Friday, July 29, 2011

Mesozoic Miscellany 41

This was one of those fun weeks in which a massive story about Mesozoic paleontology hits with a huge splash.

Xiaotingia, illustrated by Xing Lida and Liu Yi.

New research from Dr. Xu Xing, China's preeminent paleontologist, has described a new feathered theropod, Xiaotingia zhengi, as well as proposed a new cladogram which places the new animal, along with our old friend Archaeopteryx, closer to Deinonychus and Velociraptor than to the most primitive birds. Archie's iconic status - one of the "transitional fossils" that serves as a quick and easy example of the evolution of one line of theropods into birds - is what guaranteed that this would make a larger impact than if this was simply a new, beautiful fossil. Here's a roundup of places that the story has been covered, in the paleoblogosphere and elsewhere.

MSNBC's Cosmic Log
Nature News
The Panda's Thumb (mirrored from Pharyngula)
Greg Laden's Blog
Pick & Scalpel
Everything Dinosaur
Wired Science
Not Exactly Rocket Science
And, of course, Marc's look at sadly typical media fumbling of the story here at LITC.

This will likely cause a few clueless creationists to squawk about how science is wrong, and evolution is a hoax. We'll take it in stride. This is why I love science: the ability to reconsider accepted knowledge, to take new discoveries as they come and alter our model of the world based on the new information. It may be inconvenient for the general public to lose the easy shorthand of Archie as the first bird, but if this work by Dr. Xu is backed up, it will lead us down new, fruitful avenues of research at the base of the bird family tree.

Angie Rodrigues has created a lovely painting of Tuojiangosaurus. See it!

H2VP's Justin Hall shares his prototype of a Parasaurolophus tube endocast.

Journey to Africa's Tendaguru fossil site with Brian Switek at Dinosaur Tracking.

At Other Branch, Ian looks at Xuanhanosaurus - the first four-legged theropod?

Andrea has a bit of wrist-slapping for the Terra Nova producers over their Carnotaurus at Theropoda.

Check out the RMDRC's Nyctosaurus cast. Looks like a good addition to any home, really.

Chinleana is now on the Field of Science blog network.

In Houston? Want to meet Bob Bakker? Tonight is your night.

Finally, I must share with you what might be my favorite thing I've ever inspired with this blog. Not that I've inspired much... let's just say that I am so utterly stoked that this happened, I can hardly contain myself. Remember my wishlist of interspecies conflict videos? Well, Deviantartist Patriatyrannus, known in meatspace as Tuomas Koivurinne, took those five ideas and ran with them. This is the completely delightful result. Click to gigantosize.

From top to bottom, left to right: Carcharodontosaurus vs. Mononykus, Incisivosaurus vs. Giraffatitan, Gigantoraptor vs. Citipati, Pot-bellied T. rex vs. Jurassic Park T. rex, and Protoceratops vs. Leptoceratops.

Thank you, Toumas. This made my day when I saw it, and it makes each subsequent day that I look at it again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Like Birds (or: Prehistory and the Press redux)

It's good to open with a song.

Who doesn't like birds, what with their penetrating stares from glassy eyes that so perfectly mask the quiet intelligence at work? (Except in the case of ostriches. Boy, they're stupid. Tasty, though. Tasty and dangerous.) But what the devil is a bird, exactly?

Obviously I'm bringing this up in relation to a paper by Xu et al that's been getting quite a lot of attention. Rather predictably the media has already been fudging the science; in fact, even Nature News made a bit of a hash of things.
After analysing the traits present in Xiaotingia and its relations, Xu and his colleagues are suggesting that the creatures bear more resemblance to the dinosaurs Velociraptor and Microraptor than to early birds, and so belong in the dinosaur group Deinonychosauria rather than in the bird group, Avialae. (Source)
The suggestion seems to be that 'birds' are something quite separate and distinct from 'dinosaurs', whereas the consensus view among palaeontologists has for years been that Aves (or if you prefer, Avialae) is a clade within the Dinosauria. Avialae is just as much a 'dinosaur group' as Deinonychosauria, and it would have been pretty hard to tell apart primitive examples of either in life (and so it is proving with the fossils).

The Guardian's also chosen to sensationalise the idea that Archaeopteryx might be a feathered nonavian dinosaur, rather than a bona fide bird. "The fossil Archaeopteryx may not have been one of the earliest birds but just another feathered dinosaur," we are told. But what's the difference? Birds are 'just' feathered dinosaurs, and Xu et al do not dispute this. The article (written by our old friend Ian Sample) goes on to talk of birds as if they are something separate from dinosaurs. The simple fact is that they are not. Of particular irritation is this paragraph:
If archaeopteryx [sic] was a dinosaur, this means flight evolved at least four times in vertebrates: in reptiles, birds, dinosaurs, and most recently in bats. (Source)
According to various theories currently floating around, avian and nonavian dinosaurs in Paraves (the clade that includes deinonychosaurs and avians) could have a common flying/gliding/arboreal ancestor (or maybe even a ground-dwelling one), or various nonavian and avian dinosaurs could have evolved and lost flight over millions of years. Some people even think that the distinction has become quite meaningless, and will readily call Velociraptor a bird. Then there's that use of the word 'reptile'. Presumably, Dr Sample meant 'pterosaurs'. I suppose we'll let him off on that one.

The BBC are at it too.

Birds are dinosaurs. They are not special, or different, just because they're still alive and don't fit pop culture expectations of a giant, reptilian monster with huge fangs. The sooner newspaper journalists learn this, and stop misleading the public, the better.

John Hammond's Island of Diminishing Returns?

Star Wars vs Jurassic Park
As likely as any other speculation about the plot of JP4. By David Fisher, via Flickr.

At this year's San Diego Comic-con, Steven Spielberg made the odd decision to somewhat undercut the buzz around Terra Nova to announce that Jurassic Park 4 is, finally, close to production. Today at Saurian, Mark Wildman posts about this, and expresses a sentiment I share:
What has surprised me, however, is the amount of people demonstrating their opposition to the film being made at all, and that is without the criticism of the project that has been demonstrated on social networking sites, blogs and also by the paleocommunity at sites such as the DML. I understand people wanting to protect the legend of the original Jurassic Park but it was inevitable that sequels would be made and that the franchise would escalate. Incidentally, I don’t think the sequels were bad films anyway – they were good fun and entertained people, which brings me too the main point of this post.
Read more of his musings on this reaction, and why it might be so, at Saurian.

While I'm a fan of the franchise, I'm by no means emotionally invested in it. I'll be thrilled if Jurassic Park 4 is a quality piece of cinema. If it's not, though, I don't think I'll lose any sleep. The negative knee-jerk reaction to its production somewhat baffles me. On Twitter, Myspace boldly tweets, "Jurassic Park 4 in the works. Ironic that they are reviving something extinct. Does anyone even remember 3??" Buzzfeed tweets, "It hurts me to have to tell you that Steven Spielberg announced today he's making JURASSIC PARK 4." The Dinosaur Mailing list hasn't seen an overwhelming response to the news, with only a few people expressing their distaste. Reaction at IGN has ranged from "give it up already" to mockery. The AV Club's commenters deal in their usual snark. Variety readers seem uniformly stoked by it - one commenter reminds people of JP3's poor quality, then immediately leaves another comment about being excited by the JP4 news. I imagine that the Variety commenters reflect the general public, who will likely be happy for another installment of the franchise. While the third movie did about half of the total domestic gross of the original, their opening weekend grosses compare favorably. With more than a decade having passed since the third movie, and having been primed by Terra Nova, Dinosaur Planet, and Dinosaur Revolution, I could see it at least matching The Lost World's numbers.

There will always be harsher criticism for prehistorically-inspired entertainment from paleontology enthusiasts and the scientists who feed our obsessions. As Mark Wildman notes in his post, fidelity to the research done with such painstaking care by paleontologists is ideal, but it may be a pipe dream. It's akin to the dilemma faced by the journalistic media, as discussed in Marc Vincent's final entry in his Prehistory and the Press series on this blog. That is, money. Every day, we are surrounded by people who don't share our passion for paleontology, who may simply see it as a scientific backwater that only interests eccentrics and children. Add the business interests of a studio to that, and it's easy to understand why sauropod biomechanics or integumentary structures of dromaeosaurs may be lost in the noise. I'll continue to argue that attention to such considerations deserve a place in the creative process, as they can result in more believable, beautiful, and surprising creatures for the cinema, but I'm not naïve about it. I'm ready to be entertained again by the franchise, and each bit that reflects the revolutionary insights of the last couple decades will be icing on the cake.

In other Jurassic Park news, a movement has begun on Facebook to petition Universal to subject the series to the current trend of "reboots." It's been 18 years since the original came out - a number that staggers me, as I readily recall my multiple trips to see it over that summer - so a reboot wouldn't be as egregious as those given to The Hulk and Spider-Man only a few years after their original installments. But you have to figure that a well-conceived fourth entry in the series, perhaps with adult versions of Tim and Lex, would achieve the same nostalgic impact. But hey, if it's an idea that turns you on, join in.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dinosaur Office


See Terry's hands? Not pronated! Not pronated!

Prehistory and the Press - Part 4

At last, the concluding post in a series based on my undergraduate dissertation (stripped down and livened up a bit to avoid boredom). Do please read the first, second and third parts if you haven't done so already. It'll make my day that little bit brighter. (Front cover from my thesis, below; dodgy allosauroid Biro-scribble by yours truly.)

So, what's going wrong with reporting on palaeontology? Unfortunately, as David Hone has pointed out over at Archosaur Musings,
"For all the ever-expanding use of blogs, twitter [sic] and online journals, most people get their science from the traditional media...If the media aren't actually writing stories and checking their sources then anything can get out there, regardless of accuracy." (Source)
Therefore, the mistakes that the mainstream media makes in imparting information are important. Specialist blogs have to be actively sought out, and one is normally only going to be partaking in such seeking if one's already interested in the subject matter. (Don't tell me I can't produce overly-wordy sentences with the best of 'em.) Most people, who aren't especially interested in palaeontology, are going to be finding out about it through their normal news sources. So what are they doing wrong?

Of course, there's an element of laziness, cutting corners and simply not caring. It also rather predictably comes down to money. For all their high-falutin' claims about holding power to account and being a pillar of democracy and the Over-Guardians of the People and all that, newspapers (and, although my study excluded them, let's not forget the commercial news media more broadly) exist to make money. That a lot of them are currently losing money at a rate of millions of pounds per year is by-the-by.

Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist currently enjoying a quite justified popularity boost thanks to his involvement in exposing the goings-on at News International, wrote a popular book back in 2008 entitled Flat Earth News. In said tome Davies spelled out the 'rules of production' for the modern-day 'news factory'. Rule number 6 was 'Give them what they want', explained by Davies thusly:
"Simply, it requires that stories should increase readership or audience. If we can sell it, we'll tell it." (p. 133)
So science stories about subjects viewed as being 'niche' (not that 'niche' is really an adjective, but we'll run with that) receive little attention, or are not treated seriously, because they are not conducive in attracting readers, right? Well, yes, but that's not the whole story.

Here I'm going to bring in a book that often has people zooming to the comment box with a compulsive desire to make clear their ad hominem scorn for an octogenerian professor: Manufacturing Consent. In it, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (for it is he) lay out their 'Propaganda Model' of the news media in an attempt to explain its 'political economy'. While the Propaganda Model is therefore far more relevant to more political journalism (a territory into which palaeontology hardly ever encroaches), there is one highly relevant 'filter' - namely, "the advertising license to do business".

Essentially, newspapers are really out to sell audiences to advertisers. At the Guardian, they are keen to stress the appeal of their science stories to "affluent, well-educated consumers" (source), although they do still boast of "bringing illumination and clarity to scientific topics". Which is more than can be said of the Telegraph, who do not mention their science journalism at all but choose to focus on sports, entertainment and Christina Aguilera looking, as Private Eye might say, "fruity" (source).

See, palaeontology's all well and good when it concerns big, scary dinosaurs and Nessie, but if it's 'hard science' then it just won't sell. Readers will find it hard going and advertisers will be turned off. At least, that's the attitude of those in charge.

Really, there are a combination of factors at play. The Goldacre view of the scientifically illiterate humanities-grad hack is certainly relevant, as is laziness and the casual recycling of material. However, an important reason for science journalism so often failing us is that newspaper editors just don't care that much about it, and the reason they don't care is that it doesn't make money, from the readership or (more importantly) advertising sales. Sex and death make money - a pile of dusty old rocks just don't.

Under-investment is a problem that plagues all newspaper journalism currently, but is particularly pertinent when it comes to science and more, er, 'niche' subjects like palaeontology. Specialist journalists are in short supply and expensive, so many editors feel that they can do without them, especially as budgets are slashed again and again and losses pile up. Hiring science journalists can become uneconomical, and ones who know a thing or two about palaeontology especially so.

So that's that, then. A few sweeping generalisations I'm aware, but I've really condensed this stuff down (and am rather prone to them anyway). Hey, at least I didn't say that the journalism industry was "filled with egotists with delusions of their own importance", like I did in the introduction to my actual thesis, penned after a bit too much moonshine. You'll be happy to hear that, in spite of this, my dissertation was awarded a first, seemingly mostly because of its originality - no other crazy dino-fanatics on my course. The lesson is: if you're not a palaeontologist and people tell you that your wacky hobby won't get you anywhere, don't listen to them!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaur Poems

In something of a departure for this series (one that may be seen as cheating), the dinosaurs in Dinosaur Poems aren't intended to look anatomically correct at all - they're deliberately cartoonish, exaggerated and comic in keeping with the tone of the poems themselves. Oh, and I suppose that, being from 1993, the book isn't that 'vintage' either. But you did let me get away with Dinosaurs! (twice), and many of us in our 20s have very fond memories of being a child in 1993 for some reason. Without further delay, then...

Just look at that cover. Aren't you in love already? Artist Korky Paul brings an extremely lively and irreverent style to the illustrations; notice that while most of the kids are enjoying sliding down the sauropod, one of them's been crushed underfoot. You'll notice a few recurring visual motifs on the cover, too, like the bizarre fluffy hair and inexplicable band-aids sported by the dinosaurs. The T. rex isn't a patch (do you see?) on the one inside, either - I'll be getting to that.

An unruly pet Allosaurus accompanies Companion by Clive Webster. Naturally, Paul's chosen to depict a gigantic toothy beast chowing down on snack-sized schoolchildren rather than the otherwise placid creature described in the poem. (Good thing too, 'cos while a huge domesticated theropod would have been amusing, this illustration would trump it any day.) I love the hands being thrown up as a kid descends into the dinosaur's gullet as if it were a water slide.

This one's here for the contrast between the fluffy pink slippers and the dinosaur's terrifyingly toothy grimace. And the poem's just daft in the best sort of way.

So here's that T. rex. Stunningly deranged and spraying mud everywhere as it powers forward through the jungle, it's every inch the dim-witted, single-minded killing machine (while the clasping hands add a nice touch of anxiety). Wes Magee's words are wonderful, too - I particularly like the pertinent description of the animal's feet as being like those of a "monstrous hen". Magee also asks the important question: "Would you dare stick your tongue out at him?" Maybe if you're Jack Horner.

This is one of my absolute favourites. It's another funny rhyme paired with an equally amusing illustration. The smirks on the faces of the dinosaurs are priceless; I especially love the blue Triceratops, grinning mischievously as his theropod friend daintily knocks on the door. The image of a gaggle of giant dinosaurs politely calling at a house with sinister motives in mind is just hilarious.

I've included this one for the poem, rather than the illustration, although of course the latter is still superb. It's the bluntness of the ending that I appreciate - "'ve been dead/For ninety million years." (I am fond of the cat in the lower right corner, mind.)

Last one for now, because I'm starting to get scared of how much I'm violating copyright law. Here, Clive Webster proposes a new theory as to why the dinosaurs went extinct, one surely engineered to appeal to schoolchildren everywhere. It's nice and simple - they were bored to death during the Dawn of Curriculum-Based Schooling. Korky Paul provides an endlessly-yammering caveman oblivious of the fact that his saurian pupils have been reduced to skeletons. A perfect finale for the book. And hey, if you want to see more, get in touch via the comments (unless you're from Oxford University Press).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mesozoic Miscellany 40

Rounding up another week of activity in the dinosaur blogosphere, it's time for yet another Mesozoic Miscellany.

Shake hands with Acristavus, the new member of the hadrosaurid clan. Brian Switek wrote about it at Dinosaur Tracking; Every Dinosaur and ScienceDaily featured it as well.

New blog alert! From Justin Hall and Mike Habib comes H2VP, focusing on " reconstructing the form and behavior of Mesozoic vertebrates, using comparative anatomy and biomechanics." Welcome, fellows!

Wish Gary of Project Dryptosaurus safe travels, as he's embarking on a cross-country trip to study the Triassic in the scenic wonderland of Arizona.

Reign of the Dinosaurs is no more. Now... it's Dinosaur Revolution, and it's set to premiere in about a month and a half in the US. Visitors to Comic-con in San Diego get an early look, reports Angie Rodrigues, who is one of many talented paleoartists who have worked on the project.

Featured as part of the "Dinos in Pop Culture" series at the Geology P.A.G.E., check out a Spanish museum whose design was inspired by a theropod's footprint.

Dave Hone often features beautiful fossils at Archosaur Musings, and one of the most stunning is this Protoceratops, which appears to have been buried, perishing while struggling to dig itself out.

Poor Richard Owen. Not only are his valuable contributions to science over shadowed by his oppostion to Darwin's theory of natural selection, he'll long be remembered by this ghastly portrait.

In the wake of the Dino Gangs special, Mark Wildman wonders why there seems to be strong a priori opposition to social behavior in tyrannosaurs and other large theropods.

The best thing to come out of Greg Paul's outburst this spring has been Scott Hartman's Skeletal Drawing blog posts looking into the history of skeletal diagrams, the different forms they come in, and the best ways they can be used and improved. This week, Hartman looks at the distinction between accuracy and plausibility in skeletal diagrams, illustrating his point memorably with a break dancing Allosaurus.

Check out the Dudley Bug, featured by Glendon Mellow at Symbiartic. Paleontology plus heraldry makes me giddy!

On Tuesday here at LITC, I looked at the thriving pastime of arguing over interspecies conflicts and proposed some ridiculous pairings I'd love to see illustrated and debated.

Photo by Sharon Wegner-Larson, via Flickr.

Finally, Sharon of Omegafauna shared photos of the museum at the Black Hills Institute, which is a must-see if you're in South Dakota.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Donald Prothero on Meet the Skeptics

Donald Prothero Explains Vasquez Rocks
Dr. Donald Prothero runs one of his geology field trips. Photo by Darrin Cardani, via Flickr.

Occidental College professor Dr. Donald Prothero is featured on the latest episode of the Meet the Skeptics podcast. He's been communicating paleontology, science, and skepticism for so long that he just nails point after point. From fossilization to the methods of dating fossils to his work arguing against creationists, Prothero delivers the goods. You can also check out his writings at Skepticblog, and read his insane number of books.

And if you missed it earlier this year, you can check out my own interview with Chris of Meet the Skeptics.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

David's Ultimate Wishlist of Interspecies Conflict Vidz

Though research continues to flesh out the fossil record, revealing dinosaurs to have been animals that lived as parts of their ecosystems just as living animals are today, the old concept of the prehistoric monster still has plenty of life in it. This manifests itself in the pastime of imagining interspecific conflict: Triceratops vs. Tyrannosaurus will probably always be the most popular of these, with worthy alternatives in Velociraptor vs. Protoceratops and Allosaurus vs. Stegosaurus.

A more recent addition to the ranks of Mesozoic prizefights has as its contestants the giant Asian tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus and its odd, little known contemporary Therizinosaurus. I've found it portrayed in models, artwork, interspecies conflict websites (here, here, and here, too), but I first realized its popularity through Youtube videos, which are accompanied by spirited debate in their comments sections (my favorite are people who stubbornly cling to their pet opinions, like only referring to Tarbosaurus as "Tyrannosaurus bataar"). It seems that you can't type a dinosaur's name into the search field without finding at least one interspecies conflict video, and thanks to some enterprising Youtubers, we can watch Therizinosaurus and Tarbosaurus scrap.

First, a clip from Tarbosaurus: The Mightiest Ever, a doc by Korean company EBS. I believe that this is a Greek translation for it, but you'll sternly correct me in the comments if I'm wrong, won't you now? The real reason [SPOILER ALERT] Therizinosaurus loses here is that his wrists are broken and he's confused about where his feathers are.

Next, it's "The Giant Claw," an episode of the supremely stupid Chased By Dinosaurs, in which an idiot is sent back in time to annoy prehistoric animals, who respond by mugging for the camera and occasionally knocking it over.

Finally, proof that a bit of can-do spirit and a free afternoon can result in something that puts the pros to shame.

I have to admit: I am a soggy dishrag. I just can't get into these arguments (which seem to have inspired a few of those modern B-movies Syfy cranks out). But if it has to happen, I'd encourage us to aspire to greater heights of absurdity. I mean, we all know what's going to happen in the example above. Slappy-slappy, bitey-bitey, bleedy-bleedy, yawny-yawny.

Therefore, I reveal David's Ultimate Wishlist of Interspecies Conflict Vidz:

1. A hundred Mononykus vs. Carcharodontosaurus: They'd swarm the big brute and crawl into all sorts of uncomfortable places.
2. Four strategically placed Incisivosaurus vs. Giraffatitan: Two words: beaver style.
3. Citipati vs. Gigantoraptor: I see the little dude running circles around Giganto while making some outrageously stupid shrieking sound. For about ten minutes.
4. Pot-bellied T. rex vs. the Jurassic Park T. rex. It's a draw, until Stan Winston strides out with a glock and empties a clip into Pot-belly.
5. Protoceratops vs. Leptoceratops. The most disgusting display of brutality and gore imaginable.

Think you can top me? Want to whack me over the head a few times with the +1Cudgel of Web Pedantry? Let me have it in the comments!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dino Jaws in Birmingham

It seems that robot dinosaurs are enjoying something of a resurgence in the UK this year. London's Natural History Museum currently has two robo-dino exhibits underway - one in the museum itself and another in a Brighton shopping centre. In addition, they've hired out their old 'Dino Jaws' exhibit to the Thinktank museum in Birmingham, and having looked at the others it is to that which we now turn our attention. (Oh, there's also some nonsense on at the O2. Doesn't particularly look like it's worth the time. But I might go anyway.) I was fortunate enough to tour with the museum's Natural Science Curator, Adam Stuart Smith, who is also a plesiosaur researcher and indulges in certain hobbies we don't mention in polite company. Onwards then (awesome Baryonyx below may look familiar)...

Although the museum - located at Millenium Point, a ten minute walk from Birmingham New Street station - is not free, Dino Jaws is included in your entry ticket (until the exhibition ends on September 5). The exhibition is accessed through a rather unassuming entrance on the third floor, adjacent to an exhibit looking at future technologies that features a wacky robot actor and a robot arm that plays an electronic drumkit. What's striking once inside is how large and open the exhibition space is, which contrasts strongly with the more confined feel in the Natural History Museum. The large amount of floorspace means that one is free to wander at will, rather than being shepherded through in a linear fashion, and it's also possible to view the robo-dinos from a variety of different angles and distances. Apparently this openness was deliberately exploited in the planning of the exhibit to give the dinosaurs suitably dramatic backdrops and plenty of breathing space - and it's all worked very well.

The real 'big spectacular' here is the full-size Baryonyx, and it's an absolute beauty. The robot has superb fine detailing and texturing and wonderfully fluid, naturalistic movement. It even has a convincingly mad, stupid stare in its eyes. Maybe it's not absolutely perfect but damnit, it's near enough. Don't deny me my love affair. I want it in my garden, swiping its giant fish-hooks at passing schoolchildren.

Much as I love the Baryonyx, however, it's important to remember that there were other dinosaurs present. Placed front-and-centre as you enter - deliberately so, I am told - is a disembodied Tyrannosaurus head (and neck). It's easy to see why it earned pride of place - even reduced to just its head, Tyrannosaurus is undeniably impressive, and the robot is extremely lively, to say the least. Again, the fluiditiy and speed of the movements are striking, and also conspire to make sure that it's near-impossible to take a photo that doesn't feature copious amounts of motion blur.

The overall theme of the exhibition is an examination of various dinosaurs' eating habits. The Tyrannosaurus head, as with a nearby Edmontosaurus and "Brachiosaurus" (yeah, Giraffatitan), has one side cut away to reveal the skull. It's an interesting educational idea, but in the cases of Tyrannosaurus and Giraffatitan it doesn't really add much; the life restoration conforms very closely to the shape of the skull anyway, and the jaws only perform simple up-and-down movements (as is accurate). If anything, having one side of T. rex's head sheared away only detracts from what is otherwise a very lifelike robot.

Another issue I have with the Giraffatitan - much as it is superbly made - is that its head is just a 'shrink-wrapped skull' that doesn't conform with modern knowledge of sauropod anatomy.

A better use of the cutaway concept is Edmontosaurus, the fleshy head of which does substantially conceal what's going on underneath. Looking at the skull side, one can see the teeth in the upper jaw sliding over those in the lower jaw as the animal chews its food. Looking at the fleshy side, one is slightly unnerved by a disembodied head that somehow appears almost uncannily alive. I still swear it tracked me across the room, and given that some of the robots these days do track movement I might not have been imagining it. But I probably was.

The two other herbivores on show are Euoplocephalus and Iguanodon, both of which are quite impressive (and large) robots in their own right, but look a little static next to the Baryonyx. The Euoplocephalus, in a rather undignified turn for the mighty ankylosaur, seems to have been appropriated for a display probably best titled 'Dino Bowels'. It also has bad gas. The Iguanodon is somewhat shrunken - it could be considered a juvenile, but it's also a fairly good match for Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, formerly considered an Iguanodon species.

What robo-dinosaur exhibit is complete without some 'raptors'? Apparently, the original plan was to have three of them gathered around a Protoceratops carcass - taking up a significant amount of floor space - and comment on their possible pack-hunting behaviour. Still, Thinktank have made the most of the two they have, and liberally added fake blood to make the scene extra-gory. I'm not a big fan of these Velociraptor robots - apart from the obvious anatomical bloopers (like the hands), they look a little like scaly dinosaurs dressed up in cute fluffy outfits. Sadly, that still makes them the best robot dromaeosaurs I've seen.

Poor old Protoceratops has been torn to pieces. The shredded head is particularly gory/cool.

For remainders, we have an Oviraptor that was rather dead on the day (but still plaintively cried out, rather amusingly) and an iffy Coelophysis that hardly moved at all. In fact, Coelophysis was upstaged by a very impressive taxidermy lynx, mounted as if leaping up to attack an unfortunate blackbird. It's worth mentioning that there are a number of taxidermy modern animals hanging around the dinosaurs, in order to provide a comparison point when it comes to feeding habits and behaviour. Commendably, the Thinktank team went to great lengths to avoid the appearance of the dinosaurs and modern animals being in the same scene, with the latter being obviously separated and only having plain black backdrops.

In terms of the exhibition's educational remit there are none of the obvious howlers that afflict the Brighton exhibition (save a few unfortunate typos). Once again there is nothing that readers of this blog won't already know, but I was happy to see the 'cannibal Coelophysis' idea firmly debunked, as it's something that still pops up in books and even museums. Most of the signage is on loan from the NHM, and features Dr Angela Milner speaking about this-and-that through the medium of text bubbles while clutching a tiny model spinosaur skull. Strange.

Overall I must say I was impressed. The robots themselves are of a very high standard, and excellent use has been made of the exhibition space to present them alongside fossil casts, taxidermy and skulls/skeletons from modern animals. It's great to be able to walk around everything, unpressured and with plenty of room, and take your time inspecting the exhibits from different angles. Well worth a visit if you're in Birmingham and if it's not to your liking then, well, there's always the wacky robot actor.

With thanks to Niroot Puttapipat for supplying some of the photos. That's him on the right, with Adam on the left. Sorry guys...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mesozoic Miscellany 39

Your weekly roundup of links from around the dinosaur blogosphere begins...


First up, new month, new Boneyard. Hosted by the originator of the whole shebang, Brian Switek, at Laelaps.

This weekend, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County opens its new dinosaur hall. I wrote about it on Tuesday, with photos from last Friday's member's only preview night.

The new hall opens just in time for the second "Dinosaur Day," a holiday created not by Hallmark but by blogger Ms. Xandra of Barbarella Psychedella.

Stu Pond continues his musings on science communication at Paleo Illustrata. This week, the museum.

Nifty Herrerasaurus sketch by Ezequiel Vera.

A Triceratops horn core discovered right at the K-Pg boundary is claimed to show that Triceratops survived until the bitter end of the Cretaceous. Ehhhh... maybe. Everything Dinosaur has more.

At Prep Lounge, Matthew Brown gives us the skinny on the paleontological tool that is featured in the SVP logo: the Marsh Pick. If you're interested in the amazing prep work that goes into our understanding of fossils, be sure to visit his blog. I also loved his recent post on the sabrecat Homotherium.

Paleoexhibit blogger and ubiquitous paleoartist Nobu Tamura shared his versions of various Morrison stegosaurs this week.

Mark Wildman asks: Is it time for a Palaeontological Resources Preservation Act in the UK?

Finally, a bit of cuteness spotted by my eagle-eyed spouse, The Jennie Orr.

From the illustration collab blog Ten Paces and Draw. It's the work of Emma Maatman, and Michele Rosenthal.

That'll do it for this week! Astute readers will note a break from the classical Mesozoic Miscellany format. This is in keeping with some impending and entirely necessary changes here. I'll talk about why soon.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

NHM of Los Angeles County opens new dinosaur hall

Dueling Dinos in the Grand Foyer
The "dueling dinos" of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. From the Museum viaFlickr.

This Saturday, July 16, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County will fling open the doors to its brand new dinosaur hall. Luckily for those of us either too impatient to wait or too far away to see it first hand, photos from last Friday's member's only preview have been making their way online.

I've heard nothing but positive things from the handful of Facebook and Twitter friends who have been able to visit, and whenever I am able to make my way to the left coast, I'll be jazzed to pop in and see for myself. In the meantime, enjoy these photos from the preview event. The T. rex growth series mount in particular is stunning (in the extreme foreground of this first photo, you can also get the barest hint of an allosaur being thagomized). No good photos of either that mount or the Mamenchisaurus yet, which is a travesty of the highest order!

Dinosaur hall
Photo by Bolt of Blue, via Flickr.

Photo by Scientia Virum, via Flickr.

Photo by Coolislandsong24, via Flickr.

Photo by Rudebigdog, via Flickr.

Carnotaurus sastrei
Carnotaurus sastrei. Photo by Rudebigdog, via Flickr.

For more on the NHM's dinosaur hall, visit the museum's site and the hall's press release [PDF], and see this story from the Daily News.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Hank Chapman

Today's VDA post is bite-sized, featuring only two little illustrations. But they're a neat change of pace, I hope you'll agree.

Hank Chapman was a prominent comics artist who worked for Timely, Atlas, and DC comics. He's also one of the few entrants in this long, proud series famous enough to warrant a Wikipedia page of his very own. Chapman is well-known for his war comics in the fifties, having written over a hundred, but in the mid-sixties, he "fell off the map." Crammed next to advertisements for Boy Scout camping supplies in the March 1964 issue of Boy's Life magazine are his small illustrations of Stegosaurus and the first theropod, Megalosaurus.

The Stegosaurus, on his elephantine legs, eats what looks to be a french fry plant.


Meanwhile, Megalosaurus chases down some unseen quarry, likely while yelling "RARRRAGHGHAAARGH!!" and flexing his grabby little hands.


The story these cute lil' dinosaurs accompanied was a quick n' jaunty blurb about the origins of dinosaur paleontology. I'd love to find out if Chapman did any other dinosaur illustrations. So far, I've had no luck finding any. At the very least, it would be fun to look through his sketchbook to see what other amazing archosaurs he played around with.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Submit to the next Boneyard Blog Carnival!

The next Boneyard Blog Carnival is hosted by Brian Switek at Laelaps. Submit your paleontology blog posts - new or old - to boneyardblogcarnical(at)gmail(dot)com. We're especially looking for posts dedicated to saber-toothed predators this time around! The deadline is Monday, July 11, and it will be posted on Tuesday the 12th.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Mesozoic Miscellany #38

Research and Discoveries News

Pneumaticity and the evolution of birds. In a new research paper in Biological Reviews, now in advance online publication, a team led by Robert Benson examined the remarkable 12 unique lines of archosaurs who evolved pneumaticity in their skeletons. The authors "hypothesise that skeletal density modulation in small, non-volant, maniraptorans resulted in energetic savings as part of a multi-system response to increased metabolic demands. Acquisition of extensive postcranial pneumaticity in small-bodied maniraptorans may indicate avian-like high-performance endothermy."

An overview of the pterosaurs' remarkable variety of forms. A masters thesis by Karen Prentice, along with Marcello Ruta and Michael Benton, takes a thorough look at the entire pterosaur family tree to tease out evolutionary patterns. Among their findings: "there is no evidence that rhamphorhynchoids as a whole were outcompeted by pterodactyloids, or that pterosaurs were driven to extinction by the rise of birds."

Around the Dinoblogosphere

Jaime Headden gives you 20 reasons why Gigantoraptor "was the biggest, baddest, nastiest thing you ever saw… and also a caenagnathid."

The paleontology expedition from Montana State University takes a look at patterns in dinosaur egg clutches.

Phil Manning gives a little sneak peak at his Dinosaur CSI series, premiering tonight in the US on the National Geographic Channel.

Want to see a mounted Zuchengtyrannus? Head to China, or just bop over to Archosaur Musings.

Big congrats to Glendon Mellow, who is part of a new blog on the SciAm blog network, Symbiartic. Check out his first post.

If you aren't yet acquainted with paleontology legend Sir Richard Owen, Mark Wildman can bring you up to speed at Saurian.

Sharon of Omegafauna treats the rest of the world to a virtual tour of the Science Museum of Minnesota. Meet Fafner the Triceratops!

At SV-POW, Mike Taylor continues the team's tutorial series, with a how-to dealing with writing one's first research paper.

They told Anthony Maltese to find a Pteranodon... and that's exactly what he did, damn it.

Victoria Arbour shares a field season's bounty in the form of hadrosaur bones ready for the preppin'.

At the Paleo King, Nima delves into the always lively discussion about the whys and wherefores of sauropod necks.

In another dispatch from Utah, Brian Switek reports on his visit to the Utah Field House of Natural History.

Take those kids outside! David Tana shifts the direction of Superoceras to look at the ways any of us can help the young'uns become more engaged with nature, no matter where we live.

ART Evolved's new gallery, celebrating the Carboniferous, is up. Check it out!

At Faster Times, Asher Elbein writes about the recent papers about the weaponry of Stegoceras and Kentrosaurus.

If you've been trying to track down Tony Martin to no avail, he's in Australia. He sends word of his experience there with the Emory Study-Abroad program. I'm totally envious of these students.

The state of dinosaur documentaries, and the CGI animation that comprises them, is the subject of a recent post at Paleo Illustrata, by Stu Pond.

Twit Picks
Stuff I've linked to on Twitter in the last coupla weeks...
Paleoart of the Week
As it's been two weeks since the last big roundup, it's only fair that I share two pieces here, don't you think? The first comes from hadrosaur enthusiast and 3D artist Angie Rodrigues, who posted her new Lambeosaurus model on her blog this week. Incredible, and made even cooler by the fact that you'll be able to own it! That's right - just check out her shop at Shapeways to buy one of her figures.

This week, Mark Witton debuted his new site, which is packed with wonderful stuff, much of which hasn't been shared on his popular Flickr photostream. So, from Flickr, here's a dandy piece o' Wittonalia to celebrate this milestone.
Beautiful friends, The end
Also, see his post announcing his site.

Outrageously Off-Topic Indulgence
Robot shark! By Justin White, aka Jublin.
robot shark

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


London's Natural History Museum has opened a temporary robo-dinosaur exhibit in Brighton's Churchill Square shopping centre. I just happened to be in the city (honest) on Sunday, and thought I'd pop in for at least as long an investigation as my unfortunate girlfriend would tolerate.

The centre of the mall will play host to this fearsome-looking animatronic collective until September 4, and they are in plain sight, completely free to view and rather popular with shoppers. From a purely aesthetic point of view, they're not too shabby at all - they move smoothly and quite convincingly for the most part (although the Tyrannosaurus is by far the best in this respect) and have well-executed skin textures and fine detailing. It's anatomical accuracy that's lacking.

When it comes to theropods, one can find Baryonyx, an unidentified ornithomimosaur, and Oviraptor positioned around the Tyrannosaurus centrepiece. The larger animals having been shrunk isn't the issue - it's the serious outbreak of Bunny Hands Syndrome. Even worse - in fact much, much more maddeningly, frustratingly anachronistic, awful and hideously ugly - the oviraptorosaurs are completely bald. Stark naked, scaly, and wrinkly, they belong firmly in the 1990s, and not at an exhibition endorsed by the country's national natural history museum. (Look, it's holding an egg too! Not implausible, but still very '90s.)

The ornithischians fare a little better. The Triceratops and Euoplocephalus have some anatomical flaws (the Triceratops' hands, for example), but none as screamingly obvious and downright offensive as the bald maniraptors. The red pupils of the Triceratops are a little weird, but credit is due for correctly giving the (rather adorable) juveniles stumpy horns and shorter frills, rather than making them scaled-down versions of the adult.

Wait, did I say Euoplocephalus? Well, that would have been because that's what it looks like. Of course, the experts who prepared this exhibit know better:

Oh dear. This is all rather embarrassing for the Natural History Museum - much as I love the place, it would be pertinent for them to verify the accuracy of the exhibitions they're endorsing. Elsewhere one can spot Ye Olde John Sibbicke art from the '80s, depicting a bald Troodon and fat Apatosaurus with elephantine feet. Granted, these robots knock the spots off anything produced in the '90s (just look at the Dinamation horrors and weep), but this is still some way from being a properly educational exhibit. Have a look if you're in Brighton (it's free!), but dino-nerds should definitely disengage their critical faculties.

Jim Lawson's Paleo: Loner available online

Page 1 of Jim Lawson's Paleo:Loner.

Comic artist Jim Lawson, who wrapped up twenty years of drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 2009, is the creator of the Paleo, a series which tells stories from the Cretaceous. With no clear prospects of print publication on the horizon, Lawson has decided to release the pages of the latest story, Paleo: Loner, on the web. Over the last few weeks, he's released 16 pages, which tell the story of a lone male tyrannosaur. Much of the story so far has been spent in flashback, as the tyrannosaur remembers his mother. You can begin the series here. Also, check out Brian Switek's review of the Paleo series at Dinosaur Tracking, from April of this year.