Tag Archives: fossils

Relativity

It’s been a summer of traveling for me: Virginia, Florida, and California, all within the span of a few weeks.  Just a few days ago, I visited the La Brea Tar Pits with a couple of friends of mine.  I think the tar pits are sort of obligatory for paleophiles who visit L.A.  

It’s got to be the most famous fossil site in California, if not on the West Coast as a whole.  It’s also a very recent site, as far as fossil deposits go.  Most of the specimens from La Brea date from about 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia.  In geologic time, that’s practically yesterday, and much, much more recent than the terrible lizards that really interest me.  Dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago, and flourished until the K-T extinction event killed off the non-avian dinos 65 million years before the present.  (I say non-avian because scientists now consider birds to be advanced theropod dinosaurs, the same group that includes the big carnivores.  T. rex is actually more closely related to a parakeet than to Triceratops.)  While checking out the exhibits at La Brea, I couldn’t escape the notion that all this stuff was really new.

Now, here’s the weird thing.  A few weeks ago, as you may recall, I was in Jamestown.  I’m fascinated by seventeenth-century colonial history, but my foremost historical interest is the American Revolution.  As an aspiring early Americanist who spends most of his time studying the end of England’s American empire, the founding of Jamestown seems almost like the Big Bang to me.

But when you consider that anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, 1607 isn’t that long ago.  Indeed, it’s not even particularly early in the history of European adventurism in the New World.  The Spanish had been making their mark in the Americas for more than a century when the English started building their fort on the banks of the James River.  And four hundred years is hardly worth noticing compared to the gulf of time that separates us from the animals that roamed Rancho La Brea in the Pleistocene.

When I was standing within the reconstructed palisade of Jamestown’s fort a few weeks ago, I was thinking like an aspiring American historian, and it was like being present at the creation.  At La Brea, on the other hand, I was wearing my dino aficionado hat, and those 40,000-year-old mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats seemed like they’d been around just a few moments ago.

History classes tend to reinforce these skewed perspectives of time.  The world history survey is ostensibly in the business of teaching students what humans have been up to during our tenure on this planet, but most of human existence gets covered in the first lecture or two.  The rest of the course is about human history since the end of the Neolithic.  In other words, we devote only one class meeting to something like 98% of humanity’s past.

The American history survey distorts time, too.  The first half zips through thousands of years’ worth of pre-Columbian history in about an hour of lecture, and then spends months on the few hundred years between Columbus and the end of Reconstruction.  The second half devotes the whole semester to less than a century and a half.  There isn’t really any sense to the way survey courses split American history in two.

The way we define fields of specialization makes no chronological sense, either.  There was twice as much time from Roanoke to the Rev War as there was from the Rev War to the Civil War, but both Roanoke and the Rev War are the business of early Americanists.  The Civil War?  That’s for those nineteenth-century historians.

The passage of time defines what historians do, but I don’t think we’re any more astute than a random person on the street when it comes to conceptualizing time accurately.

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Take the Jurassic World Challenge and support paleontology

A couple of days ago I finished reading An Agenda for Antiquity, Ronald Rainger’s book on the eminent naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborn and his career at the American Museum of Natural History.  It was Osborn who turned the AMNH into one of the world’s leading institutions for vertebrate paleontology.

He was never a field man, he delegated much of the nitty-gritty work of research to his subordinates, and many of his ideas about evolution were off the mark.  But as an administrator, a museum showman, and an intellectual who grappled with big questions, he left behind a tremendous legacy, the magnitude of which is apparent when you walk through those magnificent fossil galleries on the AMNH’s fourth floor.  (Incidentally, Osborn was also a master at coming up with awesome dinosaur names; he’s the guy who christened Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor, probably the two coolest scientific monikers in the history of zoology.)

Osborn’s background was critical to his success at the AMNH.  He came from a wealthy New York family, and he was connected to some of the richest and most influential Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These connections enabled him to raise the money needed to mount expeditions, prepare specimens, build galleries, and publish research.  In Osborn’s day, vertebrate paleontology depended heavily on private donors.

It’s dependent on them still.  A lot of people assume that paleontology must be a lucrative business, since dinosaurs are so wildly popular.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Compared to scientific fields with more immediately practical applications, paleontological research is woefully underfunded.

That’s one of the reasons why I heartily endorse David Orr’s idea over at the paleoblog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.  Check it out:

I call it the Jurassic World Challenge. If you’re buying a ticket for the movie, it’s a fair bet that you also have that much money to give to the people who bring prehistory to life in the real world. Think of it as a matching fund, crowdsourced. See the movie, do some good. The official rules:

  • Donate the equivalent of your Jurassic World ticket price to paleontological research
    or
  • Spend the equivalent of your ticket price on the wares of an independent paleoartist

Of course, you don’t have to pick one or the other. Buy some art, give some money to a research effort, enjoy the movie. I also put together a graphic to help spread the word, in before and after flavors. You are free to disseminate these far and wide! Take it and post it on your blog or other social media channels.

If you plan on seeing Jurassic World—or if you’re like me and plan on seeing it many, many times—consider a donation to paleontological research and the production of paleoart.  If you’re unsure about exactly where to send your money, Orr’s blog post has a list of some current research projects and independent paleoartists.  You might also check with your local natural history museum or university to see what dino-related things they’ve got going on that could use your support.

The folks who study and reconstruct ancient animals have made my life exponentially more joyful.  If you’re as excited as I am about Jurassic World, they’ve probably made your life more joyful, too.  Let’s show them a little gratitude.

By Ben Townsend from Blacksburg, Virginia (File:Velociraptor Wyoming Dinosaur Center.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Behemoths in Baltimore

I said we’d be seeing Giganotosaurus again soon, and by golly, here he is.

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That’s one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs of all time.  I ran into this bad boy at the Maryland Science Center, within spitting distance of Federal Hill and the USS Constellation in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  I had some extra time after visiting Ft. McHenry, so I stopped by to indulge in a little dino-viewing.

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Most of the dinos at the MSC are casts, including the Giganotosaurus, but they’re beautiful mounts all the same.  I especially like this dynamic, lunging T. rex.

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Donald Gennaro’s last view:

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And here’s Tarbosaurus, T. rex‘s cousin from Mongolia.

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Two very early dinosaurs from South America, Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus.

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Cryolophosaurus, a pompadour-sporting meat-eater from Antarctica.  (Yep, dinosaurs in Antarctica.)

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Finally, here’s an Acrocanthosaurus in the flesh…

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…trying to take down an Astrodon, Maryland’s state dinosaur. This scene is based on a famous trackway from Texas excavated by R.T. Bird and recently reconstructed digitally.

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Another ginormous dinosaur from Argentina

We’ve got a new contender for biggest dino:

A team of scientists in Argentina have unearthed the remains of the largest species of dinosaur discovered to date, paleontologists announced Saturday.

Seven “huge” herbivorous dinosaurs were discovered at one site in the province of Chubut, Argentina, according to the Paleontological Museum Egidio Feruglio, which led the dig.

The new species are estimated to have been 40 meters in length and 80 tons in weight, surpassing the previous record-holder for the world’s largest dinosaur — the Argentinosaurus.

These dinosaur size rankings always come with a few caveats. Back in the 1870s, a fossil collector working for the famous naturalist Edward Drinker Cope found part of a backbone and femur from a long-necked dino that Cope named Amphicoelias fragillimus.  Comparing Cope’s report of the remains’ size to the same parts from better-known dinos indicates that A. fragillimus was far and away the longest dinosaur of all time—as in close to 200 feet from tip to tip.  The problem is, Cope’s published account is all we have, because the bones themselves are gone.  It’s possible they were in such a poor state of preservation that they just crumbled to pieces.

And a reported dino from India named Bruhathkayosaurus supposedly approached Amphicoelias in size, but the initial description was iffy and the specimen got washed away in a flood.

Anyway, this latest find means yet another humungous dinosaur from Argentina, a country with a track record of producing some of the biggest of all terrible lizards.  In addition to Argentinosaurus, it was also home to Giganotosaurus, one of the biggest carnivorous dinos.  We’ll be seeing him again in the very near future.  (Here on the blog, I mean, not out in the real world.  That would either be really, really awesome or really, really unfortunate.)

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New space for old bones

This is bittersweet news for me.  The dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is closed for five years to make way for a total renovation.

I love the Smithsonian’s dino gallery.  It was the first major fossil exhibit I ever saw (so long ago that some of the occupants were probably breathing at the time).  There aren’t many museum experiences that could excite me more than walking through the NMNH rotunda, past that big bull elephant, and stepping into that massive hall dominated by a Diplodocus.

smithsonianmag.com

What I loved almost as much as the skeletons were the dioramas in the rear of the gallery.  They were like little windows into a world I usually had to imagine.  I doubt they’ll survive the renovation, since they’re pretty outdated.  But to tell you the truth, once I got older I loved the fact that they were showing their age, because they took me back to the dinosaur books I read when I was a kid—books with dinos that hadn’t yet caught up with science, still lumbering around in swampy forests with their tails dragging behind them.

Wikimedia Commons

The new exhibit should be pretty awesome.  They’re mounting a new T. rex, which I guess will replace the cast of “Stan” from the old hall.  Until then, Washington, D.C. is going to be a lot less awesome.  I really wish I could’ve visited this year, just to walk through one last time.

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History and prehistory in the City of Angels

If you find yourself visiting southern California and you’d like a good crash course in the area’s history, let me recommend a visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Most of us associate natural history museums with fossils and taxidermy, but the NHMLAC also has an exhibit called “Becoming Los Angeles,” which covers L.A.’s story from the arrival of the Spanish up to the present. It opened last year.

I’m not that familiar with the history of California, so this exhibit was an education for me. The section on the Spanish mission system is especially interesting; it explains the impact of European colonization on both the land and the people. The arrival of domestic cattle, for example, dramatically impacted southern California’s vegetation. Cows ate up the grasses that were native to the area while depositing foreign seeds in their dung. Hence the slogan emblazoned on souvenirs in the museum’s gift shop: Cow poop changed L.A.!

Becoming Los Angeles features some pretty neat artifacts. Here’s the table on which the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed in 1847, ending hostilities in the Mexican-American War in California. Of course, the war didn’t officially end until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the following year.

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The exhibit also covers more recent history, including the city’s role in WWII and the birth of the local aviation and entertainment industries. Here’s another historically significant piece of furniture: Walt Disney’s animation stand, used to make the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.

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Other objects on display include Spanish crucifixes from the colonial era, Indian tools, and one of Charlie Chaplin’s costumes.

But hey…I didn’t go to L.A. to see history exhibits. I was off the clock. You guys know where this is headed, right?

If you like tyrannosaurs, you’re in luck. There are more T. rex mounts at the NHMLAC than you can shake a severed goat leg at. One of them is facing off against a Triceratops in the foyer.

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More tyrannosaur skeletons are in the main dinosaur exhibit. This is a really cool mount, because it’s the only place in the world where you can see three T. rexes of different ages posed together in a growth series. At two years old, this is the youngest known T. rex specimen.

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The second tyrannosaur is a twenty-foot adolescent. T. rex grew remarkably fast in its early teens, packing on up to 1.5 tons per year.

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And here’s the third animal, close to full size.

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Mamenchisaurus, a long-necked sauropod from China, dominates the first dinosaur gallery.

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Another Triceratops.

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Carnotaurus, the bulldog-faced meat-eater from Argentina. On a related note, on my last night in town my friends took me to an Argentine restaurant. Best thing about L.A. is the variety of dining options.

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A hadrosaur skull. The horny part of the “duckbill” is really visible on this specimen.

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Allosaurus vs Stegosaurus. I do love a good Allosaurus skeleton. The Denver Museum of Natural History has a very similar mount.

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An ornithomimid. I think it’s Struthiomimus, but I don’t remember exactly.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the La Brea Tar Pits, but the NHMLAC does have quite a few specimens from the site, like this saber-toothed cat.

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And while we’re on the subject of all things prehistoric, the grand finale of my L.A. trip was a pilgrimage to the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studious Hollywood.

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I was wearing a t-shirt from the Jurassic Park River Adventure at Universal Orlando, and some of the ride operators at the Hollywood version asked me which one was better. As a connoisseur of all things JP, I feel eminently qualified to address this question, so here goes.

In terms of the rides themselves, it’s pretty much a toss-up. The Hollywood version has a couple of neat outdoor effects that are absent in Orlando, an additional (albeit brief) encounter with the T. rex, and better-looking sauropods in the opening scene. On the other hand, I think the Florida ride seems a bit less rushed, which means much better pacing, a more coherent story, and a more effective build-up of suspense. For these reasons, I have a slight personal preference for Orlando’s version, but you can’t go wrong with either one.

Looking beyond the boat ride to the overall Jurassic Park experience, Orlando has one big advantage in that Universal had room to build an entire Isla Nublar there, complete with a replica of the visitor center, more dino-themed dining and shopping establishments, and some other attractions besides the main boat ride. But Hollywood still has plenty to offer. On the studio tram tour, you’ll see vehicles used in The Lost World and the water tank used to film the final Spinosaurus attack in JPIII. The die-hard fan should visit both parks—Hollywood because it’s steeped in the history of the franchise, Orlando because you can immerse yourself in the movie’s fictional universe. (Assuming, of course, you can ignore that darned Harry Potter castle looming above the treeline. Zoning laws, people. Zoning laws.)

And that’s a wrap. Back to business as usual.

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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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