Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My first LITC year: a retrospective & look forward

Dear cherished readers,

The first year in which I've participated in the Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs jamboree is nearly at an end. As such, I've decided that a short, not-at-all-disgustingly-self-indulgent retrospective is in order.

(You might think it'd have made more sense to do it on the first anniversary of my joining the blog. And you'd probably be right, but now just feels like the right time, damnit.)

Writing for David's blog has been lots of fun, obviously, and I am very grateful for the opportunity. If nothing else, it's given me something to do now that I've left university and my social life has all but vapourised.

When I look back on 2011, it will be with fond memories of such world-shaping events as the Terrible '90s Dromaeosaur Face-Off, the ultimate example of abuse of hindsight. It's only a matter of time before the competition's winner, 'Zombienychus', becomes the star of his own TV documentary series, motion picture, and toy range (I plan on pitching the latter to Schleich). My graduation ceremony pales in comparison...

The chance to nitpick the fine efforts of CG artists, programme writers and John Hurt ("Des-platter-saurus!") for a wide(ish) audience of internet geeks was one that I truly relished - and I don't think I did too bad a job, with only a few cock-ups (including what was, in retrospect, a completely inexplicable disliking of the term 'oviraptorid'). One of the show's writers and directors even dropped in for the first review, which was a very humbling moment for me (people read my nonsense?!?). In the end I very much enjoyed Planet Dinosaur, and am hoping for a second series - its focus on the Actual Evidence was more refreshing than an ice-cold power shower to the face.

I'll also take credit, if you don't mind, for making Niroot Puttapipat such a blog staple that we should probably introduce a tag for posts that mention him. In case you missed it, his latest saurian work was a rather brilliant festive Parasaurolophus illustration. Also, I got a birthday present that was hand-painted by him and therefore better than yours. Neener-neener-ner-ner.

Most of all, thanks to all of you, the readers, for sticking by, even through posts about toys, crap robots, more toys, more crap robots, my undergraduate thesis, "perversely bizarre" books, and the Netherlands. Hopefully I've provided some decent between-meal blogging snacks to David's main courses.

Here's to 2012, then. What will the new year bring? Well, a few weeks back we received an e-mail from a chap by the name of Jay Epperhart. Quoth Jay:
"So occasionally you will make a quip along the line of 'can you believe they ['80s and '90s authors/artists] thought dromaeosaurid theropods had non-feathered pronated hands *snicker*" and I'm like 'wait, what?!' since that it what my 10-year-old self memorized."
Jay cordially suggested that one of us cough up an article all about how dinosaur reconstructions have changed since the '90s. David suggested that I should handle it. Which I will, as soon as I can think of something to pad out the article that isn't related to theropod feathers and forelimb posture.Your ideas are welcome for that one...

There will also be plenty more Vintage Dinosaur Art from me, of course. My scouring of eBay and charity shops for crummy old books is ongoing.

'Til then, thanks very much once again for all the support and comments since May, and I'll see you in 2012. Here's a photo of me looking confused on a Dutch woman's bicycle for your amusement.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How to Name a Dinosaur (SciAm Guest Blog repost)

A year ago, I wrote a guest post for the Scientific American guest blog, called "How to Name a Dinosaur." Still kind of tickles me that I have my name associated with SciAm, even if it's such a minor way. So, here it is again.

You had no reason to expect a good weekend as you began a long-dreaded yard project. Come Monday morning’s office discussions of sporting events and parties, you would be nursing an aching back. But with a single strike of your shovel, your yard gave you a story to top any tale of drunken debauchery recounted over cubicle partitions: waiting less than 20 inches under the sod was a fossilized femur that hadn’t seen the sun in 120 million years.

Since plausibility has already been pretty well throttled, let’s say that in the kind of radically simplified form of paleontology children’s books employ, scientists from a local museum immediately recognize the bone as belonging to a dinosaur that is brand new to science. In a savvy move thought up by the museum’s public relations office, you will be given the honor of naming the beast. It’s a heavy burden, and you recognize quickly that it’s going to require careful deliberation. You don’t want your dinosaur to be laughed off of the paleontological stage, after all.

The name a dinosaur is given is subjected to the same scrutiny as the description of its skeletal remains. It’s a minefield, and there are many ways the unwary can go astray. A shaky grasp of latin might result in incorrect pluralization or an awkward suffix. Noble dedications to local culture and language can be misspelled. Worse yet, it might just sound silly. Avoid all of these, and your name still might be brushed off because you were too conservative.

As a first step, you might narrow down your choices depending on the kind of dinosaur you're naming. No matter what kind you've got on your hands, there is likely an informal signifier in the form of a suffix to its generic name. For an ostrich-mimic, you might choose -mimus. A herbivore with a beaked, horned, frilled skull receives a -ceratops. For a dromaeosaur, -raptor works nicely. To get across the tenacity of a predatory theropod, -venator sounds really cool. A relative of Baryonyx or Spinosaurus might pay tribute to the crocodiles its snout resembles with -suchus. Sauropods work well with -titan. To play it safe, choose the truly classic dinosaurian suffix, -saurus.

Generous fellow that I am, I’ll provide further guidance in the form of three broad categories which apply to most dinosaur names. Individual examples can bleed between them, of course. Since we’re about to turn the corner into 2011, I’ll also use the opportunity to employ some of my favorite dinosaur names of 2010 as examples. One note before I start: for brevity’s sake, I'm only giving advice for the generic half of the Linnaean binomial, in other words, the Tyrannosaurus but not the rex. You're on your own when deciding on a specific name. If you're stuck, name it for your mom, and you'll do alright.

Stick with Tradition

The 19th century scientists who founded the discipline of paleontology as we know it often stuck to simple anatomical descriptions of the fossilized creatures they examined. Gideon Mantell kept it basic with his Iguanodon, “iguana tooth.” Since he only had teeth to go on, we can’t fault him for lack of imagination. 1838’s Poekilopleuron simply means “varied ribs.” Joseph Leidy, the founder of American paleontology, chose Hadrosaurus as the name of the world’s first mountable dinosaur skeleton. It means “bulky lizard,” which is accurate, if not terribly evocative. 2010 saw the introduction of a few anatomically-named dinosaurs, such as the abelisaur Austrocheirus, the “southern claw.” Pneumatoraptor, from Hungary, was named for the tiny air pockets infusing its scapulocoracoid.

Considering the classical training of the early paleontologists, many of them had a firm grasp of mythology. Edward Drinker Cope’s Laelaps was named for a tenacious dog of Greek mythology - unfortunately, a mite had already been given the name, and it’s now the “tearing lizard,” Dryptosaurus. One of my favorite mythologically themed dinosaur names of recent years is the brachiosaur Abydosaurus, whose skull was found with four cervical vertebrae near the Green River at Dinosaur National Monument. Its name refers to the town of Abydos in ancient Egypt, where the god Osiris’ own head and neck were buried in the Nile. Instead of providing insight into the anatomy of the great beast it was given to, the name tells a story about its discovery millions of years after it walked.

A third subset of traditional names is to pay tribute to another researcher, fossil hunter, or someone else who was instrumental in the discovery of the dinosaur or the field in general. This is normally done in the specific name, but entire genera are occasionally dedicated to one person, as in the ornithischians Othnelia and Drinker, honoring the prolific rivals of the Bone Wars. Just this month, a North American troodontid named Geminiraptor saurezorum was announced, and both halves of the binomial are dedicated to a pair of scientist sisters named Suarez. If you’re familiar with matters astrological, you might correctly guess that they’re twins.

Go Native

If you want to be cutting edge, jump on to the growing trend of paying tribute to local places, culture, and history. It’s a heartening trend, as paleontologists often rely on locals for support of their work, and it counteracts the old stereotype of paleontologists ripping fossils from the ground for the enrichment of far-off institutions. And it engages cultures in ways that sticking stubbornly to Latin and Greek can’t. While the names of new dinosaurs coming out of China may confound the tongue of someone from Helsinki, Buenos Aires, or Des Moines, Chinese kids probably appreciate having dinosaurs of their own, such as Mei long, the “sleeping dragon.” On the other hand, local tributes can result in clunkers like this year’s dynamic duo Koreanosaurus or Koreaceratops, which recieved a fair amount of web snark.

This year has seen plenty of good newcomers in this category, though. A few of them paid tribute to the cultures who first inhabited the American West. Two of these derive from the Navajo language. Seitaad is named for a mythological beast that swallowed its prey in sand dunes, which also alludes to the manner of the small sauropodomorph's death. Bistahieversor’s name is derived from a Navajo description of local geography. The Zuni people have their own dinosaur as well, a duckbill named Jeyawati, which means “grinding tooth” in their language.

One of the most inspired members of this class of dinosaur names comes from Romania. When I first read about it, it sounded like some beast out of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth. But the island-dwelling theropod Balaur bondoc refers to actual mythology with a decidedly local flavor. It’s standard for descriptions of dinosaurs to include sections on the etymology of their names, but Balaur’s is exceptional, exploring the twisting roots of the word’s various meanings that approach the evolutionary tree of life for richness and complexity. Lead author Zoltan Csiki writes that Balaur’s name is “motivated both by the classical association between dinosaurs (especially theropods) and dragon-like creatures, as well as by the fact that balaur is a mythological creature with links to both reptiles (snakes) and birds (wings)...” Who knew that reading the description of a dinosaur could also be a lesson in Romanian mythology?

Make a Splash

It’s part of a paleontologist’s job to focus on the deep past, but some also think forward to the public impact of their discoveries. Lately, University of Chicago’s Paul Sereno has seemed especially focused on the public-relations side of paleontology; in 2009, he unveiled the controversial Raptorex, which might be mistaken for the name of a Pokemon character, as well as a slew of Mesozoic crocodilians with nicknames like BoarCroc, DogCroc, RatCroc, and the unfortunate PancakeCroc.

This year, even a mild-mannered iguanodont received an impactful name in Iguanacolossus. But 2010 will truly be remembered as the Year of Ceratopsians, and some of the catchiest new names come from the beak-and-horns set, including Medusaceratops, Kosmoceratops, and Mojoceratops.
One of my favorite dinosaur names of this year or any other is Diabloceratops, which describes the fierce twin horns protruding from the back of its frill and is just plain fun to say. If he was writing Jurassic Park today, I imagine that Michael Crichton would be strongly tempted to include a Diabloceratops paddock on the island.

A Final Word of Advice

Go bold. Shoot for a word that will make some emotional impact. A dinosaur’s name is often the first impression it will present to the public. Though the standard pantheon of the most popular dinosaurs - you know, the ones even my grandmother can name - has been in place for a century, it’s always susceptible to invasion by a charismatic newcomer, as was proven by Velociraptor’s leap into the public consciousness in the 1990’s. If a novelist, comic artist, or screenwriter latches onto the name of your dinosaur, it could very well be fast-tracked for celebrity.

Above all, remember that the name you choose for your backyard discovery will say as much about you as it does about the bones in the museum.

Illustration copyright Matt Van Rooijen, used with his permission.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Nebula to Man

In all of my poring through Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Open Library, Biodiversity Library, and any other source for nifty historical texts relating to dinosaurs, my favorite find yet may well be Nebula to Man, Henry R. Knipe's poetic recounting of the history of life on Earth according to the best scientific knowledge at the turn of the 20th century. As to why he chose to write in this form, Knipe explains,
To attempt a work of this kind in rhyme is, I know, a bold experiment. But, however severely scientific in some of its aspects, the story of Geology is truly the most enchanting story in the world; and rhyme may well be regarded as an appropriate form in which to present it. Indeed it is a fit theme for presentation in a much higher form than this, and we may well hope that some day it will be taken in hand by some great poetic genius.
Accompanying this poetry are a series of black and white and color illustrations by a variety of talented artists, and like last week's feature about Eva Hülsmann's illustrations, they are refreshingly original.

There is not a wealth of information about Henry Knipe online. In a Cambridge University obituary, Knipe is said to have worked for the British Museum, overseeing artistic reconstructions of extinct animals. To illustrate Nebula to Man, Knipe employed Ernest Bucknall, John Charlton, Joseph Smit, Lancelot Speed, Charles Whymper, Edward A. Wilson, and Alice B. Woodward. I'll share illustrations from those who were included in the Mesozoic chapter.

I'll start with Dutch zoological illustrator Joseph Smit, who provides a bunch of dinosaurs for Knipe, including a "Brontosaurus" pair which are presented in a fairly conventional way for the time: tails dragging, bound to the water's edge.

Nebula to Man

Smit's Iguanodon reflects the new thinking about the iconic ornithopod since the discoveries in Bernissart a couple of decades before this publication. While drawn from a different angle, it bears a debt to an earlier one by Alice B. Woodward.

Nebula to Man

Knipe would have been remiss not to include Archaeopteryx in the book, and Smit was the man tasked with the reconstruction. He pairs it with Compsognathus, the small German theropod used by Huxley to illustrate the similarities between birds and dinosaurs. This one is pretty tubby. His urvogel wears a vulture-like fringe around a bear head and neck, and for the second week in a row we have an awkwardly rendered wing with feathers extending from the wrist rather than digit II.

Nebula to Man

Smit's Ceratosaurus is leaving something behind for Tony Martin, as well as keeping the little furry things in check. The influence of Marsh's skeletal reconstruction is evident.

Nebula to Man

Smit's finest contribution is this new take on a pair of early American dinosaurs: "Laelaps" or Dryptosaurus and Hadrosaurus. His lively theropod is influenced by the Charles R. Knight classic, and I love the way it's throwing itself into this assault against a much larger foe. Kind of like my in-laws' chihuahua Carlos, who has never liked me and never hesitates to give me a piece of his mind.
Nebula to Man

Lancelot Speed provided a number of color landscapes to the book, but only one for the Mesozoic era. It's a moody Triassic marsh, in which the sauropodomorph Anchisaurus nabs a tasty, if uncharacteristically meaty, snack while the phytosaur Belodon glowers from the shadows.

Nebula to Man

My favorites are from Alice B. Woodward, already an established book illustrator. Her father worked for the Natural History Museum, and may have been her connection to Knipe. Her Pteranodons are remarkable, especially considering when they were done. A little bit man-in-suity, but still a treat. It looks like she's connected the crest to the rest of the body with muscle, as we've seen John McLoughlin do with Triceratops.

Nebula to Man

Here's her version of the nodosaur Polacanthus, which is pretty croccy.

Nebula to Man

Woodward provides the second set of sauropods in the book, in this illustration of Diplodocus and Ornitholestes, which draws on the same instincts that make her book illustrations so compelling. The little theropod is our stand in, amazed at the sight of the two sauropods passing by. This may well be the first life restoration of Ornitholestes, being about ten years before Knight's meme-starting version. The only earlier representation I've seen is the skeletal in Osborn's description. Please do correct me if I've missed another.

Nebula to Man

Finally, I'll share some illustrations by Charles Whymper, who isn't notable enough for Wikipedia but did some stunning work for Knipe's epic nonetheless. First, one of the most bizarre depictions of Megalosaurus this side of Hawkins. It's positiveley sauropodomorphish.

Nebula to Man

He contributed two fine pterosaur plates; the first includes Scaphognathus crassirostris in the lower left, in a variation of the classic pose. Dig that hairy soaring Rhamphorynchus, too.

Nebula to Man

As if that's not enough, Whymper also has a color plate in Nebula to Man, depicting a Dimorphodon swooping in on a Teleosaurus hunting "duckbills." As far as I know, this would have been a completely speculative inclusion a century ago. Since then, monotremes dating back to the Cretaceous have been found, but this is still an anachronistic scene. Still, beautiful stuff.

Nebula to Man

Regarding the text itself, it probably deserves a post of its own, and maybe it will be lucky enough to get one. I'll end this post with his closing, which is ironically placed right after a section extolling the virtues of the British Empire.
All, all is change, not e'en the studded sky
Has held its jewels from all eternity.
And these, not formed for ever from the past,
Will cease, in time, their lustrous lights to cast:
And other orbs, as bright, will fill their place,
And with new light illumine endless space.
So must our earth, part of a common fate,
Sink in its turn, cold and inanimate;
And to its sun, burnt out, once joined again
Be borne through space, and at Fate's call remain.
And must the spirit of the life here spent
Sink with the scene of its development?
Is all the work around, by Nature wrought,
A passing show, destined to end in naught?
But here to things unknown we vainly press,
And man, bowed down, feels all his littleness.
Yet seeing mystery is in things that be,
He ploughs his way in hope, and reverently.
And though old myths and legends must decay,
And like old forms of life slow pass away ;
Hope still will stand, unnumbered with the dead,
To breathe of worlds, whence pain and death have fled,
Where peace prevails, and Life is perfected.

The rest of the Mesozoic era scans from this title are in the Vintage Dinosaur Art group at Flickr. You can read Nebula to Man for yourself at Google Books or Open Library. The OL scan is much better, but I didn't come across it until I had already ripped these images and uploaded them. And a tip o' the cap must go to Mark Crowell, who has featured this title on his vintage dino book website.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

And a Brachiosaurus in a fir tree...

Niroot missed the deadline for Brian Switek's nifty roundup of dinosaurs on Christmas trees, so I'm posting it here. This is his wonderful Sideshow brachiosaur hatchling, nestled cozily in its egg and surely dreaming of the Mesozoic version of dancing sugarplums.

Why did he miss sending this to Brian? He was busy preparing to BLOW OUR FREAKING MINDS.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Five Unbeatable Last Minute Dinosaur Gift Ideas

It's getting late to be thinking about what you're going to tuck under the tree, cram into a big sock, or otherwise present to that dinosaur lover in your life (given that you do the whole Christmas thing, naturally). Never one to plan ahead myself, I feel your pain. And I respond with an appropriately tardy list of saurian gift ideas. You are welcome.

The Hog Wild Dino Popper

"This Dino Popper will have your kids roaring with delight!" exclaims Neatoshop. "Simply load the soft foam ball into the dinosaur's snout and squeeze the Dino Popper's belly - the harder you squeeze the further it shoots!" It goes for $10 at Amazon, and a reviewer writes that it's "very fun for a group get together." So, you'll have to buy a bunch of them unless you just intend on annoying people by shooting them with little foam balls. Which makes this cheap little toy a bit pricier in practice.

Cruncher Interactive Pet Dinosaur

Well, you don't purchase one of these for anatomical accuracy, do you? Though this putative Spinosaurus has a terribly squished-in face, and seems to adhere to the quadrupedal spino hypothesis, it does come with a fish, which is worth a couple or points, since that's what they likely snacked on. $60 at Amazon.

Stegron the Dinosaur Man
Amazing Spider-Man 166
Appropriately enough, the amazing Spiderman was once involved in a battle dubbed a "holiday holocaust" with the Lizard and his cohort Stegron the Dinosaur Man. There are many dinosaur dudes in the Marvel canon, but I picked this one. Arbitrarily. I might do a post about Devil Dinosaur, Reptil, and the rest one day, if I can wrap my head around the insane narrative contortions of the Marvel universe. In the meantime, you can get his action figure for a mere $12.89. Or maybe you can offer Luke Porter enough money that he'll make you his far superior custom minimate version.
Luke Porter's Stegron. Photo via flickr.

Kota and Pals
Sort of a mesozoic version of that old chestnut Furby, these dudes are a real steal at only $8.00 from New Egg. They are also kind of terrifying. Here are the Parasaurolophus and pterosaur, for example.

But what the heck. Looks like the tykes love 'em.

Sideshow Dinosauria Maquettes
If you really need to buy someone's love, get them a Sideshow Maquette. For instance, mine. You could buy my love with a Sideshow maquette.

I know you have better ideas, so be sure to tell me what they are in the comments.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Festive Fin-back

I'm a selfish little man who doesn't deserve anything nice. Nevertheless, when I asked my lovely wife Jennie - who certainly deserves a stronger and more excellent husband - to make a dinosaur for our Christmas tree, she dove in to the project with gusto.

Christmas Spinosaurus

Of course, our tannenbaum's newest resident can't starve while we shove jello salad, Tofurkey, and sugar cookies down our gullets. Our Spinosaurus is holding, appropriately enough, a gaily sequined fish, which is probably the fanciest thing any spino ever ate.

Christmas Spinosaurus

I think he really completes the tree, and is a reminder that joy, love, and peace are truly timeless.

Christmas Spinosaurus

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mesozoic Miscellany 48

High time for another roundup, methinks. Just finished my first semester of studenthood in seven years, and the weeks since the last Mesozoic Miscellany have been packed with rushing to finish up my coursework. It's done now. Mostly. Of course, the paleontology world didn't do me the courtesy of holding back the good stuff while I was engaged in all of this nonsense.

Dave Hone, Darren Naish, and Innes Cuthill have a new paper released on-line via the journal Lethaia. It explores the possibility of mutual sexual selection in dinosaurs. Hone wrote about it today at Archosaur Musings, and Marc did the same here at LITC.

At Tetrapod Zoology, the aforementioned Naish got his 'pod on with a review of Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants, a product of the big research consortium which recently put out an overview of sauropod evolution, freely accessible.

Spinops sternbergorum, a new ceratopsian named from fossils discovered a century ago, has recieved coverage at Paleoexhibit (including a new Nobu Tamura illustration), Saurian, Secrets of the Horned Dinosaurs, Green Tea and Velociraptors, and Dinosaur Tracking. Naturally, as this was a description by Andy Farke, he wrote about it at the Open-Source Paleontologist. And the cheeky monkeys at Gawker had a laugh over it, which Andy was quite tickled by.

Doodle of Boredom is really worth a subscription, BTW. Best dinosaur-Titanic mash-up I've ever seen.

At Pseudoplocephalus, Victoria Arbour shared photos from a very chilly tyrannosaur capture.

The Sideshow Collectibles Apatosaurus is a beauty, and Matt Wedel did us the service of providing a seven-part review. Here's the final, with links to the entire series.

There's "only one place to go to see a hill full of dinosaur bones." Dan Chure writes about the history of tourism at Dinosaur National Monument.

Brian Engh has returned to the Dinosaurs Reanimated blog with a little update about how the project is coming along.

At his blog Green Tea and Velociraptors, Jon Tennant provides a great overview of fossil preservation.

Stu Pond checked out a bunch of footprints in the desert and lived to tell about it.

The Kitteh is grapplin'!

At the Skeletal Drawing blog, check out Scott Hartman's new Falcarius skeletal.

Sometimes dinosaurs aren't sexy, but Anthony Maltese still gives Thescelosaurus some love.

ScienceOnline 2012, which I sadly won't be attending this time around, is going to feature a Science Art slideshow to be shared during the conference. Let's make sure they're stocked with dinosaurs. More from Glendon Mellow.

Finally, Scott Sampson wrote about Dinosaur Train at Whirlpool of Life. He also recently joined twitter, and unlike the troll Dave Hone that popped up, it's legit!

P.S. Anatotitan forever.
Edmontosaurus (or Anatotitan) copei
Illustration by Paul Heaston, via Flickr.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On crests and feathers

People have long wondered what exactly the quite weird and wonderful head crests of both dinosaurs and pterosaurs were doing there. Why did they evolve - what were they for? Today Lethaia published (online) a paper by David Hone, Darren Naish and Innes Cuthill entitled Does mutual sexual selection explain the evolution of head crests in pterosaurs and dinosaurs? In the paper, Hone et al propose that a potential key evolutionary factor has so far been largely overlooked - that of mutual sexual selection.

Citipati, an animal unusual in combining a large, bony head crest with feathers. While the display feathers here are speculative, similar structures are known from the oviraptorosaur Caudipteryx. Art by Niroot Puttapipat.

'Mutual sexual selection' is pretty self-explanatory. While 'sexual selection' is a one-sided process, with one sex selecting for highly dimorphic traits in the other (Hone himself gives the "endlessly repeated" example of peacocks), 'mutual sexual selection' is, well, mutual. As such, it is likely that both genders of the animal concerned will have ornamentation, or similar sexually selective traits. As is noted in the paper,
"An instructive example is the crested auklet, Aethia which both sexes bear feather plumes on their heads [and] both sexes prefer mates with longer crests" (p. 3)
The authors contend that palaeontologists are largely ignoring this idea and failing to realise its changing status in behavioural ecology. They propose that since "there are many circumstances under which male mating time and effort are limited", and given the varying quality of females, it makes sense that males should be selective rather than simply trying to copulate with everything in sight (pp. 11-12).

In formulating this hypothesis, the authors run through a number of others that have been proposed down the years. Some, such as the evolution of crests as weaponry or thermoregulatory devices, can obviously be ruled out for a lot of species. However, what's probably going to raise people's heckles is the authors' rejection of the 'species recognition' hypothesis, that is to say the idea that (some) crested dinosaurs and pterosaurs evolved their displays so that members of the same species could recognise one another. As the authors point out, this idea doesn't explain why "lambeosaurine hadrosaurs required large crests for species recognition, when...members of [the] closely related iguanodontian lineage did not" (p. 10). They also note that a lot of animals today don't require such obvious signals to be able to differentiate between even very similar species. For example:
"...tyrant flycatchers notorious for showing little to no morphological variation exhibit clear boundaries between species, despite sympatry" (p. 9)
Mutual sexual selection also neatly solves a problem as regards ceratopsians - that although sexual dimorphism has been proposed for certain species, "the proposed degree of sexual dimorphism is weak" (p. 5) with all mature individuals in a species seemingly being near-equally well-adorned with fancy head ornaments. The same has been found to be true of certain pterosaurs and theropods. As far as theropods go, the authors note the prevalence of crests in relatively basal clades (like the coelophysoids and ceratosaurs), but hypothesise that feathers might have replaced head crests as a sexual display in more advanced coelurosaurs and especially maniraptorans (the clade that includes dromaeosaurs, troodonts, oviraptorosaurs and birds). The known presence of display feathers on animals like Caudipteryx and Epidexipteryx would appear to back up this claim (pp. 12-13).

Of course, one problem with this is that some oviraptorosaurs have well-developed crests, but were presumably fully feathered. While acknowledging this as an "anomaly", the authors point out that the clade is very unusual among coelurosaurs in this respect. Furthermore, they also contend that modern birds that possess bony head crests - like cassowaries and certain hornbills - are also very unusual in having them (p. 13).

Noting that ornithodirans (dinosaurs and pterosaurs) likely relied heavily on vision - with a great deal of evidence backing this up - Hone et al also propose that
"...the evolution of the flight-capable feather and of flight itself may well have its roots in the evolution of ornithodiran sociosexual display." (p. 14)
It's an idea that's been proposed before, but here it's presented in the context of mutual sexual selection. Could it be that, in maniraptoran dinosaurs, it was a case of both sexes trying to impress each other that sped along the evolution of the flight feather?

Obviously, this is really just scratching the surface of what's in the paper and, knowing me, I've probably cocked up somewhere along the line (cf. some of the Planet Dinosaur reviews). I'd urge you to get hold of a copy of the paper for all the information - it's actually very accessible for laymen (I should know!).

Vintage Dinosaur Art: I-Spy with David Bellamy: Dinosaurs

Merry Christmas everyone! In the true spirit of this season of giving - and by no means through sheer coincidence, or because I have nothing else to write about - Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs is bringing you two Vintage Dinosaur Art posts this week. It's something we've never done before, except that one time. Furthermore, this book stars David Bellamy, otherwise known as Father Christmas, the original British equivalent of the Dutch Sinterklaas and American Santa Claus, who has subsequently effectively merged with the latter, much to the chagrin of traditionalists throughout the country.

Say, the top half of that tyrannosaur looks familar!

According to British tradition, David Bellamy (or Father Christmas) is an elderly, bearded gentleman who is very keen on wildlife. On Christmas Eve he visits the houses of well-behaved children and leaves them books on nature spotting and anthropogenic climate change denial. He also hit the charts once, but the less said about that, the better - although it should be noted that this book appeared at about the same time in 1980. The illustrations (by Jenny Halstead) aren't fantastic, but then neither are they particularly bad, falling somewhere closer to 'mediocre'.

Take a look at this Allosaurus, for example. By 1980 standards, it's not bad at all - even if it's missing a toe on each foot (perhaps a result of the artist taking the text a bit too literally), at least the tail's elevated and the head's only a little misshapen. The text is interesting in that it claims that Allosaurus was "closely related to...Megalosaurus", which according to modern analyses it wasn't particularly, although this is just a relic of the time when every theropod was lumped into Megalosaurus.

Writing by the original owner of this book. D'awwww.

This Iguanodon is very similar in appearance to the Invicta toy, but that aside it is, again, not bad (for 1980). This page is more notable for the claim that Megalosaurus "probably preyed" on Iguanodon, in spite of the two being separated by a good 40 million years. This error - which pops up in old dinosaur books with alarming frequency - can probably be traced back to the two being depicted as living together back in the 19th century. However, back then they had no way of telling how old they really were. Some jokers even thought that they might haved lived alongside the earliest humans but, of course, no one in their right mind thinks that anymore.

Remember when Supersaurus and "Ultrasauros" ended up being conflated into one chimeric creature? I don't, obviously, but I've seen enough of these sorts of illustrations to get the impression that it happened quite frequently prior to Supersaurus being 'officially named'. Obviously, Supersaurus turned out to not be a brachiosaur, and as such modern weight estimates are considerably lower - around half of the 80 tonnes stated here. Meanwhile, "Ultrasauros" was at least partly a brachiosaur - in fact, its scapulocoracoid was from a Brachiosaurus altithorax. The rest of it was just more Supersaurus. Ah, well...

Here's an interesting couple of pages. On the left we have a profile of Mussaurus, which Bellamy (or whoever authored the text, if not him) seems to mistakenly believe was very tiny. Of course, the remains that have been found are very tiny, but that's only because they're juveniles. On the right we have a more promising page, pointing out the similarities between the skeletons of modern thrushes and nonavian theropods, which was a brilliant thing to include in a kids' book back in 1980. (A note to non-Eurasian readers - the blackbird referred to here is Turdus merula. Which I'm sure you already knew but, y'know, just in case.)

Unfortunately, there is a dropping of the ball later in the book. Birds as descendants of ornithischians? Noooooo! Still, this page deserves merit for being pretty progressive for 1980. At the time the idea of birds being dinosaurs was still frowned upon by members of the palaeontological establishment, including good old Alan Charig (for no very good reason). It's remarkable that, these days, claiming that birds (and often other maniraptorans) aren't theropod dinosaurs is the 'outsider' view, although that'll be because it doesn't make any bloody sense.

Finally, on 'spotting' everything and completing the book, kids could send off for a certificate from Father Christmas himself, declaring them to officially be a "Dinosarologist". I hope to receive mine forthwith...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Eva Hülsmann

One of the recent uploads to the Flickr Vintage Dinosaur Art pool, thanks to the valiant efforts of geoblogger David Bressan, is a set of Eva Hülsmann illustrations from an Italian book titled Trecento Milioni Di Anni Fa, which Google translates as Three Hundred Million Years Ago. Yes, that means that we're dealing with a topic that invariably sends the masses into fits of ecstatic blabbering, the late Carboniferous: chock-full of hot, hot arthropod and lycopsid action.

Well, no. Contrary to what the title would have you believe, the book is about the good ol' Mesozoic, which isn't nearly as popular an era in Earth's history, but that's what we're stuck with.


The cover is graced by a flaming red Scolosaurus - er, Euplocephalus as it is now known - beckoning the reader to crack open the book. Its warm smile belies the fact that it's somehow lost its ankylosaurine tail club. The artwork inside is presented in similar fashion, with each animal isolated against a white background rather than integrated into a natural environment. Refreshingly, she doesn't rely heavily on the work of earlier artists to pose her animals, offering a nice variety of postures and angles, as demonstrated by these three illustrations:

Dimorphodon, the classic "hatchet-headed" rhamphorhynchoid, which here has a dangling fifth toe, commonly used by other illustrators to anchor the uropatagium, the membrane connecting the feet and tail.


Camptosaurus, that ubiquitous ornithopod of the Jurassic Morrison formation in the US.

And this dashing fellow is Triceratops, a ceratopsian of no small renown.

Published in 1974, Trecento Milioni Di Anni Fa came out during that transitional period when Ostrom's ideas were gaining traction among the scientific community, and just before Robert Bakker began spreading the new ideas about dinosaur biology to the public with his 1975 "Dinosaur Renaissance" article for Scientific American (an issue I own, and have yet to scan, shame on me). They argued that dinosaurs were monophyletic - both the ornithischians and saurischians shared one common ancestor; that they were active animals with high metabolisms; and, of course, that theropods were the ancestors of birds. This places Hülsmann's art just before the revolution this brought out in paleoart, which proceeded fitfully throughout the eighties and nineties as we've seen in this series time and time again.

She illustrates the "big two" theropods, Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus, in the familiar man-in-suit posture that has persisted for so long. What's remarkable are the correctly oriented forelimbs of Allosaurus. No pronation! Ken Carpenter's 2001 study Forelimb biomechanics of nonavian theropod dinosaurs in predation did much to dispel this misconception from high-level paleoart, but "lay" dinosaur illustrations will probably get this wrong forever, because we want our dinosaurs to have dextrous little hands so we could play Nintendo 64 with them and high-five them without great struggle.



And check out the pterofuzz on Pteranodon!

My favorite from this selection has to be Hülsmann's coy little Archaeopteryx, brightly colored but not to sparkleraptor extremes. In penance for the time I did the same damn thing, I am forced to note that the primary feathers should be extending from this sexy little Archie's middle digit. The feet, too, are a bit off, with a hallux that's more reversed than it should be.

FACT: The Vintage Dinosaur Art pool is inching ever closer to 1,000 images! You can see more Mesozoic critters from this book there, including a plesiosaur that looks like it's walking on dry land due to the white background.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Deinonychus, a Cretaceous Rodeo Rider

"Gaaaar! I'm gonna hold you down and eat you alive! While flapping!" Photo by Dominique Pipet, via Flickr.

What did Deinonychus really do with its feet? John Ostrom initially painted the picture of a fleet-footed predator, chasing down prey animals and slashing at them with the enlarged claw on its second toe. To take it from Crichton, they were slitting bellies and dancing in spilled viscera. A few years ago, Phil Manning of the University of Manchester suggested they were more likely "climbing crampons," allowing them to cling to the panicky tenontosaurs they were attacking. In a new PLoS One paper, Denver Fowler, with Elizabeth Freedman, John Scannella, and Robert Kambic, puts forward another option: they were grasping tools for holding down smaller prey (or, in typically colorful science-speak, prey of "subequal body size").

To come to this conclusion, Fowler and team compared the feet of Deinonychus to other animals: a diverse group of extinct theropod genera as well as living birds. When compared to dinosaurs, the proportions of their feet differed strikingly from ornithomimids and alvarezsaurs, both groups whose leg proportions strongly suggest a cursorial lifestyle. They were runners. As Matt Martyniuk recently wrote in an excellent DinoGoss post, the sticky assumption that dromaeosaurs were particularly quick animals, chasing down prey, isn't really supported by the evidence. Noting that Ostrom's first ideas changed once he took full stock of the proportions of Deinonychus's metatarsus length to its tibia length, Matt writes, "Not only was Deinonychus not particularly fast, it probably could not have been nearly as fast as most other small theropods, including modern flightless birds, let alone cheetahs."

To test his hypothesis that Deinonychus was instead using its feet to hold onto prey as it killed it, Fowler compared its foot proportions to living birds who use their feet in diverse ways, including accipiters, owls, falcons, passerines, vultures, osprey, woodpeckers, and pheasants. Accipiters, AKA hawks and eagles, are adept at holding down prey, using second toes which have larger claws than the others. This second claw was the closest analog to the dromaeosaur "sickle-claw" yet found. The metatarsal bones were short and stocky like those of owls, suggesting that they were just as good at grasping small prey, if not built to constrict around prey and squeeze the life out of it the way accipiters can.

Also assisting Deinonychus in subduing and keeping a grip on its prey, Fowler suggests, is that feathered forelimbs could have been used the way accipiters use their wings, flapping to maintain stability on top of a struggling prey animal. He writes,
Even if Deinonychosauria were not capable of a full avian-like flapping ability, they may have been able to perform a rudimentary flight stroke during stability flapping. Similarly, long feathered tails are conspicuous in accipiters and aid in maneuverability and balance during stability flapping. Basal Paraves and Deinonychosauria possessed long bony tails which are shown to have been well feathered... and would have assisted balance during predation and stability flapping.
This suggests another use for flapping, feathered forelimbs other than flight. The dromaeosaur would ambush its prey, hold it down by plunging its enlarged second claw into it, holding it down by its own weight, flapping to keep its balance and maintain its grip. Those long forearm feathers and fiercely clawed hands would have also been useful to "mantle" their meal, protecting it from rivals and further preventing escape. Fowler writes,
An important part of our interpretation is that ground-based predation need not necessarily be conducted at high speed. It is commonplace for extant terrestrial predators to employ surprise ambush techniques; goshawks and other forest raptor species commonly hunt on the ground, employing ambush and maneuverability as strategies, rather than outright pursuit
Troodontids also figure into this, as Fowler notes their common presence in ecosystems alongside dromaeosaurs. Comparitively, the feet of troodontids were better suited for chasing down their prey. As dromaeosaurs went for larger prey, troodontids may have been specialized for hunting small mammals, for example, perhaps in darkness as suggested by their famously large eyes.

Noting that extant avian theropods such as Golden Eagles aren't afraid to go after much larger prey, Fowler writes that his research here doesn't necessarily preclude the long-inferred habit of dromaeosaurs to pick on animals their own size or larger. Had they worked up the gumption to have tenontosaur for supper, the "climbing crampon" quality of the second toe claw noted by Phil Manning would certainly come in handy for prey riding. In a sort of Cretaceous rodeo, the dromaeosaur would have leaped onto the back of a passing tenontosaur, holding on for dear life as it thrashed about until blood loss and exhaustion finally brought it down.

This research is rich with possibilities for future studies, and it will be fun to see what comes of it. There are the biomechanical implications of stability flapping to look at, as well as plenty of argument over how this hypothesis impacts the early evolution of flight. Lots of meat on this bone.

Also published in PLoS One yesterday: Scannella and Jack Horner continue to strike genera from the books, this time adding Nedoceratops to the list of ontogenetic phases of Triceratops. Another deals with how reproductive strategies affect body size in a variety of animals, including dinosaurs.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs Discovered

Most readers of this blog will already be familiar with The Great Dinosaur Discoveries, Darren Naish's excellent book about, well, people discovering dinosaurs through the decades. Dinosaurs Discovered by John Gilbert has a very similar theme - double-page spreads profile historical palaeonotological findings - but is 30 years older, dating as it does from 1979. In addition, while Naish's book features gorgeous artwork from a number of the best palaeoartists around today (Luis Rey, Julius T Csotonyi, and Todd Marshall to name three), Gilbert's is illustrated solely by Guy Michel.

Apparently, Michel really had a thing for tongues. I'm not sure you can say that about Luis Rey.

The artwork is of a decent enough standard from a purely aesthetic, rather than scientific point of view; the animals are well-detailed, while landscapes appear lush and believable (even for all the oddly anachronistic grass).

However, there are a few very strange ideas that just keep on popping up (or rather, out). By far the most predominant among these is the tongue-lolling, Gene Simmons Iguanodon. It's first seen in a sort of 'parade' of dinosaurs from different periods:

(A few other things to note here: the extremely squat, no neck Ankylosaurus; the very stooped brachiosaur with even-length limbs; and the fact that the Stegosaurus with upright plates is significant for reasons I'll come to later. Also, I feel obliged to point out that the labels of Coelophysis and Cetiosaurus were clearly swapped by accident, but I've cropped out the former.)

A later page shows a whole herd of razzing Iguanodon stumbling blithely into a ravine in Belgium:

And here's another one...

And another one. (Note also the Stegosaurus with the seldom-seen 'flat plates' configuration, and the highly sauropod-like Plateosaurus, both of which jar with other illustrations of the same animal in the same book by the same artist.)

Quite why Michel thought that Iguanodon would be sticking its tongue out everywhere, I don't know. Obviously, the last image shows it using its tongue, giraffe-like, to manipulate foliage (an idea that Louis Dollo had), but in the other images it's just sort of...hanging there, like the animal's lost control of it. Or maybe it's catching flies, I dunno. Iguanodon isn't the only animal in on the drooling, tongue-dangling action, either.

Plateosaurus? What the hell? I've got a feeling that giraffe-like Iguanodon were a bit of a palaeoart meme back in the day, but this is surely the only time the idea's been applied to sauropodomorphs. (And if you know otherwise, I want to know too. Comment please!)

Protruding tongues aside, most of the art in this book conforms to what you'd expect from the 1970s, with a few particularly quirky highlights. Once again, Tyrannosaurus suffers a really rather undignified interpretation by the artist - not only frog-eyed, but in a really strange pose. It looks like the Struthiomimus has just let one rip and run off, and the Tyrannosaurus is throwing up its oversized arms in disgust. Something's really up with that Parasaurolophus skull, too...

Ah, good old Bronto. Obviously, the animal looks really retrograde and horrendous (shall we say 'phylotarded' again? Yeah, let's) and comes complete with a blunt wrong-o-skull, but there's still something I quite like about this scene. It's probably just because there isn't enough palaeoart set in a rainstorm. Reminds me of holidays in Norfolk. As an added bonus, in spite of apparently being of 1970s origin, both sauropod and accompanying pterosaurs look like they've been sent through a portal from the nineteenth century.

And finally...Michel clearly found arranging the animals in this scene a bit of a headache (geddit?), so he gave up. The ankylosaur has a very fetching pair of little horns in addition to not being at all bothered by the situation. Wonderful.