Category Archives: Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

GDP: Did you know there’s a thriller about a dinosaur dig opening this week?

Just found out about it myself.  It’s called Valley of Bones.

I’m not buying that skull, but the movie looks interesting.

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GDP: Universe of Energy powers down

Today’s Gratuitous Dinosaur Post brings sad tidings.  As of this weekend, the Universe of Energy at Disney World’s Epcot is no more, and with it goes its animatronic menagerie of prehistoric beasts.  If you prefer your nostalgia in tangible form, they’re selling some commemorative merchandise.

In its original version, the attraction represented a lot that was off-putting about Epcot.  The theater segments on energy sources were so stodgy, so infused with belabored portentousness, that they made Spaceship Earth look like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  The last film seemed to drag on so long that you almost expected the continents to have a different arrangement by the time it was over.

But oh my, those dinosaurs.

Sure, they’re outdated now; they were already a bit behind the science when Disney rolled them out in 1982.  They wouldn’t have been out of place in a Charles R. Knight painting ca. 1900.  But they were dead ringers for the dinosaurs pictured in the books I read as a kid, except they were right there, in three dimensions, feeding and fighting and roaring their way through a three-dimensional primordial landscape.

I was still in elementary school the first time I rode U of E, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment when the curtain rose on a family of grazing sauropods and the theater seats started gliding into a swamp that you could literally smell.  It was awe-inspiring.

By Michael Lowin (Own work (own picture)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I had mixed feelings about the 1996 overhaul.  The new theatrical segments with Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye were genuinely funny, and much more engaging than their predecessors.  But I didn’t care for Ellen’s animatronic cameo during the ride.  The elasmosaur seemed so menacing when I was young that it irked me to see him played for laughs.

Still, I guess the updates gave the ride a new lease on life.  Its replacement will be a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction.  I have mixed feelings about that, too.  The Guardians movies are a lot of fun, but between Disney’s acquisitions of Marvel and Star Wars, the parks are starting to look less like coherent themed areas and more like a patchwork of intellectual properties.

U of E’s last bow didn’t go off without a hitch.  It shut down during the sauropod scene, forcing the visitors to evacuate.  But the upside is that somebody was on hand to take video, giving us an up-close and well-lit glimpse at the dinosaurs.

We’ve still got the dino ride at Animal Kingdom, assuming they don’t tear it down for an Avatar expansion.

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Crichton’s ‘Dragon Teeth’ and the fossil frontier

According to his widow, the seeds of Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth began to germinate in the 1970s.  That was long before the appearance of his most famous work about an island theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs.  But Dragon Teeth is not so much a forerunner of Jurassic Park as a spiritual cousin to his other works of historical fiction, The Great Train Robbery and Pirate Latitudes.  Just as his techno-thrillers have enough scientific ballast to create a sense of verisimilitude that no other modern suspense novelist has surpassed, Dragon Teeth is grounded in the history of science and the late nineteenth-century West.  This is a story based on actual events, populated by figures who were once very real.

Image from michaelcrichton.com

Most prominent among these historical figures are rival naturalists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose bitter professional and political feud dominated American paleontology in the late nineteenth century.  The relationship between Marsh and Cope was initially cordial, with the two men collecting specimens together and naming species for one another.  In the 1870s, however, their collegiality gave way to competition, and finally open conflict.  They bribed one another’s collectors, employed spies, sabotaged each other’s professional and political appointments, and smeared one another in the public press.  The “Bone Wars,” as historians of science term the feud, ended only with Cope’s death in 1897.  In their haste to beat one another to the punch, Cope and Marsh rushed their assistants’ discoveries into print, generating taxonomic confusion that present-day paleontologists are still trying to sort out.  But their competition did bring to light dozens of new species, including some of the dinosaurs that are dearest to the popular imagination: BrontosaurusApatosaurusStegosaurusAllosaurus, and Triceratops.

Crichton’s protagonist is William Johnson, privileged son of a Philadelphia family and a Yale freshman who signs on to a Marsh expedition in 1876.  Stranded in Wyoming, he falls in with a collecting party led by Cope and heads to the badlands in search of dinosaurs.  Johnson is Crichton’s creation, but Cope did lead a fossil hunt into the badlands in America’s centennial year.  Many of the incidents related in the novel did indeed occur on that expedition, as chronicled by the enterprising bone hunter (and devoted Cope disciple) Charles H. Sternberg in his 1909 autobiography.  Sternberg appears as a secondary character in Dragon Teeth; so do other individuals who signed on to dig for Cope.

Other, more conventionally well-known historical figures, localities, and episodes from the history of the trans-Mississippi West also figure in Dragon Teeth.  In fact, it would be accurate to call this book a “fact-based Western novel” in addition to a work of historical fiction.  The battlegrounds of the Bone Wars were the great fossil beds of the trans-Mississippi frontier, and the discovery and exploitation of these fields coincided in time with the “Old West” of cowboys, Indians, and buffalo.  In his effort to get Cope’s specimens back East, Johnson crosses paths with gunslingers, hostile tribesmen, raucous boomtown miners, swindlers, and bandits—all the conventional perils that popular memory associates with the American West.

The book employs American frontier mythology in another sense, too.  Johnson goes West not out of scientific curiosity, but to satisfy a wager with a classmate.  For Crichton, as for so many other writers who have made the frontier their subject, the West is thus a place of seasoning, a dangerous environment in which a fellow might test his mettle and make something of himself.

If the novel’s account of Cope’s ’76 expedition hews to the historical record, the book does take some liberties.  Crichton himself lists some of them in an author’s note.  Most puzzling—to me, anyway—is his attribution of a notable dinosaur genus to Cope’s expedition that is familiar to paleophiles as a Marsh discovery.  Crichton states that Sternberg’s autobiography claimed this animal for Cope, but I take Sternberg’s remark as an attempt to claim priority for Cope’s dinosaur work in general, rather than crediting him with bringing he specific animal in question to light.  Crichton also seems to place this discovery in sediments from the Cretaceous Period, when the animal lived millions of years earlier, during the Jurassic.  In addition, the characters in Dragon Teeth use the correct absolute dates for the fossils they find, but the development of radiometric dating techniques came after the events in the novel.  (As late as the early twentieth century, some paleontologists ascribed a date of only three or four million years to the last dinosaurs.)  Finally, Crichton’s Sternberg has no qualms about using profanity.  Given the man’s intense and sincere religiosity, the strikes me as unlikely.

But these are quibbles, the stuff of paleo-geekery.  Dragon Teeth is an absolute delight.  It doesn’t feature as much of the rumination on the possibilities and limitations of science, technology, and knowledge that is a Crichton hallmark, but it’s an engaging yarn.  I think good historical fiction should be a bit like an artistic reconstruction of an extinct animal.  You take the hard bits of verifiable evidence, you flesh out the bones with some careful inference, and then you let your imagination go to work.  That’s what Crichton accomplished with this book.  The story bounces along like a stagecoach through a landscape full of thrills and wonders.  And as with all of Crichton’s posthumously published books, turning the last page will leave you with a bittersweet feeling—you’re elated by the ride you’ve just taken, but you remember that you were in the hands of a singular creator who left us far too soon.

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GDP: Rolling out the new armored dinos

Well, that’s another academic year wrapped up.  It’s been a heck of a news week for armored dinos, so let’s kick off the summer with a Gratuitous Dinosaur Post.

Scientists just described a brand-new ankylosaur—those walking tanks from the Cretaceous Period—called Zuul crurivastator.  The species name means “destroyer of shins,” which is appropriate for an animal bearing a massive, bony club at the end of its ten-foot tail.  The genus name comes from the dog creature in the original Ghostbusters movie, and there’s indeed a resemblance.  It’s not just a new dino, but one of the most complete ankylosaur specimens ever found.

And as they say on the commercials, “But wait!  There’s more…”

National Geographic is running a piece on another incredible armored dino specimen.  This one’s a nodosaur, a close relative of Zuul and its kin, but without the tail club.  It, too, is stunningly complete, so much so that it looks less like a fossil and more like an animal that just fell asleep and turned to stone.  The keratin sheaths on its spikes, the individual armored plates, scales, tendons—all beautifully preserved.  What’s especially cool is that researchers might be able to use microscopic structures in the skin to reconstruct its coloration.  It doesn’t have a name yet, but I’ve got a suggestion…

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GDP: Rearranging the branches of the dinosaur family tree

We haven’t had a Gratuitous Dinosaur Post in a while, but a study just released in Nature has riled up paleophiles everywhere.  And little wonder.  If this hypothesis holds up, it will rewrite everything we’ve always thought we knew about dinosaur evolution and classification.

For about 130 years, scientists have categorized dinosaurs into two major groups named for the appearance of their hip bones.  The Saurischia (“lizard-hipped”) included theropods (meat-eaters like T. rex and Velociraptor were members of this group) and the massive, long-necked sauropodomorphs.  The Ornithischia (“bird-hipped”) included the horned dinosaurs like Triceratops, armored dinos like Stegosaurus and Ankylosaurus, the “duck-billed” hadrosaurs, and other herbivores.

A sauropod and meat-eaters in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. By Gorup de Besanez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Standard-issue Saurischia hips. By AdmiralHood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Hadrosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs. By Fritz Geller-Grimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Ornithischian bird-style hips, with the pubis flipped backward toward the ischium. By AdmiralHood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Oddly enough, it was the “lizard-hipped” theropods, not the “bird-hipped” dinos, that gave rise to birds.  Go figure.

Anyway, after looking at hundreds of anatomical features in dozens of dinosaur species, the authors of the new study concluded that this old classification scheme is wrong.  Their scheme moves the theropods and bird-hipped dinosaurs together into a new group, the Ornithoscelida, a name originally coined back in the late 1800s that fell out of favor.  The long-necked sauropodomorphs, meanwhile, would remain in the Saurischia, along with an early group of meat-eaters, the herrerasaurids.

As far as the study of dinosaur evolution and classification goes, this is huge.  It overturns the family tree that has been in place for decades, upending a lot of conventional wisdom about dinosaur relationships.  It also has important implications for the question of when and where dinosaurs first originated.  But it also makes sense of some puzzling paleontological questions, especially some similarities between meat-eating and plant-eating dinosaur groups that will seem less surprising if those groups are more closely related than we’ve thought.

It could turn out to be a real paradigm shift, one that may prompt the re-writing of books and the overhaul of exhibits.  Of course, all this is assuming the new hypothesis catches on; it’s just one study, albeit one that’s getting a lot of attention.

It seems like there have been more remarkable and revolutionary discoveries in the past ten or fifteen years than in any comparable period of time since Richard Owen coined the word “dinosaur” back in 1842.  People tend to think of the late 18oos—with the romance of frontier digs and those spectacular finds—as the golden age of dinosaur hunting, but maybe we’re living in the true golden age of dinosaur science right now.

Can’t help wondering if they’re going to have to rearrange the “Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs” at the American Museum in New York, though.

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A dinosaur in living color

One of the many dinosaur books I had as a kid was a coloring book that came with a sing-along cassette.  The only song from that tape that I still remember was about dinosaur colors.  “Colors of the rainbow, any will do/Dinosaur colors are up to you,” went the refrain.

That song always struck me as a real downer.  Being able to make your dinosaurs whatever color you wanted was little consolation to those of us who would’ve given our right arms to know what color they really were.

Well, we don’t have to wonder anymore, at least not when it comes to some dinosaurs.  One of the most exciting paleontological breakthroughs of the last decade was the discovery of melanosomes in feathered dinosaur specimens.  Examination of these microscopic structures allowed scientists to give us a much more precise picture of what some types of dinos looked like.  When news of this broke, I felt like the earth had shifted.  For the first time, we were dealing with something other than educated guesswork when it came to dinosaur coloration.

The only thing more exciting would be seeing an actual dinosaur in the flesh with its integument and coloration still intact.  And, ladies and gents, that’s exactly what just happened.  From National Geographic:

The tail of a 99-million-year-old dinosaur, including bones, soft tissue, and even feathers, has been found preserved in amber, according to a report published today in the journal Current Biology.

While individual dinosaur-era feathers have been found in amber, and evidence for feathered dinosaurs is captured in fossil impressions, this is the first time that scientists are able to clearly associate well-preserved feathers with a dinosaur, and in turn gain a better understanding of the evolution and structure of dinosaur feathers.…

Inside the lump of resin is a 1.4-inch appendage covered in delicate feathers, described as chestnut brown with a pale or white underside.

CT scans and microscopic analysis of the sample revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long, thin tail that may have been originally made up of more than 25 vertebrae.

Here it is, the tail of an honest-to-goodness dinosaur, still in the flesh after nearly a million centuries.  This is a wonderful time to be alive!

06_dinosaur_tail-adapt-1190-1

Photo by R.C. McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum via National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/12/feathered-dinosaur-tail-amber-theropod-myanmar-burma-cretaceous/)

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A peek at the awesomeness coming in 2017

Hey, here’s a pleasant surprise!  USA Today has an excerpt from Dragon Teeth, the Bone Wars novel coming out next May by the late, great Michael Crichton.  Looks like the main character is a young man from a well-to-do Philadelphia family who joins the first big Gilded Age fossil rush.

The dust jacket looks pretty cool, although it’s a little odd to see a Tyrannosaurus on the cover of a novel set in the 1870s.  Some material now recognized as belonging to T. rex did turn up in the late 1800s, some of it discovered by fossil hunters involved in the Cope-Marsh feud.  In fact, Cope himself published a description of a couple of vertebrae from South Dakota that have since been identified as T. rex remains.  But the name Tyrannosaurus rex didn’t appear in the scientific literature until about thirty years after Cope and Marsh started duking it out.  No big deal, though—and not the first time Tyrannosaurus has made a somewhat chronologically-inappropriate appearance on the front of a Crichton novel.  After all, most editions of Jurassic Park featured a T. rex on the cover, even though the Jurassic Period ended almost eighty million years before the tyrant lizard king showed up.

While we’re on the subject of prehistoric beasties and awesome stuff coming out in 2017, have you seen the Kong: Skull Island trailer yet?  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this here before, but I’ve been a huge King Kong fan since I was about six.  (The fact that the ’33 film was chock full of dinosaurs might’ve had something to do with it.)   Maybe I should add a “Gratuitous Giant Ape Posts” category since I’m already subjecting you folks to periodic dino digressions.

The movie’s set in the Godzilla universe, and this ginormous, bipedal Kong seems to have more in common with the Toho version than the old school one that climbed the Empire State Building with a blonde in his hand.  Me, I prefer the original take on Kong, and I’m disappointed by the lack of dinosaurs in the trailer, but this is still my most anticipated movie of 2017.

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