Sunday, October 31, 2010

Noodle Beasts!

My friend Joey, cartoonist behind the always delightful Monster Island, tipped me off to this post at Monster World, featuring some wonderful stop-motion commercials for Japanese noodles. The style reminds me of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Here's the pterodactyl one. Click over for Uintatherium, giant cephalopods, and more.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mesozoic Miscellany #4

We're certainly ripe for another roundup, as I skipped a week. Let's hop to.

The new edition of The Boneyard comes out next Tuesday, November 2 at Other Branch. If you write about paleontology at your blog, submitting to the carnival can only help! Just email them to me. Or leave a comment here or at the Boneyard blog. Or hire a skywriter. Emailing is easier.

Also, a couple more days left for that Art Evolved pink dinosaur fundraiser! Whip one up, send it in, feel rill rill good about it. You can also donate directly at this page.

WitmerLab's Pick & Scalpel blog shared some of their paleocentric jack o' lanterns.

Koreanosaurus, a new burrowing basal ornithopod, was described last week. Read about it at DinoGoss.

Project Dryptosaurus has unveiled a brand new website.

David Attenborough is one of my favorite science communicators, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Saurian discussed the news of his new series, First Life.

SVP recaps are still rolling in, including this one at Paleo Dude.

At Dinosaur Tracking, Brian Switek wrote a great post looking at a new paper studying the early evolution of birds.

At The Dragon's Tales, Will Baird discussed a study looking at whether higher levels of oxygen really could have been the reason for giant insects like the famous Meganeura.

The platypus eggs Dave Hone posted at Archosaur Musings are certainly SFW, but when I first looked at the post, I kind of felt like there was something NSFW about them, and hurriedly closed the page.

Twit Picks
Stuff I've tweeted recently...

I Effing Love Dinosaurs shared this terrific shot of some Halloweeners at a bus stop, including a confused Velociraptor.

Photo by Barry Farquharson, via flickr.

Paleoart of the Week
John Conway is the man. Here's a great illustration of a Tarbosaurus about to snag himself some tasty Gallimimus for lunch, from his DeviantArt account.

Outrageously Off-Topic Indulgence
I've got some buddies who release tons of great music. If you want to hear what living the dream sounds like, pop over to Crossroads of America Records and listen to their current mix. You'll probably like something you hear, and if you don't, write me an angry email and I'll reply with something hilarious. Something along the lines of "SO SUE ME!" Also, I designed their logo. I do that sort of thing.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Going Postal

Funny story: I accidentally had this post scheduled for 11 AM instead of saved as a draft, and it went up prematurely. Apologies to anyone who saw it in its unfinished state. Such a blog foul. Especially after posting a strident rant about image citation.

Anyhow. I wanted to share some of the ways the world's postal services have honored our Mesozoic heroes. In January, I posted about a set of my own dinosaur stamps, issued by Sinclair Oil.

Poland postage stamp: brontosaurus
This one was shared by Karen Horton and illustrated by Andrzej Heidrich. I think I love the vegetation as much as Bronto.

This one, shared by Andre Jenny, blows my mind a little bit, if only because it kind of looks like his Diplodocus is in blackface. I'm not quite ready for the idea of racist dinosaurs, but if it's true... extinction was just what they deserved.

Jenny also shared this one from the Central African republic. A family of Mokole Mbembes?

The Age Of Reptiles
Here's one based on the famous Rudolph Zallinger mural, shared by Kenny Harrelson. I'm a sucker for engravings.


Finally, here's a Hungarian stamp from Chad Kellogg. I'd love a big, framed version of this for my home, if only because I'm enchanted by the reclining theropod in the background, pondering his place in the cosmos. Classic.

A Diplodocus-sized pet peeve

Edward Gay
Photo of Edward Gay from the Smithsonian Institution, via Flickr.

Glendon Mellow has taken image citation as his cause, and has posted another rant about it. I totally concur with him, and left a comment to that effect. I felt that it warranted a post here to further flesh out my thoughts on this.

Let's say you have a hobby. You want to do it well. You want to be respected among your peers. Let's say that it's restoring automobiles. Would you be satisfied with giving a car a pretty exterior while its engine is unreliable? Would you settle for a car that you wouldn't trust with children as its passengers? I imagine that you would strive to make it a trustworthy machine.

Writing a blog hardly carries the same dangers as building a street-legal car, but I think that it carries the same responsibility for professionalism. Especially writing a science blog. If you're writing a science blog, you're doing it to be part of a larger conversation. You're looking to share discoveries, to broaden your mind, to state your opinion and have it critiqued and to do the same to the opinions of others. You're probably going to need images. You probably won't be creating them all yourself. You'll rely on the work of artists, photographers, graphic designers, and archivists to illustrate your points. In other words, you'll be collaborating. Your collaborators deserve credit for their role in making your posts more impactful. It's even likely that your interest in science has been inspired by images as much as by prose.

As a science blogger, you're a member of the media. You may not like to admit this. You may not have even considered it before. But it's true. You owe it to your fellow bloggers to represent this segment of the media in a responsible way. I'm not calling for science bloggers to all write in the same style, or to constrain their attitude. The only ground rules I'd even offer are: 1) check your facts; and 2) cite your images.

Sorry. There's no excuse not to. So I'm going to make a better effort to bring this up when I see posts that haven't cited their images. It's not to be mean or to be the blog police. It's because I care about this form and want to see its quality raised steadily so its critics have less to gripe about.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Boneyard 2.3 is on its way!

Just a quick note to remind all of you bloggers out there that the Boneyard 2.3 will be going up on Tuesday, November 2 at Other Branch. Submissions have been coming in, but we need more! Even if your blog isn't strictly about fossils, you can submit any relevant posts, written at any time. Head over to The Boneyard's official page to get more details and see the nifty new banner. Badge coming as soon as I can finish it, promise!

Extant Theropod Appreciation #3: The Black-capped Chickadee

I'll probably always associate the varied whistles, chirps, burbles, and especially the somewhat harsh "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" call of the Black-capped Chickadee with my current backyard: there's something about it that pairs perfectly with the white pines that loom over the other trees around the perimeter. While it's been one of my favorite birds since I was a kid with an old field guide and a few bird feeders, it's this setting that seems to be the small songbird's perfect stage.

Photo by Greg Wagner, via Flickr.

Theropods just don't get much cuter than this. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site lists some pretty incredible facts about this common visitor to bird feeders, especially regarding their cunning little brains. Take this one:
The Black-capped Chickadee hides seeds and other food items to eat later. Each item is placed in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.
Or this one:
Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.
Pretty awesome, and there's more where that come from.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Holly Jones Wall Art

Children's bedrooms are no longer the drab, oatmeal-and-dishwater colored jail cells that they were back in the '80s when I grew up. Nowadays, the loving parent can delight child's imagination and sense of adventure with all kinds of gimmicky furniture, licensed character bed linens, and wall art. Take, for example, this cool dinosaur wall art by Holly Jones, which is worth a few hundred hugs, I'd wager.

dinosaur wall art

Seriously! If you're not the huggin' type - and no judgment here if you're not - this will get you off the hook for a few years at least.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Currie on Brown

Canadian paleontologist Phillip Currie has been in the news lately, what with the Albertosaurus issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences and his recent induction into the Alberta Order of Excellence. Now, he's been interviewed by CBC radio science program Quirks and Quarks.

Juicy news flash: Barnum Brown had a dinosaur foot fetish! It was news to me, though a contact at the American Museum of Natural History let me know that it's an "open secret" in the paleontological community, providing the following evidence: A valentine given to colleagues by Brown, with a winking acknowledgment of his strange fascination.

Barnum Brown Valentine

You learn something new every day. Hat tip to Ben Creisler on the Dinosaur Mailing List for letting us know about this. Also, here's Brown's University of Kansas yearbook portrait.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Dinosaur in Bloomington

Sitting as it does on Mississippian bedrock, Bloomington, Indiana doesn't lay claim to any dinosaurs. But that hasn't stopped our children's museum, Wonderlab, from scaring the bejeesus out of kids with one.

T Rex at Wonderlab Science Museum
Photo by George Lenard, via flickr.

When you stand directly beneath its open jaws with their battery of wicked gnashing teeth, this T. rex measures your height and reports it to you. When Jennie and I took our niece there a couple years ago, she was terrified by it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Gishosaurs

I rarely deal with creationism outright on this blog, but I couldn't resist taking a look at today's entry in the Vintage Dinosaur Art series: Dinosaurs by Design by Duane T. Gish, illustrated by Earl and Bonita Snellenberger. The title was shared on Flickr by Michael Barton, who also covered it on his fanflippintastic blog The Dispersal of Darwin. When Michael ran across this title at a secondhand store in the midst of shopping for books for his young son, he did the world a favor by taking at least this one copy out of circulation.

'Dinosaurs by Design' by Duane T. Gish

The artwork itself isn't half bad, veering more towards the cartoonish end of the illustration spectrum. Dispensing with the work done during the first half of the dinosaur renaissance, the dinosaurs are all depicted as scaly, thoroughly reptilian creatures (unless you count birds as dinosaurs). As Gish's ideas are cartoons themselves, this approach is altogether fitting. For instance, the following page reveals the "deep, dark secret" that scientists don't have any pterosaur ancestors as evidence of evolution's wrongy-wrongness. The mascot of this is a sort of half-dinosaur, half-pterosaur bastard of a Wuzzle. I hesitate to use the word "guarantee," especially in a science like paleontology, but I guaran-damn-tee that the lineage leading to the pterosaurs didn't concoct anything like this Mesozoic straw man. Gish's house is probably populated by a great horde of straw men. He's probably never lonely.

'Dinosaurs by Design' by Duane T. Gish

Maybe we'll never find a nice lineage of proto-pterosaurs (if that sort of thing is your bag, I'll point you in the direction of Mr. Ed). This could be for many reasons. Maybe they evolved in upland areas where fossilization was rare. Who knows? No one ever will if we just stop looking. But rest assured that the theory of evolution does not rest on the thin hope of finding every extinct creature.

Next we have a dromaeosaur who, considering the fall of Man, has taken up carnivory. Interesting how one person's choice can lead to such widespread gustatory upheaval. Here, she munches on a gazelle bone as a Biblical version of Muldoon walks by in the background, unaware. Clever girl, indeed.
'Dinosaurs by Design' by Duane T. Gish

The book also deals with the Great Flood, AKA the Dinosaur Killer. The geological evidence against this doesn't simply make more sense. It's laughably overwhelming. It's like arguing that beef makes a better burger than cabbage. The flood is a perfect example of an idea that's so wrong it's not even wrong. Mind you, the foundations of the modern science of geology were laid by scientists who were firm Christians. This isn't some atheist fairy tale; it's a body of knowledge built by rigorous minds impartially weighing and arguing the evidence. In this way, science forges robust theories of how nature works. People aren't perfect, so science can't be, either. But it's a remarkably dextrous way of describing the world, constantly open to revision to fit observations made possible by new technology. The constant back and forth of science, cherry-picked by creationists as evidence of discord or corruption is a strength of science, not a weakness.
'Dinosaurs by Design' by Duane T. Gish

'Dinosaurs by Design' by Duane T. Gish

I hope you're prepared for the next one, because it is absolutely freakin' awesome. Last year's Discovery Channel series Clash of the Dinosaurs briefly discusses the unsupported idea that lambeosaurine hadrosaurs like Parasaurolophus might have used subsonic waves to deter predators. A wild hypothesis, to be sure, but nothing compared to Gish's flame-throwing Parasaurolophus.

'Dinosaurs by Design' by Duane T. Gish

Gish gussies it up with sciency phrases like "defense mechanism," and compares this to the chemical weaponry of bombardier beetles. Full speed ahead and damn plausibility! Gish writes:
God has given many animals living today very specialized and effective defense capabilities that have nothing to do with teeth or claws. If the fossil skeletons of a skunk, porcupine, or electric eel were dug up by a scientist who had never seen a living animal, would he have any idea that these animals had unique defense mechanisms?
Ah, yes. Parasaurolophus breathed fire because... there's no evidence for it. How else are we to read this? Parsimony, Duane.*

Gish is the master of a debating tactic which has come to be known by his name: the Gish Gallop. Using this technique, creationist debaters spit out such a flurry of nonsense mixed with jargony words and Biblical references that the opponent realizes that it's an impossible task to answer them all, and thus appears to be hammered by truth. The reason this works is that science wears restraints that creationism doesn't: facts. Science can't just adhere to attractive ideas. It has to examine them critically and build a body of knowledge out of repeatable observations and logical deductions. It's not perfect, but science holds itself accountable. The creationist isn't so shackled.

This is how ideas like the fire-breathing Parasaurolophus pop up. Creationist debaters know that science delivers the goods, and has earned, generally speaking, a good reputation. Thus, as they attempt to derail science, they try to sound as much like it as possible. If you're going to say that Leviathan was a dinosaur, fine. Just say it was T. rex, the one your audience is guaranteed to know about, and be done with it. It's just as likely as Parasaurolophus, whose nasal ornamentation offers no additional support for such an absurd "defense mechanism."

In other words, admit that you've made a choice to set aside a scientific worldview (less charitably, to believe in magic) and stop forcing dinosaurs to play this ridiculous role of shoring up your mythology.


* Regarding porcupines: in the right conditions, it is fully plausible that porcupine quills would be recorded in the fossil record, which we know is so much more than bones and claws. Advances in technology have opened up all kinds of exciting new avenues of inquiry. Granted, this book was written before the avalanche of feathered dinosaurs came out of China - you know, those supposedly imaginary "transitional forms" between small theropods and birds.

Update: Check out the comments below to links for the Stupid Dinosaur Lies posts on this title and others. Also added excerpt from the book on Michael Barton's kind suggestion.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Stony Fauna of the Crystal Palace

Ever since Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' dinosaur sculptures were unveiled at the Crystal Palace in 1854, they've inspired artists and photographers. This was the premiere of the great fallen saurians in the public consciousness. I never get tired of reading about them, and I figured I'd share some of my favorite Crystal Palace images I've come across.

The Crystal Palace itself was a temporary structure originally erected at Hyde Park in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. I'm really into the evolving print arts of the Victorian era, and when laying the groundwork for a book cover I was working on recently, I found the following wallpaper design created for the exhibition, shared at Flickr by National Archives UK. you can tell that it's a wallpaper design by the way the very tippy-top of the gateway pops up at the bottom of the image.
Wall to Wall Crystal Palace

Mary Linley - the Flickr account of Dulwich OnView, I believe - has also shared a series of old Crystal Palace imagery which was exhibited at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in 2004. Here's a lithograph by Joseph Nash depicting the exhibition's opening with Queen Victoria presiding.
Joseph Nash, The Opening of the Crystal Palace by Queen Victoria, June 10th 1854, Private Collection

After the exhibition was over, the palace was moved and rebuilt at Sydenham Hill in south London, and this was when the dinosaurs were created. This lithograph, credited only to "Baxter," wisely uses a happy Victorian couple to show the scale of Hawkins' creations. You can see the mythology of dinosaurs beginning to form here.Baxter extinct dinasaurs

This painting by James Harding gives a good idea of how the grounds were laid out once the palace was moved.
James Harding, Bird's Eye View, inscribed the Crystal Pa (1)

The dinosaurs thankfully still stand, having survived the obsolescence of their forms and years of neglect. they were restored in 2002, and anyone who sets foot in the park with a camera inevitably finds it pointed in their direction. I'm glad they've made it this far and haven't been destroyed and replaced by more modern versions (not that anyone would spend the money to do that). They're a valuable memento of the earliest days of dinosaur paleontology, the product of a world just being changed by industrial technology and about to be changed for good by the theory of evolution. Hawkins' Megalosaurus, photographed here by Pete Reed, seems to gloat in satisfaction for having survived the erosive powers of weather and public opinion for so long.
Dinosaurs, Crystal Palace

I'll wrap this up with my favorite photos of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, these shots by Christopher Hope-Fitch. They were taken in the early morning as the sun came up, unable to break completely through the chilly mist, evoking the primordial world that was the sculptures' inspiration.
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs 3

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs 2

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs 1

For more on Hawkins' Iguanodons, check out my recent Vintage Dinosaur Art post on the subject.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Misanthropic dinosaur enthusiast

I saw this bumper sticker the other day here in Bloomington.

Misanthropic dinosaur enthusiast

So the question is: Misanthrope or champion of the underdog? Does this person want the raptors to eat Grant, Sattler, and the children or defeat the T. rex who so rudely interrupts their fun? My money's on the former. It's a Grand Am driver, after all.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Potatosaurus dulcis

I'm such a huge sweet potato fan that to see this versatile foodstuff combined with my white-hot passion for dinosaurs sends me over the moon. It's the work of Vanessa Dualib.

Potatosaurus Dulcis

I'm not the great beast's sole predator, of course. Also eternally on the prowl for its earthy sweetness is this terrifying dude.

The feared C-Rex!

For more food sculptures, check out this set on her photostream.

Since I just discovered that Hulu offers episodes of Good Eats, my favorite TV food program I'll get a little Alton Brown on y'all. The sweet potato, native to tropical South America, provides yet another example of pre-Columbian travel to and from the Americas. From Wikipedia, citation links preserved:
Sweet potato has been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 AD, and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia circa 700 AD, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back, and spread across Polynesia to Hawaii and New Zealand from there.[3] It is possible however, that South Americans brought it to the Pacific. The theory that the plant could spread by floating seeds across the ocean is not supported by evidence. Another point is that the sweet potato in Polynesia is the cultivated Ipomoea batatas, which is generally spread by vine cuttings, and not by seeds.[4]
I'm so hungry.

Monday, October 18, 2010

An International Supergroup of Dinosaur Experts

If you've got an hour, and getting up to speed on dinosaur basics is something you want to do, I heartily recommend the latest Enlightenment podcast from The 21st Floor, a Scottish website dedicated to science and skepticism. The episode brings together an international supergroup of experts who each tackle one aspect of the dinosaur story, from the Triassic origins with Jeff Martz, to theropods and birds by Tom Holtz, ornithischians by Suzie Maidment, sauropods with Jerry Harris, and sauropod vertebrae pneumaticity with Mike Taylor.

Good job to everyone involved. It's really well done! I'm a podcast junkie, and any time paleo topics are covered in detail is a treat. Unfortunately, that usually only occurs when there's a big new story, and generally is aimed at folks with a very general level of knowledge of dinosaurs. An hour of dinosaur talk from experts really hit the spot. Hone was also a guest on an episode of the same podcast in May, located right here. Be warned: the audio is pretty dodgy on this one.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Robert Ayton

This week's title, shared with the Vintage Dinosaur Art pool by Sharon Wegner-Larson, is Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals by Graham Wellfare, with illustrations by Robert Ayton. Ayton is an other veteran illustrator; his focus for most of his career seems to have mainly been on non-fiction titles, with some fairy tales tossed in for good measure. He's particularly known for his work with Ladybird, a British publisher of childrens' titles.

Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals

Published in the late seventies, the title does reflect some dinosaur renaissance ideas, for instance the theropod origin of birds. But much of the artwork is still rooted in the classic portrayals of dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals, pg 44-45

Oddly enough considering the upright posture in the last image, this page of scale drawings portrays Tyrannosaurus as walking with the correct posture.
Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals, inside of back cover

No old dinosaur book is complete without a few Charles R. Knight homages, and here's a very Knightish Protoceratops. Not a shameless tracing as so many artists were gulity of, but clearly based on Knight's famous Protoceratops painting for the Field Museum.
Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals, pg 42-43

And of course, our friends the pterosaurs get their time in the spotlight, and if you click the image to get a larger view, you'll read that the book held with the view that pterosaurs were primarily gliders, and idea that gave way to our modern view of pterosaurs as achieving true powered flight.
Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals, pg 30-31

This next illustration of a mounted "Brontosaurus" made little bells go off in my head. Check out the cover of this Peter Zallinger book. Same angle, same pose! I suspect that both are based off of an actual mount somewhere - anyone know where? This one also looks similar - though from a different angle, it's holding its neck stiff like the other two. (See comments for the ID!)
Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals, pg 15

Ayton's nephew has written a biography of him, which is available at Big thanks to Sharon for sharing these with the pool!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mesozoic Miscellany #3

The big event this week was the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's annual meeting, held in Pittsburgh. Plenty of bloggers wrote posts about the event, so today's roundup will consist largely of these posts.

With his usual excellence and attention to detail, Brian Switek provides thorough coverage at Dinosaur Tracking, Laelaps (now part of Wired's science network), and on Twitter (@Laelaps). In particular, I strongly recommend reading his Laelaps post entitled Plugging into SVP. Though it's a passion of mine, I find it tricky to write about science communication here. It's an issue of balance: I suspect that plenty of readers who love reading about new research in paleontology and its history don't necessarily want to read about how those things are written about. But one thing I'm confident in is that no matter your interest, you find value in blogs, and Brian's post touches on the issue of the reputation of the blogging community - to journalists, to scientists, and to the public. This is where readers come in. You all are the reason we do this, and we recognize how important you are to raising awareness that many bloggers are principled writers who share ideas in a vital new way.

David Tana came through in the clutch as well, and more than any other blogger, made me regret not being able to attend. He began his SVP series at Superoceras with an eloquent post about traveling to the event through Appalachia, and filed daily reports from there.

The perennially entertaining Jeff Martz wrote a piece chock-full of advice for younger paleontologists who find it hard to draw the attention of veterans in the field. His advice: selfishness without douchebaggery.

University of Missouri's Holliday Lab, The Prep Lounge, and Saurian also offered posts on the meeting.

National Fossil Day also happened on Wednesday, and I wrote a bit about it at Under Indiana. I'm working on a post about my personal Fossil Day festivities, which was a lecture by Indiana University paleontologist P. David Polly at the Monroe County History Center.

Paleoart of the Week
I'm always impressed by the sculpts done by Eduardo Moreno, who goes by the handle Epoxirex on Flickr. Here's a WIP of Coahuilaceratops. I'd also like it noted that I spelled Coahuilaceratops correctly in one try, without looking it up.
coahuilaceratops magnacuerna escultura

Twit Picks
Stuff I've tweeted in the last week or so:
  • The geology of Rumeli Hisar at Mountain Beltway. Check out the historical trace fossil of a dog pawprint in a brick!
  • DonorsChoose Drive for Earth and Ocean Science Education
  • Photographers: what's so awful about allowing embed code for your Flickr photos? Free publicity? Automatic links to your stream?
  • 169 years of sauropod research in 26 pages « Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week
Dinosaurs? Fuck Yes! featured some nifty Romanian aspirin advertisements that hinge on the idea that what really caused the end Mesozoic extinction was a rather nasty strain of the common cold.

Outrageously Off-topic Indulgence

George Hrab is the man. Give his Geologic Podcast a shot.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Extant Theropod Appreciation #2: The Gray Catbird

LOST AT SEA - Grey Catbird
Photo by Kevin Morrison, via flickr. This bird stopped on a cruise ship while migrating over the Gulf of Mexico.

One day four or five years ago, my wife and I were doing one of our occasional landscaping projects on the meager scrap of land which was ours to work as condominium owners. It was an all-day project - building a small walkway of limestone that would make walking along the slope into the sinkhole behind the condo easier. As I built the retaining wall that held it up, a small gray songbird made a circuit between the roof of the condo, a small maple tree in the common area adjacent to the building, and spots unseen. Every so often it would stop at the roof, fly to the maple tree, sing or call, and fly away. I'd never seen it before, but I was surprised by how much it sounded like a Mockingbird, another bird I got to know since moving to southern Indiana. Its other call, a feline-sounding mew, helped me identify it as a Gray Catbird. While its range covers my hometown in northwest Indiana, I never saw one until moving south.

Since then, it's become my favorite local bird. The house we bought two years ago is blessed with a sheltered backyard bordered by silver and sugar maple, pine, sassafras, mulberry, dogwood, redbud, a hemlock, and a redcedar, making for a perfect hangout for catbirds, which have an affinity for mixed growth areas. A mimid like the mockingbird and the Brown Thrasher, the catbird is a gregarious visitor. Its coloration is beautiful in its simplicity: slate gray with a black cap and rufous bit under the tail.

If you're wondering just how canny its call's resemblance to a feline could be, close your eyes after clicking play on the video below.

Pretty good imitation, huh? Heck of a good bird.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fossils for Profit

Yesterday, I wrote about a story questioning the identity of the small early Cretaceous tyrannosaur Raptorex, described about a year ago in Science by Paul Sereno. Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute is of the opinion that Raptorex is considerably younger geologically, and that it's a juvenile Tarbosaurus, having come from Mongolia instead of the Yixian formation of northern China as Sereno originally proposed.

Raptorex kreigsteini restoration copyright Matt Martyniuk. From Deviantart.

The reason this is in question at all is that Raptorex was collected by a private party, and the only evidence of its original locality is from the testimony of fossil dealers and collectors and interpretation of the matrix in which the bones were preserved. As Ville Sinkkonen pointed out to me in the comments, the evidence for this locality is not a slam dunk.. When I wrote that the paper isn't "wishy washy" about the fossil's origin, I was referring to the fact that it puts one out there, including approximate longitude and latitude. How strongly does Sereno stand by it, I wonder?

There's nothing Sereno et al can say to definitively place Raptorex in the lowest Yixian, because they didn't collect it. I respect Sereno's talents and see the tough spot he was placed in when he gained access to the fossil: should it be ignored? And I'm sure he tried his hardest to pin point where it came from. But we can't be sure, and it's a cloud over Raptorex's head. This is where new research needs to be trained; I'm certainly not schooled enough in paleoecology to be able to weigh the evidence myself. Is Raptorex a key insight into early Cretaceous tyrannosaur evolution? Or is it just a baby Tarbosaurus? I really hope we can find out one day.

Today, you may be aware, is National Fossil Day. I'm not going to go into it too much here, as I've already posted about its potential at Under Indiana. But as I wrote that post, I thought about what a perversion of science the fossils-for-profit market is, and it just does not add up (mind you, I'm mainly speaking of big, flashy fossils, and not things like crinoid fragments and shark teeth). For it to work, you need two parties. One, collectors who are wealthy enough to purchase showy fossils and, possibly, conversant enough in natural history to be aware of their significance. Two, you need the folks who know enough to find them, excavate them, identify them, prep them, and sell them.

Granted, this is simplified, but my main point is this: these people should know better. If you're educated enough in science to see the value of a fossil, you're educated enough to know that its value to science far outweighs its monetary value and whatever prestige one obtains by owning and displaying it. Once it's been ripped from the Earth and passed around, the scientific value is virtually nullified.

Someone might say, "What's the big deal? I just bought an Allosaurus! Science has plenty of those!" And we might, but technology continually improves, and because of that there may be new information to pull from the bones in the future. The vagaries of fossilization my have preserved some quirky feature of the Allosaurus in the foyer, but if it's off limits to science, it may never be found.

Would I love to have some gorgeous theropod mounted in my house? Sure. But to me at least, giving something valuable to science is immeasurably greater. To each his own, I guess.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Raptorex: When it Lived and Where it Lived

A little over a year ago, Paul Sereno made a splash when he published the description of Raptorex kreigsteini, the small tyrannosaurid that looks for all the world like a perfectly scaled down version of the giants of the late Cretaceous, complete with disproportionately small arms. But it was from the early Cretaceous, opening up interesting new paths of inquiry into the evolution of the iconic group.

Yesterday, NatureNews ran a story written by Zoë Corbyn focusing on the doubts of Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute. His concern: Raptorex is a juvenile Tarbosaurus. He steps around the objection that Raptorex is far to old, geologically, to be a young specimen of Tarbosaurus by proposing that Sereno had the age wrong. The NatureNews story says:
On the basis of two other fossils — a fish vertebra and a freshwater clam — found alongside the dinosaur fossil, the paper says that the specimen of Raptorex is of Chinese origin and about 125 million years old. But the evidence is too vague, given that the fish and clam fossils are widespread in time and geographic area...
You may recall that Raptorex was given its specific name to honor the father of the fossil collector who purchased the fossils and donated them to science. When Henry Kreigstein bought the bones from a dealer operating out of Japan, he was told that they came from an "unspecified location in northern China."

Sereno et al's Science report of a year ago is more specific than that, saying that it came from:
Approximately 41°20′N and 119°40′E, collected privately in the border area between Liaoning Province and the Nei Mongol Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.

The purported Raptorex locality, indicated by the marker. Image from Google Maps.

The rock it was found in is described like so:
Lujiatun Beds of the Yixian Formation, comprising a tuffaceous fluvial facies of the Jehol Group with its well-known Jehol Biota that includes the teleost Lycoptera and pelecypods, which were found in association with the holotypic skeleton. The matrix around the fossil is light green, massive, poorly sorted, tuffaceous, micaceous sandstone with fibrous gypsum. The light-colored, uncrushed bones were buried for the most part in articulation. The absence of laminated, fine-grained sediment or conchostracans characterizes the Lujiatun Beds of the Yixian Formation, dated to the late Early Cretaceous (Barremian-Aptian, ~125 Ma).
So, to translate: Sereno's paper puts forth that Raptorex lived at the earliest stage of the Jehol Biota, a famous Chinese ecosystem that has yielded a bunch of interesting animals. It was a river system that experienced periods of volcanic activity. The Raptorex fossils were discovered with fish and mollusks which are well-known part of that ecosystem. Raptorex was also articulated, meaning its bones were preserved in roughly in the same position they would have been when the animal died, and it was likely buried quickly. That Raptorex was buried in a river or stream, and not a calm body of water is evident in the structure of the rock surrounding the fossil, which isn't laminated, or finely layered, and lacks fossils of the ubiquitous crustaceans called conchostracans, which occur in still waters. This is consistent with the rock of the Lujiatun beds, our earliest window into the Jehol ecosystem.

Sereno's paper isn't wishy-washy on the subject of where Raptorex came from. (See comments below for more on this) Yet Corbyn writes, "Sereno says that the information he received from the various dealers stated that the fossil came from an unspecified location in northern China."

I have couple other problems with this story. First, it's not reporting a published research paper. It's reporting the fact that one guy, a tyrannosaur expert though he may be, doubts the identity of this dinosaur. Cool. Let's see a published paper about it. It also brings in University of Oslo paleontologist Jørn Hurum to back up Larson's claim, but his contribution amounts to "yeah, it looks like a baby Tarbosaurus skull to me." None of this addresses the fact that the skeleton of Raptorex exhibits signs of being that of a near-mature animal, and not a juvenile. A near-mature animal the size of a large dog. Tarbosaurus was just a smidge smaller than T. rex. If Raptorex is actually a young Tarbosaurus, it would have to go through the mother of all growth spurts right at the cusp of adulthood.

I don't really care if Raptorex isn't exactly what Sereno's paper purports it to be. It's an intriguing additon to the story of tyrannosaur evolution, but if it's been misinterpreted, so be it. No one's perfect. But we need a peer-reviewed paper to really evaluate Larson's ideas. We need a detailed analysis of the rock in which its fossils were preserved and another look at its osteology.

The fact that Kreigstein rescued Raptorex for science is commendable, but the fact that the fossil trade has muddied the origin of these fossils is, to put it mildly, yucky. I'll continue with this aspect of the story tomorrow. In the meantime, if I've gotten any part of this complicated story wrong here, be sure to correct me in the comments or by email.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Cracker Jacks have long stood atop the summit of snack food mountain, a proud sweet and salty sentinel attracting children with the very finest manufactured playthings that can fit inside a small, peanut-and-popcorn stuffed box. It's no surprise that the marketing whizzes at Cracker Jack chose tiny plastic dinosaurs for some of their prizes. The set was given the reference number F6300. It included such nuggets of prehistoric joy as the "Large Lizard," pictured with the selection below. Right next to his faithful friend, "square plated."

F6300 can be yours for nine measly little dollars. Considering that they were once given away for free and probably cost pennies to produce, that's an enormous bump in value over the last sixty years.

Now consider that this seller is unloading them for ten times less than their listed value in something called Mr. White's Unofficial Crack Jack Price Guide. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this. I can scarcely imagine a better investment.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Aliki Brandenberg

My Visit to the Dinosaurs

This week's title is My Visit to the Dinosaurs, written and illustrated by Aliki Brandenburg and published in 1969. Aliki is a long-time veteran of children's literature, born in 1929 to Greek parents. A good portion of her titles are science-themed, including one entitled simply Evolution that I'd love to find.

I'm glad that I got an original edition of this title, which was republished as a revised version in 1985, with replacement illustrations. Though they're nice, I love the limited color palette of this older version.


Aliki's choices for her illustrations will be familiar to anyone who likes mid-century dinosaur titles. Above, it's the now-considered-dubious Trachodon, who deserves the appelation "old chestnut" as much as any dinosaur, being the default duckbill used in popular titles for many years.

She also contributed to the long tradition of Knight mimics, with her own take on the "Ornitholestes lunging for Archaeopteryx" trope that I enjoy so much.


There's also the very ornithomimosaurish Oviraptor above, and guess what it's doing? Walking off with some dude's eggs. I'm not quite sure where Aliki came up with this radical, unique depiction of this behavior.* A wild flight of fancy, to be sure.

Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus

If you look at the title of this image at Flickr, you'll see that I took it upon myself to redesignate this Apatosaurus Amphicoelas brontodiplodocus.

Oddly enough, my favorites here don't even have dinosaurs as their focus. I get a mighty kick out of this shifty-eyed museum employee in the next image. Every museum needs at least one tricky fellow with a Rollie Fingers mustache lurking around. He's been replaced with a clean-shaven alternate in the revised version.

The Shifty Docent

This one, embellishing the author biography page, presumably depicts the author and her family, an affable bunch, as they stroll around the museum. Just a great piece of cartooning. I wonder if Aliki did all of her drawing as she walked around like this.

Aliki Brandenberg

Aliki returned to dinosaurs in the late eighties with the titles Dinosaur Bones, Dinosaurs are Different, and Digging Up Dinosaurs. That last title has an extensive preview available at this link. It incorporates post-renaissance ideas, except, strangely enough, for theropods. Tyrannosaurus stands tall and drags its tail.

More images from this book at the Vintage Dinosaur Art Flickr pool.

* Five demerits to the first commenter to explain the now-defunct egg-stealing reputation of Oviraptors to me. I'm serious. Five of them.

Mesozoic Miscellany #2

Time to tie a big red bow on another eventful week in the paleo blogododecahedron. Still experimenting with format for these posts, including a couple of new categories. Read on to find out what they are.

Steven Brussatte had a paper out this week with coauthors Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki and Richard J. Butler, describing three sets of Polish trackways that shed light on the earliest days of the dinosaurs and their antecedents. Will Baird, Brian Switek, and Ed Yong all wrote fine posts on it.

Matt Martyniuk brung big thunder with his thorough post on feather color. Must read.

Biconcave thunder double beam. That's the name proposed for a purported newsauropod species collected, prepared, and ultimately described by a private company. It just gets stranger from there, with a radical taxonomic proposal that would fold a bunch of diplodocids of the Morrison Formation into Cope's Amphicoelias. It's a shame that the described fossils, five very complete individuals interpreted to have been preserved in a death assemblage, are in private hands, and that their description wasn't peer-reviewed. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Besides the circumventing of the rules of scientific publication, the paper is pretty badly edited. The very first paragraph of the introduction includes this peach of a sentence: "These largest creatures ever to walk on land thrived for 150 million years, are the quintessential icons of things big and prehistoric." This is only a hint of major concerns with the paper, which Mike Taylor at SV-POW breaks down. UPDATE: A comment on the SV-POW post from one of the authors states that the paper is a draft and not intended to be a valid publication. Okay, fair enough. But I'd think a simple press release about the discovery and impending publication would have sufficed, and answered reporters' queries much more effectively than a 50 page, jargon-filled document that sure as heck looks like a research paper. Also, Christopher Taylor of Catalogue of Organisms writes about the issue.

An Allosaurus was sold, too.

Greg Paul's new book, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, is out, and the mixed reviews are popping up. Read what Jaime Headden, Mickey Mortimer, Brian Switek, and Anthony Maltese have to say. I'd love to get my phalanges on it, but it might have to wait for a gifty celebration of some sort.

And, of course, Boneyard 2.2!

Paleoart of the week
This section will be pretty easy to fill, but it will be tough to decide how to do it. There's so much good stuff being created. This week, I've picked Craig Dylke's great hot-pink Saurornithoides.

Image copyright Craig Dylke.

Why is it pink? Did Jakob Vinther find the secret of pink melanosomes? Or could there be a different explanation?

Twit Picks
A selection of stuff I've tweeted over the last week or so:
I don't follow a lot of Tumblr blogs, but I've made an effort to wade in and find some good science content. The Paleochick's Digs stands tall among paleo-tumblrs, combining the quick shots of humor Tumblr is good for with obvious scientific acumen. I loved this mash-up video she posted on Tuesday. Fits in perfectly with her ROFLpterosaur meme.

I'll be picking one or two highlights from Tumblr each week in this spot. If you're squeamish about the F-word, be forewarned. It happens at Tumblr a lot.

Outrageously Off Topic Item of the Week
If you have a fondness for the great outdoors, campfires, vintage outdoor products advertisements, good footwear, rare Ed Abbey photos and audio, camp recipes, and similar stuff, subscribe to the cracklin' good blog that goes by the name Cold Splinters.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Darren Naish publishes Tetrapod Zoology Vol. 1

Today, Darren Naish announced the publication of Tetrapod Zoology Volume One, a compilation of posts from his blog of the same name. Anyone who's poked around the science blog scene has likely run into his blog and found that Naish consistently delivers well-researched, very readable essays on a wide variety of animals. Naish writes,
Chapters that discuss the possibility of parasite control in Mesozoic birds and other feathered theropods, new ideas about compsognathids and tyrannosauroids, and the life appearance of the weird fossil seal Acrophoca should make the book interesting reading for those of you with palaeontological interests, while the several chapters on recently discovered living species should be required reading for those interested in cryptozoology.
One of the joys of reading TetZoo is that you never quite know what to expect - it could be an analysis of a cryptid claim, a series on an obscure line of extinct beasts, or a look at an odd anatomical feature on an animal you think you know. I hope he does well with this publication, because he certainly deserves an audience beyond the blogosphere. Buy here.