Tag Archives: dinosaurs

World War II’s oldest casualties

With The Monuments Men hitting theaters this week, I thought this might be a good opportunity to discuss the fate of valuable artifacts during WWII.  And this leads us—as all things inevitably must—to the subject of extinct reptiles.

About a hundred million years ago, North Africa was the world capital of big, carnivorous dinosaurs.  The biggest of them all was Spinosaurus, top contender for the largest known meat-eating dinosaur of all time.  Even the lowest estimates of its size would make this animal longer than T. rex, and the higher estimates—up to 59 feet from nose to tail tip—are longer by far than those for any other theropod dinosaur known to science.

By Bogdanov, modified by Matt Martyniuk (User:Dinoguy2) and User:FunkMonk. Jaw muscles taken from[1] by User:Steveoc_86. (dmitrchel@mail.ru) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spinosaurus got its moniker from the row of spines atop its vertebrae, some of them over five feet high, giving it a prominent sail or ridge running the length of its back.  The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer came up with the name in 1915, based on some jawbones, vertebrae, and ribs discovered three years earlier in Egypt.

Ernst Stromer

For thirty years, these fossils were safe and sound in Munich’s Paläontologisches Museum.  Then the war came, and European museums weren’t safe havens anymore.

On the night of April 24, 1944 the Royal Air Force hit Munich with a bombing raid that wrecked the museum and destroyed the Spinosaurus fossils inside.  Spinosaurus bones aren’t that plentiful, so the loss of any of them is a big deal, but the loss of this specimen was especially significant because it was the holotype (the individual used in the first official scientific description of the species).  All that remains of it today are Stromer’s notes, drawings, and photos.

Perhaps the rarity and fragmentary nature of Spinosaurus fossils help explain why this dinosaur hasn’t always been as popular as you’d expect.  It’s more well known now than it used to be, largely thanks to a starring role as the main antagonist in Jurassic Park III.

I’m partial to T. rex myself, but that scene is just freaking awesome.

Another massive carnivorous dino prowling around Cretaceous North Africa was Carcharodontosaurus, first discovered in the 192os and re-named by Stromer in 1931.  Like Spinosaurus, this guy was huge—upwards of forty feet long.  Its five-foot skull was lined with serrated, eight-inch teeth.

By Ornitholestes (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And also like Spinosaurus, the holotype got pulverized by Allied bombs falling on Munich.  Expeditions to the Sahara unearthed additional specimens in the 1990s, but Stromer’s original went up in smoke during the war.

In fact, the RAF’s April attack on Munich basically wiped out Stromer’s remarkable collection, including the type specimen of the carnivorous dinosaur Bahariasaurus, the only known specimen of the unusual prehistoric crocodile Stomatosuchus, and the bones of the long-necked dinosaur Aegyptosaurus.  And the war cost Stromer much more than his fossils.  Two of his sons died in the army, while the third spent years as a prisoner of the Russians.

Incidentally, the First World War took its toll on paleontology, too.  In December 1916 the German raider Möwe sank the Canadian ship Mount Temple, along with the twenty-two crates of hadrosaur and turtle fossils on board.

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Fort Sanders sesquicentennial for Black Friday

In 1863 Nov. 29 fell on a Sunday instead of a Friday, but it was a pretty black day nonetheless, at least for the hapless Rebel soldiers who launched a disastrous assault against Fort Sanders at Knoxville.  Those twenty bloody minutes ended Longstreet’s effort to re-take the city for the Confederacy, following its occupation by Burnside that September.

The attack on Ft. Sanders was neither a particularly big battle as far as Civil War engagements went nor as consequential as what was going on down in Chattanooga.  But it’s a pretty big deal for history buffs here in my neck of the woods, so here’s another anniversary link-fest for you.

  • Knoxville’s own historical columnist Jack Neely on the assault
  • The Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s sesquicentennial coverage of the war in East Tennessee
  • If you haven’t seen the McClung Museum’s exhibit on Ft. Sanders, you should definitely check it out.  They have fossils, too!  (By the way, that new Edmontosaurus is now called “Monty.”)
  • The East Tennessee Historical Society has some nifty Civil War displays of their own, and they’re commemorating the Ft. Sanders anniversary with a free admission day.
  •  Need to read up on the contest for control of Knoxville?  I recommend The Knoxville Campaign by Earl Hess, Lincolnites and Rebels by Robert Tracy McKenzie, and Divided Loyalties by Digby Gordon Seymour.  For additional background, try Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door and W. Todd Groce’s Mountain Rebels.
  • Last year we paid a virtual visit to the site of the battle.  The fort is long gone, but there are still a few landmarks from the Knoxville Campaign around.  Click here to book a guided tour, or stop by Longstreet’s headquarters and the Mabry-Hazen House.
  • Watch the battle reenacted at a replicated Ft. Sanders, constructed for a documentary produced in conjunction with the McClung Museum’s exhibit.
  • And finally, here’s a depiction of the attack by Lloyd Branson, the same Tennessee artist who did the painting of the Sycamore Shoals muster at the top of this blog:

Wikimedia Commons

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UT has a dinosaur now

Of course, I heartily approve of this.

A 2,400-pound, 24-foot-long bronze skeleton of an Edmontosaurus annectens—a hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur—was installed today outside the front entrance of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture as part of the museum’s fiftieth anniversary celebration.

Its selection is fitting because the Edmontosaurus is a hadrosaur, and these types of dinosaurs once roamed the coastal plains of Tennessee. The McClung Museum also houses actual hadrosaur bones—the only non-avian dinosaur bones ever found in the state—in its Geology and Fossil History of Tennessee permanent exhibit.

They’re holding a contest to name this sucker at the McClung Museum website; November 8 is the deadline for submissions.

I think the name should relate to East Tennessee history: Chucky Jack if it’s a male, Bonnie Kate if it’s a female.  Too bad it’s so hard to tell the difference.

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It’s a Jurassic World; you just live in it

We’ve got a title and a release date.  Jurassic World opens June 12, 2015.  Serious aficionados may recall that this was also the title given to the single-volume edition of the Crichton novels.

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Prehistoric interlude

When he delivered his famous funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War, Pericles told the Athenians that “the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us.”  I’m not a city person myself.  I prefer a nice small town within easy driving distance of a city, where you can hop in the car to enjoy urban amenities and then go home for some peace and quiet.  But “all the good things from all over the world” do indeed flow in to big cities, which is why they have the best museums.

And enjoying my favorite museum experience in the entire world is always my first priority on those rare occasions when I get to visit New York.  It’s the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History, possibly the greatest assemblage of dinosaur fossils on exhibit anywhere.

That’s New York’s main draw for me—not the theater, the food, the art, or the landmarks.  Not even the historic sites.  As neat as it was to see Washington’s inaugural Bible, I’d rather be in the dinosaur galleries at the AMNH than just about anywhere else.  It’s not just the sheer amount and quality of material in those halls; it’s also the fact that the AMNH collections have such a remarkable history behind them, excavated and studied by some of the most colorful explorers and scientists who ever lived.  A walk through these halls is as much a tour of the history of vertebrate paleontology as a tour of the museum itself.

Time for some prehistoric eye candy.

The Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs

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The first dinosaur specimen ever collected for the AMNH, from the famous dino graveyard at Como Bluff, WY

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A carnivore who needs no introduction, first discovered by the AMNH’s famed dinosaur hunter Barnum Brown and described by Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was largely responsible for building up the museum’s vertebrate fossil collection

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T. rex from the rear

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Allosaurus

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The small, smart, and birdlike carnivore Deinonychus, whose discovery helped start the “dinosaur renaissance” of the 1960′s

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The type specimen of Velociraptor, found in Mongolia during one of the AMNH expeditions to the Gobi desert in 1923

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Hadrosaurs in the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs

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The famous “hadrosaur mummy,” found by Charles H. Sternberg and his sons in 1908

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Saurolophus

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Triceratops

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Stegosaurus

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An ankylosaur, sporting a wicked suit of armor

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Pachycephalosaurus

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A rearing Barosaurus in Roosevelt Memorial Hall

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And finally, a historical artifact—the flag carried into the Gobi Desert on the legendary AMNH Mongolian expeditions led by one of my heroes, Roy Chapman Andrews

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Spared no expense

I usually avoid 3-D movies. The image is usually too dark, and the artificial depth just reminds me that what I’m watching is, after all, only a movie on a screen. But when Jurassic Park gets a re-release for its twentieth anniversary, I make an exception.

They’ve given it a darn good 3-D conversion. If you get the opportunity to see it in IMAX, by all means do so. Watching the T. rex attack sequence in the larger format is worth the price of a ticket by itself, especially with a good sound system behind it.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t really pay to see it in 3-D or IMAX, but simply to watch it with an audience in a darkened theater again. It holds up remarkably well. Photorealistic CGI effects were still in their infancy back in 1993, but JP‘s visuals still compare favorably with the digital effects in many modern films. Stan Winston’s live-action puppetry and robotics work in the JP franchise remains the pinnacle of the craft. The ensemble’s chemistry is still there. The plot hums right along without missing a beat. (Since it’s been on DVD, I’ve gotten accustomed to viewing my favorite moments separately rather than the movie as a whole, and one of the things that surprised me as I watched it from beginning to end in a theater again is what a lean and efficient piece of entertainment it is.) The whole thing still works.

A lot of people have asked me whether I prefer Jurassic Park as a novel or a film. I think they’re both masterpieces, but I’ve never been able to answer the question simply because the movie isn’t really an adaptation of the book. They’re best taken as two different stories based on the same premise. Spielberg’s distinctive fingerprints are all over his version, not just in terms of the visuals but also in terms of characters, emotion, and theme. Whereas Crichton’s novel ends on a note of uncertainty and pessimism, Spielberg’s movie ends with the creation of a sort of surrogate family. And whereas Crichton’s John Hammond is greedy and temperamental, the movie presents him as a tragic but sympathetic figure whose primary goal is not profit, but the desire to share something grand and wonderful. “An aim,” as he puts it, “not devoid of merit.”

Whether as a novel or a film, it’s one of the definitive expressions of modern man’s peculiar dilemma: there’s a formidable gulf between the power at our disposal on the one hand, and the wisdom and knowledge with which we exercise it on the other. What better way to explore this theme than a story about humans encountering dinosaurs, the creatures we can know about but never really know, who ruled this planet long before we ever started trying to understand it and master it?

Anyway, because I was a thirteen-year-old dinosaur fanatic when Jurassic Park hit theaters, I suppose I’ve never been in a position to be objective about it. Whatever faults the film has, I remain blind to them, like a guy who marries his high school sweetheart and never falls out of love with her. Don’t miss this chance to see it on the big screen again.

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Jurassic nirvana achieved

I just met Ariana Richards. Any personal milestones I reach henceforth are thus rendered insignificant by comparison, and that includes marriage and the birth of my firstborn child.

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Habemus Directoram

For today’s Gratuitous Dinosaur Post, I bring you tidings that Jurassic Park 4 now has a director.

And the world’s 1.2 billion dinosaur fans rejoiced.

The choice is a very unconventional one.  It’s Colin Trevorrow, whose only previous film is the low-budget Safety Not Guaranteed.  Didn’t see that one coming.  I was expecting Joe Johnston to take the helm again, not somebody with only one small movie to his credit.

One might say that Trevorrow is a dark horse.  And so, to return to our usual subject matter, here’s another dark horse candidate, James K. Polk.

Don’t move! Polk can’t see us if we don’t move…

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Movie items of interest

  • International audiences for Spielberg’s Lincoln will see a slightly different opening sequence to provide context for viewers who might not be as familiar with American history.  Maybe some additional background would’ve been a good idea for American moviegoers, too; Black Hawk Down and Argo both needed historical prologues even though the events in question happened during the lifetimes of many of the people watching the films.
  • Readers of ScreenCrush selected Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as the worst movie of 2012, indirectly proving the continuing viability of democracy as the best available form of government.
  • Saving Lincoln, the upcoming film about Ward Hill Lamon, made HuffPo.
  • That high-pitched, ecstatic shrieking sound you heard?  That was me: We now have a trailer for the twentieth anniversary 3D re-release of Jurassic Park and an official release date for JP4.

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His Excellency, now with added excellentness

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November 30, 2012 · 7:59 pm