Category Archives: Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

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/)

1 Comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

Beast in the basement

Whenever I’m down in the McClung Museum’s basement, I stop to pay my respects to an old friend.

img_2073Old, that is, in a relative sense.  This is a cast facsimile of a T. rex skull rather than the real thing.  But this bad boy (girl?) and I go back a long way.  My dad used to indulge my dino obsession by taking me to the McClung Museum on weekends so I could hang out in the old geology and fossil exhibit, where the T. rex skull went on display sometime back in the early or mid-nineties.

That exhibit has now gone the way of the specimens it once showcased.  The McClung’s current geology and fossil gallery opened in 2002 with some new dino skull casts and gorgeous dioramas, but sans tyrant lizard king.  Now the T. rex is enjoying semi-retirement downstairs, although we wheel him out for school tours from time to time.

Those of you who are fellow paleo-nerds may recognize the skull as a copy of one of the most famous dinosaur specimens in the world: AMNH 5027, excavated by the great fossil hunter Barnum Brown in Montana back in 1908.  The original skull is on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York…

By Futureman1199 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Futureman1199 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…right in front of the skeleton it was once attached to.  Fossil T. rex skulls are so heavy that it’s hard to mount them at standing height, so most museum specimens have lighter copies stuck on the ends of their necks.

By David Cornforth [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By David Cornforth [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

AMNH 5027 wasn’t the first T. rex specimen to be described.  But it was the first to be found with an intact cranium, making it a popular choice for replication.  (Check out the wonderful Extinct Monsters blog for the history of T. rex on display and the proliferation of 5027 clones in museums all over the world.)  If you’re at a museum that has a tyrannosaur cast, one easy way to tell if it’s a copy of 5027 is to look at it head-on.  The original looks a bit smashed on the upper left side, as if it’s starting to collapse inward like a rotting pumpkin.  You can see the distortion in this photo of UC-Berkely’s replica:

By BrokenSphere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By BrokenSphere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One other thing to take note of when you’re looking head-on at a T. rex is the position of the eye sockets.  Although they’re on the sides of the head, they’re oriented so that the eyes themselves would have faced forward, which probably meant good depth perception.  In fact, research by Kent Stevens indicates that T. rex had superb vision.  Combine an eagle’s eyesight, an exceptional sense of smell, and a bone-crushing bite, wrap it all up in a forty-foot package, and you’ve got one of the most remarkable carnivores in the history of life on this planet.  In other words, it’s probably not a good idea to stand still and hope he doesn’t notice you.

Anyway, as awesome as this guy looked in the old exhibit, I’m sort of glad he’s taken up quarters behind the scenes.  As a kid, I used to stand in front of his display case and wonder what it would feel like to run my hands across those bony protrusions and along those fearsome jaws.  Now I don’t have to wonder, and it’s one of many reasons I love my job.

img_2074

Leave a comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

A Crichton novel on the Bone Wars is coming

I’d like to apologize for that ear-piercing noise that shattered windows all over the Western Hemisphere last night.  That was me shrieking with ecstatic delight in reaction to this:

HarperCollins Publishers has acquired World English rights to DRAGON TEETH by bestselling author Michael Crichton. Harper Publisher Jonathan Burnham and Executive Editor Jennifer Barth negotiated the deal with CrichtonSun’s Sherri Crichton through Sloan Harris and Jennifer Joel of ICM Partners and Michael S. Sherman of Reed Smith LLP. The book will be published in May 2017 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Michael Crichton’s DRAGON TEETH follows the notorious rivalry between real-life paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh during a time of intense fossil speculation and discovery in the American West in 1878. The story unfolds through the adventures of a young fictional character named William Johnson who is apprenticed first to one, then to the other and not only makes discoveries of historic proportion, but transforms into an inspiring hero only Crichton could have imagined. Known for his meticulous research, Crichton uses Marsh and Copes’ heated competition during the ‘Bone Wars,’ the golden age of American fossil hunting, as the basis for a thrilling story set in the wilds of the American West.

Sherri Crichton has been working to honor her late husband by creating the Michael Crichton Archives through her company CrichtonSun. “When I came across the DRAGON TEETH manuscript in the files, I was immediately captivated. It has Michael’s voice, his love of history, research and science all dynamically woven into an epic tale.” She traced its genesis back to correspondence between Crichton and Professor Edwin H. Colbert, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “DRAGON TEETH was clearly a very important book for Michael. I’m so pleased to continue the long relationship that he shared with HarperCollins with its publication.”

The “Bone Wars”—the bitter feud between rival naturalists Edward Cope and O.C.Marsh—pretty much defined vertebrate paleontology in the United States during the late nineteenth century.  As ugly as the Cope-Marsh spat was, it played a large role in bringing to light the fossil riches of the American West, since the two men financed prospecting and excavation in some of the country’s most important bone beds.  A lot of the “classic” dinosaurs that are household names first came to scientific attention in the papers they published.  Their rivalry has fascinated me since I was a kid; in fact, when I was an undergrad, I did my capstone research project on it.

Anyway, it’s Crichton. It’s dinosaurs. It’s American history.  As they used to say in the beer commercials, “Boys, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

2 Comments

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

Dino discoveries at the McClung Museum

Did I hit the special dino exhibit at the McClung Museum on opening day?  You better believe I did.

IMG_1628

Our knowledge of dinos has increased almost exponentially in the past decade or two, partly because there are more people engaged in the business than ever before, but also because of new specimens and new techniques for studying them.  New knowledge and new techniques are what the exhibition Dinosaur Discoveries: Ancient Fossils, New Ideas is all about.  Organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it offers a look at some of the things scientists have learned in the past decade or so, and explains how they’ve learned it.  If you developed an interest in dinosaurs back in the heyday of the nineties but fell out of the loop later, or if you were a dino-obsessed kid who hasn’t picked up a paleo book in decades, this exhibit will give you a taste of what’s been going on lately in the world of terrible lizards.

IMG_1629

Take computer modeling, for example.  Dino bones tend to be big, heavy, and fragile, which puts limits on the things you can do with them in a lab.  Researchers can manipulate a virtual skeleton in ways that would be impossible with the genuine article, so they can study, say, the neck vertebrae of a sauropod to get a sense of what the living animal’s posture might have been like.  You know those pictures of long-necked herbivores with their heads held erect like enormous giraffes?  Turns out sauropods might not have been browsing up in the treetops after all.

IMG_1630

Here’s a Mesozoic arsenal: stegosaur plates and a spike, and an ankylosaur tail club.  Or were some of these things intended to win over mates rather than fend off carnivores?

IMG_1633

We’ve all seen images of Triceratops facing off against T. rex.  But as formidable as those horns and that bony frill look…

 

IMG_1636

…the headgear isn’t as impressive on smaller relatives, such as Protoceratops.  That suggests ceratopsians were using their cranial adornment for something besides dueling with predators.

IMG_1632

And speaking of T. rex, one of the most interesting paleontological debates involves whether the tyrant lizard king was a fast runner.  (I think it’s interesting, anyway, and in the event you ever find yourself in the presence of a tyrannosaur, I dare say you’ll take an intense and sudden interest in it, too.)  How do you gauge the top speed of an animal that died tens of millions of years ago?  This exhibit will let you see how scientists crunch the numbers, and where the numbers themselves come from.  And the news is surprisingly not that bad for those of you in the habit of driving jeeps around island theme parks during power outages.

IMG_1640

Some of the most fascinating dino discoveries of the past couple decades have come from the early Cretaceous deposits of Liaoning Province in northeastern China.  Animals and plants either died in or washed into still lakes before volcanic ash buried them, creating a low-oxygen environment that kept the remains intact and preserved the fossils in exquisite detail.  Because of these ideal conditions, we know that some dinosaurs from Liaoning—such as Sinosauropteryx, Microraptor, and Sinornithosaurus—had a feathery covering.  These Chinese finds have shed quite a bit of light on the relationship between birds and extinct dinosaurs and the evolution of flight.

IMG_1642

Dinosaur Discoveries will be at the McClung until August 28.  I definitely recommend a visit for those of you in the Knoxville area.  It’s not an assemblage of original specimens, but the casts and models are lovely, and there are plenty of interactive elements.  I love the idea of an exhibit geared toward teaching not just what scientists know, but how they know it and how much remains to be determined.  It underscores the idea of science as a process—as a set of questions and contested answers—rather than an inert body of facts that just appears out of nowhere in the pages of textbooks and on Wikipedia.

History, too, is a process  of inquiry.  And I think we should more fully exploit this same approach when it comes to history exhibits and other historical media aimed at the public.  One of the big problems historians face when it comes to advocating for the discipline is the fact that so many people don’t really understand what we do or how we go about doing it.  Since exhibits are one of our primary means of communicating with the public, we should be using them not just to convey information about our subject matter, but to give people a sense of how historians go about their work, what constitutes historical thinking, and what the possibilities and limitations of historical investigation are.  We should be using exhibits to convey information, but we should also use them to demonstrate that this information is the result of historians asking questions, figuring out how to answer them, and throwing those answers into competition with one another.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, Museums and Historic Sites

The McClung Museum will be the epicenter of awesomeness in 2016

Somebody pinch me.  Seriously.  I’m not on cloud nine; I’m on cloud twenty-seven or twenty-eight.  Maybe higher than that.

Fallen from Edenic perfection though it is, this world affords us a great many fine things, including the companionship of family and friends, sublime sunsets, good BBQ, and free access to Shakira videos on YouTube.

Of all the pleasures we’re granted in life, however, two of the greatest are undoubtedly the study of these subjects:

  1. Dinosaurs
  2. The early history of East Tennessee

Imagine, then, how ecstatic I was to learn that the next two special exhibits at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture here in Knoxville will be…

DINOSAUR DISCOVERIES: ANCIENT FOSSILS, NEW IDEAS

June 4, 2016–August 28, 2016

This exhibition showcases the world of modern paleontology, introducing a dynamic vision of dinosaurs and the scientists who study them. New discoveries and technologies reveal how dinosaurs lived, moved and behaved. Find out how advanced technologies allow scientists to look at fossils in fresh ways. Examine realistic models and casts, and see dinosaurs walk, run and move their long necks in fantastic computer simulations.

and…

KNOXVILLE UNEARTHED: ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE HEART OF THE VALLEY

September 7, 2016–January 8, 2017

In honor of Knoxville’s 225th anniversary, this exhibition explores the city’s heritage as seen through archaeological discoveries in the “Heart of the Valley.” Using historic artifacts unearthed in and around Knoxville, along with historical images, maps, documents, and oral histories, the exhibition tells the story of Knoxville’s development from a frontier settlement to an industrialized city.

Dinosaurs and East Tennessee history.  It’s like if you made a Venn diagram of awesomeness, and plopped the McClung Museum’s rotating exhibit gallery right down in the middle.

Could it get any better?  Oh, yes, indeed, it could.

A few days ago I opened an e-mail from the Department of History’s director of graduate studies.  My assistantship assignment for next semester came in, and I’ll be working for…wait for it…the McClung Museum.

I. GET. TO. WORK. AT. THE. MCCLUNG. MUSEUM.

Here’s a pretty close approximation of how I reacted.

Seriously, I couldn’t be more excited.  I haven’t been able to get my hands dirty with museum work in quite a while, and the fact that I get to do it at a Smithsonian-affiliated institution with a fossil exhibit and a special exhibition on Knoxville’s history makes me absolutely giddy.

Oh, one more thing.  The archaeology exhibit will feature some artifacts from excavations at Marble Springs, which is fantastic, because we haven’t really had an opportunity to showcase this stuff at the site.  If you’re interested in seeing some of these traces of John Sevier’s plantation, be sure to stop by this fall.  Admission to the McClung Museum is free, and it’s one of the most fascinating ways to spend some time in the Knoxville area.

4 Comments

Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History