, from the lovely young lady who introduced the world to idea of Jack Daniels' use as a dentifrice.

Hittin' on me wha? you need a CAT scan!

This one's a bit more visually interesting, but sadder by an order of magnitude.

It may have ripped off this one.

But that also may be a staple of juvenile YouTube homages to pop songs. I ain't schooled in this stuff. Finally, if you're into the most pathetic end of the spectrum, I submit to thee:

For the record, I don't regret that YouTube was not around when I was a young'un. The only solace I have regarding my remarkably awkward puberty is that there's no direct evidence of it online.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Downy and Hairy

This morning, I had the rare treat of simultaneously hosting both a Hairy and a Downy Woodpecker at my suet block. As Hairy took her time and ate her fill, smaller Downy fidgeted in a nearby dogwood tree, occasionally chirping impatiently, occasionally fluttering toward the suet only to think better of it and return to her perch. It was adorable.

This was a perfect opportunity to finally compare these two woodpeckers, side by side. I grabbed my trusty Sibley Field Guide to finally settle this pressing matter. See, they look almost identical, save for a few crucial details.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker by Peggy Collins, via flickr

Hairy Woodpecker - October 12 2008
Hairy Woodpecker by Geoff Patterson via flickr

The big difference is that the Hairy is larger - not evident in the photos, unfortunately - with a more robust beak and plain white feathers under the tail. The Downy has a thicker tuft of white feathers on top of the beak, and the feathers under the tail have black spots. The above birds are both females; males of both species have a red band on the back of the head. Not being an expert birder by any means, I used to just call any black and white speckled woodpecker I saw flying around a Downy and be done with it. Seeing both in close proximity was a huge help. It made my morning!

So let's pretend that I live near a volcano, and today it erupts, burying these woodpeckers, me, and everything else in my yard. Fast forward ten million years or so. Incredibly, there are still paleontologists around, and they dig up these woodpeckers. Considering how similar the birds are, would the future paleontologists ascribe them to different species? Would they instead be thought to represent natural size variation or different ontological* stages within the same species?

With fully preserved skeletons, a skilled paleontologist could probably deduce that they are different species, at the very least based on the beak. I can only assume that the post-cranial skeleton is similar enough that if the head was missing, it would create quite a challenge. I could certainly see it being debated.

The funny thing is that based on recent genetic sequencing, it appears that the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers, both now placed in the Picoides genus, may need to be placed in separate genera. I had planned on summing up their relationship by noting that they share a recent common ancestor, but based on the distinct selective pressures placed on to separate populations, the lineages leading to Downy and Hairy woodpeckers split. When I did a bit of research, it turned out not to be quite so simple. Their ancestor is more distant than I'd assumed.

It's one of the consequences of technology. We now have to tools to study organisms at a deeper level than outward features, and science cannot ignore new information. It's less of an issue with living species: they have common names unrelated to the latin binomial. When we see chimpanzees we call them "chimpanzees," not Pan troglodytes. Unless we're unsufferable nerds, of course. But when the same thing happens to genera of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, it's a bigger problem. Thus, Brontosaurus is learned to be a false genus based on a skull being placed on the wrong body. The world still isn't used to Apatosaurus.

*Ontogeny = the way an organism changes from birth to adulthood.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Saltasaurus and Peppernychus

No information on where these guys came from. I scooped 'em up from a local antique store, but there's no imprint on them.

Dinosaur Salt and Pepper Shakers

Dinosaur Salt and Pepper Shakers

I look for cool paleo-related stuff whenever I'm in an antique store, but it's really hard to come by, beyond the occasional Sinclair sign, or children's books, which are almost always way over-priced (the thrift stores are where it's at for books). The only other dinosaur salt and pepper shakers I've been able to find on-line are here. This is, in my opinion, one of the most grievous oversights in the history of kitchenware. Disgraceful.

UPDATED: Julia, of the wonderful, thoroughly worthwhile blog The Ethical Palaeontologist, has clued me in that these dudes may not technically be vintage at all! Check out the comments below to see some shots of a suspiciously similar money box she purchased at Wall Drug, SD. Thank you, Julia. And thanks to Brian at Dinosaur Tracking for the hat tip.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Do People Want Feathered Dinosaurs?

In its tenth anniversary this year, the Lazendorf Paleoart Award is teaming with Nat Geo to present an award for a new category: Digital Modeling and Animation. As the website says, "with this new category, the Lanzendorf committee and the SVP recognize the importance of this rapidly growing frontier of scientific visualization for furthering science and public understanding."

As feathered dinosaurs have risen in prominence I've been thinking a lot about the need for them to be popularized on a huge scale. While the CG pseudo-documentary genre catches its share of flack, and animated narrative movies sacrifice science for story, I think it's high time for another big, culture-penetrating piece of dinosaur entertainment. Ideally, I'd like something that helps the image of the feathered dromaeosaur take prominence in the mind of the general public over the very reptilian faux-Velociraptors of Jurassic Park.

But the longer I hope for this, the more I fear that it may be wishful thinking: slimy, scaly reptiles are an archetypal "other" in mythology. There are the dragons, the gorgons, the sea serpents, the snake that tempts Eve. In modern times, there is the coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs "reptilian" conspiracy theory (there are plenty of certified nutjob sites I could link to, but I'll opt for this relatively benign Wikipedia page). Though our understanding of dinosaurs has become more and more nuanced, increasingly setting them apart as unique creatures of their own, there's no denying that the "giant lizards" image is in large part responsible for their enduring popularity.

Do feathered dinosaurs carry the same subconscious weight? Is the idea that the turkey on the table and the cardinal on the feeder are derived theropods compelling to the average person? In other words: do people want feathered dinosaurs? It's easy to say that it doesn't matter what they want: they'll take their lavishly adorned Deinonychus and like it. But scientific ideas have a funny way of progressing fitfully through human cultures. See Darwin, Charles.

As I was writing this post, Brian Switek conveniently posted something relevant over at Dinosaur Tracking. A smartass blog has started a semi-serious campaign against feathered dinosaurs. Or maybe it's a clever parody of boneheaded creationist anti-evolution propaganda (it even uses the stale old "theory" vs. "fact" dichotomy). Maybe it's a bit of both. Would reactionary anger over feathers on dinosaurs surprise me? Not so much, no. I imagine it's kind of like fanboy grumbling over the new designs of the Transformers or any other old franchise that finds itself subject to modernizing. People are used to geeking out about things in their own way, and who are these scientists to slap a bunch of dumb old feathers on Velociraptor?

I don't know of any organization that conducts polls on popular conceptions of dinosaurs, so I have no data to look to. I just wonder. And I'll be interested to see if any pieces based on the new melanosome research are up for the Lazenby award this year. The artistic renderings we've seen so far have been pretty arresting, and I'm sure it's just the beginning.

Now, to start figuring out my own tongue-in-cheek pro-feathers campaign...

How Did I Miss This?

A little while ago, I featured a bit of saucy Jurassic Park erotic fan fiction. Every once in a while, I'll get a notion to pick around for that kind of stuff. This is further evidence that I'm rather shallow, easily distracted, frivolous of mind, and - in the words of my father - "sort of a twerp."

Thanks to Roger Ebert, a film critic of some repute, I've now discovered the motherlode of Jurassic Park erotic fanfic. Clearly a joke, but a good one. From animated GIFs to embedded MIDI music, it's meant to embody the worst of Web 1.0. It also takes NSFW to a new level. In fact, for your sanity, I don't even recommend reading as little as I have. I'm providing information, not endorsing.

In other news, there may be another Jurassic Park trilogy coming down the pike. I hope it's good. I hope it's this good:

This was my favorite bit of dialogue:

ALAN: I never should have brought her, Tim.
TIM: It's not your fault, Alan.
ALAN: I know.
TIM: What are we gonna do now? What's that in the bushes?
ALAN: It's a Stegosaurus.
TIM: Let's kill it.
ALAN: No, Tim. They're peaceful. Let's go check 'em out. Don't worry about it eating you Tim, it's a veggie-saurus.
TIM: Okay.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why the Raptors Live in Toronto

If I was completely ignorant of the NBA and was asked to match team names with the cities or locales they represent, I wouldn't think twice about sticking "Utah" with "Raptors." Not only is it logical, as Utah is one of the great dinosaur-bearing states, but it sounds right. There is a dinosaur called Utahraptor, after all. But I'd be wrong. Toronto gets the Raptors and Utah gets the Jazz. The fact that Salt Lake City isn't exactly known for its vibrant jazz scene would confuse me, especially coupled with the fact that glacier-scoured Ontario is not exactly a hotbed of Mesozoic fossils. So what gives?

It's pretty simple, really. In the seventies, a struggling team called the New Orleans Jazz - that's a sensible name - was bought and moved to Salt Lake City, and it was decided that the name would stay.

In the mid-nineties, the NBA decided to expand into Canada. One of the new teams was called the Vancouver Grizzlies. Another sensible name. The other team, however, was named by a national contest. The world was still trying to kick a powerful post-Jurassic Park hangover, and voila. The Toronto Raptors were born.

Their mascot, you'll be happy to know, is simply known as... The Raptor. Also, I wish that there were more photos of me from my teenage years. I was a big Chicago Bulls fan, but even after I stopped caring much about basketball, I got myself a Raptors tee shirt. I mean... it's a fricking sports team named after a fricking dinosaur.

UPDATED: My wife pointed out that Utah is not a "city," per se, so I changed that language. And added the bit about my handsome Raptors tee. And, my wife is awesome.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sweet Dreams

You may remember this dinosaur bed, which made the internet rounds recently. If you want something a little more cuddly, you might consider this alternative:

Image from

I guess they're for sale, but there's really no information on the site. If your kid is more of a sauropod type, you could also go with this Brachiosaurus.

Monday, February 15, 2010

More Keychains

Sometimes nifty things happen to people who write dinosaur blogs (I'm sure this holds true for other bloggers too, but this is what I know). For instance, a really nice reader might up and send you a bunch of dinosaur keychains! Sound loony? Well, here's the proof!

Dinosaur Keychain

Dinosaur Keychain

Dinosaur Keychain

Dinosaur Keychain

These add to the first two members of my collection. Thanks to Michael Stearns, the unwaveringly nifty dude who sent these to me. It bears mentioning that he also happens to draw a fine comic called Dawn of Time, which I hope you'll recognize from my links bar. Be sure to take a look if you haven't before. It looks like a very famous fossil is about to be dramatized.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Alright, Discovery Channel. If this Dinosaur Sex special isn't just an elaborate Valentine's Day prank, you'd better bring the goods. You'd better offer up at least one image that comes close to this, in terms of sheer epic awesomeness.

Carnotaurus Sex by the inimitable Luis Rey, from his site.

It's a subject perfectly suited to Rey's lurid colors and outlandish compositions. Only Rey would surround his subjects with a flock of pterosaurs radiating out around them. On the science of dinosaur sex, he elaborates thusly:
...males probably had similar penises to crocodiles as hypothesized by the sexual dimorphism in Tyrannosaurus rex, where gracile specimens with an extra tail chevron seem to indicate that these were males (the extra chevron serving to attach the penis muscles, just as in crocodiles). If this is correct, then by the fossil skeletons it must be assumed that females of T. rex were invariably bigger than the males.
I hope that at the very least, the DC special includes hilarious cutaways to tiny, frightened mammals who attempt to cover their eyes but find themselves transfixed by the glorious horror of what they're watching. Damn it all to hell, I need cable.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Golden Age

We may not all remember them from childhood, but we surely recognize them from obsolete school library shelves or thrift stores. Veritable treasure troves of arcane knowledge and, thankfully, cool full color illustrations. They are of course, the Golden Book Encyclopedias.

Golden Geology
I'm a sucker, a total sucker, for this kind of drawing of rock strata. When I'm in the desert, or anywhere that bedrock is exposed, I imagine myself standing atop a chart like this. Unfortunately (and surprisingly), the illustrator is not credited. It may be a fellow named Cornelius de Witt, but the style doesn't quite match his drawings of the human body, featured in a nifty post at the blog Ward-o-Matic.

To my eye, the drawings betray a Charles Knight influence. I imagine that for many of these illustrators, slaving away for children's reference books, it was par for the course to base their art on existing illustrations, rather than go through the trouble of studying the anatomy on their own.

Golden Triceratops

Golden Tyrannosaurus

Golden Trachodon

Golden Stegosaurus

Golden Brontosaurus

Golden Allosaurus

The Allosaurus is by far my favorite. There's a certain canine quality to him, as if he's waiting for his master to throw a stick to fetch. If anyone has more information on the true artist behind these dinosaurs, please let me know!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tyrannosaurus Sex

So, our chums at the Discovery Channel have a special running on Valentine's Day (this coming Sunday), called Tyrannosaurus Sex. Here's the press release:
New York, NY, February 9, 2010 –– Birds do it, bees do it, and now with the magic of CGI, we can watch dinosaurs do it. This Valentine’s Day, February 14th at 10pm ET/PT on Discovery Channel, Locomotive Entertainment Group will premiere Tyrannosaurus Sex. The one-hour special explores the mysteries, wonders and newest evidence surrounding ritual courtship and mating habits of dinosaurs. How did a ferocious T-Rex woo his lady? How did a female Titanosaur support the weight of a male who was as long as a four-story building is high? How did a Stegosaurus couple negotiate sex with all those deadly plates and spikes?

“It is something they never showed us in the Jurassic Park films, that much I can tell you,” said Director and Locomotive President Gabriel Gornell. “Throughout the production process the support we received from the team over at the Discovery Channel has been unbelievable. We could never have pulled this off without them. “

Tyrannosaurus Sex doesn’t just answer the questions, it shows dinosaur sex in all its glory with state-of-the-art CGI animation. The scenes created for the special are all based on fact. Interviews with scientists on the cutting-edge of palaeontology bring new life to one of the last mysteries of these mighty giants.
So many burning questions.
  • Why is it always "the magic of CGI?"
  • Has anyone ever made a serious claim about dinosaur "ritual courtship?" At least the blood n' guts pseudodocumentaries have some physical evidence to back them up.
  • What kind of a non-quote is that from Mr. Gornell?
  • What facts are the animated scenes based on? The fact that animals get it on?
  • "One of the last mysteries?" Who thinks that?
This sounds like such a train wreck. If you feel the need, check out the production company's website. It uses what may be the strangest, least cohesive assembly of fonts I've ever seen in one place.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Neil Jam!

Neil Jam is one of my favorite cartoonists. His recent book, a collection of the mini comics upon which he's built his reputation, is simply titled Neil Jam, and its cover features a T. rex rendered in his iconic style.

He's also got a great frameable print featuring his T. rex available. Although now that I look at the above image again, maybe it's an Allosaurus. Those are some big arms with three-fingered hands, after all.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dinotopia at Delaware Art Museum

Jenn Hall at Dot Dot Dinosaur reports on the Dinotopia exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum. Eastern seaboarders, I'm wagering that it's worth tunneling through the snow to go to there (Jenn also scores 3 ChasmoPoints for using my favorite quotable line from 30 Rock). The exhibit lasts until May 16, 2010.

If you weren't aware of it, Dinotopia's James Gurney writes a blog. And if you're so inclined, turn your bedroom into Dinotopia, too.

Dino Friday Repost: Centrosaurus Bone Beds

Before LITC, I used to devote Fridays on my general purpose blog Gentleman's Choice to dinosaurs. It was what gave me the notion to just write about the buggers all the time: eventually, they couldn't be contained, and started spilling over into other days. I figure I'll start salvaging some of those old posts every once in a while. This one, from last July, reminds me: I never bought this print! Silly me. Better snap to.

Paleoblog has posted some photos of a Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project dig over the last week. They're pullin' big hunks of Centrosaurus out of the ground. Centrosaurus was a ceratopsian, not as famous as Triceratops or as gloriously adorned as Styracosaurus, but certainly deserving of its fair measure of respect. Its "nose" horn is massive, making up for relatively diminutive "brow" horns. A good journeyman ceratopsian, certainly preferable to old raptor-bait Protoceratops. Though it's admittedly foolish of me to diss one of the stars of my favoritest fossil.

Anyway, there's a beautiful print being sold by the Southern Alberta Dinosaur Research Group to fund their efforts. It's by Mark Schultz, and it bears repeating: It's beautiful.Dino Friday will be continuing until I get my new dino-blog up and running, by the way. I'll announce it when it's ready to be announced. Still working on a title, then I'll be designing it. Then it will be ready to fly.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Workin' on the Railroad

Last week, on his Whirlpool of Life blog, Dr. Scott Sampson took some time to write about his work with the PBS Kids program Dinosaur Train. It stands in stark contrast to the debacle Matt Wedel experienced with Clash of the Dinosaurs recently.

As Sampson writes,
...Dinosaur Train goes beyond the names, sizes, and dietary predilections of dinosaurs to address the way life works, both then and now. Kids are encouraged to think like scientists, making observations, generating new ideas, and even testing those ideas. In most episodes, Buddy states, “I have a hypothesis,” and he and his siblings then set out to test it through additional observations.
I haven't seen the show yet, and the last I'd even thought about it was in the blizzard of press that greeted its premiere. But Sampson makes Dinosaur Train sound suspiciously... legit. Almost as if it's kind of trying to educate kids, rather than running glorified "Primal Rage" animations and chopping paleontologist's comments to conform to what the producers deem entertaining.

I know that's a pretty broad generalization of something that has a whole constellation of people pulling in their own directions, from those who want to teach, to those who have primarily aesthetic concerns, to those who are just looking to boost the quarterly numbers. But it's what we've come to expect. Dinosaur Train is an exception.

Trying to think of the shows I liked as a kid, there wasn't much in the way of solid scientific, critical thinking content (although I'm still pretty impressed with Dr. Mindbender's intellectual rigor) There is one that stands tall, though. I suppose if I was younger, it might be Beakman or Bill Nye. But I was born during the Carter administration. So my guy was the late, great Don Herbert.

Dr. Sampson, I say this sincerely: I hope you're Mr. Wizard to a lot of little dudes and dudettes.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dr. Kiki Goes Dino

Dr. Kiki's Science Hour, a podcast I only just discovered, devoted its most recent episode entirely to dinosaurs. Convenient!

It's a great conversation with Dr. Mark Goodwin of UC Berkeley, dealing with his specific research interests as well as the and work of paleontologists in general. Anyone curious about exactly how paleontologists find fossils, study them, and figure out how dinosaurs lived should find the hour pretty illuminating. Clickity-click the above link to give Dr. Kiki a whirl.

Vintage Dinosaur Art: New Mexico Postcards

New Mexico

A little bit of a "left turn at Albuquerque" this week. My wife started sorting through some of the old postcards we've picked up at yard sales and the like, and found some great ones from New Mexico. She also found this book of "miniature album prints." I figured it would be fitting to post these this week, in celebration of Bistahieversor.

This one features "famous dinosaur rock," which does indeed look like a sauropod. A sauropod who's either sinking in mud or reclining. Heck, could sauropods even sit down? I've certainly never seen them depicted sitting. Suddenly, this is a burning question and I'll have to look into it.

New Mexico

And here's a rare glimpse of the avian theropod Geococcyx californianus, known for its advanced cursorial capabilities. It's rumored to fly as well, but the debate is pretty heated right now, and I'm not holding my breath for a consensus.

New Mexico

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Anchiornis Gets Gussied Up

Um... awesome. An international team of researchers have examined the fossilized melanosomes of Anchiornis huxleyi, and this is the result.

I already dug you, Anchiornis. But now you're definitely in my top ten. Yale's press release notes a resemblance to the Spangled Hamburg chicken, but I definitely see a Pileated Woodpecker. Critics of last week's announcement of the orange-feathered Sinosauropteryx noted that there just wasn't enough data behind the findings. You can hear a bit of scientific one-upsmanship when a member of the team behind this new study notes how much more careful and thorough they were with Anchiornis, building an accurate picture of the plumage covering the entire animal.

I must say, I kind of wish the Anchiornis color would have come out first. The little troodontid is already one of the most important fossils in recent history, with its implications for our understanding of bird origins, and it's frankly prettier than Sinosauropteryx. C'est la vie. This is wonderful stuff, and I'll take it as it comes.

Carl Zimmer has a written a terrific story at the New York Times and you can check out a 3-D model of the pretty little critter Nat Geo, which better make damn sure to put A. huxleyi on its next cover.

This has been a great year so far!

UPDATED: Added more thoughts, sorted out some of the details, and added links.

Bonjour, Bistahieversor

Hoodoos at sunrise, Bisti Wilderness
The badlands of the Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness, by flickr user westernskies_de_2. More shots of the region here.

Multiple choice time. The "Bistahi destroyer" is:

A) A Pokémon
B) A guitar particularly well-suited to shredding of the most brutal kind. Crafted of polished obsidian.
C) The brand new tyrannosaur from New Mexico
D) All of the above

In a perfect world, the answer would be D. But this is a dinosaur blog, holmes. So C it must be. Paleontologists Thomas Carr and Tom Williamson, of Carthage College and the University of New Mexico, respectively, have published an introductory description of Bistahieversor sealeyi, a mid-size Late Cretaceous tyrannosaur from New Mexico. It appears in the latest Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Bistahieversor sealeyi is the first new species of tyrannosaur discovered in the western US in thirty years, and the first top predator paleontologists have definitively identified in this region. There have been other bits and bobs identifiable as tyrannosaur pieces found in the area, but the two specimens of B. sealeyi, a juvenile and an adult, are the first well-preserved skeletons. In a great interview with ReBecca Hunt-Foster at Dinochick, Dr. Carr promises a longer monograph on Bistahieversor later this year, and says that he's working on projects dealing with both Daspletosaurus and T. rex. It looks like the tyrannosaur news isn't going to let up just because we've passed the arbitrary temporal boundary called "New Year's Day."

Also, it would behoove you to check out the beautiful illustration of Bistahieversor at the Hairy Museum of Natural History.

I can't pass up mentioning this little gem. It's the very first sentence of the B. sealeyi press release put out by the SVP: "New Mexico is known for amazing local cuisine, Aztec ruins and the Los Alamos National Laboratory."

Aztec ruins in New Mexico? Really, SVP? You really want to stand by that?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hello, Haplocheirus

Illustration by Portia Sloan, courtesy George Washington University

There is a whole lot of dinosaur news going on right now. Predictably, the dinosaur feather color story has made the biggest splash in the general media. But there have also been two new species described in the last week or so.

Here's that new alvarezsaur I posted about last week. It's called Haplocheirus sollers, a basal member of the group, and the only one known from the Jurassic period. The discovery of Haplocheirus is one of those lovely instances when scientists make a prediction about evolution and it pans out. Many features of Haplocheirus are transitional between the later, more specialized alvarezsaurids and their common theropod ancestor. And it was found exactly where an early member of the group should be expected - in Jurassic rock dating to when theropods were diversifying into their myriad Cretaceous forms.

The hand in particular is remarkable. When I was in high school, the cool program we all loved messing with in art class allowed us to morph two faces together, an effect used to great artistic success in Michael Jackson's "Black and White" video. Take a look at the theropod hand comparisons used by Jonah Choiniere, lead author of the Nature paper describing the find, in his latest guest post at Archosaur Musings. It's like he took the hands of Allosaurus and Shuvuuia and morphed them, and ended up with Haplocheirus. Maybe not exactly, but close. Haplo looks a lot like a generic theropod, showing that the things that made its later descendants look so birdish really were examples of convergent evolution - separate lines that arrive at similar bodily features because the pressures of natural selection happened to favor them. The deeply keeled sternums of alvarezsaurs and birds allow for powerful arm muscles - muscles that evolved for digging and flying, respectively. Imagine I'm writing "cool" several hundred times, so I don't have to do it.

Another new species is a tyrannosaur unearthed in New Mexico, Bistahieversor sealeyi. I'll post on this one tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Therizinosaurs Through the Years

Here's a cool drawing of the changing perceptions of those odd therizinosaurs by Tricia Arnold, a cartoonist with a heavy paleo-influence. Tricia seems to share my interest in the way artistic conceptions of extinct critters evolve as new fossils come to light. Evolve, get it? Science joke.

"Therizinosaurs Through the Years" Final!

Here, she looks at three views of therizinosaurs that have been put forth as paleontologists tried to fit the existing fossil evidence into the dinosaur family tree. First, the "predatory prosauropod," that rather docile looking, almost sloth-like fellow in green and tan. Next, Tricia uses an idea inspired by the Dino Crisis video game - a nasty, blood-thirsty carnivore. Finally, she presents our modern idea - a largely herbivorous, pot bellied, bird-like oddball. Check out more of her artwork at flickr.

Monday, February 1, 2010

LITC Interview: Mark Witton

A feeding frenzy surrounds a fallen azhdarchid pterosaur. By Dr. Mark Witton. Used with permission.

Today's interview subject is Dr. Mark Witton, a research associate with the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, currently working on a project which will bring life-size models of various pterosaurs to London. He is also one of the main contributors to the brand new, the first comprehensive website dedicated exclusively to pterosaurs.

Witton has become well known in the paleo-blogosphere for his striking illustrations of extinct critters, primarily pterosaurs. His are some of my very favorite reproductions of ancient life - images that reflect a strong personal style and depict animals interacting with their surroundings in unique, yet plausible ways. A new image popping up on his flickr stream is always a welcome shot of joy in an otherwise gray and suffocating day.

Right then. Witton provided thoughtful, generous answers to my questions. I should have expected such candor - his illustrations are always accompanied by colorful descriptions of the ideas they depict, often pulling in anecdotes from his personal life and references to pop culture. They're as fun to read as the art is to look at. His writings exemplify what I love about the science blogosphere (a world it took me too long to find, honestly), providing a personal dimension the journals simply cannot. One of the things that really excites me about the future of science education is this increased interactivity; I can imagine how thrilling it would have been as a youngster to be able to discuss The Dinosaur Heresies on dinosaur blogs as I read it for the first time.

Anyway. Enough appetizer, let's get to the meat. Most of the images used here are from Witton's aforementioned flickr stream, which warrants a good, thorough perusing by anyone interested in really cool stuff.

Your Time Is Gonna Come
Pterodaustro, a bunch of them. Or is it a gaggle?

Were you the kind of student who would doodle in your school notebooks when you should have been listening?

Sort of, but I was quite snobbish in my approach to doodling. Drawing pictures on file paper or in a school jotter meant that your images would always have lines printed beneath them, and I couldn’t stand that. Instead, at the age of 13 or so I started carrying plain paper around with me, starting with small bits that would fold away to be stuck inside my school blazer pocket and eventually bits of A4 or A3 that I would keep in a folder carried around school for that purpose alone. I still have the folder now, though it’s not looking quite as snazzy as it once did, and it’s still being carted around and doing the same job.

At school I drew at every available opportunity. People thought I was pretty strange as I regularly sat on my own, doodling away. Come to think of it, they’re probably right: most people don’t do that. Still, I didn’t really ‘gel’ that well at school: I wasn’t bullied or anything, but I certainly didn’t really feel like I fit in. On occasion, I would draw through classes too and, yes, the teachers assumed I wasn’t listening. Thing is, I genuinely was: although generally useless at multitasking, I can draw and listen or talk simultaneously. So, while my Year 9 English teacher was talking about Romeo and Juliet I was really, truthfully listening whilst another part of my brain was in a Cretaceous swamp with a Lambeosaurus. There can’t be many people who has memories of Shakespeare forever intertwined with giant hadrosaurs, but there you go.

Your artwork and interest in science certainly appear to go hand in hand, each influencing the other. Were you ever conflicted between going into art or going into science?

When I was growing up there was never any question about it: science reigned without question. My two big interests – drawing and palaeontology – have stuck with me since before I can remember and, at about age nine, the two became so linked that no other career paths – art or otherwise – were considered. With few exceptions, virtually every picture I drew between the ages of 9 and 23 were of some sort of prehistoric beastie and, yes, you’re absolutely right: the drawings fueled my desire to learn more about the animals, and what I learned fueled more ideas for pictures. It self-perpetuated, I suppose, and that momentum carried me, without question, towards my Ph.D. studies and my current job.

About halfway through my doctorate studies, though, other thoughts crept in. I started drawing non-palaeo-based topics: strange scenes of grotesque or anthropomorphised animals, deformed landscapes made of twisted, humanoid shapes, entirely mechanised people doing very human activities… that sort of thing. I really enjoyed it, and still draw similar things now. In fact, if I’m idly sitting in a café or pub with my sketchpad, I’m far more likely to draw a headless, overweight and naked man throwing consumables into a bottomless basket or a chain-smoking, boozing lion than I am to draw something palaeontologically related. Hence, it’s taken a while to develop, but the last few years has seen something of a personal conflict between art and science and, while I think I’ve made the right decision to stick with science, I can’t help wonder where I may have ended up if I’d gone down the arty route. I was walking through a workshop in our university art department this week and I reckon I could be quite happy there, frolicking about in a paint-covered smock, listening to weird, abstract tunes and conversing in melodramatic tones. That said, my current job is so heavily based in palaeoart that I have little tand, sad as it is, I miss the research-focused days of my Ph.D. I guess I wouldn’t be able to do just art, then: there needs to be some science in there somewhere, too.

Have you had any experience with the "generation gap" in the paleontology community, between younger folks who are comfortable with the open-source movement and blogging and older folks who came up through the journal-centric world?

I’ve certainly seen a divide in opinion over this, though, in my experience, it’s not strictly a generational divide. Many academics I’ve spoken to about open-source journals recognise their undeniable utility and future role in science, but these opinions aren’t shared by folks that are trying to ensure that their university or museum is recognised as a world-leading research institute. Some open-access journals are not counted towards university research league tables, so the folks worried about the academic brownie points of their establishment would prefer to
see research to be published in classic, recognised journals that will gain kudos with those rating the university. As such, my personal experience of this divide reflects the weight of The System bearing down on specific scientists, and I can understand it to an extent. Institutions need money for research and more money will go to places with good research records. Until things change, the folks snubbing open-access journals people are merely doing their jobs by ensuring their institutions are highly thought of. I’m sure that this divide will close eventually as the big open-access journals are given the recognition they deserve as important scientific organs, though. The increasing number of high-profile papers being published in open-access publications will help this, so I’m optimistic we won’t have to endure it for long.

Similarly, I’ve not seen a generational divide over the opinions on blogging despite the strongly differing opinions of academics over whether data published on personally moderated sites should be recognised in scientific literature. I know some academics that would happily publish data or pictures they’ve seen online, whereas other folks stand resolutely by peer-reviewed literature and will cite little else in their work. Personally, while I think the supplementary data placed on personal websites or blogs to support scientific papers is a good idea, I’m firmly sided with the crowd that says peer-review is essential to the scientific process: it’s the primary agent in maintaining the integrity of scientific literature and we need to stand by it. Don’t get me wrong: some non-reviewed information on the ‘Net is provided by well-informed, reliable individuals that clearly reference their sources and provide accurate information, but plenty of it isn’t.

How do you police which sites can be cited and which ones can’t? The obvious way to keep such dubious facts out of scientific literature is a blanket ban on citing personal opinions expressed on the internet, but of course, this creates a confusing situation area where academics happily cite non-peer reviewed scientific books and articles, but not things they see on the Web. Why cite these but ignore internet postings? There’s no easy answer to these questions, but I think the core of any solution has to ensure that we don’t lose the integrity of scientific publishing. After all, without the vetoing of ideas surrounding scientific publication, there really is no point to having distinct scientific literature at all.

Shine on
Tupuxuara and an unfortunate frog

Many of the animals you draw seem to have "personality" without being overly anthropomorphized. Almost as if it sets aside the strangeness of pterosaurs and emphasizes the way they interacted with their environments, and how their adaptations made sense for the way they lived. Is this a conscious balance you try to strike?

Of course, maybe it's in my head...

Yup. All in your head.

Well, that’s not strictly true. When looking at pterosaur skeletons I find it hard not to imagine the animals moving around with their own characteristics: rightly or wrongly, the stumpy little wings but massive hindlimbs and head of Dimorphodon make me imagine it like a little yappy
pterosaurian dog, the sort of thing that would squawk at the postman, rip the upholstery off your sofa by climbing all over it and then sit in the mess of fabric, wagging its tail and looking innocently at you when you came in front work. Anuroganthids look like nervous little critters that would have a heart attack when handled but, by the same token, try to stroke a male Pteranodon and he’d tear at your clothes, chase you around the room, snap at your arms and then stab you with his overbite before he got really mad. Giant azhdarchids, by contrast, are the wise old beings of the pterosaur world: at that size, they move relatively slowly compared to other pterosaurs and are unconcerned with the matters of animals scampering around their feet or beneath their enormous wings. They did, after all, have a lot to think about: as virtually the only pterosaurs left at the end Cretaceous, they were trying to figure out how to carry on the pterosaur mantle through the impending KT extinction event. That’s a lot to think about.

Er… where were before we ventured into Mark’s Plastic Fantastic Fantasy Pterosaur Theatre? Ah yes: it’s worth noting that many characteristics of expression are universal across animals - cocking the head to the side and looking closely at an object can suggest inquisitiveness; large, exaggerated movements of the limbs but a rigidly held head and neck can suggest uncoordinated, panicked movement – and these can be applied to pterosaurs as much as anything else. Thing is, they very often aren’t because, nine times out of ten, pterosaurs are drawn lazily flying over oceans or clifftops: that doesn’t leave much room for expression. I make efforts to show that pterosaurs were diverse, existing in a variety of environments and interacting with their surroundings and other animals. Hence, if my pterosaurs do have any personality, it’s probably because I depict them engaging in rarely shown activities that give them more dramatic scope. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that, but it’s very nice of you to comment on it!

What aspects of pterosaur evolution do you think have the most potential to add to our general knowledge of evolution?

Broadly speaking, the pterosaur fossil record is probably too poor to tell us much about evolutionary processes. I mean, there’s Darwinopterus, the pterosaur that shows us that pterodactyloid evolution was a very modular process – and this is, in itself, an important demonstration that evolution can work in this way - but we don’t really know many specifics about its evolution. How quickly did its pterodactyloid features occur? How many genetic modules are represented by different body parts? These sort of questions are very difficult to answer with the patchy pterosaur fossil record. Studies have shown that we really know bugger all about trends in pterosaur evolution: current pterosaur diversity curves correlate precisely with the abundance and richness of pterosaur localities for a given geological level, so our diversity curves are entirely artificial. Our relatively recent discovery of azhdarchoids, a major clade of Cretaceous toothless pterosaurs, is a great example of how little we know about pterosaur evolution. Pterosaurs were first unearthed in the latest 1700s but, prior to the late 1980s we knew of something like three genera that would eventually be termed ‘azhdarchoids’. However, in the last few decades, we’ve amassed more than 20 new genera that can slip into this group. Who knows what other pterosaurs await discovery? There are plenty of scrappy remains that don’t fit neatly into any existing groups, so I’m sure some surprises are still to come. With such an incomplete record, we’re hard pushed to even talk about pterosaur evolution let alone what light they can shed on evolution itself.

Pig on the wing?
A Dimorphodon steals his meal.

What questions about pterosaurs are the most compelling to you right now?

I really, really want to get to grips with basal pterosaur terrestrial locomotion. There’s three reasons for this: 1) since Kevin Padian’s ideas of bipedal pterosaurs were dismissed in the late 1980s, no-one has looked at basal pterosaur terrestrial locomotion despite plenty of research focusing on the terrestrial competence of pterodactyloids; 2)there’s a lot of diversity in basal pterosaur limb bone structure, phalangeal development and pelvic girdle morphology, suggesting they weren’t all moving around the ground in the same way and, 3) there really is no current consensus on how basal pterosaurs stood or walked – all people will tell you is that they were a bit rubbish at walking, and that’s it. I’m sure we can work out a little more than that!

That aside, there are lots of other things I’d like to do. I’d like to follow up my work on pterosaur mass estimation with a more precise method of estimating pterosaur skeletal mass, which can then be used to work out overall body mass. There’s buckets of work to be done on non-flight related aspects of pterosaur functional morphology: analysis of stress distribution across their skulls when biting, suitability of their pterodactyloid anatomy for climbing and so fourth. In addition to the quandary of basal pterosaur locomotion, there’s clearly lots of diversity in locomotory styles across pterodactyloids: there’s good evidence that azhdarchids were columnar limbed ultra-efficient walking machines, but what about the fingerless, limb-disproportioned nyctosaurs? How did they get about? Actually, the more I think about it, the more projects I can think of starting. I’m busy enough as it is: best stop this train of thought here.

Besides the Mesozoic, which era or eras of the Earth's history most interest you?

The Cainozoic (known to Americans as the Cenozoic - ed.) is undeniably interesting because you can really trace the development of modern ecologies and environments across the fossil record. You can watch mammal lineages bed-hop between different ecological niches – different feliformes vying for the hypercarnivory niche, hyena-like dogs, hippo- and horse-like like rhinos, tapir-like elephants, giraffe-like camels, that sort of thing. Cainozoic fossils haven’t had so long to be chewed up by destructive geological processes and this means we have a much greater insight into what was going on and this allows surprising glimpses into even epochs of 20 million years ago. Plus, mammal teeth are very identifiable, hardy and abundant anyway, so we can get a really good idea which groups were around in different places and times. As such, while the familiarity of some fossil mammals means that they may be somewhat less spectacular or intriguing than the more outlandish Mesozoic and Palaeozoic forms that preceded them, the depth of information available about them makes them equally compelling critters to learn about. The Cainozoic is, therefore, a particularly detailed chapter in Earth’s history and it’s hard not to be really sucked into learning about it once you start digging around.