Tag Archives: dinosaurs

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Sure, they’re outdated now; they were already a bit behind the science when Disney rolled them out in 1982.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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Rethinking history and picturing deep time

Louis Figuier’s 1863 book The World Before the Deluge was a time machine between two covers.  By the mid-nineteenth century, geologists knew that different rock layers and the fossils entombed in them corresponded to distinct periods of time, ages when animals and plants unlike any known to modern man had populated the globe.  Figuier took his readers on a grand tour of these geologic periods—or rather, he did so with the assistance of Édouard Riou, whose evocative engravings brought these extinct environments back to life.

Each engraving showed readers a primordial landscape characteristic of a phase of prehistory.  The result was a sort of highlights reel of earth history, a sequential arrangement of what the historian of science Martin J.S. Rudwick calls “scenes from deep time.”

Riou’s illustrations have long since lost their scientific value, but they still pack a visual wallop.  In this image, torrential rains hammer the surface of a newborn globe:

Trilobites and other marine invertebrates wash up on the shore of the Silurian sea:

The forests of the Carboniferous:

Two dinosaurs, depicted as the stocky and elephantine reptiles that early Victorians assumed they were, engage in mortal combat:

The emergence of large mammals:

A primeval flood inundates northern Europe:

The appearance of (notably white and European) humans:

And finally, a later, “Asiatic” flood, perhaps the one described in Genesis and other ancient texts:

If you’ve ever read a paleontology textbook, visited a natural history museum, watched a documentary on evolution, or stepped into a science classroom, you’ve probably seen a modern variation of these sequential deep time scenes.  Paintings in books, dioramas in museums, and CGI clips on TV often take the form of the “prehistoric highlights reel” that Figuier and Riou helped popularize.

And although the science of paleontology has changed a great deal since the 1860s, the organisms that populate our own scenes from deep time tend to correspond with those Riou associated with specific periods.  The dates assigned to the scenes have changed (and in the case of he dinosaurs, the physiology of the animals has changed, too), but the cast has remained much the same.  The scenes start out with marine invertebrates, then move on to primitive chordates and fish, then amphibians and early terrestrial organisms, then dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles, then mammalian megafauna, and finally humans.  I had a lot of books on prehistoric life when I was a kid, and the sequence of illustrations was pretty consistent across most of them: marine invertebrates, jawless fish, jawed fish, amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals, and Homo sapiens.

This sequence may seem inevitable; after all, it’s the order in which the major groups of organisms appeared.  But there’s a sense in which it’s misleading.  The illustrations tend to be much better at highlighting when groups of organisms appeared or were especially prominent than they are at indicating how long they flourished.

Take reptiles, for example. Many illustrators will throw one in around the late Carboniferous to mark the emergence of the first reptiles, or perhaps include a picture of the sail-backed Dimetrodon in the Permian. Pictures of reptiles then dominate the Mesozoic, and then tend to disappear from pictorial sequences and time charts altogether after the age of dinosaurs.

But reptiles didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago.  Nor, for that matter, did the dinosaurs themselves.  Birds are advanced theropod dinosaurs, and living bird species outnumber mammals species by two to one.  Extant reptile species outnumber mammal species, too.  But you wouldn’t know this from looking at pictorial deep time sequences and geologic time scales.  Illustrators are keen on reptiles and birds when they first appear, or when they’re the biggest terrestrial animals going.  Once you hit the end of the Cretaceous Period, however, it’s as if we assume that reptiles and their descendants ceased to exist, or at least ceased to be relevant.  Indeed, we call our own time the “Age of Mammals,” but it would be just as accurate to keep calling it the “Age of Reptiles.”

The artificiality of deep time imagery is even more apparent when you look at fish.  Illustrators highlight fish when they’re the only vertebrates around, but once amphibians show up and start colonizing the land, fish more or less vanish from the pictures.  Likewise, you don’t see many amphibians in illustrations of scenes dating from after the first appearance of reptiles.  And invertebrates tend to disappear entirely once animals with backbones evolve, even though they make up more than 95% of all extant species described so far.

These charts and sequential images also tend to favor terrestrial over aquatic life.  Marine organisms are plentiful in scenes of early eras, when there’s no life on land.  But once terrestrial animals appear, many geologic time scales omit marine life altogether, except for the occasional aquatic reptile from the Mesozoic (presumably included because they look really cool).

You can see the same sequence of organisms in illustrated charts and tables of geologic time.  Take a look at this one produced by CliffsNotes.  Invertebrates for the earliest periods populate the oldest periods at the bottom, and then it’s fish, terrestrial animals, dinosaurs, and mammals.  Not a single invertebrate after the first appearance of insects.

Here’s another one from a professional development site for teachers.  It’s pretty consistent with the one above.  Invertebrates, fish, plants, amphibians, dinosaurs, large mammals, and finally man up at the top.

The point I’m belaboring here is that pictorial sequences of earth history and illustrated geologic time charts are as notable for their omissions as they are for what they include.  There’s a sort of implicit narrative thrust at work here, focused on organisms that are vertebrate, terrestrial, and warm-blooded.  Organisms, in other words, that seem most relevant to our own origins.

Now, I’ve never needed an excuse to discuss extinct organisms here before, but this post isn’t one of my gratuitous prehistoric indulgences.  I raise the issue of scenes from deep time because it offers insights into the ways we think about the more recent, human past.

We might compare the treatment of some historical subjects in textbooks and survey courses to depictions of organisms in pictorial sequences of deep time.  Just as illustrators render some animal groups invisible once a more recent group arrives on the scene, so we tend to render Indians invisible after, say, King Philip’s War, Jacksonian removal, or Wounded Knee.  But Native Americans didn’t vanish after these important turning points.  They might have ended up in a different location, but they didn’t become extinct or irrelevant, any more than amphibians became extinct once animals started laying amniotic eggs.

And the descendants of Spanish colonists in the American Southwest didn’t cease to exist after the mid-1800s, when Anglophone Americans took political control of the region.  They were there the whole time, just as birds kept fluttering along through the mass extinction of 65 million years ago and the emergence of large mammals afterward.

In the same way, just as it’s misleading to ignore marine life and focus exclusively on terrestrial life after the movement of the first organisms into land, it’s also misleading for history books and courses to ignore the Southwest after the passage of the “frontier” era, or to be attentive to southern history only during the Civil War, New South, and civil rights eras.  And our discussions of such important changes as the Industrial Revolution shouldn’t blind us to the fact that most Americans remained tied to agriculture long after the first steam engines started puttering, just as most organisms remained invertebrates long after the first backbones appeared.

Our selective memory of history suffers from the same problems as our selective memory of the story of the life on this planet.  We need to remind ourselves to step away from selective scenes of the past to take in the sweep of the whole drama.  And we need to stop thinking of history in terms of a “highlights reel” of status scenes, and start thinking of it as a totality.

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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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