Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Visit with Two Domeheads

After Dr. Kraig Derstler's talk about comparative tyrannosaur taphonomy, I had the unexpected pleasure of viewing two nice fragments of pachycephalosaur domes. In the picture below, you'll see one from a Pachycephalosaurus - the large one on the left - and a Stygimoloch.

Cranial domes

Pachycephalosaurs are popularly known as the "dome-head" dinosaurs who likely used their dramatically thickened skulls for sexual competition.

Image from Orin Zebest, via Flickr.

Remarkably, the Pachycephalosaurus dome was discovered on the side of the road, somewhere in Montana. How many folks passed it by without realizing its value? Luckily, it wasn't some knucklehead looking for landscaping rock who picked up the skull, but it was Dr. Derstler. He had brought them along because the Children's Museum had arranged for them to be CT scanned at a local hospital.

My experience handling dinosaur fossils is sadly lacking, so it was a thrill to be able to take a close look at these. They are not complete skulls, and therefore may not be considered special by the layperson, or the jaded veteran of the field. But it was a rare pleasure to look at the exquisitely preserved internal structure of the bone, the contours and textures and varied colors. Here's a look at the surface of the Pachycephalosaurus dome, nicely displaying the outer covering. This is a very rare occurrence, as fragile structures like this are often lost before fossilization happens, or weathered away after the fossil is revealed by erosion.

Pachycephalosaurus dome

In cross section, more traces of the living tissue are revealed.

Pachycephalosaurus dome

Pachycephalosaurus dome

While not as spectacular as the Pachycephalosaurus dome, preserving less superficial detail, the Stygimoloch was still pretty nice.

Stygimoloch dome

Stygimoloch dome


Stygimoloch dome

I can't discuss these dinosaurs without mention of Dr. Jack Horner's idea that the fossils of Dracorex, Stygimoloch, and Pachycephlosaurus are all growth stages of the same species (the last of the three, that is). Derstler is, to put it mildly, unconvinced. He respects Horner, but thinks that in this case, he has not provided sufficient evidence for his conclusions. It's not a minority view in the paleontology community. Hopefully, Robert Bakker will soon publish descriptions of the fossils that will put Horner's idea to rest, as he's reported to hold.

For many more photos of these fossils, head over to my photo set at Flickr. Thanks to the folks at the Children's Museum and especially Dr. Derstler for allowing me to take these photos.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Kraig Derstler on the Comparative Taphonomy of Tyrannosaurs

Illustration by James Seward, from the Vintage Dinosaur Art Flickr pool.

A couple weekends ago, I had the chance to attend a lecture by University of New Orleans paleontologist Kraig Derstler at the Children's Museum. One of Derstler's primary interests over the years has been the study of what happens to bones between the death of an animal and fossilization, a field of study called taphonomy. He got his start with invertebrates, and has done plenty of work dealing with the Western Interior Seaway. But on this November Saturday, Dr. Derstler's talk dealt specifically with his work comparing tyrannosaur fossils.

His inquiry in this area is an example of how sometimes a research path a scientist starts down veers in unpredictable directions. When he began, he wanted to know why paleontologists have turned up so many fine tyrannosaur fossils, and expected to come to some new insights. A basic tenet of ecology is that big predators are rare, sitting atop a pyramid made of stacked "trophic levels," each one representing a group of organisms that survives by eating the level below it. You can safely assume that in a given environment, you'll have lot more green leafy plants than deer, and a lot more deer than cougars.

Dr. Derstler's conclusion was that tyrannosaurs simply weren't rare, at least not as rare as common knowledge maintains. He used the Nemegt formation of Mongolia as an example. It's produced many bones of the big tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus. This bounty can't be explained by a predator trap, as the bones occur over a wide area and over a long period of time. For some reason, tyrannosaurs were abundant predators who hung out in places that were good for creating fossils. While the abundance of different species of dinosaurs in Montana did decrease dramatically towards the end of the Cretaceous, the overall number of animals was still pretty high, but they represented fewer species. This doesn't exactly overturn the trophic pyramid, but rather suggests that if there were a lot of big tyrannosaurs, there was an awful lot of prey for them. Herds of Triceratops, Edmontosaurus, and Parasaurolophus would certainly make for good snacking.

Dr. Derstler spoke about some of the tyrannosaurs he studied, and his description of a famous specimen called Peck's Rex was particularly vivid. One of the most disputed fossils of the modern era of paleontology, it had been through six separate dig teams and had even been partially mounted by the time Dr. Derstler came in to complete excavation. The animal had died in an oxbow lake that was so putrid, it couldn't support any life. The big tyrannosaur's carcass rotted away, fouling the lake further, apparently protected from scavengers. Its bones were scattered about the lake, chipped, and degraded. By the time it was fossilized, the only bones still articulated as they had been in life were a few vertebrae of the tail.

This was the case for the other tyrannosaurs he talked about, partial remains with pitted, damaged, nasty bones. Dr. Derstler believes that the reason so many tyrannosaur fossils have made it to us over millions of years is twofold. First, they're robust, tough bones. They do take a beating from the environment, but their size makes them more likely to stick around long enough to be fossilized. Second, they're popular and profitable dinosaurs to have on display, so a lot more money goes into their excavation and preparation, giving the impression that they're better preserved than they are.

Derstler said that this is the way research often goes. When he began, he had hoped to reach some new insight about how tyrannosaurs were fossilized. What he ended up with was a lot of data that bore no trends, offered no opportunity to generalize about the fossils. These were just big animals with tough bones.

Besides discussing his work in tyrannosaur taphonomy, Dr. Derstler also touched on the subject of hadrosaur "mummies," of which he's been able to study 73 specimens. Because of the way dried out hunks of "dino-jerky" hold bones together, his opinion is that many of the most complete skeletons of other dinosaurs began "life" as mummies as well. He also lamented missed opportunities, as with the T. rex nicknamed "Pete," an unremarkable specimen he excavated in 1992 that he believed may have been very special if it had been found a hundred years earlier. Dr. Derstler's research concluded that around that time, three different fossil hunting expeditions teams led by the Sternbergs, by Barnum Brown, all came tantalizingly close to Pete, stopping just short of him. By the time the specimen was found, the elements had their way with it, reducing what may have been a special fossil to an unexceptional one.

I'm grateful to Josh Estes of the Children's Museum for giving me the chance to attend the lecture. I don't often get to listen to working scientists discuss their research, and even though Dr. Derstler didn't blow apart every preconceived notion I held, he yielded plenty of insight into the ongoing story of life as revealed by paleontology. Seriously, it's nice just to sit and listen to an expert discuss dinosaurs for an hour. Even moments that may seem mundane to the speaker, asides added only for levity, can add nuance to our understanding of paleontology. Heck, even chatting with fellow attendees and Dr. Derstler after the talk was a rare and stimulating experience. Even though they had nothing to do with the talk itself, I was especially captivated by a couple of fossils Dr. Derstler brought along. I think I'll save those for my next post.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Epic Facebook Category Fail...

...unless you're a tyrannosaur!

Facebook Chasmosaurus page
See for yourself here. And remember, LITC is on Facebook, too.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mesozoic Miscellany #8


The ART Evolved crew announced their final tally for the Pink Dinosaurs benefit: $556, beating their goal of $500! Great job to everyone who contributed, and to the AE folks for havin g such an inspired idea.

Dave Hone's interview with Mark Witton is chock-full of great imagery and plenty of insight into his process and inspiration. For more Witton, check out my own interview with him, from February of this year. Hone also posted an interview with megasuperstar Michael Skrepkick this week.

Saurian featured a review of Scott Sampson's Dinosaur Odyssey.

Brian Switek broke down the two new iguanadontians, Hippodraco and Iguanacolossus, at Dinosaur Tracking, as did Andy Farke at the Open Source Paleontologist.

Some jokester used dinosaurs to poke fun at vegans on a bulletin board.

At Other Branch, Ian wrote about William Stout's Dinosaur Discoveries.

Twit Picks
Stuff I've tweeted in the last week or so, (in a not-particularly-active week of tweeting):
I Effing Love Dinosaurs featured this cool illustration by Chris Thornley.
Thesaurus Rex

Paleoart of the Week
So, I was having a tough time figuring this one out this week. So I bounced around Flickr for a while and landed on Mark Witton's photostream. I clicked on the "pterosaurs" set, and this is the one that my niece, Molly, picked out. Maybe a reminder of the day's Thanksgiving feast?
You're the reason I'm leaving

Outrageously Off-Topic Indulgence
Seems like I normally use this to direct you to a musical artist I particularly enjoy. I'll try to switch it up a little here by encouraging you to listen to the cheeky fellows at the Merseyside Skeptical Society on their podcasts Skeptics with a K and Inkredulous. Just a delight.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs' Thanksgiving

Dinosaur's Thanksgiving

This week's title is, fittingly enough, Dinosaurs' Thanksgiving, one of Liza Donnelly's seven dinosaur titles. Donnelly is a veteran cartoonist whose work is familiar to New Yorker readers for its expressive simplicity.

Dinosaurs' Thanksgiving

What's important about titles like this one is that they express the simpler joys of our relationship with dinosaurs. You can't always grouse about the number of digits on tyrannosaurs' hands, after all. Still, one of the cool things about Donnelly's books is that she includes some ot the usually overlooked dinosaurs, like Hypsilophodon.

Dinosaurs' Thanksgiving

I have a couple more of these on hand, and I'll be posting them in the future (you may be seeing one pop up in a month or so). I love the colors, the greenish-yellows, the varied oranges complimented by pinks and blues, as well as the delight Donnelly takes in her simplified dinosaur shapes.

Dinosaurs' Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Extant Theropod Appreciation #4: The Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey
Photo by Ashok Khosla, via Flickr.

Yes, I've already declared my love for Meleagris gallopavo here. But in the USA, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which is also known as "Turkey Day," so it's only fitting that I do so again. It is, as far as I know, the closest we come to a day honoring a bird. Heck, it's the closest we come to honoring any specific organism at all, with the exception of grandparents' day, mother's day and their ilk, which authorities agree are a bunch of bullshit Hallmark holidays. Not so for Turkey Day, which has a proper parade, special decorations, and traditional feast.

I used to think that Benjamin Franklin's endorsement of the turkey as the USA's national bird over the bald eagle was more legend than truth, but this is not the case. Indeed, he put it in writing.

...the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours; the first of the species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and served up at the wedding table of Charles the Ninth. He is, besides (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that), a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm-yard with a red coat on.
I agree. I mean, look at this face. What's not to love?

Wild Turkey
Photo by Kelly Burnham, via Flickr.

The turkey also played a larger role in the progress of technology than the bald eagle ever did, for Franklin's favorite bird was also one of his test subjects. To wit, letter from one of his colleagues to the Royal Society, excerpted from his Life and Writings:

He made first several experiments on fowls, and found, that two large thin glass jars gilt, holding each about six gallons, were sufficient, when fully charged, to kill common hens outright; but the turkeys, though thrown into violent convulsions, and then lying as dead for some minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an hour. However, having added three other such to the former two, though not fully charged, he killed a turkey of about ten pounds weight, and believes that they would have killed a much larger. He conceited, as himself says, that the birds killed in this manner eat uncommonly tender.

So, for an "uncommonly tender" bird, skip the foolhardy deep-frying rig you've set up and electrocute it yourself.

Finally, here's a Norman Rockwell painting I photoshopped last year. Figured I'd roll it out again.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Interview with paleoartist Matt Tames

The Children's Museum visit has been a gift that just keeps on giving, so I'll have some "appendices" which go along with the weeklong series of a couple weeks ago. It's the beginning, I hope, of a beautiful relationship.

Beginning his own relationship with the Children's Museum as an intern, Matt Tames went on to contribute artwork to the "Dragons Unearthed" exhibit, fancifully mixing paintings of dragons with those of dinosaurs. I asked Matt about his fascination with dinosaurs as well as his other interests and projects. He recently relocated from Indiana to Massachusetts. To see more of his work, I recommend you visit the sites he's set up for his freelance business, little BIG Illustrations and little BIG Pet Portraits. You can also follow him at Flickr. All images in this post are his property, of course.

Follow the Leader

When you were young, were you a kid who drew dinosaurs? Do you remember if you could distinguish dinosaurs as having been real animals rather than imaginary creatures?

When I was a kid I drew dinosaurs all the time, to the point where my parent got tired of me drawing dinosaurs. I knew the names of many dinosaurs when I was little, and I would read as much as I could about them. I always drew my dinosaurs as active animals, when I was little I didn't like the idea of T. rex walking down its prey, so I would draw it running or jumping.

How did you get involved with the Children's Museum? Had you been doing dragon artwork already or was it something you did just for them?

After I graduated IU I got an internship at the Museum. I was the Dino art and design intern. I would look at the interactive activities they had in the Dinosphere and try to work on new, engaging games for guests to play with. I created several activity diagrams and illustrations for the Museum to use. While I was an intern, Josh [Estes] and a few others saw my artwork and asked if I would like to do some contract artwork for the Museum after my internship ended. For several years I would come to the Dinosphere and create paleo art for guests to see and ask questions about. When the Museum got Dracorex, they approached me because they where in the process of swapping out some of the paleo art in the gallery and they wanted some artwork that would illustrate the connection between dragons and dinosaurs. I usually like to have some dinosaur influeces in my dragons to help ground them into reality. I had been drawing dragons almost as long as I have dinosaurs, and still do a lot of fantastical illustrations.

Kids and their Dragon

Do you have any favorite paleoartists, or particular pieces of artwork that inspire you?

I have always been a fan of Mark Hallett, Doug Henderson, Michael Skrepnick, and James Gurney. Mark Hallett was one of the first paleoartists I read about. I remember when I was little checking out the Zoobooks magazine on dinosaurs and gawking at all the illustrations he did for that issue. I didn't really discover Michael Skrepnick until I started working at the Museum. There I discovered all the hidden messages he put in some of his illustrations. He does some of the best sky's I've seen and his dinosaurs are very impressive. Doug Henderson's pastel paintings are amazing, his use of color is out of this world. I really like James Gurney's illustrative style, it reminds me of Rockwell. His Dinotopia series is very cool, and filled with some of the best paleo art out there.

Did you get a chance to visit museums when you were young? What kind of impression did they make on you, if so?

I always loved visiting zoos and museums. They were my favorite parts of summer vacations. We would frequent the Children's Museum, but also go to the Chicago Field Museum. I remember the first time I saw Sue the T. rex at the Field Museum, it was pretty awesome seeing her.

Can you talk a bit about your pet portrait business? Do you feel that there are similarities between capturing someone's beloved pet and a dinosaur that may be just as beloved to dinosaur lovers?

little BIG Pet Portraits has been a very fun side project. It allows me to draw and paint one of my other favorite subject matters. I love to draw dogs and cats, and I think a lot of people like to have an image of their furry friend they can keep forever. It's very similar to paleoart in many ways. Often I receive a picture of someone's pet and I need to create a painting that's interesting an accurate. The same process is done with my paleo art, I look at the bones to make sure my dinos are accurate, and then I need to make sure the illustration is fun and interesting.

Any works in progress or plans for future artwork? Any dream dinosaurs you think about painting?

That's a hard one, I've got a few paleoart pieces I've been chipping away at and hope to finish soon. I would love to do some illustrations of the new ceratopsians that were recently discovered (Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops). I'm still trying to wrap my head around some of Jack Horner's ideas that many species of dinosaurs were really different growth stages for other dinosaurs. I find it hard to accept that Triceratops is the same animal as Torosaurus, I don't see the advantage of losing a solid protective frill and gaining a long frill with large weight saving holes in it. I would also like to do a mural someday, and hopefully do some paleoart for the different science museums in Massachusetts too.

* * *

Thanks to Matt for answering these questions, and also for putting me in contact with Josh Estes in the first place - it really was the spark for this series. Be sure to check out his print shop at Etsy. Besides his sites at little BIG Illustrations, little BIG Pet Portraits, and Flickr, you can also get in touch with him via Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Ranger Rick's Dinosaur Book

Ranger Rick Magazine has been around for over 40 years, delivering nature stories with great photography and art to the children - who are, Whitney Houston taught us, the future. Trish Arnold shared some scans from 1984's Ranger Rick's Dinosaur Book with the Vintage Dinosaur Art pool at Flickr.

Eleanor M. Kish contributed this Triceratops, which nicely illustrates the now-out of favor sprawling forelimb position.Eleanor M. Kish Triceratops

She also did this nice Hypacrosaurus, a good illustration of cryptic coloring in a dinosaur, though it does suffer from "noodle neck" syndrome, a common occurance in old representations of hadrosaurs.
Eleanor M. Kish Hypacrosaur

Kish has several dinosaur titles to her credit, but very little work online. Hopefully I'll come across one of them so I can give her an entry of her own.

Here's an Archaeopteryx by John Gurche, whose giant Sue painting at the Field Museum is one of my favorite Tyrannosaurus paintings. In the photo comments, Trish makes note of the fact that this dude looks exactly like a bird with a lizard head.
John Gurche Archaeopteryx

Mark Hallett, interviewed this week at Archosaur Musings, did this wonderful painting of a group of pesky mammals congregating at a ceratopsian skull as the Paleogene began.

Rodents, marsupials, carnivores. Wondering what the heck they're going to do with the place now that they have it to themselves.

Mesozoic Miscellany #7

Some great interviews this week. At the Open Source Paleontologist, Andy Farke has some questions for Mark Witton. Mark discusses his new paper with Mike Habib that reaffirms that the giant pterosaurs could indeed fly, and well. Part one. On the mammalian side of things, Andy also talked to Josh Samuels this week about his Sinocastor research, digging into the relationship of the ancient beaver to its modern relatives.

Dave Hone continues his excellent series of paleoart interviews with Mark Hallett, one of the giants of the field. The post includes great examples of his art and some cool photos.

At his new blog Gary Indiana, Gary Vecchiarelli talked to Terry of Jurassic Park Legacy.

In reaction to yet more sloppy reporting, Brian Switek lays it out: Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs! Brian also provided the web's best coverage of a new research paper that looked at the musculature of the tail of Tyrannosaurus rex and concluded that previous estimates needed to be beefed up considerably.

At Superoceras, David Tana writes about the phenomenon of parthenogenesis, or asexual reproduction among vertebrates.

At his newly-redesigned Theropod Database Blog, Mickey Mortimer provides a look at two of Gregory S. Paul's clades, Avepoda and Averostra.

Twit Picks
Stuff I've tweeted in the last week or so:
Follow me on Twitter @anatotitan. Also check out my huge list of science-folks to follow.

Paleoart of the Week
It's always a treat when Matt van Rooijen posts a new piece of art. This week, he shared the final version of the Styracosaurus he's been working on. I love the coloration and the attitude of this beast. Standing in this dude's path? WOULD NOT WANT.

Image copyright Matt van Rooijen, used with his permission.

I Effing Love Dinosaurs shared this gem a few days ago, credited to Ursula V.

Outrageously Off-topic Indulgence
The new Cee-Lo Green album is a pure joy!

An Inside Look at Reign of the Dinosaurs

RealScreen, a site dedicated to documentary filmmaking, currently features a story on Reign of the Dinosaurs, the Discovery Channel mega-blockbuster ratings monster scheduled to debut next year. It’s the first good look that we’ve had at the making of the series, so it’s well worth a read for anyone who's into dinosaurs.

I came away from the story with mixed feelings, the common attitude of "cautious optimism." In part, I'm excited; for instance, it will do away with narration, instead using three short interstitials per hour-long episode to provide scientific context. This is a sign that some sophisticated film-making techniques will be on display, and instills a sense of trust in the audience.

Erik Nelson, president of the project’s production company Creative Differences, invoked some pretty big names, including Avatar. “‘The best sequences in that film are the visual scenes where they take you into Pandora,' he offers, also citing the opening of Pixar's Up and the dialogue-free stretch of Wall-E as significant signposts.” While I haven’t seen Avatar, the portion of Wall-E the story mentions is one of my favorite pieces of animation, ever. A role model like that for a dinosaur documentary is exactly what I’d hope for.

Then again, I’m a little confused over another sequence in the preview shown to the audience at Comic-Con, in which a “mother dino comforts its young, but is distracted and annoyed by the noises of a smaller dinosaur off in the distance. The mother eventually bites the head off of the noisemaker, and the sequence ends with the headless dino running chicken-like, to and fro.”

My apologies to all involved, but this sounds stupid.

It brings to mind some less lofty examples of CGI, like Jar Jar Binks stepping in a bantha turd or Tom Cruise chasing after a runaway eyeball in Minority Report. I have absolutely nothing against slapstick done well. Done poorly, it’s brutal. In my opinion, the sequence as described is slapsticky to the detriment of the science. I’ll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here, but this is where I append the “cautious” modifier to my optimism. Werner Herzog liked it, though. So it has that going for it.

This story has stirred up some interesting questions for me, which I’ll be mulling over as I prepare to take part in the science and art discussion at ScienceOnline 2011. What are my expectations for a series like this? What should they be? In what ways do we apply humor to nature, and does it have a place in science communication or nature documentaries?

I don’t want to be an alarmist crank for the sake of it. That’s an aspect of the blogosphere that I find pretty annoying. Given the pedigree of the talent behind the series, especially that of director David Krentz, I’m still hopeful. I’m not averse to spectacle; after all, it’s a big reason we love dinosaurs. I’m happy to see the team trying new techniques to teach this stuff. We’ve had some very cool discoveries in the decade since Walking With Dinosaurs aired, and events like these are probably the best way to deliver the goods to people. I just hope they don’t stuff the package with a bunch of unnecessary crap.

Feel free to tell me how much of a sour-faced killjoy I am in the comments!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Boneyard Gets a Badge

The Boneyard Blog Carnival

Here's a badge I made to promote the Boneyard Blog Carnival. Feel free to slap it up wherever you want. In fact, I should get stickers made so vending machines, dilapidated public telephones, and shop windows all over the world can be defiled by blue trilobites.

We're only a couple weeks away from the new edition of the Boneyard, to be hosted at History of Geology. Email your submissions to boneyardblogcarnival(at)gmail(dot)com today!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Arnel, the Dauntless Fiber

Jordan Smith, who goes by What Makes the Pie Shops Tick? on Flickr, has amassed a nice collection of vintage advertising. This one is one of my favorites, because there's a dinosaur in it. Also, I imagine Jack Horner skipping around Egg Mountain in this little number.

Arnel...The Dauntless Fiber

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

King Cryolophosaurus

Dinosaur Train is awesome. Any kid's show that not only uses the word "hypothesis" liberally but also demonstrates that changing a hypothesis with new information is a good thing is awesome. But only Dinosaur Train has King Cryolophosaurus.

A rockabilly crash course in theropod anatomy. So great.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Terra Nova, Walking with Dinosaurs update

For dinosaur enthusiasts, a constant item of conjecture is what the next big dinosaurian pop culture event is going to be. There's been a bit of news lately concerning some high profile dinosaur projects in the media.

First, Steven Spielberg's Terra Nova project has been the subject of some speculation. The Hollywood Reporter writes that most of the writing staff has been sacked in an effort to reduce its enormous budget. But in a report in the New York Post, Fox maintains that the show is still on schedule, and will receive a two-hour preview in May. About the preview, the Post says:
The two-hour episode gives viewers a first look at the series, which revolves around a family living on Earth in the year 2149. With the planet on the brink of destruction, thanks to years of aggressive scientific experimentation and an exploding population, the family agrees to go back to prehistoric times in hopes of finding a way to save the Earth by attempting to correct mistakes made in the past.
A crazy premise, but I'll be able to forgive some of that if the dinosaurs are done well.

Though its stage show winds down, the Walking With Dinosaurs brand isn't giving up quite yet. Deadline reports that Fox is rumored to be doubling its dinosaur pleasure, inking a distribution deal for a forthcoming WWD 3D documentary. This is quite a show of faith, and the production probably has March of the Penguins to thank for it. Hat tip to Michael May for alerting me to this on twitter.

The other big upcoming project, Discovery's Reign of the Dinosaurs, has been pretty quiet since Comic-Con, which is probably a good sign. For a brief post on the event and a few pictures, check out the Discovery blog. All in all, there is good reason to be stoked about dinosaurs in the media. While Terra Nova will surely be more devoted to story and spectacle than accuracy, I have high hopes for Reign of the Dinosaurs and the WWD 3D project to widen peoples' appreciation for the science of dinosaurs.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mesozoic Miscellany #6

Thanks to Glendon Mellow's kind invitation, I'm pleased to let you know that I'll be in on the Art and Science discussion at ScienceOnline 2011 this January. It's a small conference and registration is closed, but I imagine that there will be video available, and you can follow our hecklers on twitter.

Andy Farke at the Open Source Paleontologist wrote a very fair review of Greg Paul's Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs this week.

The Dinosaur Toy Blog took a look at the new Sideshow Collectibles Spinosaurus statue, which is stunning.

At Discovery News, Jennifer Viegas writes about a clutch of really, really, really old dinosaur eggs.

Brian Switek wrote about the fossil in the Italian Church, which more than likely is not a dinosaur skull. Still a cool little quirk of architecture, though.

Want a PDF of an academic paper? Mike Taylor at SV-POW! has a handy guide on how to do it - without annoying people.

Dave Hone featured a fine model of Compsognathus from the Oxford museum.

Twit Picks
Stuff I tweeted in the last week or so:

From I Effing Love Dinosaurs:

Paleoart of the Week
Here's a typically wonderful Trish Arnold piece, a simple sketch in ballpoint pen but displaying her cartooning ability perfectly. I hope the Terra Nova people take her advice.
11.7.10 Sketchbook Page detail

Outrageously Off-Topic Indulgence
Everyone, there is a show called Terriers on the FX network in the US. It is seriously awesome. Scruffy detective stories, unpredictable, heartfelt, super-terrific acting and a great theme song. Airs at 10 PM eastern time on FX, and the most recent 5 episodes are available at Hulu. Donal Logue's best work yet.

The Lanzendorf Collection

Vintage Dinosaur Art will be taking a breather this week as I have so much material from my Children's Museum tour. I'll be keeping it focused on artwork, however, which feels right for a Friday. For those who find themselves rapt by saurians brought back to life by the artist's hand, the Children's Museum holds yet another attraction: they are the custodians of the Lanzendorf Collection, the most extensive collection of dinosaur art in the world. From sketches to production concept art to sculpture to oil paintings, John Lanzendorf's passion is on display here. There's a reason there's a prize named for him.

Two Tyrannosaurs

Lanzendorf Collection

During my look at the Museum's collections, Dallas and Josh were so kind as to share the greater part of the collection not currently on public display. There was an overwhelming number of treasures here.

Lanzendorf Collection

Lanzendorf Collection

Even the initial concept sketch for the Dinosphere's exterior was there.

Alamosaurus sketch

As was shelf after shelf of 3D work.

Lanzendorf collection

As Josh and I were walking through the gallery, Josh pointed to a painting that is probably pretty unassuming to most viewers. It wasn't a Tyrannosaur in a pose of bloodthirsty rage. It wasn't a pack of wild-eyed dromaeosaurs swarming a cow-like Edmontosaurus. It wasn't a grand scene overlooking the Morrison, sauropod necks gracefully raised above ferns and conifers and skulking allosaurs. No, John Lanzendorf's favorite piece is a Donna Braginetz Corythosaurus. It faces the viewer, its herdmates in the background out of focus. Josh said it was this technique, the photorealism of the treatment, that Lanzendorf loved. It's easy to see what he appreciates: the simulation of the intimacy most nature-lovers feel in quiet moments of observation calls to mind the most effective nature photography.

Josh said that it's also a favored piece because the colors of the ornithopod, vibrant green and gold, are those of the Wisconsonian Lanzendorf's favorite football team. We all have our reasons, and they are a glorious hodge podge.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Interview with Josh Estes, Dinosphere Manager

I've mentioned Josh Estes, whose official title at the Children's Museum is Dinosphere and Treasures of the Earth Manager and Interpreter, quite a bit throughout this series. He sets the tone for his team of interpreters, making sure that visitors leave with a new appreciation for dinosaurs. So I figured it was only fitting to give him the chance to talk about why he loves what he does.

Josh Estes
Josh with a foam cast of Stan's neck.

His favorite mount is their Gorgosaurus, and as he pointed out various pathologies on the skeleton, from evidence of a brain tumor to broken shoulder, and tail bones to the sizable chunk bitten out of its femur, it was clear that Josh had a true respect for the small tyrannosaur. "This animal was cared for," he told me, as the various injuries had healed, and it's hard to imagine an animal living to the age it did without getting a bit of help from some sort of social group.

Can you talk about your background? Where did you grow up? Were you a "sciencey" kid?

I was raised in a small town in Southern Indiana called Bedford. Go Stars! Looking back now, it was a great place to grow up. A lot of hills for sledding and cows for tipping and creeks for fishin’.

I guess I was a “sciencey” kid. My grandfather and uncle were both science teachers and I was raised in a home that valued science education. I remember as a child visiting my grandparents and they’d always have National Geographic magazines all over the place. I’d look at the pictures and pretend to read the articles.

Did you visit museums? What made an impression?

I visited a lot of museums and cultural institutions growing up. I loved them – still do. These visits prompted me to apply to work at The Children’s Museum. Growing up, museums were the destination. We’d spend weekends in Chicago at The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and Science and Industry Museum. Those were some great weekends.

My family would visit Walt Disney World in Florida almost every summer. How awesome is that! I remember dreaming of Epcot pretty much year-round. It might sound strange, but Epcot had a huge impression on me with the blending of science and entertainment. My favorite attraction growing up was the Energy “ride”. It took you through the age of the dinosaurs with animatronic dinos up close and that unmistakable “dino-era smell”. Man, that was awesome!

What was the path you took to your current position with the Children's Museum?

I began my employ at The Children’s Museum as a “Master Interpreter” in 2003. A Master Interpreter knows all of the programs in the building and can be plugged into any gallery if someone is on vacation or ill. Needless to say, I had to learn a lot! Tipis and Waterclocks and Planetarium shows and DINOSAURS!!! Dinosphere hadn’t opened yet, but there was great emphasis on getting everyone ready. I’m glad they did! The museum brought Phil Currie, Dr. Bob Bakker, Pete and Neal Larson, Paul Sereno and many other Paleo-type people just to educate us on Cretaceous dinosaurs. I feel like I have had the best education on interpreting dinosaurs.

I became the Dinosphere Interpretation Supervisor in February of 2005 and became the Dinosphere Manager in October 2007. Earlier this year, I accepted the role of Dinosphere and Treasures of the Earth Manager. “Treasures” will be an exciting new exhibit opening in the summer of 2011. I get to learn about Archaeology now!

Josh with a fresh Edmontosaurus rib.

Is there a part of your job do you think would be surprising to the public?

I think what is most surprising when people hear about my job is that it is actually a job and I get paid to do this. I know I’m living the dream of a lot of kids that visit the museum (and some adults too). I try not to take it for granted.

It’s not all glamorous work. I do guard bodily spills on occasion.

What aspect of the Dinosphere are you proudest of?

I’m most proud of the team of people that we’ve put together that work in Dinosphere. It takes a very special person to be enthusiastic every day. To seek out interactions. To answer the same questions over and over but to act like you’ve heard them for the first time. These are special people down here. They all are amazing, friendly and visitor-focused people.

What has been the coolest experience this position has given you?

I’ve been to South Dakota digging dinosaurs. I went on a Pirate Ship dive in the Florida Keys. I’ve spent time with Dr. Bob (Bakker) and am still alive (I love that guy). I’ve had dinner with Mr. McFeely (David Newell from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood). I went to Disney World with a group of staff to observe their operation. But the coolest would have to be when I met my wife at the Mastodon(t).


I'd like to thank Josh again for taking the time to meet with me and talk about his work. And for staying in touch with me as I've written these posts to ensure that I get things straight.

The Children's Museum also has a Youtube Channel, so if you want to see Josh in action, you have the opportunity. Here he is with fellow interpreter Mookie, talking about the thunderstorm simulation in the Dinosphere.

Behind the Scenes at the Dinosphere

Touring the Dinosphere with an eye towards how it's structured for educational impact was a treat, but I have to admit that my favorite part of my tour with Josh Estes was getting to see the Children's Museum's collections and prep lab. I have loads of respect for well-designed mounts and interpretive materials, but they can't quite match the thrill of being surrounded by shelves and drawers full of fossils. I read blogs, books, and magazine articles by paleontologists who write about wandering among collections, but I'd never been able to do so myself.

The Children's Museum actively digs in South Dakota, and runs a program for families and teachers allowing them to learn more about geology and paleontology through field work. Curator Dallas Evans explained that while it's a modestly sized collection, it's more than what anyone expects to find in a children's museum, and they've benefitted from the advice and support of Bakker, Sereno, and the folks at the Black Hills Institute.

Dallas Evans
Dallas Evans with a peccary skull.

Seriously, if I was a teacher, that's what I'd be doing over the summer. Below are an assortment of Edmontosaurus bones excavated by kindergarten teacher Susan Julian. Josh said that the Museum's digs have turned up so many specimens of this modest duckbill that some of the regulars are experiencing pronounced "Edmontosaur fatigue."

Edmontosaur bones

I also got to see a nice Triceratops skull which is in the process of being freed from its brutally tough ironstone matrix, accessible to visitors for demonstrations on how prep is done. Paleontology Preparator Mark Sims was kind enough to chip away a bit more rock with his pneumatic tool, which is basically a tiny jackhammer. I asked Mark and Josh if they fielded many questions from worried Triceratops fans during the summer's "Tricerafail" debacle. Their answer gave me hope and reminded me that the internet has a way of magnifying hysterias more than they deserve: there was a week or so of frequent questions, but they faded quickly.

Mark Sims with Triceratops skull in progress
Mark Sims demonstrates fossil prep. Yup, that's a googly-eye.

Another bone on display and available for visitors to examine up close is a huge T. rex femur found by the intrepid Bucky Derflinger, who also found an assortment of 19th century paleontology tools at the location. Mark told me that they suspect that the tools belonged to none other than Edward Drinker Cope, and the femur belonged to his Manospondylus gigas (for more on this little quirk of T. rex's history, check out Mike Taylor's FAQ.

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Drawers and drawers of fossils. The blur on the left is curator Dallas Evans.

Whenever I'm around fellow natural history enthusiasts, which isn't a daily occurence for me, I realize how un-jaded I really am. For example, when Dallas confirmed my rough mosasaurian diagnosis of the Platecarpus skull cast below. It gave me a bit of a kick, I admit. Small victories like those keep the engines stoked. I may be a lousy comparative anatomist, regularly stumped by "name that fossil" games on blogs, but I've picked up a few things along the way. Anyone can do it, provided they're willing to observe patiently.

Platecarpus skull cast by Triebold Paleontology.

Seeing the assortment of life-size skeletal casts that make up the museum's traveling dinosaur troupe was also a cool moment. They may not be the fossils themselves, but when the lights came up in this section of the warehouse and I saw the mix of duckbill, theropod, and ceratopsian skeletons huddled together, it was impossible not to grin.

Children's Museum warehouse
This blog's patron saurian, Chasmosaurus, among the museum's troupe of traveling skeleton casts.

I tried my darnedest to take good notes the entire time, but where I failed, I've been fortunate to have Josh to pitch in and ID fossils for me. He's true blue, people. But you'll see that for yourself when I post my interview with him, the next episode in this epic series.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Dragon King, Dracorex hogwartsia

One of the centerpiece exhibits at the Children's Museum is Dracorex hogwartsia, the small and somewhat controversial pachycephalosaur. Discovered in 2003 by a group of fossil hunters who then donated the skull to the Children's Museum, it was formally described by Dr. Robert Bakker in 2006. Dracorex made a big splash, famously receiving its own cover story in National Geographic.

Dracorex skull

Also, it's named for a fantasy novel series of some note.

Having been preserved in the Hell Creek Formation, Dracorex in life was a denizen of the latest Cretaceous, and contemporary with Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. In his description of the fossil, Bakker's stance, as you might expect, is that Dracorex represents a unique genus. A paper published last year by Jack Horner made the case that it's more likely a young Pachycephalosaurus, as is the somewhat larger Stygimoloch. Unfortunately, all we have to go on is the skull and a few vertebrae, and finding more of Dracorex's body would help clear this up (a key point, and one that makes me lean a bit towards Bakker's view is that Horner did not examine the original fossil. More on this here).

When it comes to the Children's Museum, questions about its true identity are beside the point, Dracorex has been used to great effect to teach a larger lesson. It's the foundation of the Dragons Unearthed exhibit, which takes the striking skull of Dracorex and uses it to tell the story of paleontology. Children are asked not to stand in wide-eyed awe in front of a skeleton, but to look at this skull and other fossils and think about how paleontologists interpret them to come to a reasonable image of the animals as they lived.

Dragons Unearthed
One of the learning stations in the Dragons Unearthed exhibit.

Pictured below, interpreter Mookie Harris ably mans the Art Cart, one of my favorite aspects of Dragons Unearthed.

Using the skull of a tapir, Mookie asks children to help put flesh to the bone. He lets them use their own imaginations to figure out what the animal would have looked like. This part is really fun to watch, as Mookie has great chemistry with kids and really lets them call the shots, no matter how strange. Goggle-eyes on top of the head? No problem. Mookie draws them on, then suggests that such an adaptation may mean that the bizarre creature spent a lot of time hiding in the water. These features may pop out of the child's mind for fun, but Mookie does his best to give them an evolutionary reasoning.


After their attempt, Mookie reveals the true owner of the skull and shows the features that can be used to diagnose it as belonging to an herbivorous mammal. Then, he brings out a cast of Dracorex's skull, showing that the process the child just went through is just what people have been doing for thousands of years. It's a great hands-on demonstration of how mythological beasts like dragons may have been dreamed of - and that even though we know better now, they were reasonable enough for people of pre-scientific ages. It's all about critically examining the fossils to come to the best conclusions possible about its owner. Mookie told me that he's really heartened by the level of knowledge displayed by his young visitors, especially the increasing numbers of girls who have a real investment in dinosaurs. He thinks that it has a lot to do with documentaries in the style of Walking With Dinosaurs, which portray dinosaurs as animals rather than monsters.

Dracorex hogwartsia
Dracorex hogwartsia reconstruction, using the post-cranial skeleton of Pachycephalosaurus.

Dr. Bakker himself is a consultant to the museum, and Josh told me that when he pays one of his occasional visits, he really immerses himself. Anyone who has seen him on TV specials knows of his enthusiasm, and it's easy to picture him pitching in at the fossil prep lab, holding court for a group of kids and parents to teach how the work is done. No matter how the scientific consensus on Dracorex shakes out, there's no doubt that its fossilized noggin is one of the coolest dinosaur bones ever found. Its discovery and presentation to the public has been a good thing for education, and the Children's Museum has made the most of it with an attraction that promotes critical thinking over spectacle.