Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bună ziua, Balaur bondoc

Balaur bondoc, by Mick Ellison. From the PNAS paper.

I love the smell of lifted embargos in the morning. Yesterday, the web exploded to life with news of a new dromaeosaur from the Haţeg Basin in Romania, newly described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Remember the fuss Dr. Grant made over the Velociraptor's single sickle-claw at the beginning of Jurassic Park? Well, Balaur bondoc (the "stocky dragon") had two of them. Suck on those, Telmatosaurus and Magyarosaurus.

This is a significant discovery, helping paleontologists flesh out the menagerie of strange island dinosaurs from the European archipelago during the late Cretaceous. Balaur is the first good fossil of a predatory dinosaur from the time, and provides additional insight into the unique ways animals evolve on islands, where they are isolated from their mainland brethren and have to compete for food in different ways.

Because of limits on space, and therefore food, islands often cause populations of large herbivores to reduce in size over time. About a century ago, Franz Baron Nopsca believed this to be the explanation for the herbivorous dinosaurs discovered in Transylvania, an hypothesis that took a while to gain traction, but which is now widely accepted (I wrote about the Baron and his island dwarf ideas last spring). What was eating those smaller sauropods and dantier ornithopods? One of their harrassers would have been Balaur, a scaled-up relative of Velociraptor.

One part of the island rule holds that as herbivores reduce in size to better manage scarce food sources, predators grow to take advantage of the easier prey. Balaur is only a bit larger than Velociraptor (which in reality was a fraction of the size othe JP version, leading Dan Telfer to joke that he'd punt one out of the way if it tried anything with him). But it's a lot more robust than the lithe Mongolian dromaeosaur.

Its unique features don't end with its stockiness: Balaur possessed the above-mentioned twin sickle-claws, four functional toes on its feet as opposed to the typical three for theropods, and a two-fingered hand. This was clearly a predator adapted for a unique lifestyle. Those two claws on its feet have been proposed as its main weapons - as coauthor Steven Brussatte says, "Compared to Velociraptor, Balaur was probably more of a kickboxer than a sprinter, and it might have been able to take down larger animals than itself, as many carnivores do today." The skull of Balaur has yet to be found. I'd love to see if it had additional unique features which may have been of use in taking down prey.

The authors, led by Zoltán Csiki of Bucharest University, write that Balaur's close kinship to the Mongolian Velociraptor suggests that there must have been some connection between the islands and the mainland, an idea that has been hard to state firmly until now. Those herbivorous dwarf dinosaurs of Haţeg are more primitive than their late Cretaceous relatives, suggesting that they had been isolated from their mainland families since the Jurassic. Not so with Balaur. This is an animal descended from advanced dromaeosaurs of the late Cretaceous, so it must have arrived later.

This leads to my big, possibly stupid question, which I'll nonetheless pose here. What if Balaur isn't an example of the island rule after all? Dromaeosaurs are (for the most part) small, nimble predators who may have been able to travel between the island and the mainland more easily than the herbivores. Its unique features may have been of use on the mainland, and it may have been able to access the islands by swimming. Hoping for more skeletons of an interesting new dinosaur like Balaur is a lot to ask, but I'll be interested to see where else they might turn up. Preferably with a nice, complete skull. Csiki promises functional analyses to come in this interview, which will help shed light on how this two-finger, four-toed, robustly built dude hunted.

This is the kind of new species that's easy to get excited about. It represents new and interesting variations on the classic dromaeosaur body plan. It's in a geographically interesting place. Its relation to other dromaeosaurs is significant. And it's got one heck of a cool sounding name, conjuring a positively Tolkienian mood. Balaur bondoc sounds like some dark memory from the depths of elvenlore. Anytime you're compelled to say both the genus and species name, you know you've got a keeper.

More coverage of Balaur bondoc:

Not Exactly Rocket Science
More From Discovery: Jennifer Viegas interviews Zoltán Csiki
Nat Geo
Science Daily
Dinosaur Tracking
Wired (including very cool illo of Velociraptor)
The Dragon's Tales
Everything Dinosaur

PS. Bună ziua = "Good day" in Romanian.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mark Witton, Author of Note

Gravity cannot reach us anymore
Launching Pteranodon by Mark Witton, via Flickr.

Welcome news: Mark Witton is writing a book on the pterosaurs. It's going to be released by Princeton University Press next year. Click here for a teaser, immediately. If you read that "immediately," you didn't click fast enough.

Here's hoping that it's liberally sprinkled with the slice-of-life anecdotes that make his writings so enjoyably nifty.

A Mantellisaurus Rampant, or Coo-Coo for Kukufeldia

On Thursday of last week, I wrote about the coat of arms for Maidstone, the small town in Kent where a quarry owned by W.H Bensted yielded important Iguanodon bones in 1834.

The Maidstone Slab. From wikimedia commons.

In the comments, Matt Martyniuk questioned whether those bones would still be considered Iguanodon. It was a good question, because Iguanodon happens to be one of those genera that is a taxonomic cluster... well, you know what I'm getting at. Check out the Iguanodon page at Wikipedia for a daunting list of putative Iguanodon species later reassigned to other genera and others currently considered dubious.

A paper published in the latest Zootaxa is another attempt at resolving the mess, reaching far back to teeth described by the father of Iguanodon, Gideon Algernon Mantell, in 1848. Andrew McDonald of the University of Pennsylvania with Paul Barrett and Sandra Chapman from the Natural History Museum in London have erected a new genus, Kukufeldia tilgatensis, after analyzing a collection of teeth assigned to Iguanodon by Mantell in 1848. The authors justify the new genera on the grounds that the teeth are sufficiently different from any other Iguanodon teeth (incidentally, Mantell never assigned his teeth to a species, only working on the level of the genus - that was how he rolled).

This naturally leads to the question: With the genus such a mess, what's the basis for comparison? Well, we're really lucky to have the three dozen Iguanodons discovered at the mine at Bernissart, Belgium in 1878; the skeletons provide a solid mark by which to measure other Iguanodons. Because of the quality of these specimens, Iguanodon bernissartensis was named the type species for the genus in 2000.

The teeth studied by McDonald et al originated from the same geological formation as the original teeth discovered by Mantell, and it's possible that those belonged to their Kukufeldia as well. There's so little to go on, they may never be positively tied to a valid species. However, Kukufeldia may be disputed in the near future. It comes from a geological formation called the Wealden supergroup, which was the subject of a recent overview by veteran Iguanodon researcher David Norman, also published in Zootaxa. Norman maintains that there are only two iguanodontians that can be named with any certainty from the Wealden's Upper Cretaceous deposits: Iguanodon bernissartensis and Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, which was named by Greg Paul a few years ago. At the end of the abstract, Norman promises more work to come on providing further clarity to the genus.

So, you see why I called Matt a "sick, sick man" in response to his comment. Taxonomy would be a good candidate for an episode of "Dirty Jobs." I bet it would break Mike Rowe's spirit.

What of the Maidstone coat of arms? It's up in the air, but I'll hazard a guess. In the early nineties, David Norman reevaluated the Maidstone slab and noted that the dinosaur it most resembled was Iguanodon atherfieldensis (see page 234 of this volume). That species was the one which Greg Paul renamed Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis. As Norman supports Mantellisaurus in his latest writings, this looks to be a decent candidate for Maidstone's patron dinosaur. To revise the title of my original Maidstone post, the coat of arms features a Mantellisaurus rampant. I'm sure the fair citizens of Maidstone would find that most agreeable.

UPDATE: Check out Darren Naish's three-part series on Iguanodon at the SciAm Guest Blog. Part one is here.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dinosaurs: Before They Were Fuels

Anyone else ever hear of this? It's a weekly dinosaur news show called "Dinosaurs: Before They Were Fuels." It's been in production for two years. And I'd never had a whiff of it until just today. Weird!

Here's the latest episode.

I'll have to go through the archives sometime and watch them all. It's got its ups and downs - I would suggest focusing on one topic rather than blazing through three or four. And a bit of extra fact-checking would be nice. Platycarpus is definitely a notable story, but it's a pretty basic mistake to refer to it as a "marine dinosaur." And it would also take just a smidge more effort to reveal that the "ropen" is a Frigatebird. Still, it's pretty well done and the host does a fine job. I'll be following it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Iguanodon Juan

Large iguanodon
The famous Waterhouse Hawkins Iguanodon at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. By Willm23, via Flickr.

Yesterday's post dealt with the small town of Maidstone in Kent, whose civic coat of arms bears an Iguanodon. The first of the herbivorous dinosaurs known to science, a specimen discovered in Maidstone in 1834 was a boon to the young science of paleontology. For today's Vintage Dinosaur Art post, I figured I'd share some of the earliest Iguanodon restorations.

Dr. Gideon Mantell, a physician, natural historian, and the first truly dedicated dinosaur paleontologist, published his Wonders of Geology in 1838, which included a full description of the Maidstone beast. It also included an incredible illustration by John Martin, depicting Iguanodon in Mantell's conception of its natural environment.

John Martin's frontispiece for Mantell's Wonders of Geology, 1938. From the Linda Hall Library's Paper Dinosaurs online exhibition. Click to Megalosize.

The Megalosaurus preying on poor, wailing Iguanodon is quite the striking figure, blessed with bulging goggle-eyes and a cleft cranium. I can't help but be reminded of "Uncle Scrotor" from This Island Earth. Clearly, Iguanodon just should have hugged the guy, and he wouldn't be in such a sticky situation. At this time, I should also point you toward Mantell's own go at restoring Iguanodon, which is a true classic.

Here's a similar illustration, published in 1863 in french scientist Louis Figuier's The World Before the Deluge. The artist is Édouard Riou, whose Megalosaurus is decidedly unlike Scrotor. In this depiction, Iguanodon is a bit pluckier, deciding that if he's going down, it won't be without a morsel of sweet Megalosaurus meat.
Édouard Riou's Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, from El Bibliomata, via Flickr.

So when did these early conceptions of Iguanodon taste the bitter fruits of obsolescence? They would be served by Louis Dollo, a Belgian paleontologist who oversaw the excavation of Iguanodon skeletons discovered in 1878 in a mine in his home country. It was Dollo who proposed the upright, bipedal posture that would come to dominate depictions of ornithopods for the next century or so. A notable exception is the work of Gerhard Heilmann, who in the 20's drew ornithopods in a posture more or less like the modern bipedal/ horizontal-backbone/ stiff tail image the scientific evidence has constructed.

More: The banner at the site Paleoartistry features a nice line-up of Iguanodon's evolving image, and the rest of the site is well worth a thorough browsing, including incisive criticism of many paleoartists' work. Strange Science is also an invaluable resource for learning about the evolution of paleoart. A Vintage Dinosaur Art post from last May features John R. Jones' representation of Iquanodon's changing posture.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Iguanodon Rampant

Dinosaur buses
Photo from Boxley, via Flickr

You would think that a civic coat of arms featuring a dinosaur, the only one in the world, would be fairly well-represented on the web. Not so. The above photo, taken from the side of a bus, is the only one I could find of the coat of arms of Maidstone, a small town in Kent. A British site dedicated to collecting images of civic heraldry does feature a drawing of it, but angry red letters warn me not to use it without permission. I'm neither inclined to write to the borough government for permission nor to invoke their wrath by ganking it, so feel free to take a look at it here; scroll down approximately 2/5 of the way down the page to view it.

Sure enough, what you're seeing is an Iguanodon on the left hand side of the crest. In 1834, the bones of an Iguanodon were discovered in a local quarry owned by W.H. Bensted, who proceeded to collect the bits that had been blasted out by his workmen and chisel the rest out of the limestone encasing them.

Thought to be the remains of an antediluvian giant, they were properly identified as belonging to Iguanodon by the world's foremost authority on the creature, to whom Bensted summarily sold the bones. Dr. Gideon Mantell, who had described and named the giant herbivorous saurian nearly ten years earlier, paid £25 for the bones, which he then described. Mind you, at the time of the Maidstone discovery, eight more years would have to pass before Sir Richard Owen would name Iguanodon and its Mesozoic kin the Dinosauria. The Maidstone find was the one that positively connected the titular teeth of Iguanodon with other skeletal remains, adding much to our knowledge of the animal, though there was still a long way to go. In a correspondence to the American Journal of Arts and Science, Mantell himself estimated that in life, his great herbivore would have been 75 feet long, a measurement which has been cut down by more than half since then.

Soon after this discovery came one of the earliest literary references to a dinosaur I've found. It comes from the poem Poetical Epistle - The Grand Kentucky Balloon, published in New Monthly Magazine in 1837. It tells the tale of a balloon flight that goes awry; after "piercing... night's topmost atmosphere," the narrator falls asleep and dreams that the constellations come to life:
The roaring Lion, rushing from his lair
Lifted his paw and bared his snarling teeth;
Up, with a growl appalling, sprung the Bear;
The hissing Serpent darting, from his wreath,
Transfix'd me with his eyeballs' fiery glare;
And all the forms I saw--(I'm here beneath
The mark) were ten times bigger, every one,
Than Doctor Mantell's famed Iguanodon
A smidgen more than a century later, Maidstone would commemorate its place in the history of paleontology by placing its famous dinosaur on its coat of arms.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Blockiosaurus and Friends


Holy mackerel. These are cool. Flickr member Aurore & Aube has been creating incredible Lego models of dinosaurs, dragons, and other fantastic creatures. These aren't rudimentary, blocky figures which only offer a vague suggestion of the animals' shapes; they have a sense of motion and character.


tyrannosaurus-rex 008




I hope he continues creating these... I'd love to see what he could do with Therizinosaurus, Spinosaurus, Parasaurolophus, or any number of animals, living or dead.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Threadless Returns to the Mesozoic

After a considerable drought of Mesozoic mayhem at Threadless, they've bounced back with two dinosaur designs chosen to grace t-shirts this week.

The first, by James Gruber, acknowledges dinosaurs' place in the pantheon of Awesomeness.

Next, the pun-inclined among us will find much reason to celebrate Mike Rogalski's Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.

I think my favorite is still this one.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fossils in Peril in New Jersey

An inactive quarry in Woodland Park, NJ is home to a sandstone wall preserving trackways made by dinosaurs in the early Jurassic. Unfortunately, it also overlooks New York City, and as prime real estate, is being developed for a condominium community. A story by the Associated Press, reports that development is still barrelling ahead, despite the efforts of concerned scientists and citizens to save the trace fossils. While the local government is considering a petition to absorb the relevant section of the quarry into an adjacent park, the story says that "with tractors atop the cliff already having pushed a shroud of soil over the wall, those scientists have turned their efforts to salvaging what fossils they can for museum display."

ReBecca of DinoChick Blogs posted about this back in December, but I missed it when I was overseas. It's been a public issue for a long time, ever since the site was sold in 2004. But it doesn't seem to have caught fire on the web, based on my searches for blog posts and news stories. Though I whine about the media endlessly, this is one case when a story in a mainstream paper did its job. I'd urge everyone to sign this petition. I'm not sure if it will help, but it can't hurt. Our natural history is part of our shared heritage, and its worth can't be calculated in dollars.

It's especially precious because of the rarity of fossil sites on the densely populated East Coast. As William B. Gallagher of the New Jersey State Museum says in the 2004 article, "A lot of 'salvage paleontology' involves getting into these places and getting what we can before it's destroyed... It's the difficulty of trying to preserve geologic history with accelerated development. Nowhere is that more evident than in New Jersey, where we're rapidly running out of room."

Just imagine if the great bone beds of the western US had been developed before they could be studied. Too many good reasons to save this site. Of course, I'm a lousy capitalist, so my opinion is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of jack squat.

Satellite photo from Google Maps. Here's an inspirational story I recently wrote about, regarding a successful effort to rescue another North Jersey fossil site.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Boneyard News

I've set up a site for the Boneyard Blog Carnival, located here. I'll be making it look prettier, but I wanted to get it up quickly so I could spread the word and call for submissions for the first edition, which will be posted here at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs on Tuesday, September 7. Fellow bloggers, put on your thinking caps and ponder what post you'd like to submit. The only requirement is that it be related to paleontology in some way. It doesn't need to have been posted recently, either!

I also am looking for hosts of future editions. So far, the first one is the only one spoken for.

Thanks to the folks at ScienceBlogging.org for including the Boneyard in their list of blog carnivals. If you haven't checked their site out yet, I totally recommend it. It's going to be a valuable resource for bloggers and readers alike for a long time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Phil Plait's "Don't Be a Dick" Speech

Phil Plait's speech from TAM8 (short for The Amazing Meeting 8, a conference on skepticism) made it to the web earlier this week. It doesn't have to do with dinosaurs, of course. But I think the message is good, and it's one I'm trying to mind as I deal with things like TriceraFail. Plenty of people have seen it, but it deserves to be posted as widely as possible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: More From Sinclair Oil

OH Fletcher - Sinclair Sign

It's not technically accurate to use a dinosaur as an oil company's logo. But a logo of a plant probably wouldn't scream "fossil fuel" to most people, so it's understandable why the company would draw inspiration from the most iconic fossils of all. Here are a selection of cool Sinclair promotional materials from the mid 20th century. This stuff combines two of my big passions: dinosaurs and mid-century design. I love the simple sauropod icon and stark red and green color scheme.

Here's the cover for their Dinoland brochure from the New York World's Fair, provided by What Makes the Pie Shops Tick? More photos from the Dinoland exhibit here.

The Exciting World of Dinosaurs - 1964-65 New York World's Fair

The next two, from Neato Coolville, feature Sinclair's cartoon mascot, Dino.

Dino the Sinclair Dinosaur Ad Character

Sinclair Dino Safety Tablet

This one, provided by Baltimore Bob, features a photo of the Sinclair Dinosaur Exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair. Probably my favorite piece of vintage Sinclair memorabilia.

Antique postcard: Sinclair dinosaur exhibit, 1933 World's Fair

Want more Sinclair? Check out the Vintage Sinclair flickr pool, or my earlier post on Sinclair's dinosaur stamp sets.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Potential of Pop Paleosculpture

Everything Dinosaur reports that a traveling sculpture based on the brachiosaurid Ultrasauros is such a big hit at its current stop in Portsmouth that local citizens hope to convince the artists to bring it back to Portsmouth permanently. As Everything Dinosaur points out, Ultrasauros isn't considered valid anymore. But that seems to be part of the point of the sculpture, as reported by Culture 24. "By mistake, bones from brachiosaurus and supersaurus were put together to create the colossal Ultrasauros. Now the species is as redundant as the car industry in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." That last bit refers to the fact that Luna Park, as the sculpture is officially named, is made of old Yugo parts.

Here's a wonderfully meandering video made by Aspex Gallery, covering the opening reception from earlier this month.

Heather and Ivan Morison - Luna Park, 1 August 2010 from Aspex Gallery on Vimeo.

I don't know if Portsmouth will be able to obtain the statue permanently, but if not, I hope they don't give up. If it makes sense monetarily and there's enough popular desire, why not erect a paleosculpture of their own? With the University of Portsmouth so close, a giant pterosaur would be a natural fit. There are a few rather knowledgable individuals in the area, after all.

I couldn't help but apply this line of thinking to my local area in southern Indiana. I'd bet a lot of locals would love it if we had some paleosculptures of our own, something relevant to its natural history. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't complain if someone put up a big Triceratops. But it would be more fitting to pay tribute to the Cenozoic bestiary of Indiana, maybe with a big statue of Arctodus simus, the Giant Short-Faced Bear. Or going deeper, pulling inspiration from the Mississippian bedrock that created the local community via limestone quarries. How cool would it be to walk through a "forest" of giant crinoids? Most people would have a first impression that they were just odd, abstract sculptures. Then they'd learn the truth of how strange and wonderful the history of the local area is. And their lives would be changed... forever.

As a neat aside, the creators of the Ultrasauros are also behind an incredibly cool sculpture at Tatton Estate Park in the midlands, a fantastical "house" made of two conjoined domes called I am so sorry. Goodbye. I would definitely link to my own photos of it, but I am mysteriously unable to access Flickr from work.

As a second neat aside, while I was underwhelmed by the dinosaur t-shirts available at the Field Museum during my recent visit, I got a killer one featuring the Short-Faced Bear. Plus: Wearing a black t-shirt with a stark white skeletal reconstruction on it makes you feel like a bad ass. Minus: Jennie has decided that a great nickname for me is "___-faced Bear." You know, like "Sad-Faced Bear" or "Sleepy-Faced Bear."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Valeska Maria Populoh

From the 2009 children's book Dinosaur Name Poems:

4. Parasaurolophus&Sarolophus

The book's illustrator is Valeska Maria Populoh, a multidisciplinary artist based in Baltimore who also teaches at MICA. More here and here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Reopening the Boneyard!

Some good news! I'm pleased to announce that Brian Switek has given me his blessing to resume the Boneyard Blog Carnival, which he began just over three years ago in his pre-ScienceBlog days. I've gone through a good portion of the archives. If you're not familiar with the Boneyard, or the concept of blog carnivals, a quick click on that link will bring you up to speed. Basically, it's a fun way to share recent posts around the paleo/ natural history blog community. The blog carnival happened before I was hip to the existence of said community, and I can see why there's a desire to bring it back. I'm sure it will be just as much fun as before. The writing accompanying the links is sometimes just as fun as the links themselves.

Here's the thing: I will need some help spreading the word about this. I'd love to get a broad selection of blogs contributing to the Boneyard. Scratch that. The Boneyard needs that kind of participation. Otherwise, it's just a link roundup. So, those of you who are bloggers, spread the word to other bloggers. Just because I write one doesn't mean that I'm looking for only dinosaur blogs, naturally. Any topic of natural history is fair game. It's all the same thing, after all, and it's the only way all of these disparate sciences have any meaning. So please, spread the word via blogs, email, tweets, snorts, chirps, burps, morse code, comic strips, or cryptic haikus written on bathroom walls. Run into Uncle Horace, who you haven't seen in a few years? Tell him about the Boneyard. Tag boxcars. Let's get a good group of bloggers sending in posts, veterans and newer voices.

The secret here is the revolving host model. It's what keeps things fresh, as new folks host each month. Ideally, this exposes the blogs listed in each Boneyard to new readers, and incites new bloggers to contribute. I'll go ahead and kick things off, and I invite anyone willing and able to host the next one. I will be setting up a blog dedicated to "Boneyard 2.0," which will serve the same function as the one Brian used in the past. Probably an email addy, as well. I'll announce the final details and call for submissions when I get everything sorted.

Important: This will be a trial run at first. If there isn't a decent level of interest, I think we'll have to accept that it's not meant to be, and move on to other ways of helping the community grow. Once, in a conversation at a party, a dude told me that something I said would be "a great community-building exercise." It seemed a little wack-a-doodle, but here I am. Suggesting the same thing. Let's get our bone on.

Whoa, that was unfortunate. Better move on to a couple ofther networking items:

I haven't yet been able to dig into Pipes, or research any other aggregators. It was an idea floated in the comments of this recent post, a way to package posts of relevant blogs. I'm not sure when I will have an opportunity to really figure this out - I'm putting together grad school apps and finishing some freelance design work right now, so time is precious. If anyone wants to pursue it, please go right ahead! Another big project I need to tackle is going back through the last year of posts and retagging them. I've only recently realized how valuable tags can be when used correctly. I haven't used them correctly.

In other news, as a way to better locate like-minded folks on Twitter, I've also started a Paleontology page at Twibes.com. If you're not familiar with Twibes, it's a site that allows tweeters to find each other, which can be difficult on Twitter itself. I joined the Science Communication twibe, which seems pretty active and well-populated, and when I saw there was nothing related to paleontology, I figured it was worth a shot. We'll see how it goes. There are probably other similar sites, but it can be exhausting, wading through the SEO marketing lingo. I'll be sure to mention if I find anything else of use.

Please head to the Boneyard's dedicated site for updated and information on how to pitch in.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Opisthotonus Argument

The Annals of Medical History published an article by Dr. Roy Moodie in 1918 entitled Studies in Paleopathology. He wrote of a condition called opisthotonus (alternatively, opisthotonos), which is when muscle spasms cause the neck and spinal column to hyperextend into an arched position, observed in many dinosaur skeletons.
Opisthotonos and the allied phenomena, pleurothotonos and emprosthotonos, are quite frequently seen among fossil vertebrates. It has been suggested elsewhere that these attitudes represent possible cerebrospinal infections or other neurotoxic conditions, and they must be considered in connection with the study of disease among fossil animals. The skeleton of the small dinosaur, Struthiomimus altus, described by Osborn, shows a very well-developed condition of opisthotonos, with the head thrown sharply back, the tail strongly flexed, and the toes contracted and appressed. The whole attitude strongly suggests a spastic distress, possibly brought on by some form of poisoning of the central nervous system, from infection or the deglutition of some poisonous substance.
The fossil Moodie referred to, a nearly complete specimen from Alberta described by Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History.

Moodie's idea, while not embraced by many scientists, was still around in 1968, when W.H. McMenemy referred to "the wretched Struthiomimus altus that perished in opisthotonos in the humid epoch of the giant saurians" in his review of the book Diseases in Antiquity. The more widely accepted explanation for what caused the skeleton of this dinosaur to constrict like this this was taphonomy, not pathology: it was believed that rigor mortis caused the muscles of the neck and back to tighten, pulling head and tail together.

Then, in 2007, paleontologists Cynthia Marshall Faux and Kevin Padian published a paper supporting Moodie's view. After studying rigor mortis in extant creatures, including horses and red-tailed hawks, they saw no evidence that it would have caused the opisthotonic position in so many dinosaurs. Instead, they proposed that the posture might occur at the time of death, the result of poisoning, perhaps by volcanic gas released at the time of an eruption. Then, a fast burial preserved the animals' last moments of agony. If you want to kill a bunch of things and bury them quickly, volcanoes are a great way to make it happen.

There hasn't been much done on this since the paper was published three years ago. A page at the university of Bristol refers to it in an overview of the exquisitely preserved Jehol Biota, bringing up the good point that Faux and Padian's explanation requires rapid burial, and that isn't necessarily the case with some dinosaurs found in the opisthotonic position -- notably, the famed Archaeopteryx specimens of Solnhofen which lived near a shallow lagoon in Germany and evidently did not receive a quick post mortem interment.

I'm also intrigued by what Kenneth Turnbull, a self-described amateur paleontologist who also has owned an ostrich ranch, had to say on the subject. He had an interesting comment on the expansive Laelaps post on this topic. He describes a phenomenon that is neither due to a problem with the nervous system or rigor mortis.

When ostriches die, the opisthotonos position is “normal” in about 90+ percent of natural deaths – disease, illness, impaction, starvation, etc. It is not an “agonizing death”, it is a very peaceful death. The birds first go into their normal “sleeping” position; and as they get closer to death the neck goes into the extreme “curled” position while they are still alive. They drop into unconsciousness many hours (12 to 24?) before death; but retaining this position...
Considering how similar in form Struthiomimus was to ostriches, this seems like an interesting place to look - they're separated by a wide gulf of time and came upon their similar body plans independently, but it's not totally implausible that this could effect both of them. If it hasn't happened yet, hopefully someone will take him up on his offer to provide access to ostriches for this purpose.

Can't get enough paleopathology? Read about an interesting study from last year that linked lesions found on a number of Tyrannosaurus rex mandibles to a disease similar to Trichimonas, which infects modern birds, primarily raptors.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Hudson Tuttle

In his 1860 book Arcana of Nature, Hudson Tuttle writes of the origin of elephants:
The origin of the pachyderms can be traced to the dinosaur of the oolite and wealden. In this line of progress first we have the fish saurian, then the true saurian, next saurians advancing to the pachydermic mammals, and lastly true pachyderms even before we leave the age remarkable for its reptilian types.
This post will stretch the typical scope of Vintage Dinosaur Art posts, but once I saw Tuttle's naive renderings of the Mesozoic evolution of elephants, I knew I had to share them.

From the top, he draws an evolutionary path from fish to icthyosaurs to whale-like reptiles to terrestrial carnivores and herbivores to the elephant-like "pachydermoid saurian." This last creature would then lead to the true elephants, according to Tuttle's suppositions. The whale-like reptile in Tuttle's sequence was Sir Richard Owen's Cetiosaurus; TH Huxley would later realize that it was a sauropod. When dealing with contemporarily known dinosaurs, Tuttle states that Iguanodon - then believed to be a barrel-bodied quadruped - was the progenitor of today's iguanas.

Hudson Tuttle didn't claim authorship of this work. Rather, he believed that he was merely acting as a scribe for "communicators" from the spiritual realm. An early adherent of Spiritualism, he believed that mediums could access the spirit world to tap into the wisdom of the deceased.

So what was he doing writing about evolution? While Tuttle claimed that he began writing the Arcana of Nature a few years before Darwin's On the Origin of Species, ideas of evolution had been percolating for a long time.

Evolution would have appealed to Tuttle: the son of a strict Unitarian, he chafed under the harder aspects of Christianity. The less dogmatic ideas of Spiritualism appealed to him immediately, and soon after his first seance, he came to believe that he was a seer himself. The Occultism and Parapsychology Encyclopedia says that he believed his spirtual influences to be, among others, Lamarck and von Humboldt. All of this with supposedly being an ignorant farmboy from the woods of northern Ohio.

Tuttle is a fairly obscure figure, and from what I can tell, little has been done to probe into his claims with a skeptical eye. My guess is that he wasn't as ignorant as he claimed. Or maybe he had a (figurative) ghost writer. I'd love to dig into his claims further, especially because Darwin cites one of his writings in The Descent of Man. This is the way it's been lately: every post I write forks off into multiple paths I'd love to explore further. It's hard to decide between them.

Which is why I've decided to actively seek out a wealthy benefactor. If any of you has $60,000 or so you'd like to pay me yearly to write this blog, I'm not too proud to accept it. Hit me at the email address in the sidebar if interested. Serious inquiries only!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Dinosaurs and Fate

Last week, I wrote a bit about late 19th Century attitudes toward dinosaurs, citing a few examples from the popular press that demonstrated that at the notion of dynamic, active dinosaurs was generally considered reasonable. But it was a quick scan of magazines and journals archived at Google books, and questions remained that could only be resolved with further reading. Just how popular were dinosaurs? How many experts were there? There were some major players in paleontology, such as Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, T.H. Huxley, Joseph Leidy, and Sir Richard Owen, as well as lesser known disciples. But it was a small field. Today, we have many more scientists who specialize in dinosaurs. They appear in documentaries, write pop-sci books, and write blogs. We're used to paleontology making headlines. For better or worse.

As it happens, I've been reading The Bonehunters' Revenge by David Rains Wallace. It's a thorough accounting of Cope and Marsh's Bone Wars, a fierce rivalry over access to the fossils of the American West during the last quarter century or so of the 1800's. I intend to write a review of the book in general when I'm done, but Chapter 10, Dinosaurs and Fate, has much to say on the rivals' influence on popular notions of dinosaurs.

Top to Bottom: OC Marsh and ED Cope. Both portraits from wikimedia commons.

Cope and Marsh, gifted paleontologists both, discovered and named such Mesozoic celebrities as Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus, Camarasaurus, and Triceratops. But they weren't necessarily thorough when it came to dinosaurs. Their respective collectors were shipping so many dinosaur bones to the professors back east that they simply didn't have time to study them in depth. In a startling example, Wallace explains that Cope didn't even open the boxes containing a nearly complete Allosaurus from the generous bone beds at Wyoming's Como Bluff, and it fell to his protege Henry Fairfield Osborn to study it after Cope's death.

In all, Wallace paints a picture of a society that didn't pay dinosaurs much heed. Marsh's true claim to fame was his important work on horse and bird evolution. Wallace describes combing the two biggest New York papers for coverage of dinosaur discoveries, "as mind-numbing... as combing dirt for bones," and in the end he found scant mention of dinosaurs. He also calls out Robert Bakker as being a bit too enthusiastic in his accounting of the popular impact of Como Bluff discoveries of 1877. The Como Bluff digs were bitter and hard-fought, a low point in the Bone Wars, and Wallace found that public reaction mirrored this aspect of the science rather than the spectacular nature of the dinosaurs coming out of the ground. Dinosaurs weren't selling newspapers.

The myth of a dinosaurian Golden Age during the Gilded Age is pretty well punctured by Wallace. As captivating as it can be, resurrecting bizarre lost worlds is not paleontology's highest mission; that lies in reconstructing the evolutionary history of life on Earth. The dinosaurs Cope and Marsh squabbled over contributed little to the study of evolution in its early years; they were overshadowed greatly by finds like Marsh's Hesperornis and Eohippus. The dinosaurs were regarded as oddities that had little bearing on the living world. Wallace makes the case that those ideas that credited dinosaurs with the active lifestyles we're used to today weren't terribly prominent, and it's not surprising that they were subsumed by ideas more amenable to western culture in the 20th century: groaning, dim-witted monsters well-deserving of their extinction.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Mosasaur's Tail

If you're ever on the game show Jeopardy and your Daily Double requires you to identify an anguilliform swimmer, you would do well to answer, "What is an eel, Alex?". Eels, with their broad, ribbon-like tails, get around by undulating most of their body. During the Mesozoic, a very different group of animals navigated the seas in a similar fashion: many of the aquatic lizards called mosasaurs.

A new study of a remarkably complete specimen of the mosasaur Platecarpus tympaniticus has found that it employed a different form of locomotion. An international team of researchers led by Johan Lindgren of Lund University has published a paper at PLoS ONE about the specimen called LACM 128319, which preserves much of its skeleton, scale impressions, and even traces of its internal organs and retina.

By comparing the measurements of its caudal vertebrae, Lindgren et al. determined that the tail of Platecarpus was hypocercal, meaning that it was divided in two lobes with a longer lower half. Platecarpus' tail identifies it as a carangiform swimmer, meaning that much less of its body would have flexed to provide propulsion. This has important implications for the kind of hunter it would have been: anguilliform swimmers like eels are very flexible, but it comes at the expense of speed. The fastest swimmers, like tuna, employ what's called thunniform locomotion: their bodies are very stiff, with only their big, crescent-shaped tail fins moving to provide propulsion. Platecarpus existed in the middle of this spectrum, so it was probably a relatively fast swimmer, the better to catch the fish it fed on. Also adding to its speed, its scales were smaller than the most primitive mosasaurs, a feature which stiffened its body and decreased drag.

New restoration of Platecarpus by Dimitri Bodanov, showing hypocercal tail fin. From wikimedia commons.

The member of the mosasaur family that exhibits the most refined traits for living in the water, the 40 foot giant Plotosaurus, was also a carangiform swimmer. Its scales, also known from fossil impressions, were even smaller than those of Platecarpus. Living in the middle of the mosasaurs' span on Earth and tens of millions of years before Plotosaurus, Platecarpus can be considered yet another "transitional" form to tuck in your back pocket for those times when you're called upon to defend the honor of evolution.

Without applying the outdated "ladder of progress" model to evolution, it is fair to say that evolutionary lines can have a progressive "arc" as time goes on. It makes sense that when competition for resources is stiff, bodies respond by adapting for greater efficiency. Using what they observed in Platecarpus, Lindberg et al. compared mosasaurs to other lines of secondarily aquatic animals, including cetacean mammals, marine crocodiles, and icthyosaurs. They found that the basic streamlined body plan, flipper-like limbs, and carangiform locomotion evolved consistently within the first ten million years after these groups' first appearance in the fossil record. Living in water places unique constraints on vertebrate's bodies, and it makes a lot of sense that similar body plans would evolve independently in different animals. There's just no better way to make a living as a big marine predator

If you're interested in the mesozoic sea monsters, one of the most comprehensive resources is Mike Everhart's Oceans of Kansas website. It includes an 1899 description of a Platecarpus fossil written by Charles Sternberg, a collector who got his start working for Edward Drinker Cope.

One last thing: If Sue, Leonardo, and Lyuba deserve cute nicknames, LACM 128319 is equally deserving. But I haven't come across one. Any brilliant ideas?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Getting Over TriceraFAIL

Illo by Homie Bear, via Flickr.

The world-devouring juggernaut that is TriceraFAIL continues to wreak its singularly depressing breed of havoc. Check out this weird piece from the Chicago Tribune. Or this one, from yet another clueless tech site with easily provoked commenters. Like ducks and bunnies on a carnival midway, the mistakes and lazy inaccuracies tick by, begging to be shot down.

TriceraFAIL isn't simply about sloppy, bandwagon-jumping reporters. It's a viral phenomenon, too. It appeals to some strong impulses. There's the distrust of science. There's nostalgia. There's the goofin' around factor. I don't blame the folks who start "Save our Triceratops" campaigns. In a strange way, it's comforting. People still have emotional attachments to these long-dead animals. That's cool! It's unfortunate that their actions have been inspired by crappy reporting, but at least they care.

Despite the debilitating rage I feel when I read another TriceraFAIL story, I think I've finally convinced myself that really, it's not that big a deal. I'm done feeling the need to respond to them. Science has plenty of problems with the media, and this isn't a particularly interesting one; I mean, it has to do with nomenclatural rules. No one who seriously wants to tell science stories thinks that naming standards or cladistics are going to ignite anyone's passion for science (anyone lining up for the first issue of Willi Hennig Adventure Comics?). And that's fine. Part of the challenge of writing about science is figuring out what needs to be communicated. I believe strongly in the elegance of simplicity, and if you look at those moments that nature made the biggest impact on you, I'd wager that most of them were pretty simple. The same goes for learning scientific concepts. That's why Don Herbert is so fondly remembered.

TriceraFAIL is a failure of science reporting, which is bad enough. Worse, it's a failure of science storytelling. It's a lack of imagination. It's being too bored to do more than a perfunctory scan of the source material.

If you're looking for another beacon of light in this TriceraFAIL mess, I have a suggestion. George Hrab deals with the Scannella/ Horner Triceratops paper on the latest episode of his Geologic Podcast, thankfully not misinterpreting the paper or freaking out about it. Instead, he sees it as a sterling example of science's ability to adapt as facts become clearer. There may be an odd little issue here and there - for example, I've heard nothing about the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature ruling on the matter - but such things are easier to forgive in this case. Hrab saw precisely what is wonderful about this story, and didn't get derailed by screams of misguided protest.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Classing Up the Joint, Mesozoically

There is no classier way to show your love of dinosaurs than to put this on your walls.

I mean, I am not a wallpaper person. I've had to remove too much of it to ever want to put it on a wall. But that's just too terrific not to at least consider.

These are classy, too. From the maker of the raptor cufflinks previously posted here is this set of T. rex cufflinks.

Clearly, wearing these communicates to the world that the wearer is a person of distinction. But putting wallpaper up shows real commitment. Someone walks into your house and sees dinosaurs on your walls, they think, "That's dedication. This person is unabashed in their love for dinosaurs, and I respect that."

Thanks to LITC craft blogosphere correspondent Jennie for letting me know these exist!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mesozoic Blogosphere

The last month or so has seen my Google Reader swell with new writers who I hadn't read before, due to the Pepsigate fiasco and my renewed interest in Twitter. One of the most insightful voices is Bora Zivkovic, who writes thoughtful pieces on the craft of writing about science. Because of the huge amount of new material, it's also become a lot harder to keep up with things, so I just today was able to read Bora's 7/27 piece on the future of online science writing in the wake of the ScienceBlogs downsizing. He writes that...
...as the Scienceblogs.com network was huge, and hugely visible, and hugely respected, and hugely watched by MSM, all those wonderful science blogs outside the network were essentially invisible, living in the shadow of Sb and hoping we’d link to them sometimes (which we tried to do often, but that is not enough). It is like in the Mesozoic – all those tiny little shrew-like mammals hiding in underground burrows and foraging for seeds at night, being unable to spread into any other niches because the big, dangerous dinosaurs are roaming around the land.
He goes on to liken Pepsico's Food Frontiers blog to the Chixculub impact. Brilliant. More optimistically, he compares the remaining writers at ScienceBlogs to birds, who after all survived the K-Pg extinction that killed the other dinosaurs and thrived in novel ways.

Of course, all this talk of the "archipelago" of science blog networks (rather than the Pangaea of the old ScienceBlogs) has caused me to think about what being on a blog network would be like. I know that I'm not in the same class as the SciBlings, but I think that I'm one of many dedicated amateurs who care about science, love writing about it, want to improve, and want to find a larger audience. My goal is to be able to dedicate a hefty chunk of my professional life to science communication, both through writing and graphic design.

I'd love to be part of a paleontology/ natural history/ evolution themed blog network. Anyone want to talk about starting one? Or can anyone suggest an existing one I might fit into? I do try to keep abreast of new developments in the science writing community online, but like I mentioned above: it's daunting. I invite anyone who wants to brainstorm this to holler my way.

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Otokar Stafl

A simple post this week, for an oddball of a piece. This illustration, by Otokar Stafl, comes from a 1931 Czech children's title called Naměsíc a ještě dál. This translates to Naměsíc and beyond, according to Google Translate. Or, more likely Farther Than The Moon, according to the blog Curious Expeditions, who shared the book a few years ago. The book is full of cool illustrations, and seems to deal with a party of explorer-insects.

For some reason, it includes this page depicting a scene from the Mesozoic, with a Nazgul-like pterosaur, a plesiosauresque sea monster, and a positively charming theropod.

I have no idea why there is a picture of dinosaurs in this book
Image from Curious Expeditions, via flickr.

Perhaps, as Curious Expeditions guesses, the insects have traveled back in time. Or maybe they've discovered a planet of dinosaurs. Regardless, I'm glad they went where they went and shared this with the rest of us. Hopefully they were intrigued enough to write a sequel fully devoted to dinosaurs. Anyone familiar with old Czech children's books know if that might have happened?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dicynodonts, The Other White Meat

Two Triassic-themed posts in as many days. I know, it's a bit unsettling. I'll let you pick up your hats before continuing, as reading one's blogs without wearing one's hat is traditionally considered inadvisable.

Dicynodonts are endearingly ugly therapsids, that group sometimes called the mammal-like reptiles. These barrel-shaped, stoutly built critters had a good run between the Permian and Triassic periods; in the late Triassic they were the main competitors that early dinosaur herbivores would have to deal with. A couple of new papers look at the other side of dicynodont life in the late Triassic. Feeding traces in the form of bite marks on dicynodont bones from Poland were described in the journal Palaios last month. Another new study in the journal Lethaia, also examining Polish fossils, finds that early theropods weren't above a nice dicynodont fillet for dinner. Matching the dentition of local theropods, these are some of the earliest carnivorous dinosaur feeding traces yet.

Lystrosaurus georgi by Dimitri Bogdanov. From wikimedia commons.

Dicynodonts survived the massive extinction event at the end of the Permian, but just barely, with only two families continuing on into the Triassic. One group, the lystrosaurs, became extremely successful, dominating much of the southern hemisphere. There have been many theories seeking to explain why these few lucky dicynodonts were able to survive, and another recent paper - there have been several on dicynodonts this year - has determined that this could be because the survivors had much faster growth rates than their P-T boundary contemporaries. The Lethaia feeding traces paper mentioned above proposes that the general increase in size of dicynodonts during the Triassic was likely due to the intensifying threat of predatory dinosaurs. Had the mysterious extinction event that ended the Jurassic not happened, dicynodont competition may have constricted the evolution of the sauropod giants.

There's one pesky asterisk attached to the dicynodont timeline: Australia, that evergreen bastion of biological misfits, seems to have been home to a tenacious dicynodont that hung on until the early Cretaceous period. That's more an a hundred million years after the dicynodonts were supposed to have died. The authors of the 2003 Royal Society paper describing it invoke a famous modern analog, writing that it's "an example of a Lazarus taxon even more impressive than the extant coelacanth Latimeria, which was discovered only ca. 65 Myr after the supposed Late Cretaceous extinction of crossopterygian fishes."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Cheerio, Chromogisaurus

Paleontologist Martin Ezcurra, who has been pretty prolific lately, has just published a description of a new Argentinian dinosaur, Chromogisaurus novasi, in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology. Additionally, Ezcurra takes on the issue of diversity among the earliest dinosaurs.

Cânion de la Peña
A canyon in the Ischigualasto region of Argentina. By Richard E. Ducker, via Flickr.

Chromogisaurus comes from the Ischigualasto geological formation of Argentina, one of the world's most important windows into the Triassic period. The Triassic is the first of the three periods that make up the Mesozoic era, a time when life on the supercontinent Pangaea was evolving in new directions in the wake of the devastating extinction event that closed the Permian period. One of those new directions was the dinosaurs, and Ischigualasto is one of the best areas to look into those early days of a biological dynasty that would last the better part of 200 million years.

We're talking about the lowest branches of the dinosaur family tree here. Chromogisaurus and its closest kin, including Saturnalia, Guaibasaurus, and Panphagia, were the very beginnings of the line that would lead to Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, and the other titanic sauropods. Called sauropodomorphs, they display a mix of features between true sauropods and the theropods with whom they shared a common ancestor. As is suggested by the generic name Panphagia ("eater of everything"), these critters were so closely related to the earliest theropods that they likely were omnivorous. The skull of Chromogisaurus has not been found, but it's not too great a stretch to guess that it probably was, too. Omnivory wasn't a path the basal sauropods walked for long, and it would be their adaptation to a fully herbivorous diet that would lead to their exponential increase in size.

What's frustrating about the Triassic fossil record concerning dinosaurs is that when they first pop up - during a subdivision called the Carnian stage, about 230 million years ago - the three main branches of dinosaurs are present. We simply do not have many good places where the earlier stages of the Triassic are available for study, and none of them reveal earlier dinosaurs. There are plenty of near-dinosaur archosaurs, and it's a fool's errand to try to find "the first dinosaur," as it is to find the mythical "missing link" between man and ape. Life is a fuzzy thing. So we keep looking for new fossils that give a higher resolution picture of how life changed over time, when certain adaptations arose.

Ezcurra's analysis of the diversity of these earliest dinosaurs indicates that it was quite high, though these dinosaurs made up a small fraction of land vertebrates. This may mean that once the essential elements came together to form the most basic dinosaur body plan, they diversified rather quickly. Carnivorous theropods (Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus) and omnivorous ancestors of sauropods (Chromogisaurus and kin) and ornithischians (Pisanosaurus) took little time to evolve vital adaptations allowing them to live alongside lesser-known but still fascinating beasts like the crurotarsans and near-dinosaur archosaurs, and greatly diversify when another great extinction event cleared the stage for them at the beginning of the Jurassic.

The Triassic is one area I feel like I've neglected in the first year of this blog, owing in part to my loose grasp of it. I intend to write more on it. One of the best places for Triassic news is Bill Parker's Chinleana blog. I get such a large number of hits from Bill that I'd feel silly not mentioning it here. Triassic Life on Land, a book throughly documenting the era, was recently released; check out Brian Switek's review here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Leaping Laelaps, Indeed

In Friday's Vintage Dinosaur Art post on Charles R. Knight, I couldn't resist including his famous painting of E.D. Cope's theropod Laelaps, (which his bitter rival O.C. Marsh would rename Dryptosaurus in 1877 when it was discovered that a mite had the name Laelaps first). This sparked a conversation in the comments about the general reputation of large theropods in the late 19th century. In the early 20th century, the "ladder of progress" idea of evolution came into vogue and the dinosaurs became exemplars of evolutionary failure: beasts too stupid and ponderous to survive the mammalian apocalypse.

But it wasn't always like that; I knew Knight's painting reflected the view of the theropod as a dynamic, active predator and I wanted to dig into some literature and find where this began. It's not a completely thorough review of every mention of Laelaps, but I think I've dipped into enough from the era to give a good impression of just how dynamic a predatory dinosaur was thought to be. One quick note: I'll use both Dryptosaurus and Laelaps in this post, the former when discussing the modern knowledge about it, the latter when referring to it in a historical context.

As noted in the previous post and its comments, Knight was not an artist who did his own research, as Gregory S. Paul does today. Knight followed the most contemporary knowledge of the paleontological community and his individual patrons, which in this case was Cope. Indeed, in an early account of his work in The American Naturalist, Cope himself would invoke a modern analog when discussing Laelaps when he wrote that the long legs of the dinosaur...
...joined with the massive tail points to a semi erect position like that of the Kangaroos while the lightness and strength of the great femur and tibia are altogether appropriate to great powers of leaping.
Hardwicke's Science-Gossip, a short-lived 19th century pop-sci magazine, echoed this in an 1891 story and added a bit of gory detail:
The Laelaps was forty feet long, stood twenty-five feet high on its hindlegs, and was built like a kangaroo. It was the most astonishing jumper that ever existed, with teeth for cutting and sharp claws on the front feet, evidently designed for tearing out its adversary's eyes.
Taking it even further, Sir John William Dawson wrote a colorful passage on Laelaps in his 1873 pop-sci book The Story of Earth and Man, culminating with this image:
Had we seen the eagle clawed Laelaps rushing on his prey; throwing his huge bulk perhaps thirty feet through the air, and crushing to the earth under his gigantic talons some feebler Hadrosaur, we should have shudderingly preferred the companionship of modern wolves and tigers to that of those savage and gigantic monsters of the Mesozoic.
Dawson accorded Laelaps an even higher standing than mammals, a comparison that would be considered a bit absurd once dinosaurs fell from grace. Even today, when theropods are generally considered to be the "peers" of today's dynamic mammalian predators, few paleontologists would conjure the image of a large one leaping thirty feet.

A more modern look at Dryptosaurus, the artist formerly known as Laelaps. By Frederik Spindler, via Wikimedia Commons.

We now understand Dryptosaurus to be a primitive throwback compared to its more advanced tyrannosaur contemporaries; while the best known Late Cretaceous North American tyrannosaurs are from the west, Dryptosaurus lived on the other side of the Western Interior seaway that split the continent in two, on a land mass called Appalachia. Unlike its western counterpart Laramidia, we have precious few geological windows into this time in the eastern US. Dryptosaurus is an intriguing critter. Why did it preserve more primitive tyrannosaur features? What was its environment like? The Earth's geological processes have unfortunately hidden many of these answers from us, then made the region attractive to human settlement, limiting our access to Mesozoic rock further.

I can't end this without contrasting the taxonomic change of Laelaps to Dryptosaurus with Torosaurus being possibly absorbed into Triceratops. While Scannella and Horner have their work cut out for them if their lumping of the two genera is to be accepted, at least they don't have to deal with the level of rancor that existed between Marsh and Cope. After all, renaming a species because its name is already taken is pretty cut-and-dry, and requires little evidence to justify: just show that it's been given to an organism in the scientific literature, and the matter is settled. But notice that a couple decades after Marsh reassigned it to Dryptosaurus, Knight still chose Cope's original Laelaps for his title.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Is Triceratops a Damsel In Distress?

Golden Triceratops

"The Triceratops May Not Be A Real Dinosaur," reads one headline, currently on the first page of Google results for Triceratops.

"The Triceratops Never Existed, It Was Actually a Young Version Of Another Dinosaur," says Gizmodo.

"The Three-Horned Dinosaur Triceratops Never Existed, Say Scientists," reads another.

A Boing Boing post, while not nearly as bad, also expresses confusion over the issue, with a predictably depressing comments section.

A facebook page called Save the Triceratops has also been set up. Part of the page description reads, "science wants to take away the Triceratops with its recent findings that suppose that the three horned beast never existed." It's also on Buzzfeed. The Facebook page has gained five followers in the last twenty minutes, as I write this. Clearly, this has struck a chord. (Update: After I commented on the Facebook page, the moderator sent the word out that it's all good. At least one subsequent commenter believes that the page succeeded.)

It's understandable. Triceratops is friggin' awesome. People love Triceratops. They love saying Triceratops. They love the funny way their children mispronounce Triceratops. I love all of it, too. I like the name Brontosaurus more than the name Apatosaurus. The thought of Triceratops being an invalid name is not cool to me. I wouldn't like it.

The really good news: Triceratops is safe.

Sometimes, especially in paleontology, a single species might be given two different names. This may have happened with Triceratops and a larger, similar animal called Torosaurus. When they were originally discovered, described, and named, scientists had good reason to believe they were different. But we progress, we learn more, we develop new ways of studying fossils. Science is a self-correcting process. Paleontologists John Scannella and John Horner studied many fossils of both dinosaurs and determined that the evidence heavily favored that Torosaurus is a more fully-grown version of Triceratops. When these issues are found precedence is given to the first name. Triceratops was first, therefore it's not in danger of being stricken from usage. For more on this issue, I suggest the thorough post at Dinosaur Tracking.

This mess is another reminder of just how much of paleontology is alien to most people. Not that I needed another reminder. There aren't many shining examples of nuanced portrayals of scientists in the media. Too often, they're either doddering boobs so obsessed with minutia that they're divorced from the reality they're supposed to explore, or they are rigidly deductive and cold to the point of amorality.

Are there scientists who fit those stereotypes? Probably a few. There are cops, teachers, and plumbers who probably do, too. Scientists are regular human beings. They've pursued specialized education, sure. They use jargon while debating ideas with peers, naturally. They approach their work with a high degree of skepticism and critical thinking, ideally. And none of this means that they're not emotional, passionate, messy people like everyone else. They have families and pets. They like certain foods more than others. They play video games. They worry about money. They're capable of mercy and kindness and rudeness and anger. On top of all this, they've devoted their lives to ordering the natural world for the benefit of our entire species. It's not an easy job, and it's not fun to clean up messes created in the early days of a discipline, when rules, processes, and standards were still being sorted out. So when you read a story about scientists debating a change in classification - like the Pluto thing - cut them some slack.