Monday, August 31, 2009

Hooray for Ludosaurs

Carnegie Collection Corythosaurus via the Dinosaur Toy Blog

I love the Dinosaur Toy Blog! A really good idea for a blog: pick a toy dinosaur and review it for aesthetics and scientific accuracy. I've been following it for a while but I mention it here now because today, they feature one of my favorite dinosaur figurines, the Carnegie Collection's Corythosaurus. Read it here.


From Andy Council via Flickr.

This amazing stegosaurus is part of a benefit auction for Michael Dring, an artist who is living with a terrible spinal cord injury. More here. I was unfamiliar with his story until I ran across the above image. I'd like to think that if any of my friends were in this sort of situation, we'd all rally like these folks have.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Who's Who of the Mesozoic, Part 2

The last post explained why pterosaurs aren't dinosaurs. Now we'll discuss a few other beasts commonly mistaken for dinosaurs.

This sail-backed predator is by far the most iconic of the synapsids. The obvious mascot for the Permian Period (the football team in Friday Night Lights really ought to be named for this bad boy). I fondly remember the blue-green Dimetrodon model I had as a kid, which came with a little club-wielding caveman. I assume he was included for scale, though if I remember correctly, Mr. Club was way-hay-hay too small - he may have reached the dimetrodon's chin. He should have been about half as long as the beast. Inaccurate model kit aside, dimetrodon is one of the most common pseudo-dinosaurs; in fact, google auto-fill just listed "dimetrodon dinosaur" as its second option. I'm assuming those options are ranked by frequency of searches.

As you can tell from the posture of the legs in the above image, dimetrodon has a classic sprawling leg like the reptiles. Only dimetrodon isn't a reptile, either. Dimetrodon was a synapsid, which used to be called the "mammal-like reptiles" for a reason: they are an early part of the line that eventually spawned the mammals. Dimetrodon's family are the most derived (a less loaded way of saying "advanced") synapsids and thus are the most closely related to the mammals. After thousands of generations, their siblings the therapsids would eventually bring about the mammals, who trolled around in the shadows as the dinosaurs had their way for a hundred and fifty million years or so. But by that time, dimetrodon was long gone. (Dimetrodon illustration by D. Bogdanov, via wikipedia)

Plesiosaurs, Icthyosaurs, and Mosasaurs
These, the most famous of the ancient marine reptiles, are also very frequently called dinosaurs. Plesiosaurs were long-necked, short tailed reptiles; popular depictions of the Loch Ness monster usually resemble them. Icthyosaurs are more "dolphin-like" in appearance, with slender snouts and long tails. Mosasaurs are just frickin' huge sea monsters, really, and a member of the proud tradition thatwould produce modern snakes and lizards: they are called squamates, and their scales overlap.They are all aquatic diapsids, reptiles who became adapted to a marine lifestyle but are descended from landlubbing ancestors. It's pretty easy: if it has flippers, it ain't a dinosaur. Dinosaurs didn't live in the water. (Illustrations of Plesiosaurs and Icthyosaurs by Heinrich Harder, public domain. Mosasaur by Arthur Weasley)

Mammoths and Glyptodonts
The mammoths look familiar enough, being big, hairy elephants, that it's only rarely that I see them called them a dinosaur. Glyptodonts, though... I've seen it happen quite a few times. I suppose because of their body plan, which superficially resembles the armored, club-tailed ankylosaurs. Well, they're mammals, so they're more closely related to dimetrodon than any dinosaur, and they lived a great many millions of years after the Cretaceous era, and the dinosaurs' reign, ended. In fact, the've only been gone for about 10,000 years, and our own ancestors walked among them in South America, using those big domes to create the Miocene version of suburban cul-de-sacs (JK, though they did use them as shelter). They actually are distant relatives of today's armadillos, so those of us who can't wrap our heads around the fact that superficial resemblance doesn't always correlate to evolutionary affinity can smile at that small victory. The Germans, by the way, call armadillos panzerschwein, which means armored pig, and that is totally boss. If you ever want to spend some good quality time with some panzerschwein, head down to Cumberland Island National Seashore. The place is lousy with 'em. (Illustration of Glyptodon and modern humans by Heinrich Harder, public domain)

Any damn thing with a name ending in "-saur"
It just means "lizard," people.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Glyptodont Goof

I'm working pretty hard on the current series dedicated to defining dinosaurs and explaining why other creatures are not dinosaurs. I'm holding myself to a high standard, trying to write with clarity as well as scientific accuracy. Now that pterosaurs are out of the way, I'll be featuring more animals that are frequently called dinosaurs in my next post in the series. First, this little digression.

This morning as I was perusing my Google Reader, I ran across this post on Nick Gardner's fine blog Why I Hate Theropods. And it reminded me why I felt the need to do this series in the first place! A sloppy article in the Daily Telegraph. I'll screencap it below. I think it pretty well speaks for itself, and besides I'll soon be dealing with glyptodonts, mammoths, and other Pleistocene megafauna as part of the Who's Who series.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Who's Who of the Mesozoic, Part 1

Mark Witton, via flickr

My last post detailed the basic archosaurian anatomical characteristics that form the foundation of dinosaur-kind. They have special holes in their skull and mandible, their teeth are socketed, their femur has an extra knob for muscle attachment, and they have hinged, bird-like ankles.

As this whole deal began with a post on pterosaurs, it's high time we get around to distinguishing the "flying dragons" from dinosaurs; this will also help show the unique features that make a dinosaur a dinosaur and separate them from all other organisms.

Dinosaurs and pterosaurs belong to an archosaurian clade called the avemetatarsalia, which means "bird-like ankle." Basically, their ankles hinge so that they move up and down. Like ours. Other archosaurs have different ankle arrangements; for example, the crocodiles' ankle makes the foot twist frontto back. An older term for the dinosaur-pterosaur clade, fallen somewhat out of favor, is the one I originally learned: ornithodires. This means "bird-necks," and while it's a shorter, more accessible, and just more fun to say, it's not as generally accurate as big old eight-syllable avemetatarsalia (a term coined in 1999 by paleontologist Michael Benton). It's commonly accepted (but not unanimously!) that dinosaurs and pterosaurs are very closely related, sharing a common bird-ankled, bird-necked ancestor who branched off from the crocodiles and other archosaurs (in The Dinosaur Heresies, Robert Bakker even went so far as to propose the idea that this common ancestor may have been warm-blooded - but then, the chapter devoted to pterosaurs is part of the section in which he amasses evidence for dinosaur warm-bloodedness).

The most important difference between the early dinosaurs and early pterosaurs was pretty simple: all pterosaurs flew. A host of anatomical differences required for powered flight are sufficient to divide pterosaurs into their own clade. Of course, you can't simply say pterosaurs flew; dinosaurs didn't as the evidence keeps piling up that some small, feathered dinosaurs took to the air, filled niches the pterosaurs did not, and possessed the right adaptations to survive the Cretaceous extinction. What you can say is that all pterosaurs flew; few dinosaurs flew.

The most important difference that sets the dinosaurs apart from their close relatives are their hips. There were two major hip configurations among the dinosauria; one group, the bird-hips (ornithischians) produced the horn-and-frill-headed ceratopsians, the duck-bills, the tank-like ankylosaurs, and the plate-backed stegosaurs. The lizard hips (saurischians) contained all of the largely carnivorous theropods and the long-necked sauropods. Confusingly, it's the lizard-hips who are believed to have given rise to the birds. What both major clans of dinosaurs have in common, and what truly is unique to them, is an opening in the middle of the pelvis called the acetabulum.
Derivative work based on separate diagrams by wikimedia user Frederik. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

The dinosaurian acetabulum, which is where the femurs meet the hips, was completely open, like a window. Pterosaurs do not have these openings; they are solid. Their pelvises are completely different, in fact; they were not capable of true bipedal locomotion. Pterosaurs are absolutely bizarre and deserving of their own fame, quite separate from that of the dinosaurs. We know very little of their origins and paleontologists are hungry for more specimens of their ancestors. As it is now, even the most basal pterosaur is flight-ready. There are some promising archosaurs who seem to be precursors, but we need more bones.

I'll stress this again: as is usually the case when we discuss fine distinctions between related groups, there is still plenty of debate among paleontologists. As I've noted in the two posts on classification, how the evolutionary relationships fit together is an ever-evolving issue itself. When you're dealing with fossilized bones, and especially the fragile, hollow bones of pterosaurs, it's understandable that there is a lot of room for interpretation. When you pay attention to scientific pursuits, you have to be comfortable with uncertainty.

EDIT 9-02-09: Cleaned up for clarity

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Prerequisites

Over the last two posts, I've given a basic idea of the different approaches of Linnaean taxonomy and cladistics. Carolus Linnaeus' system creates groups of organisms based on physical characteristics: how they're built, how they move around, how they reproduce, and so on. Each large group contains organisms with basic similarities. Mammals are a class containing fur-bearing, milk-producing, warm blooded creatures who give birth to live young. Within class mammalia, we have orders such as the artiodactyls, which claim deer, hippos, and sheep as members. Each of those three then have their own families, and so on. Cladistics is a system which attempts to clear up any inconsistencies and confusion caused by grouping organisms together in such a way, creating charts of evolutionary relationships based on shared ancestry.

Both systems have their champions and detractors. At the moment, cladistics is the dominant paradigm, though we still use Linnaean binomial nomenclature at a species level. And the names for larger groups, as they've been around for a while, are still used to describe high-level clades. The pursuit of a single, clear system and naming convention is ongoing. I won't dig myself any deeper into what feels like a huge hole now, and we'll just get to the point of this series. How do dinosaurs fit in? What makes a dinosaur a dinosaur?

Well, there isn't any way to define a dinosaur without getting into some anatomical nitty-gritty. First of all, dinosaurs are diapsids, the main branch of reptiles (minus turtles), who get their name from the two holes they have on either side of their skulls.

Petrolacosaurus, the earliest known diapsid. By Arthur Weasley.

Within the diapsids are a group called the "ruling reptiles," or archosaurs. This is one of the "smaller divisions" I mentioned in my post on Linnaean taxonomy, falling somewhere between a class and an order. Anyhow, the most important thing here is that archosaurs have these distinctive characteristics:

  • Additional holes in the skull between the eyes and the nostrils
  • Holes in the lower jaw
  • Teeth set in sockets
  • An extra knob serving as a fourth place for muscle attachment on the femur

This last bit was likely key to the origin of the dinosaurs, because it is the starting point for where dinosaurs distinguished themselves from the crocodiles and other members of the archosauria. All other reptiles had, and have, a sprawling leg orientation. But dinosaurs had a couple other unique features that set them apart.

Those are the structural details which formed the basis for the multitude of forms dinosaurs would take over their nearly two hundred million years of existence. I'll stop here and then we'll pick up with explaining why certain other ancient beasties are definitely not dinosaurs.

EDIT 9-2-09: Cleaned up a bit for clarity.

Cladding About

My last post in this short series about the classification of dinosaurs, I wrote about the Linnaean system of classification, which uses physical characteristics to arrange organisms into clans. It's the source of binomial nomenclature, the convention that gives us those familiar "scientific names" for organisms; a wolf is known as Canis lupus.

Now we'll deal with cladistics, a method of biological classification which uses evolutionary relationships to create a sort of family tree of life. It was developed in the middle of the last century by German entomologist Willi Hennig. He's the fellow there to the right (and if you know a good way to caption right- and left-justified images on blogger, fill me in).

Anyway, a graphic representation of this tree is called a cladogram. I'll use a cladogram of the dinosauria for an example; it comes from the useful, easily-navigated, longtime bastion of dinosaur knowledge on-line, Jeff Poling's omnipedia at The page for the cladogram is here; follow this link or click the image to see it full size.

Cladogram copyright Jeff Poling

What you see here is a tree- or bush-like shape. Each intersection, or node, between branches represents a shared ancestor for all branches that follow the split. The cladist is not interested in building a "top-down" system with large, grandly named categories containing a huge number of organisms. The major unit of classification is the clade. This means that every node signifies a clade, and that traditional terms such as "reptile" don't make as much sense as they used to. Since a clade is defined as "All organisms derived from the most recent common ancestor of organisms X and Y," descendants with radically different morphological traits cause a bit of a problem when "translating" traditional Linnaean groups to cladistics.

For instance, we might try to say that "reptiles" are the first reptile and all of its descendants on a cladogram. Assuming that birds are descendants of small Jurassic theropod dinosaurs, and that the original dinosaurs derived from Permian reptiles, birds are actually reptiles. The Linnaean method, using physical traits, clearly states that reptiles are scaly, egg-laying, cold-blooded tetrapods. Birds are bi-pedal, warm-blooded, egg-laying, and covered in feathers.

Dinosaurs represent an interesting puzzle, then. As does reconciling the fat and happy Linnaean system with lean, mean cladistics. But we'll save that for the next post.

As a side note, I really cannot say enough nice things about It is a great example of the way the internet worked before advertising became so prominent. Nothing flashy. Everything loads quickly. Well-written, clearly explained information. Accessible. Mega-props to Mr. Poling.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pterosaurs and Dinosaurs

Yesterday, I wrote a few kind words about the pterosaurs, the flying reptiles who were the first vertebrates to figure out flight. Pterosaurs are so frequently referred to as dinosaurs that yesterday, I felt the need to clarify that I am definitely not one of the philistines who would make such a mistake. Biology has its own form of the gene that regulates the behavior of the "grammar police," and I bashfully admit that my hackles are raised when any old freaking big dead thing is referred to as a dinosaur. To me, it's as ridiculous as referring to a bear, a mountain lion, and a cow as dogs. Seriously, that's like a toddler level mistake.

But it's more than simple persnickityness. It's the desire to call things by their right names, to set order to the world. Just as a flat piece of paper with colored lines on it can help us get a handle on the world we move around on, classifying organisms puts them in context so we can learn how they interact to create that world. It puts us in context. It's a basic tool, and blithely throwing around names is essentially dumb. It cheats us out of knowledge. It also seems to me that especially when dealing with knowledge that requires some sort of translation for the everyday reader (such as science), using the proper terms and explaining them clearly is really, really important. Crucial, even.

So over the next few posts, I'll try to explain what makes a dinosaur a dinosaur. Since we have plenty of time and plenty of bytes, I'll start with how it is that we classify any living thing at all.

Here's how it breaks down. You're probably familiar with Linnaean classification. Most of us learned this in grade school. The major divisions are Kingdoms, Phylums, Classes, Orders, Familys, Genera, and Species. There are many smaller divisions, as well. For you and I (apologies to any genetically engineered smart-sharks who may be reading this), our basic Linnaean classification breaks down thisaway:

Kingdom Animalia (internal digestion, soft cell walls)
Phylum Chordata (backbones)
Class Mammalia (furry milk-producers)
Order Primates (monkeys, greater and lesser apes)
Family Hominidae (bipedal, tailless apes)
Genus Homo (smart apes)
Species Sapiens (us)

Carl Linnaeus (or Carolus, as he preferred) came up with this system of classification in the eighteenth century, around a hundred years before Darwin published The Origin of Species. Linnaean classification is largely concerned with grouping organisms into large groups and then tying those large groups together. The way organsims are divided into groups, and then into their own species, is by morphology, or physical characteristics. It was a hugely important step in the quest to figure out how all of the stuff in the world is related to each other. And Linnaeus really was concerned with stuff. He applied this system to minerals, as well. Before biological evolution was accepted, anything was on the table. We didn't understand what fossils were - they sure looked like living things, so maybe they were living things, in a different state of development.

After Darwin figured out the mechanism by which organisms diverged into species, it became necessary to classify organisms according to evolutionary relationships. For this, we use a system called cladistics. This is an elegant system which groups organisms into clades, or groups with a shared ancestor. In his day, Darwin wondered about the means of inheritence: how in the heck does my sister end up with blue eyes while mine are brown? We now understand genetics, and we can use DNA and RNA sequencing to establish evolutionary links which crude physical characteristics would never let us know.

But we're going to save cladistics for next time. HAVE A GOOD WEEKEND ALREADY.

Today's post brought to you by the National Commision on Italicization.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Life's a Pterosaur Beach

I stand up next to a mountain
Illustration by Mark Witton, via flickr

Amazing! Can you imagine one of these beasts landing in a parking lot and fighting a bunch of gulls for french fries and hamburger buns? This is Quetzalcoatlus, member of the Azhdarchid family, which contained the largest pterosaurs we've yet found. The illustrator, of whose skills I am entirely envious, is paleontologist and pterosaur specialist Mark Witton. And yes, of course I know that pterosaurs aren't dinosaurs. But they are their neighbors, and this here blog is intended to deal with all of our dearly missed mesozoic friends. And fascinating, beautiful, imagination-bending neighbors they were.

And they're in the news this week! By some lovely quirk of fate, the tracks left by a pterosaur as it landed were preserved in the mud of the wonderfully named Pterosaur Beach, in France. It's home to many sets of pterosaur tracks, but this is the first time we've found a set that chronicles the act of landing. They landed like birds, on both feet, hopping to stop themselves (and likely using their wings to slow down). It doesn't solve the mystery of how they took off, but it's a really cool new insight into how they got around.

Another recent development is that the "hair" of pterosaurs, which really isn't similar to the fur we mammals sport, has a name of its own: pycnofibers. We've also recently discovered that pterosaurs had special pycnofibers on their wings, called actinofibrils. We'd previously wondered if maybe the hair-like patterns were a side effect of decomposition, but now we know that these actinofibrils covered their wings. Now the next step is to figure out what they may have been made of and what purpose they served. Heat regulation? Flight control? General dandiness?

ALSO: The BBC has just begun a series of videos which will chronicle a project at the University of Portsmouth to build five life-size replicas of pterosaurs. The first, featuring Witton, is up now, and deals with how the team will use fossils to extrapolate the rest of the pterosaurs' bodies, which are sculpted in styrofoam. The end result should be amazing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stupid, Unadaptable, and Unprogressive

So many glorious contradictions! At the beginning of the week, I held aloft the painting Leaping Laelaps by Charles R. Knight as a glowing example of the active, vibrant view of dinosaurs that enjoyed public acceptance before they were recast in the role of sluggish brutes deserving of the mammalian coup d'écosystème.

Not so fast. In the very book I featured yesterday, the seminal Life Through the Ages, Knight himself has some rather unfriendly words to say about the dinosaurs. In fact, old CK gets downright bitchy! From Strange Science, a cool website which details the ups and downs of how science has built our modern view of natural history:
The pictures were beautiful, though some of the narrative was a little quaint. "Stegosaurus was, no doubt, the stupidest member of a very moronic family," [Knight] wrote. Of T. rex, Knight remarked, "He was just an enormous eating machine with an insatiable appetite and with practically no brains." And Knight's assessment of dinosaurs in general was, "They had been in existence too long, for they were stupid, unadaptable, and unprogressive."
I guess if we use Knight's logic, the longer we naked apes scramble around this spinning rock, the dumber we're going to get. Actually, I'm not inclined to disagree with that.

Seriously though, check out Strange Science. Full of great stuff like the "Goof Gallery," featuring artistic renditions of flawed reasoning, such Mary Mason Mitchell's depiction of Diplodocus with sprawling leg orientations and bellies that drag on the ground. I can only imagine the discomfort these poor bastards would have had to deal with just to take a stroll down to the ol' fishin' hole.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Knight Moves

More Charles Knight! Why the heck not? Check out this very affordable book from Indiana University Press: Life Through the Ages. It's $19.95, for crying out loud. You could spend a lot more on my birthday gift and I probably wouldn't be as satisfied!

I just watched the final episode of Walking with Prehistoric Beasts last night as I waited for the reluctant sandman to pay me a visit. I wonder if the scene in which the Neanderthal is thrown by a woolly rhino was inspired by the painting on this cover. I also wonder why the producers couldn't throw a few more pounds to the makeup department so they wouldn't have to self-consciously obscure the Neanderthals' faces with hair. I mean... their faces look like pink rubber foam.

They look like this.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lumbering Dead Ends

Leaping Laelaps by Charles Knight, 1896
I am in love with that painting, one hundred percent. Knight's image is a good reminder that the now-deceased myth of dinosaurs as slow-witted, lumbering reptilian beasts wasn't always in fashion. Sir Richard Owen himself, the man who coined the term "dinosaur," noted that the fossil bones he'd examined exhibited both reptilian and avian characteristics.

But as the world grappled with the implications of Charles Darwin's great contribution to our collective knowledge, a different idea sprang up. People just weren't comfortable with the idea that Mankind, the finest and most sublime of creatures, shared a common ancestor with monkeys, rats, and lizards. Thus, the idea that evolution was an upward progression, with direction and purpose. Extinct creatures, such as our beloved denizens of the mesozoic, couldn't cut it. They were too stupid, dull, and unworthy of survival. Luckily, that idea proved to be stupid, dull, and unworthy of survival.
Knight's subject, Laelaps, was eventually renamed Dryptosaurus (after it was realized that Laelaps already was being used for a genus of mites) and now is considered a basal tyrannosauroid, (which is a less loaded way of saying it's a "primitive" one) of its own dryptosaurid family. It is the first American theropod, and was discovered by quarry workers in New Jersey shortly after the civil war. Crimony, that painting is inspiring.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Masiakasaurus knopfleri

Masiakasaurus by paleoartist @ flickr

Masiakasaurus knopfleri is another unique dinosaur from Africa. Its most bizarre feature is the way its teeth jutted forward from its jaws. The image above reflects the theory that, like recently featured Baryonyx, Masiakasaurus dined on fish. The first specimen, dated to be about 70 million years old, was found in Madagascar; at that time Madagascar occupied pretty much the same position on the globe as today. The island had been separated from Africa for a hundred million years or so, and was recently separated from the indian subcontinent.

Oh yeah, the "knopfleri" is indeed a tribute to Mark Knopfler, dextrously-fingered frontman of legendary rock group Dire Straits.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Viva Rock Vegas

Escort service peddlers. Quickie marriages. Garish facsimiles of world landmarks. Samson the T. rex. As Neil Breen would say, "that's Vegas, baby." Samson, a very complete mounted specimen, is going up for auction at the Venetian on October 3.

Photo tooken from Vegas News for promotional purposes only. By Craig Cutler.

Phil Fraley Productions has some information about Samson's preparation. They also mounted Sue, which is an absolutely gorgeous mount. Chills me to stand beneath it. I really, really hope that they include a really long wig once he's mounted. It would be a funny bible joke. Too touchy a subject, maybe.

ALSO: this week, Siskoid's Blog of Geekery is featuring a post on dinosaurs everyday. Worth a gander, damn it!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Was Not Was!

Biggest dinocentric pop hit ever? Probably. Yup, probably.

In case you're wondering, the ever-reliable Wikipedia clears up the song's subject matter: "The song features a tight, funky sound, punctuated by horns and cowbell, along with what sounds like caveman chanting in the background, while the lyrics relate to life in prehistoric times."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hysterically Rotten Science Reporting!

Found this on an Australian science website, Science Alert, via Science Network Western Australia: an article titled Dating Habits of Aquatic Dinosaurs Revealed. I'm not kidding.

My first, entirely understandable response was "Hey, there's no such thing as aquatic dinosaurs! Silly!" Then I clicked the link and read the article. It's about the discovery that placoderms, which were prehistoric armored fishes, gave birth to live young. We've found a placoderm mother in the process of giving birth, with umbilical cord still attached (more here). Which is a really, really cool discovery!

But the title of the piece is, once again, Dating Habits of Aquatic Dinosaurs Revealed. Not placoderms. I can only guess that whoever dreamed up the headline was using the term "dinosaur" the way we might refer to an old car as a "dinosaur."

Only, it's really, grossly, stupidly irresponsible to use the word in this way to describe another prehistoric creature. Not only that, the article described the fish as the "Incisoscutum species of Placoderms." Weird capitalization aside, the placoderm is actually called Incisoscutum ritchei. That makes "incisoscutum" the name of the genus.

Seriously dude, you're a science writer. For a science website. For crying out loud!

Monday, August 10, 2009


I'm not sure what I expected to find, exactly. I guess I just have a weird idea that if such a thing can be imagined by my mind, it must exist somewhere on the internet. As it turns out, I was only able to find a single dino-centric podcast. And it only had one episode, devoted entirely to Leonardo. It was called This Week in Dinosaurs, and I haven't been able to tell what happened to it. A post on the forum mentions server problems, but also says that a new episode would be up within a week. That was last November.

While it's not surprising that someone made a podcast and it only lasted one episode, the production seems to indicate that the host, someone named Eric, had higher aspirations. His delivery as he opens the show sounds inspired by Ira Glass, and he had no less than Robert Bakker as his first guest. He has an annoying habit of interjecting little "okays" as his guests speak (he tensds to let them ramble), but it's not nearly as annoying as the incessant interruptions of Science Friday's Ira Flatow. The music, which is an appropriately science-y bit of electronica, strangely plays throughout all 35 minutes of the episode. These are things that I imagine would have been ironed out with experience.

Also: Threadless is featuring a new dinosaur tee called "The USA is Dino-mite!" I'm not sure if it's advocating gay rights, or if the T. rex is just wearing fancy pants.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Baryonyx, the mighty fish-eater of Europe. I've seen him referred to as the first theropod to be discovered in England, which doesn't make a lot of sense to me: the first Baryonyx fossil was discovered in 1983. The first dinosaur ever described in scientific literature was Megalosaurus, who was first found in Oxfordshire. That seems to make Megalosaurus the first.


We know Baryonyx liked his fish by the scales found in his tummy and the fine serrations of his teeth. One guess was that he hunted something like modern grizzly bears, and those wicked forearm claws were perfect for hooking his floppy snacks and downing them Gollum style. Raw and wriggling.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Save a Triceratops, Ride a Cowboy

That old Merle Travis* tune is running through your head, and as you drive down a rural Kentucky highway on your way to meet some good friends, it seems pretty accurate: You take a K and an E, an N and a T, a U and a C-K-Y; that spells Kentucky, but it means paradise. The moon is fat and bright, and all around you is the chorus of thousands of insects searching for a choice reproductive partner. Yup, ol' Merle had something there.

Then, a truck passes in the other lane. Carrying this:

Photo via Pharyngula

A few explanations pop into your head:
  1. Someone made out real good at the Neverland auction.
  2. City slickers need to be mighty careful at livestock auctions.
  3. I've missed the annual Lawn Ornament Exposition and Trade Show. Again!
  4. LARPers have seized upon Dinotopia. Finally.
The truth, however, is that the Creation Museum, in anticipation of today's visit from a swarm of scientists, decided it might be best to move out its most laughable example of grafting dinosaurs into their young-earth model of natural history. Maybe they were afraid that someone might deface their star attraction. You know, the way they deface our country's star attraction: science. More at PZ Myer's Pharyngula!

UPDATED! Apparently, my guess was wrong:
PZ Myers Riding the Dino
PZ Myers, Trikerider. via islanddave @ flickr

*I love me some Merle Travis, one of the great country guitarists of all time and a multi-talented dude, but I have to admit a certain gleeful sense of vengeance at using one of his tunes in a post mocking young-earthers... the one thing he's done that really gets under my skin is a song in which he derides evolution by saying something along the lines of "if you believe that monkey story, I'd rather be the monkey than you." Now we're even, Merle.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Maybe a Dino Ate Your Baby

Dinosaurs Sinclair baby
Paleontologist Dave Hone, who writes one of my favorite paleoblogs, Archosaur Musings, is in the news this week for a paper he wrote with Oliver Rauhut of the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich. The hypothesis they put forward is that theropods likely preyed upon juveniles much more than full-grown adults. It makes a lot of sense to me - predators go for easy meals, and I don't look at Edmontonia or Styracosaurus or Anatotitan and think "fast food." Hone and Rauhut also bring up the fact that compared to today's mammalian megafauna, large dinosaurs probably reproduced in much greater numbers - as evidenced by the nesting colonies of large herbivores we've found, or the egg sites of sauropods (which are more like those of sea turtles, indicating they didn't rear their young). A sure way to ensure the survival of your genetic material is to make a whole lot of it, something we see in all sorts of extant species. The greater number of babies hanging around, the greater the opportunities for predators.

This view is, of course, at odds with fantasies like T. rex squaring off against a snorting, dust-kicking Triceratops bull. Again, we are held down and forced to consider the idea that the more spectacular exercises of our imaginations may not be plausible. I would argue that this is just another example of why we "set childish things aside." Once we drop the idea that the natural world is there to perform a pageant for the entertainment of Homo sapiens, we take a step closer to developing a more profound (and I would argue, much more entertaining) appreciation of the world and our place in it.

I just started this blog (though for a few months I did weekly dino posts at Gentleman's Choice), and maybe have brought this up twice, and I already feel like I'm endlessly harping on it. I also feel like I endlessly harp on dumb science reporting, so...

Scientific Blogging writes,

"The 21st century has been a real disappointment for Tyrannosaurus Rex, by far the most famous dinosaur. Not even recent finds of slightly bigger, and maybe even more terrifying, species like Giganotosaurus could dent the aura of "T-Rex". But if 'The King' turns out to be just a baby killer the party may be over.
Yes, the party is over. You'll see T. rex suddenly disappear from coloring books and place mats and cartoons. Heartbroken kids will dump their lovingly painted models in the rubbish bin! They might even spit on them! It will be like the deep pain I felt when one of my heroes, Sergeant Slaughter, did the unthinkable and switched to the Iraqi side during the first Gulf War. Trust me, it was not pretty! I'd also like to know where they got the idea that Giganotosaurus was "more terrifying." I don't think a relatively small difference in size would make Giganotosaurus or Spinosaurus much more terrifying than T. rex. Despite the few feet of difference, my level of unease would be about the same in the presence of any of the three.

The last sentence in the excerpt annoys me as well, the "just a baby killer" part. Or, as the Telegraph's headline reads, "Tyrannosaurus rex 'picked on baby dinosaurs and ate them whole'". These just smack of anthropomorphism. I guess I'm nitpicking here. It's not the worst science reporting I've seen. At least the stories give a bit of space to quotes from Hone. Science reporting is probably a thankless job, especially in today's journalistic environment. I'm sure there's pressure to amplify things, to give John and Jane Public a single, quickly sketched image of the story before they click the animated ad next to it, and are suddenly enrolled in an online college.

Also, I had a sort of watershed moment this week: I commented on an Archosaur Musings post, an honest question, and recieved a thoughtful, illuminating answer from Hone. This is the first time I've ever asked a question of a scientist and gotten a response. Let me tell you, it's cool. If you think I'm not slapping myself for taking so long to figure out how great the internet can be as a source of scientific learning... trust me. I am. On to more catching up...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Certainly you've heard of Pleo, the $250 pet robot dinosaur. It was released in 2007, and has been in the news recently because of its manufacturer, Ugobe's, bankruptcy. Pleo is supposed to be an infant Camarasaurus, the ubiquitous superstar of the Morrison Formation.

I'm a little confused by this feature, cited on Pleo's wiki page: "beat detection (allowed pleo to dance and listen to farts)." Well, it certainly has something over its ancestor, Furby. Seriously, this is the best Wiki graffiti I've seen since reading that Jakob Dylan is the "is the youngest, and hottest, of four children born to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and ex-wife Sara Dylan." Unless, of course, Pleo is actually designed to detect farts. Perhaps in their research, Ugobe decided that the flatulence theory of dinosaur extinction was clearly the most likely, and Pleo deserved a shot at avoiding the fate.

Here's a weird and somewhat creepy video of someone trying to make Pleo "sing." I imagine that you have to watch all five minutes, or most of it, to acheive the creep factor. Just something about that hand fondling a chunk of stiffly moving plastic and metal. While a cat, which is supposedly capable of some sort of reciprocal affection, sits confusedly in the background.

I can't watch that and not envision some billionaire of the future trying vainly to get his sexbot to perform. That is where this is all going, after all. People paying huge chunks of money for electronic sex partners, when a perfectly acceptable, much less expensive analog substitute is readily available. I'm speaking of prostitutes, of course. Though if you're given to this kind of behavior, stick with the expensive sexbot.

"What do you think?" the woman holding the camera asks.
"I haven't seen it do enough," he answers.

You never will, brother. You never will.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


It's the beginning of a new week, which means I have my weekend podcasts to keep me and my Wacom tablet company. The most recent episode of NPR's Science Friday featured a roundtable discussion on the relationship between paleoartists and museums in the creation of exhibits, primarily that old standby the diorama. It mainly dealt with human evolution, but there was a smidgen of dino-talk as well.

One of the guests is paleoartist John Gurche, whose work you may recognize from the huge painting of Sue at the Field Museum and the cover of Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies. It looks like it's anthropology that butters his bread, but he does feature some low-res previews of dinosaur art on his totally old-school website.

From, © John Gurche

Gurche also did the 1989 USPS dinosaur stamps. So pretty, you may want to drink your coffee from them. A sheet of them isn't too expensive, either. Reminds me, I've had my Gurney dinosaur stamps in safekeeping for quite a while. Maybe it's time I frame and hang 'em.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Expedition to East Greenland

Fossil ginkgo, © The Field Museum, GEO86386d
Poking around on the Field Museum's website, I happened across their site for a 2002 expedition to East Greenland. The goal was to collect fossilized plant specimens dating back to 200 million years ago, straddling the Triassic and Jurassic, with hopes of shedding light on the extinction event that occured between the two periods and paved the way for the flourishing of the dinosaurs. There are some nice, if low-res images, including the Ginkgo above (I can't help picking a leaf when I pass on of Bloomington's many ginkgo trees and rubbing its ridges between my fingertips). Also worth checking out is the expedition journal. Here's an excerpt from the entry on camp life:
"It should be noted that attack by polar bear is a real threat in this region and that these animals have been known to stalk and occasionally kill people."