Friday, May 28, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Jim Conaway


Janet Riehecky's series of dinosaur books stretch the "vintage" thing a bit, having been published just about twenty years ago, but I'm not sweating it. I previously wrote about her Tyrannosaurus rex title, illustrated by Diana Magnuson, and ended the post with a teaser for this one: Baryonyx. This one is illustrated by Jim Conaway, a veteran illustrator who mainly has worked in childrens and Christian lit, as well as doing marketing and advertising work.

Fishing Baryonyx

Diving Baryonyx

Like Riehecky's T. rex book, this one is pretty solid, scientifically. It reflects much of what was known about Baryonyx in the late eighties, and seems to have been selected for the dinosaur's piscivorous diet. The conjectures are usually pretty tame. There are nits to pick, but overall, it's a worthy addition to a child's library.

Baryonyx Herd

One thing I found funny was that a few illustrations depict Baryonyx in social groups. You'll often see illustrations of "pack-hunting" behavior, or perhaps multiple carnivores gathering to scavenge a carcass, but Conaway's Baryonyx seems to be a pretty social beast.

I'm not as crazy about these illustrations as I was about Magnuson's, but it's certainly a worthy title that gives the spotlight to a dinosaur who doesn't often recieve this sort of attention. I'd love to have the full set, and I'm interested to see what Conaway has done with another of may favorite theropods, Troodon.

Finally, we'll close up shop with the obligatory "Damn, he's biting my neck!" illo.

A Bite on the Run

No dinosaur book is complete without one, really.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Allosaurus, Now and Then

I completely endorse changing museum displays as knowledge changes. But it's also cool when there's a continuity between the exhibits we see now and what past generations saw. For instance, the American Museum of Natural History's Allosaurus mount, in which the Jurassic theropod preys on a fallen Apatosaurus. Compare these two photos, taken nearly a century apart.

From Volume VIII of the American Museum Journal, 1908

Allosaurus fragilis over Apatosaurus excelsus
Photo by Ryan Somma, via flickr.

Neat, huh? Finally, here's Charles M. Knight's take on the scene, one of the iconic images in the history of paleoart. You can see a second Allosaurus in the distance, standing upright in the formerly accepted theropod posture. Thanks to the fact that his supper is on the ground, this Allosaurus has a much more modern look.

Painting by Charles M. Knight, via Wikimedia Commons

I'll close with a typically wonderful piece of vintage science writing from the American Museum Journal piece the 1908 photo comes from. The writer is W.D. Matthew.
As now exhibited in the Dinosaur Hall this group gives to the imaginative observer a most vivid picture of a characteristic scene of that bygone age millions of years ago when reptiles were the lords of creation when Nature red in tooth and claw had lost none of her primitive savagery and the era of brute force and ferocity showed little sign of the gradual amelioration which was to come to pass in future through the predominance of superior intelligence.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Aye Aye, Ajkaceratops

I have a small request for paleontologists. Can we please give the letter "A" a rest when naming new dinosaur genera? See, I try to be cute when writing about new discoveries, and give the posts alliterative titles. It's only May and my options for "A" are wearing really thin. In the beginning, I planned on only using greetings. I figured that every letter of the alphabet would begin a greeting in at least one language. Well, that's out the window. So now, I'm reduced to pirate-talk when I want to write about the exciting European ceratopsian Ajkaceratops kozmai.

But maybe piratese isn't such a bad way to title a post about a dinosaur whose late Cretaceous habitat is likely due to an "island-hopping" radiation of Asian ancestors. Ajkaceratops (pronounced oikaceratops) is more similar to primitive ceratopsians like Bagaceratops than it is to the famous giants of the North American west.
Bagaceratops by Nobu Tamura. Via wikimedia commons.

Ajkaceratops is described in the new issue of Nature by Attila Osi, R.J. Butler, and David Weishampel. I find the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous European archipelago fascinating - as discussed previously, many of them are smaller or more primitively built than their better known contemporaries. Had the Chicxulub disaster not happened, who knows what kind of interesting routes their evolution may have taken?

Ta Prohm's "Stegosaurus"

The most recent episode of Brian Dunning's Skeptoid podcast deals with myths of contemporary dinosaurs or prehistoric beasts, from the famous "sauropod" Mokele Mbembe to widespread accounts of mysterious "lake monsters." There are plenty of anecdotal accounts of these beasts, either from people who believe they've seen them themselves or people interpreting local legends. As in other examples of cryptozoological beasties, good evidence seems stubborn to present itself. This isn't very meaty stuff, so Dunning focuses instead on purported evidence of dinosaurs living among people left behind by ancient artists. Despite the incredible burden of proof that would be required to overturn the volumes of solid evidence supporting the accepted story of Earth's history built by generations of scientists, these artworks are touted as fatal cracks. Dunning picks this "evidence" apart, not by dismissing it a priori, but by demonstrating how weak it is.

Ta Prohm Cambodia, carvings dinosaur!!
Photo by divemasterking2000, via flickr.

For instance, the "Stegosaurus" of the Cambodian temple Ta Prohm. Dunning points out that it really doesn't look like a Stegosaurus - that head is way too large, really, and that the "plates" are most likely background foliage. The other animals accompanying it all have foliage in the background. "If the Ta Prohm carving did indeed use a living Stegosaurus as its model," he concludes, "then its quality is grossly out of step with that of all the other animals carved at Ta Prohm, which are quite accurate and beautifully done."

Too bad Dunning neglects to mention that while the legends as told are extremely implausible, there is a grain of truth to the idea of living dinosaurs. For instance, there's the one I suspect of crapping on my windshield. He does get points for using the term "thagomizer," though...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

This October, Princeton University Press will release Gregory S. Paul's new book, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs. If you'd like a sneak peek, a twelve page preview is available right now (hat tip to Ian Paulsen for posting it to the Dinosaur Mailing List). This should sufficiently whet your appetite, and there's a lot more meat on the bone: 320 pages, to be exact, with over 500 illustrations.

Paul is renowned for his reconstructions of ancient life, and his Predatory Dinosaurs of the World is still held up as one of the great pieces of dinosaur literature, twenty-one years after its first publication. If you've seen an animated dinosaur from the last two decades, chances are it is strongly influenced by Paul - or directly guided by him. For more, visit his official site, which includes galleries of his work and an exhaustive autobiography.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Charley Harper

Man, I'd love to run across a book illustrated by Charley Harper during one of my thrift store excursions. His style is instantly recognizable to fans of Golden Books, and he's one of my favorite mid-century illustrators. His birds are especially cool, taking his "minimal realism" to an extreme, breaking them down to their simplest shapes. Here's a relevant sample of his work from 1961's The Giant Golden Book of Biology, chock-full of paleo yummies.

Giant Golden Book of Biology - Illustrations by Charles Harper
Image from Grain Edit, via flickr.

More: a Grain Edit post on this Golden title, the official site of the Charley Harper estate, and interview with Harper by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


A couple little personal items today, if you'll pardon me. First of all, its my wife's birthday. Her name is Jennie, and she blogs here, mostly dealing with her addiction to thrifting and her appreciation of all things vintage. She also sells vintage clothing and housewares in her very own Etsy shop. If that's your thing, it would behoove you to take a gander and buy lots of things. It puts her in a super mood. The weekend trip I wrote about yesterday was part of her birthday present, so don't think the only thing I gave her was a free plug on this little blog!

Second, today is the eighth anniversary of Stephen Jay Gould's death. When I was a teenager, my brain flitted between pseudosciences (I wrote my senior term paper on UFO abductions), like a hummingbird trying to pull nectar from plastic flowers. Gould's eloquent writings on the history of science and evolution were in part what set me nice and straight, to flowers that don't just look pretty but offer actual nourishment. Thanks, Steve.

Steve Gould
Painting by Carl Buell, via Flickr.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dismal's Canyon

If you find yourself traveling through Alabama, make it a point to visit Dismal's Canyon, a privately run nature preserve. If you watched the Discovery Channel special When Dinosaurs Roamed America, you'll recognize the sandstone canyon that comprises most of the preserve. Because of its "primitive" look, it was used as a location for parts of the movie (I definitely recognize it from the Early Cretaceous New Mexico bit). The sandstone walls are, if my reading of the geologic map is correct, Cretaceous sandstone of the Tuscaloosa group's Gordo formation.

The loop through the canyon can be hiked in less than an hour, but you'll probably want to linger for a while. Jennie and I stopped there one afternoon, and unfortunately couldn't stick around until nightfall. I hope we can make it back, as nightly guided hikes reveal the canyon's claim to fame: colonies of glowworms, the bioluminescent larvae of the fly Orfelia fultoni. The canyon in daytime was gorgeous, too: quartz-riddled sandstone eroding into bumpy, knobby formations, walls carpeted in moss, abundant ferns, and cool, hemlock-shaded air offering relief from the stifling heat above. My favorite bit of the trail was the "Witch's Cavern," a maze formed by enormous blocks of fallen sandstone.

Here are some pictures from the trip. Unfortunately, we didn't bump into any Coelophysis.

Dismal's Canyon, Alabama

Dismal's Canyon, Alabama

Dismal's Canyon, Alabama

Dismal's Canyon, Alabama

Dismal's Canyon, Alabama

Dismal's Canyon, Alabama

More here.

Terra Nova

Note to producers: please try to remember that expensive visuals and quality storytelling aren't mutually exclusive. Please?

Fox has made a big commitment to the Spielberg-produced Terra Nova for 2011. It involves a family of time travelers from a hundred years in our future traveling back to the Jurassic. Spielberg's a big name, but I'd be more optimistic if it was Whedon, Lindelof, or Cuse. It would be really neat to have pretty dinosaurs and the kind of writing that will sustain them for more than one season.

Though in that case, maybe I shouldn't have invoked poor ol' Joss...

Pre-Fossil Fuel

Runned crossed this over at the ol' Flickr. Figgered on sharin' it with y'all.*

Stuporhero CD interior illustration part 2
Illustration by Mystery Monotreme, via flickr.

The corny sterotypical southern US accent is due to my weekend trip to Alabama. More on that a bit later...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Decade of Sue

I reckon there ain't nothin' more American than McDonald's and Disney tagteaming to buy a big-ass Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for the Field Museum of Natural History. To make the story even more American, this occurred after the fossils' initial discovery on a ranch on an indian reservation by a private corporation and, once the landowner and the Sioux tribe each claimed ownership, subsequent seizure by the FBI. After a court battle, they were returned to the landowner, who auctioned them off.

Luckily, Sue ended up in the hands of the Field rather than a private collector with a nagging void in his foyer. Sue replaced the Albertasaurus mount in the Field's main hall. I was going to school in Chicago at the time and had a membership to the museum, which was within walking distance of my campus. I'd stop in once or twice a week, spending much of that time in Sue's shadow. I really miss having an easily accessible natural history museum in my life.

I'll need to make my way back up to Chicago soon to check out the spiffy, expensive new Sue exhibits, which you can preview at the Field's fancy-pants new site. Clicking on the "Celebrate Sue" link at the top of the page allows you to send Sue a birthday present. I sent a unicorn coloring book, which the site told me "was one of Sue's favorites." Honestly, I bet she would have preferred a goat tethered to a stake. In gratitude for your email address, you get access to four wallpapers and three "T. rex roar" ringtones.

The Chicago Tribune has written an article looking back on Sue's first ten years as a Chicago icon, as well as providing this video dating back to Sue's debut in 2000.

The beginning of this post is a remixed version of a Dino Friday post from Gentleman's Choice.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: John R. Jones

Here are some selections from Dinosaur Hunters, a little book that's as much about paleontologists as it is about dinosaurs themselves. It's pretty accurate, though there are some minor mistakes, such as using the name Brontosaurus instead of Apatosaurus, though the book was published in 1989, well after the renaming occurred. But overall, it's a good introduction to the science.

Dinosaur Hunters Front Cover

The credited illustrator is John R. Jones, whose name renders him hopelessly ungoogleable. I've tried, but come up with nothing more than a few listings with online booksellers. Some of the illustrations, such as this Iguanodon, demonstrate how ideas have changed with new evidence.

Iguanodon by John R. Jones

Here's the requisite T. rex vs. Triceratops page. Note the very Knightian posture of the T. rex in the foreground.

Tyrannosaurs and Trikes by John R. Jones

Finally, I really dig this little ankylosaur. Maybe not perfectly accurate, but plenty of character.

Ankylosaurus by John R. Jones

These images and many more are kept in the Vintage Dinosaur Art Flickr Pool.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pteranodon by Buell

Pteranodon sternbergi
Pteranodon sternbergi by Carl Buell, via flickr.

In my estimation, paleoartists don't get much better than Carl Buell. I've mentioned him previously, but what the heck: this Pteranodon is fantastic. So is his other work, including my favorite rendering of the famous "walking whale" Ambulocetus. He hasn't done a lot of dinosaurs lately, but he's done some wonderful cenozoic mammals. Many of his paintings show his sense of humor, as well: for instance, the one in which he and an australopithecine knock back a couple brews. I'd imagine that the little hominid would be in for a pretty fun night around the campfire.

Be sure to check out Buell's flickr stream; he's apparently had some setbacks preventing him from establishing a better web presence, so it's the best collection of his work I've found. He was also interviewed a few years back by the science blog Unscrewing the Inscrutable.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Attaboy, Austrocheirus

Paleontologists from the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences, led by Martin Ezcurra, have published a description of a new genus of large theropod in the journal Zootaxa. Based on its ankle structure, the authors have posited Austrocheirus isaasi as a basal member of a family of mid-sized theropods called the abelisaurs. As the tyrannosaurs dominated top predator niches in the northern hemisphere in the late Cretaceous, the abelisaurs performed that role on the southern continents (with the possible exception of Tarascosaurus from France, but its abelisaurid credentials have not been satisfactorily proven).

The most famous of the abelisaurs is without a doubt Carnotaurus, instantly recognizable for its blunt snout and twin horns above the eyes. And, of course, its tiny little arms. It was the main villain in the Disney Dinosaur movie; a smaller, more realistically-sized Carnotaurus also provided brief comic relief in Jurassic Park 3. (UPDATE - Kind reader Ivan brought to my attention that my memory was faulty here - it was a Ceratosaurus in JP3, not Carnotaurus.)

Carnotaurus, via wikimedia commons.

The only abelisaur forelimbs found to date have belonged to three large members of the group: Carnotaurus, its slightly smaller Argentinian neighbor Aucasaurus, and Madagascar's Majungasaurus. Aucasaurus is remarkable for its near lack of fingers, they're so stubby and tightly packed in. Thus far, how common such reduced forelimbs and hands are among other abelisaurs is unknown, but similarly-sized Austrocheirus sheds a bit more light on the subject. Its hands aren't nearly as small, demonstrating that perhaps the reduction in forelimbs didn't necessarily correlate with greater size.

For all of the dinosaurs' fantastic features, the hands of theropods are among the most important. They're the subject of a long, complicated, and colorful debate in paleontology, and for good reason. Birds evolved from dinosaurs, after all, so understanding the process of how a theropod's hand turned into a bird's wing is of obvious value. It's important to note that the abelisaurs aren't closely related to birds. But the way the fingers are expressed in different theropods is always worth noting.

As for where Austrocheirus may fit into the grand scheme of things, this paper places it somewhere near the bottom of the abelisaur family tree, closely allied to the recently described non-abelisaur Limusaurus. One of the reasons Limusaurus, a small Chinese herbivorous theropod of the Jurassic, made a splash last year was for its unique hand format. Apropos to this new discovery, Limusaurus possessed a more reduced hand which seemed to fit in well with its abelisaur relatives. Austrocheirus muddies the waters a bit here with its relatively more robust hands; it suggests that rather than being a shared adaptation, the hands of abelisaurs and of Limusaurus were coincidentally similar. Hopefully new discoveries will clear up this tangled little knot of the theropod family tree.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Indiana University Press Spring Sale

Image from IU Press.

Quick heads up: my local university's press is having a spring sale, with discounts of up to 80%, and free domestic shipping on orders of $25 or more. Click on over to Indiana University Press to check out the selection. Here's a shortcut to the paleontology titles included in the promotion, including the above title by Fernando E. Novas. The sale lasts until June 30.

If living dinosaurs are your special interest, and you happen to live in Indiana, this title is a ridiculously good deal.


There's only one reason that I own a Molly Hatchet record: the epically badass Frank Frazetta artwork on the cover far outclasses the riffery in the grooves. In truth, few bands can live up to the power of Frazetta's work. He passed away yesterday at 82.

Here is his 1969 painting Tyrannosaurus rex.

From here. Frazetta gellery here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Heinz Age of Dinosaurs

In 1980, the Heinz company upped the ante in their endless war against Chef Boy-ar-dee by pulling in the big guns: dinosaurs. Here's a 1980 advertisement for a special offer from Heinz Spaghetti Hoops and Noodle Doodles.

Heinz Age Of The Dinosaurs Ad 1980
Image from combomphotos, via flickr.

Looks like a pretty good deal. I especially like the gaping maw of that T. rex, virtually begging to be filled with delicious Noodle Doodles, a ravenous hunger that even the Chicxulub asteroid impact couldn't extinguish.

This, of course, leads to the question: anyone have one of these wall charts?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Aurora Model Kits

In the early 1970's, the Aurora company struck gold with their "Prehistoric Scenes" model kits of dinosaurs and other ancient beasts. There's a tribute site to the model kits, run by a fellow named Ian, located here. The images below come from the site; there is a wealth of background information, images, and even original kits for purchase. The site is very 1.0, but that's no deterrent if the content is cool.

Image from Aurora Prehistoric Scenes

According to a 2007 post at Drawn! The Illustration and Cartooning Blog, comics artist Dave Cockrum designed some of the kits and their box art, though the above anachronistical joyride doesn't seem to be his. An interview at Comic Book Resources indicates that he was really only responsible for the T. rex and Stegosaurus.

Image from Aurora Prehistoric Scenes

Here's his T. rex box art, but unfortunately the Stegosaurus wasn't meant to be. It's a shame, because it easily twould have been one of Aurora's finest kits.

Image from Aurora Prehistoric Scenes

There's also a sketch of a proposed Parasaurolophus model on the tribute site, signed by Cockrum, but it must not have left the early planning stages. These old kits seem to inspire quite a bit of nostalgia, and I can see why. They have a pulpy sensibility to them, a mix of B-movie inspiration and scientific curiosity. When all of the kits were assembled, their bases could be fit together into a wild, improbable crowd of ancient beasts and cavemen. If I had been kicking in the early seventies, I would have been crazy for them.

Side note: sorry if this post popped up prematurely (and incompletely) in your blog reader of choice last night - I accidentally published it as I was starting the post. I deleted it immediately, but it's still sitting in my Google Reader.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Picaresque Life of Franz Baron Nopcsa

On Tuesday, I wrote about Magyarosaurus, the diminutive sauropod of Haţeg Island. I referred to its discoverer, Franz Baron Nopcsa, as "flamboyant." This is, some may argue, a rather mild adjective. I wouldn't disagree. Of all the characters who populate the pageant of science through the ages, Nopcsa is one of the most captivating. He's almost too good to be true: proudly aristocratic, openly homosexual, a spy and adventurer, aspirant to the Albanian throne, and of course, a heck of a scientist.

Nopcsa, the scion of an aristocratic Hungarian family, was only 18 years old in 1895 when his sister asked him to examine some peculiar fossils found at the family estate in Transylvania. This spurred his studies at the University of Vienna, and thus began the career of one of the Europe's great scientists. As I discussed in the Magyarosaurus post, the dinosaurs of Haţeg were smaller than similar species from other parts of the world, which Nopcsa concluded was the result of insular dwarfism, the tendency for populations of large animals to become smaller in size when they are isolated on an island. He was the first to suppose that this occurred in dinosaurs. Nopcsa also identified other dwarf dinosaurs including the hadrosaur Telmatosaurus transylvanicus and an ankylosaurid called Struthiosaurus transylvanicus.

Nopcsa's achievements in paleontology reflect a keen eye and a deep curiosity about the lives of dinosaurs. He correctly interpreted the first example of dinosaur feeding behavior preserved in the fossil record, a Compsognathus bearing the skeleton of a lizard in its belly. He also stands out for championing the ideas that birds evolved from ground-dwelling theropods, based on an examination of the feet of Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus, and that at least some dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded. It would take the dinosaur renaissance of the 60's and 70's for these ideas to gain real traction.

His contributions to paleontology would be enough to distinguish him, but the story only gets crazier from there. He took his title seriously; in Edwin Colbert's The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries, he describes Nopcsa as actually having peasants bow to him as he traveled between his estates. Nopcsa also had an obsession with the land of Albania, and during his lifetime was the world's foremost expert on the troubled realm. In fact, after Albania was granted autonomy after the Balkan Wars freed it from Ottoman control, Nopcsa petitioned Vienna to allow him to take the throne; his plan was to ride into the country on a white horse, leading five hundred civilian-clad soldiers. The higher-ups of the Austro-Hungarian army weren't too keen on it. They were impressed enough by his talents to enlist Nopcsa as a spy, however, disguised as a peasant and gathering information along the Hungarian-Romanian border prior to and during World War I.

This presaged his fall from the aristocracy. After "the war to end all wars," with Austria-Hungary defeated, Transylvania was ceded to Romania and Nopcsa lost much of his land and fortune. As a consolation prize, he was appointed president of the Hungarian Geological Survey. Those qualities that make him such a fascinating figure seem to have made him ill-suited to institutional life, however, and his tenure was stormy and brief. In 1929 he left Hungary with his secretary, confidant, and lover Bayazid Doda, traveling Italy by motorcycle until his wallet was empty.

He wouldn't fade away quietly, though. After living a few years in a diminished state - he sold his entire fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in London to get by - he left this life in one final dramatic gesture. In what may have been the most heartbreaking tea service in history, Nopcsa drugged Doda, putting him to sleep. Then he shot him in the head. After writing a suicide note in which he explained his actions - he did not want to leave Doda sick, destitute, and alone - he took his own life.

As Weishampel has noted, Franz Baron Nopcsa aspired to do more than score fossils for museums. In his theories, he attempted to suss out what kind of lives dinosaurs and other extinct animals led. His insights were as remarkable as the uncompromising life he led.

More: GLBTQ, Wiki, Robert Elsie's Early Albanian Photography. Weishampel, an expert on the Transylvanian dinosaurs, is also an expret on Baron Nopcsa, as Steve Brusatte writes at Dino Data. Weishampel coauthored the 1995 article The Centennial of Transylvanian Dinosaur Discoveries: A Reexamination of the life of Franz Baron Nopcsa in Volume 15 of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. If anyone has a spare $85 for a back issue, I'm not too proud for charity...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dino Friday Repost: Dinosauroids!

This is the second repost of a "Dino Friday" post from my old general topics blog Gentleman's Choice. It appeared almost a year ago. It appears as it did then, with minor revisions to reflect the strict editorial standards of LITC.

I love my dinosaurs, but stuff like this is just kind of embarrassing:

But I suppose I appreciate the sentiment. I've always liked the spunky little theropod known as Troodon formosis. When I cracked open my old DK Dinosaur Visual Dictionary back in the day, the reconstructed Troodon with its big, lantern-like eyes grabbed my attention right away. As it turned out, the model was created by a paleontologist named Dale Russell with the help of model maker Ronald Séguin. Russell also worked with Séguin in realizing a bit of "evolutionary fanfic" known as the dinosauroid thought experiment. It has since had a significant impact on how dinosaurs are perceived in popular culture.

Troodon was found to have the largest brain-to-body-mass ratio in all of dinosauria. This led to speculation about its possible IQ: while it was likely about as smart as a possum, it is the source of Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg's chimp-like Velociraptor.

Russell's wild conjecture was that maybe, just maybe, if dinosaurs hadn't gone extinct, Troodon or one of its close relatives may have been the progenitors of a line of increasingly intelligent dinosaurs, leading to a human-like dinosaur he called the dinosauroid:

This is really fanciful stuff, and Russell's logic has been pretty roundly criticized by other paleontologists, which seems entirely justified to me. While plenty of bodily features have evolved independently in unrelated species (such as the wings of insects and birds or the club-like tails of ankylosaurs and glyptodonts), it's a huge stretch to imagine the bird-like body of troodontids arriving at a bipedal, human-like form.

But while it has little scientific value, the thought experiment has certainly influenced popular ideas of dinosaurs, from the Jurassic Park raptors to UFO folks who have latched on to it as an example of the feasibility of the insidious "reptoid" form of alien.

Much more in-depth information and analysis on the dinosauroid thought experiment can be found at Darren Naish's old TetZoo location. And Troodon was in the news this week in reports about a Canadian dig site which appears to show that Troodons used a duckbill nesting site as a Cretaceous Golden Corral, though presumably the baby duckbills weren't doused in gallons and gallons of butter.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Magyarosaurus and Insular Dwarfism

Mention sauropods, and most of us conjure images of giants. It's one of the classic dinosaur laws. But the fact is, they weren't all enormous. Case in point: cow-sized* Magyarosaurus dacus.

When flamboyant Transylvanian paleontologist Baron Franz Nopcsa first described the little sauropod at the end of the nineteenth century, he put forward the idea that it represented a case of insular dwarfism: when large species are confined to islands, which naturally possess a limited number of resources, they tend to get smaller over time. M. dacus wasn't the only example either; during the late Cretaceous, Europe was broken up into a bunch of islands. The Cretaceous rock of the Haţeg region where Nopcsa worked represents one of these islands and has produced a number of similarly "miniaturized" dinosaurs. Nopcsa's idea wasn't universally accepted though, and many claimed that his fossils represented juveniles.

While further discoveries have brought Nopcsa's hypothesis into the mainstream, it has now been pretty much validated by an international team of researchers led by Bonn University's Koen Stein and P. Martin Sander and Johns Hopkins' David Weishampel. By examining the microscopic structure of Magyarosaurus bones and comparing them to those of known adult sauropods, the team found that the little Transylvanian sauropods were, indeed, full grown. It's only one of several examples of island dwarfism among the dinosaurs, including the other denizens of "Haţeg Island." Recent work includes Sander's similar study of a Jurassic island sauropod, Europasaurus holgeri and last year's description of a new hadrosaur from Italy called Tethyshadros insularis.

On a side note, the story of Magyarosaurus dacus illustrates how political concerns sometimes influence the workings of science. When Nopcsa named his little sauropod, he initially called it Titanosaurus dacus. The name was changed to its current form by rival German paleontologist Freidrich von Huene after the Balkan wars to include the Hungarians in the fun; the Magyars are a Hungarian ethnic group (dacus refers to the historical name for Romania). I'm sure that this decision wasn't come to lightly by von Huene. He probably had hordes of angry Hungarians demanding it, pitchforks at the ready. I can't blame them.

More: Palaeoblog, Discovery.

* I hope at least one person initially misread that as crow-sized. That would be adorable.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Big Jurassic Park Post

Over at the ever-dependable Dinosaur Tracking, Brian Switek recently listed his top five dinosaur movies of all time. Topping it was Jurassic Park. I agree.

I have to admit, since committing myself to write about dinosaurs every day - even if just a little bit - I've started to feel some serious ennui regarding Spielberg's B-movie-on-roids. For the better part of twenty years, it's been the rare pop science article about dinosaurs that doesn't mention JP. And that fact has been magnified for me since starting LITC. I read a heck of a lot more than I used to: articles and news briefs and blurbs and remixed press releases from writers running the gamut from dedicated science journalists to bored interns. If a link can be drawn to JP, no matter how tenuous, many writers seem unable to resist. But for a moment, Brian's post made me consider Jurassic Park again. It was my favorite by default, but why?

I put myself in the shoes of 16-year-old-me. And this is what I came up with. This is why.

That shot. That one shot. Not T. rex eating Gennaro. Not the raptors stalking the kids in the kitchen. Not Nedry getting spanked by Dilophosaurus. Not Jeff Goldblum quipping about the size of a pile of Triceratops feces. Nope, it was a wide shot of a Parasaurolophus herd gathering at the side of a lagoon as a happy pair of brachiosaurs amble back to shore after a bit of a dip. When I think of Jurassic Park, this is the image that pops into my head.

Jurassic Park was my Star Wars, really. I was a big Star Wars fan, too, but I was born only a few months before the first movie was released. I don't lay claim to the collective experience a generation shared when ol' beard n' plaid's space opera hit the screens. It was something I came to know through video cassettes, role-playing games, and novels.

Not so with Jurassic Park. The road to my own Star Wars moment was paved with a fascination with dinosaurs going back as far as I could remember and repeated readings of Crichton's novel. The moment seared into my memory, when a movie actually made me see the world differently, was the first time I saw that shot. Certainly, Mr. Brachiosaurus showing off by standing on two legs was impressive. Absolutely marvelous. But it was just a set-up. When that shot was projected onto the screen, it was a punch to the gut. Suddenly, dinosaurs were alive again, and how I'd always dreamed of seeing them: casually going about their lives. Moving like animals move, with weight. Rendered a bit hazy by the distance. Put into better perspective by little white specks of birds flying over sparkling water. As if I was out hiking, and happened across the scene upon cresting a hill. It was a rush. A deep, satisfying realization of a wish I knew was foolish. And I realized it as it was happening: this is the closest you'll ever get to it.

That one shot is why, as obvious a choice as it is, Jurassic Park is my favorite dinosaur movie. That one shot is enough to forgive the movie's excesses: the ridiculously smart faux-Velociraptors, the majestic orchestral swells, goofy dialogue, actors doing the "Spielberg gawk," mysteriously reincarnated ancient plants, all culminating in an ending that could be described as deus rex machina. And though I do get tired of it being trotted out over and over again in articles, the fact is that JP is a big reason dinosaurs get the level of media exposure they do, and that's a good thing. As long as writers use it as a springboard to solid science content written clearly, there's nothing really to complain about.

You know what else was awesome? The Gallimimus stampede. And the goat leg scene. And when the girl beats the raptor with gymnastics in The Lost World...