Tag Archives: dinosaurs

GDP: A couple of Carolina dinosaurs

Well, it was supposed to be a working trip—no prehistoric shenanigans allowed.  But it turns out the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is practically right across the street from the state archives.  I took it as a sign.

A most welcome sign, too, because the NCMNS has two dinosaur specimens I’d wanted to see in person for a long time.  The first is “Willo,” a remarkable Thescelosaurus from South Dakota.

This guy (gal?) was all over the news back in 2000 due to a claim that the stony mass under the shoulder blade was actually a petrified heart.  Other researchers have argued that it’s just a concretion.  Either way, Willo is a really neat fossil.

The other dino I wanted to check out was the world’s largest and most complete Acrocanthosaurus, a massive Early Cretaceous meat-eater famous for the spines along its neck and back.

Note that some of the bones are missing.  I think the museum is replacing the original fossils in the mount with replicas because of the preservation conditions in the exhibit space, so if you want to see the genuine article, you’d better do it sooner rather than later.

The original skull is in a case nearby, and it’s a beauty.

 

The acro shares its gallery with an Astrodon.  Those wicked teeth have already ripped a chunk out of the sauropod’s hindquarters, and it looks like the acro is going to make another lunge.

 

The dinos alone were well worth the stroll over from the archives, but this ginormous ground sloth is one of the most impressive fossil mammals I’ve ever seen.

Even more ginormous are the whale skeletons looming over the Coastal North Carolina exhibit.  My faves were the blue whale…

 

…and “Trouble,” the skeleton of a sperm whale that washed up on the Carolina coast in 1928.  The name came from the ordeal museum personnel had getting the bones back to Raleigh.

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GDP: An eruption of paleonews

Fossil resources under threat, a volcanic trailer, two new theropods, and a tweeting tyrannosaur.  It’s all in today’s Gratuitous Dinosaur Post.

Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument. By US Bureau of Land Management (http://mypubliclands.tumblr.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

ITEM THE FIRST: You’ve probably heard about the Trump administration’s move to slash land away from Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-National Monument.  What you may not know is that the two sites are paleontological treasure troves.  In fact, their spectacular fossil resources helped get them established as national monuments in the first place.

Trump’s decision puts a lot of scientific data in jeopardy, so the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is taking the administration to court to try and stop it.  SVP President P. David Polly explains why this lawsuit is necessary:

When Grand Staircase-Escalante was set aside, there were very few areas anywhere in the world where we had a mammal fossil record right at the late Cretaceous period, when different mammal groups were diverging. Those fossils really filled a gap in mammal paleontology and put Grand Staircase on the map from a paleontological point of view. We now have the most extraordinary Late Cretaceous ecosystem documented anywhere. After the monument was established, a lot of the dinosaur material was discovered.

In Bears Ears, the very oldest and the very youngest fossils have been excluded, including one area that documents the transition from amphibians to true reptiles. In Grand Staircase, they’ve hacked off most of the very southern edge of the monument and the very eastern edge. That cuts out a really important interval in time, including the world’s greatest mass extinction, and the Triassic period, which is really when life started re-evolving again. Some of the mammal-bearing units I just described are out in their entirety. One of the great ironies is that the original localities where all the great discoveries were made in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the founding of the monument, are now out of the monument.

[But on BLM lands managed for multiple uses,] if there’s another competing use the paleontology does not necessarily hold sway. An extreme example would be mining—if mining wins out, then the fossils can be destroyed. Second, the monument is better staffed, so it’s harder for someone to sneak in illegally and take things, whereas on ordinary BLM land it’s much less well policed.

Third, in national monuments where paleontology is one of the designated resources, there’s a whole special funding stream for research. A lot of the work that has been done at Grand Staircase has essentially been a public-private partnership. The funding through the monument has really made the science there blossom; we would not have seen the level or number of finds there over the last 20 years had that not existed.

ITEM THE SECOND: Now, how ’bout that Fallen Kingdom trailer?

As far as first trailers go, I like this one a lot better than Jurassic World‘s.  JW‘s trailer, I think, gave away a bit too much.  Revealing the helicopter crash in the aviary was especially unfortunate.  It undercut a lot of the shock we should’ve felt at Masrani’s death.

One thing the trailer does reveal is a ginormous volcanic eruption that triggers a dinosaur stampede.  This prehistoric plot trope dates back to the very dawn of dino movies, having been depicted in the 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.  But I don’t think it’s ever been done as impressively as this.

The Baryonyx at 00:58 has been generating most of the buzz on the Interwebs, but I’m especially glad to see Carnotaurus finally making its debut in the film series.  Crichton featured this genus in the second novel, so it’s high time it showed up in the movies.

Fans have also been speculating about the identity of that carnivore at 1:51.  It looks a lot like an Allosaurus.  As a longtime allo fan, I’d love to see it in a JP movie, but it does seem a little odd to add such a standard carnosaur to a film franchise that already has quite a few big meat-eaters.  With so many weird theropods out there, you’d think they’d want to showcase some of the more offbeat ones.  Then again, since Allosaurus fossils are plentiful, I suppose it’s as likely to turn up in a dinosaur theme park as any other big predator.

ITEM THE THIRD: Halszkaraptor, the newly christened, semi-aquatic theropod from Mongolia, had a goose’s neck, a raptor’s claws, and a snout full of sensors like a crocodile’s.  Convergent evolution is a heck of a thing.

ITEM THE FOURTH: One of the most famous fossils in Haarlem’s Teylers Museum is getting a new name…again.  In 1970, while examining the museum’s pterosaur collection, John Ostrom determined that its type specimen of Pterodactylus crassipes wasn’t a pterodactyl at all, but an Archaeopteryx.  Now a team of researchers has identified the Teylers fossil as a new genus of dinosaur, which they’ve named Ostromia crassipes.

ITEM THE FIFTH: Chicago magazine caught up with Sue, the Field Museum’s resident T. rex, to talk about social media and how she’ll be spending her downtime as she awaits her move to a new gallery:

There may be some behind-the-scenes hijinks while I’m off display getting ready to be remounted. As a (temporarily) disembodied rage emu, I can roam the halls and maybe check in on the new 122-foot-long sauropod playing door greeter. That is, if it can ever shut up about “going vegan.” WE GET IT YOU EAT KALE [leaf emoji].

Also, did you know less than 1 percent of The Field Museum’s collections are on public display? With some free time on my tiny, but powerful, hands I will finally be able to see EVERY rove beetle we have. And buddy…DEMS A LOT OF ROVE BEETLES.

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GDP: “They want to see their expectation”

In case you haven’t seen it, a few seconds of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom footage has hit the Interwebs, and it’s got us dino aficionados in quite a titter.  It shows Owen Grady communing with a baby raptor, perhaps the offspring of Blue from the first JW.

Among dinosaur buffs, reaction to “Baby Blue” has been mixed.  Some fans think it’s adorable, while others are still bummed that the series’ raptors are missing their feathers.  (Click here to see a more accurate depiction of a baby Velociraptor.)  It’s been the subject of heated debate ever since Colin Trevorrow tweeted the news that JW‘s dinosaurs would take their bows sans plumage.

Me?  I’d prefer to see the raptors get a scientific upgrade.  It took me a while to get used to seeing fluffy dromaeosaurs, but now it’s the featherless reconstructions that look odd to me.  They seem unnaturally denuded, sort of like Persian cats with buzz cuts.

Of course, the films’ super-sized raptors have never exactly embodied scientific accuracy anyway.  But there’s already some precedent for a makeover in the movies’ fictional universe.  The makers of JPIII added bold new colors to that installment’s raptors and topped off the pack’s leader with a crown of filaments.  Some of the JP comic books have been even more progressive.  The raptors in the spin-off miniseries Dangerous Games are decked out with wicked plumes and long, pennaceous feathers on their forearms.  I’d love to see future installments use a design along the lines of the wonderful Beasts of the Mesozoic figures.

Jurassic Park: Dangerous Games #2, cover by Jeff Zornow. Image via comicbookrealm.com

What I find ironic about the JW feather brouhaha is that the filmmakers have put themselves in the same position as the people behind the park in Crichton’s original novel.  In one scene, geneticist Henry Wu tries to persuade park founder John Hammond to let him tweak the animals’ genetic code so that the dinos will conform more to visitor expectations.

“The dinosaurs we have now are real,” Wu said, pointing to the screens around the room, “but in certain ways they are unsatisfactory.  Unconvincing.  I could make them better.”

“Better in what way?”

“For one thing, they move too fast,” Henry Wu said.  “People aren’t accustomed to seeing large animals that are so quick.  I’m afraid visitors will think the dinosaurs look speeded up, like film running too fast.”

“But, Henry, these are real dinosaurs.  You said so yourself.”

“I know,” Wu said.  “But we could easily breed slower, more domesticated dinosaurs.”

Domesticated dinosaurs?”  Hammond snorted.  “Nobody wants domesticated dinosaurs, They want the real thing.”

“But that’s my point,” Wu said.  “I don’t think they do.  They want to see their expectation, which is quite different.”

Hammond was frowning.

“You said yourself, John, this park is entertainment,” Wu said.  “And entertainment has nothing to do with reality.  Entertainment is antithetical to reality.”

Wu understands that InGen is in the entertainment business, just as filmmakers are.  And entertainers always run a risk when they don’t give the audience what they’re expecting to see.

When Jurassic Park came out, Velociraptor wasn’t yet a superstar dino along the lines of Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Stegosaurus.  Thus the movie spends a considerable amount of time setting up the raptors as formidable villains, from Grant’s impromptu lecture at the dig site to the feeding scene before the tour.  And the film’s raptors made such an impression that Velociraptor became a bona fide celebrity.

The movie also popularized a more modern view of dinosaurs as birdlike, bringing pop culture more in line with the state of paleontology at the time.  In the two decades after its release, however, the science has kept moving.  We’ve witnessed a new dinosaur renaissance, as dramatic in some ways as the one that resulted in the image of dinos as warm-blooded and birdlike that the original movie helped propagate.  Much of what scientists have found has been surprising and unexpected.  It turns out that raptors and their dromaeosaur kin were even more birdlike than anyone suspected.  As a paleontology buff, I’d love to see the film series disseminate some of these new discoveries, just as the first installment changed people’s image of dinosaurs.  I’d like to see a movie that catches people off-guard with all the weirdness and wonder of what scientists have uncovered.

But as Wu says, people want their expectations met.  And when it comes to raptors, their expectations conform to the indelible image the first movie burned into the popular consciousness back in 1993.  So when Universal decided to revisit Jurassic Park, Trevorrow and company basically adopted the same plan Wu proposes to Hammond in the novel.  They gave people dinosaurs that are “better than real,” and it seems they’re going to do the same thing in Fallen Kingdom.

In other words, the people making the sequels are more or less captive to a set of popular expectations about what dinosaurs should be like—expectations created by the original film itself.  And their dilemma is summed up perfectly by a character in the novel that started the whole franchise.  How meta is that?

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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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