Friday, June 27, 2014

Species That Don't Get Enough Publicity #7: Heterodontosaurus

Today’s animal we’re looking at you’ve probably heard of, or perhaps not. Most dinosaur encylopedias and other comprehensive works mention it, but it’s not in any museums outside its home, and it hasn’t made a single appearance on big or TV screens.  No toys, no dedicated books, only a small bit of art for it. It seems that while the large weird dinosaurs attract a great deal of attention, the smaller ones, even more bizarre, do not. There’s a whole plethora of small but striking animals, but we’re looking at one in particular from an obscure location that is absolutely unique.

Perhaps besides its size (only 3 feet, the size of a small dog) and its location (South Africa), its very name makes it so obscure. While Triceratops, Apatosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus are 4-5 syllable monstrosities, Heterodontosaurus has a whopping 7 syllables and 18 letters, not counting the rather small and bland species name tucki.  The name, however, says a great deal on why this dinosaur is so significant. It is in Greek, of course, meaning roughly “Lizard with different types of teeth”

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Prehistoric Warfare: a new fictional series. Episode 1: Liliensternus vs Teratosaurus

Now for something different. In 2004, Animal Planet showed as new series called Animal Face Off, a series reconstructing conflicts between coexisting animals. While the execution was clumsy and lacking, the concept is strong and I think easily applied to prehistoric fauna.  Ideally, there would be professionals discussing the situations, but unfortunately, you have only me. First I will compare the animals, and then depict their behavior, before concluding with the final battle.  The outcome will be my personal opinion; and there would be many times when the outcome would be decidedly different. This is not a scientific consensus, but one researcher’s opinion.

We all love dinosaur battles. They’re always a high point in a film. It’s childish, but it’s just plain fun. So, I’m hoping to use this opportunity to use this almost-universal appeal to get people thinking and talking about ecology, biomechanics, and behavior. Only one or two of these stories will be based on actual fossils-the rest are likely possibilities that must have happened sometime or another. In real life, animals usually don’t fight on even terms, but it does happen. Sometimes prey turn the tables, sometimes predators quarrel between themselves, but it can happen. I hope you enjoy this. Again, first I will have two scenes, one for each animal showing them in their habitat and showcasing their particular skills, then finally concluding with a battle between the two.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

Last week’s viewing of Godzilla got me thinking about the origin of the kaiju genre. It’s ultimately related to dinosaurs and our awe of the huge and strange. King Kong certainly played its part, as it its own inspiration, the 1925 Lost World. However, one film tied King Kong with Godzilla, a missing link of movie monsters, between dinosaurs and kaiju. Today we’re looking at Ray Harryhausen’s  1953 opus, the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Paleontology Week in Review: 6/7/14

Sorry about missing the week in review last week-there wasn’t much going on in the world of paleontology. However, the press this week has brought to my attention some amazing fossil finds.

First we’ve got a beautiful discovery of a pterosaur rookery in Xinjiang by Dr. Wang Xiaolin. This week his team released their paper on the discovery, naming the new species Hamipterus tianshanensis.  The sheer amount of fossil bones reveals much-needed, often-sought but seldom-found information on the animal. Not only are there 5 intact eggs, but at least 40 individuals. This number provides information on physical characteristics (the animals are sexually dimorphic in terms of their crest shape), life cycle (pterosaurs are found in almost all stages of growth), and social organization (nests are preserved,  and the sheer amount of nests and individuals suggests a colony not unlike one of seabirds). 

It’s been suggested for decades that pterosaurs were social animals living like birds in large groups, but this time we have an actual flock.   Wang et al classify it as a relative of the famous Pteranodon, one of the earliest members of the family.  Found it the Aptian Cretaceous Turpan-Hami Basin, it was the successor of the more basal pterosaur Dsungaripterus, but was more of a generalist fisher.

Speaking of mass finds, there was a mass find of early Cretaceous Icthyosaurs in Chile. 36 individuals, some of them pregnant, from 4 different species, were found in a single bed at the Torres del Paine National Park.  The find was discovered ten years ago, but only now has the significance and sheer scope been found. Sadly, the paper is not available in a free journal, so precise details are not known to me. However, like the pterosaurs, this suggests a catastrophe, possible a tsunami or volcanic eruption that killed the animals.

A new short-snouted crocodilian was found in the Paleocene Cerrejon formation in Colombia by Alexander K. Hastings of the Florida Museum of Natural History, Jonathan I. Bloch of the Geiseltalmuseum of the Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg, and Carlos A. Amarillo of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Called Anthracosuchus balrogus, it was distinct for it thick, squared scutes that protected its back, bony tuberosities around its eyes, wide-spaced eyes, short, broad snout, and rounded, blunt teeth. Anthracosuchus is a dyrosaur, a family of crocodilians that evolved in the Palaeocene, flourished, then went extinct. The family was better adapted for aquatic lifestyles than their modern counterparts, thriving in the jungles and wetlands of the Palaeogene and eating fish and other aquatic reptiles. The teeth of this animal seem to be adapted for crushing turtle shells. 

At 16-feet long Anthracosuchus dwarfed most of the other animals of the Cerrejon jungle, including its main prey, the 6-foot turtle Carbonemys, and its relatives the small but similarly short-snouted Cerrejonisuchus and common, long-snouted Acherontisuchus. However, it in turn was prey for the largest snake of all-time, the similarly semiaquatic Titanoboa. Titanoboa was twice the length of a modern green anaconda, and fulfilled a similar role as aquatic apex predator.

On to dinosaurs-

Hai Xing and his team from multiple institutions in China, Canada, and the UK released their paper this week on a new hadrosaur from Henan, Zhanghenglong yangchengensis. The animal is described as basal, similar to Bactrosaurus, Telmatosaurus, Lophorhothon,  and other ancestors of hadrosaurs.  The find is scanty and disarticulated, but enough of the skull and post-cranial material remain to get a good picture of this browser, it’s evolutionary relationships, and it’s ecological role.  It’s placed as a sister taxon to Nanyangosaurus. 

It’s from the Majiacun Formation, a Santonian age mid-Cretaceous strata discovered relatively recently and with very few fossils. So far, we know that the troodont Xixiasaurus and alverezasaur Xixianykus shared the habitat, and eggs have been found suggesting therizinosaurs also lived in the area.  Hopefully, more of this animal will be found and more animals in this environment will be found.

Finally, another dinosaur was found, this one from Luxembourg and described by Dominique Delsate from the Musée national d’histoire naturelle de Luxembourg and Martin D. Ezcurra of the Universities of Birmingham and Munich.  It’s a theropod dinosaur from the Hettangian Early Jurassic: a relative of Megapnosaurus and Sarcosaurus.  The material is scanty-teeth and a foot bone. 

The locale, Reckingerwald quarry, is not known for dinosaurs, either-most of the fossils are of marine invertebrates, with a few plesiosaur, ichthyosaur, and cartilaginous fish bones.  It’s the least of the discoveries in terms of material and drama, and the dinosaur has yet to be named, but it’s still a find worth the publicity

Tune in next week for more paleontology news!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

There’s very few dinosaur movies in theaters nowadays. The last time I saw one on the big screen was in December, and that in turn was the first in years. So when I see a film that can be described as a dinosaur film, I must watch it. Yes, I saw Godzilla last week, and I can assume most people interested have already seen it so I can discuss it spoilers and all. Just to be safe, I’ll put a cut here before I get into the details.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

An Overview of Dinosaur Exhibits Part 4: The Carnegie Museum

Most times in which I hear about museums are in the context of a book or documentary. This week’s museum, however, I first learned from a series of toys.  I remember my first dinosaur toys being from the Funrise series of animal figures, and the Imperial Toys large toys. The best, however, I encountered in first grade. The classroom has a display of them, with an accompanying poster. The name was distinctive-“The Carnegie Collection”.  They were big enough to be detailed but not too big enough to effect play. They were beautiful, sculpted, and sturdy. They ranged from familiar animals like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops to more obscure animals like Maiasaura.