Sunday, April 20, 2014

Massospondylus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

It's Easter Sunday!  Like last year, we will be looking at another prehistoric animal that has a connection to eggs in the fossil record...because of Easter eggs...mmm.  Check out Massospondylus carinatusMassospondylus was a plant eating dinosaur that lived in what is now South Africa during the Early Jurassic Period between almost 200 to 183 million years ago. Most adults grew to about fifteen feet long from snout to tail.  The genus name, Massospondyuls, translates to "Long Vertebrae".

Massospondylus adult burying a clutch of eggs by Christopher DiPiazza.

Massospondylus was what we refer to as a basal sauropodomorph.  Basal sauropodomorph is the group of dinosaurs that we believe would eventually evolve to give rise to the largest land animals the earth has ever seen, the sauropods, like Apatosaurus and GiraffititanPlateosaurus, a close relative of Massospondylus, was another example of a basal sauropodomorph, or prosauropod, as they are also sometimes called.  Massospondylus was not that big compared to its later relatives but for it's time in the early Jurassic, it was relatively large for a dinosaur.

Massospondylus skull.  You can see all the small, leaf-shaped teeth that could have been useful for slicing tough plant material.

The oldest fossil dinosaur eggs ever discovered are from Massospondylus. The fossil site where these eggs have been found actually shows layers upon layers of nests that existed years apart from each other.  This means that the dinosaurs were returning to the same place to lay eggs over and over again every generation.  This sort of thing has actually been discovered a few times with extinct dinosaurs, specifically with sauropodomorphs.

Massospondylus eggs showing unhatched embryo inside one of them at the Royal Ontario Museum.  The eggs were laid in rows rather than just plopped in a pile, suggesting mom took at least some care with regards to her young, unlike many other reptiles.

Along with some eggs, unhatched Massospondylus embryos and young have also been uncovered.  The babies of this dinosaur are actually surprising in that they don't resemble the parents much at all.  Adult Massospondylus were pretty typical for basal sauropodomorphs with small heads, long necks and tails, and bipedal posture.  The babies, some of which are as small as six inches long, had really big heads, short necks (to support the huge noggins), walked on all fours, and were toothless!  Even more interesting, many baby skeletons were in the nest that were too big to have been just hatched.  That, combined with the fact that they were still toothless, suggests that the adults were caring for them in some form.  This is not consistent with what paleontologists believe about later, larger sauropod parental behavior, which consisted of simply laying the eggs and leaving the clutch and young to fend for themselves.  There could be a size limit somewhere in sauropod evolution that has a connection.  After all, when a parent is over one hundred feet long, as oppose to Massospondylus' modest fifteen feet, it may be more likely to accidentally step on its hatchlings than protect them!  One must ask how much good can a parent with that big of a size difference really be?

Baby Massospondylus eating some of its mom's spit up food by Christopher DiPiazza.  Since it had no teeth for cutting plants of its own and the fact that many modern relatives (birds) practice this method of feeding young, it could be plausible.  There is no actual evidence of it, however.

Parental care in some form or another is also present in many modern non-avian reptiles.  All crocodilians build, guard, and protect young, certain large snakes protect eggs by wrapping their bodies around the clutch and generating heat through muscle friction, even some lizards and testudines (turtles and tortoises) guard their young, as well!  Theorizing a primitive sauropodomorph did too isn't so crazy.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page.  Also, special thanks to friend and paleontologist, Dr. Heinrich Mallison, for helping out with this week!  Having worked with prosauropods, he lent his expertise for the post and illustrations!


Bonnan, Matthew F.; and Senter, Phil (2007). "Were the basal sauropodomorph dinosaurs Plateosaurus and Massospondylus habitual quadrupeds?". In Paul M. Barrett & D. J. Batten (eds.). Evolution and Palaeobiology of Early Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Special Papers in Palaeontology 77. London: The Palaeontological Association. pp. 139–155.

Reisz, Robert R.; Diane Scott, Hans-Dieter Sues, David C. Evans, and Michael A. Raath (2005). "Embryos of an Early Jurassic prosauropod dinosaur and their evolutionary significance". Science 309 (5735): 761–764. Bibcode:2005Sci...309..761R. doi:10.1126/science.1114942. PMID 16051793.

Reisz, Robert R.; David C. Evans, Hans-Dieter Sues, Diane Scott (2010-11-01). "Embryonic Skeletal Anatomy of the Sauropodomorph Dinosaur Massospondylus from the Lower Jurassic of South Africa". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30 (6): 1653, 1664. doi:10.1080/02724634.2010.521604. ISSN 0272-4634.

Reisz, Robert R.; David C. Evans, Eric M. Roberts, Hans-Dieter Sues, and Adam M. Yates (2012). "Oldest known dinosaurian nesting site and reproductive biology of the Early Jurassic sauropodomorph Massospondylus". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (7): 2428–2433. Bibcode:2012PNAS..109.2428R. doi:10.1073/pnas.1109385109. PMC 3289328. PMID 22308330.

Yates, Adam M. (2012). "Basal Sauropodomorpha: The "Prosauropods"". In M. K. Brett-Surman, James O. Farlow, Thomas R. Holtz (eds.). The Complete Dinosaur (2. ed.). Indiana University Press. pp. 430, 435. ISBN 978-0-253-35701-4.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sticks n' Stones n' Dinosaur Bones: Jersey Boys Review

Several weeks ago I received an email from Ted Enik, author of the new children's book, Sticks n' Stones n' Dinosaur Bones.  Since I have a background in science AND putting up with little kids he was wondering if I would be willing to accept an early copy of his work and review in on the site.

Somewhere LeVar Burton is smiling right now.

There are a LOT of dinosuar books out there, most of them aimed towards children.  They are all either strict non-fiction, or crazy fiction that really has no grounding in science whatsoever.  Ted's book, however, is different.  It isn't just about dinosaurs.  It's about the two most famous paleontologists in the world and how they discovered a lot of their dinosaurs all wrapped up in a whimsical and humorous style.

It's a really fresh take on an important part in history that i feel little kids know nothing about.  This is especially cool since normally, children are not interested in the people behind the dinosaurs as much as the animals themselves.  It usually isn't until later in life that kids (if they are still interested in paleo) gain an appreciation for all the hard work and sometimes drama that goes into unearthing these fossils! (trust me...there is WAY too much drama in the world of paleo even today)  Well, this book explains that to a very young audience and it does a fantastic job.

 There are a few liberties and stretches made but the book is based on real events for the most part.  Did Edward Cope name an animal "NeverTopThisOne-Ginormous-asaurus"?  No.  But you better believe him and Charles Marsh got a little carried away naming new species after fragments of bones.  After a while, despite all the good discoveries that had been made, including many very famous dinosaurs we love today, finding dinosaur bones was more about the competition and less about science.  The book teaches a nice social lesson that comes from that too.  

The illustrations by G.F Newland are great too.  They are definitely kid-friendly but the color scheme and overall way they are put together stays true to the time period in which the story takes place.

Ted Enik and G.F. Newland reconstruct an encounter from the Late Cretaceous in a gift shop.  Photo courtesy of JR Pepper.

If you have kids that are interested in dinosaurs and want them to broaden their horizons a little while still keeping their attention, I highly recommend picking this book up.  It's a science lesson, history lesson, and a comedy act all in one book!  You can nab a copy right here.  You can check out the trailer for the book at Ted Enik and G.F. Newland's site here.  

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Procoptodon: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week is result of another request.  Let's check out a HUGE prehistoric marsupial from Australia, Procoptodon goliah!  Procoptodon was an extinct genus of kangaroo that lived in what is now mostly Southern Australia during the Plestiocene era, about 50 thousand years ago.  The genus name, Procoptodon, translates to "Forward Hill Tooth".  It was the largest macropod (marsupials with big hopping feet...get it?  macro(big) pod(foot)...yeah kangaroos, wallabies, bettongs...) that ever lived and stood over six feet tall.  Six feet is roughly the same height as a modern male Red Kangaroo, but Procoptodon was about twice as heavy as its extant relative at over 400 pounds! 

Procoptodon goliah hopping alongside some flying cockatoos by Christopher DiPiazza.

Its common name is the "Short-Faced Kangaroo" in reference to its forward-facing eyes and blunt snout, which are unlike those of modern macropods.  With the short face, this animal also had a very deep jaw which would have been backed up with extremely powerful chewing muscles in life.  It also had very unique teeth for a marsupial that are actually similar to those of apes (convergent evolution).  This combination of adaptations, plus looking at modern animals with similar adaptations, tell us that Procoptodon was adapted to eating tougher vegetation than its cousins.  This could have been the bushes and trees in its arid, almost desert habitat, or even grass.  In fact, despite being a kind of kangaroo, Procoptodon's face was more similar in appearance to other marsupials like koalas and wombats which also have powerful chewing muscles.

Skeleton of Procoptodon on display in the Naracoorte Caves in Southern Australia, where it was unearthed.

Procoptodon's limbs were also unique.  Its arms were very long, which probably allowed it to reach up and grab higher vegetation for food.  Its hands each had five fingers, two of which were extra long and tipped with sharp claws.  On each of its feet, Procoptodon only had one functioning toe.  Digits 1, 2, 3 and 5 were reduced to the point where they served no purpose anymore.  The one toe that was left, however, digit 4, was widened to provide more support and the muscles that attached there and at the ankle were simple, yet extremely powerful.  The toe was also tipped with a wide claw, similar in shape to a horse's hoof.  In life, Procoptodon would have been a very fast-moving animal once it got a good stride going.

Procoptodon actually has a little pop culture status too.  The most recent movie in the Ice Age franchise, Ice Age: Continental Drift, features a villainous Procoptodon, voiced by the hilarious Rebel Wilson. (who is also Australian!)

Procoptodon, named "Raz" from Ice Age: Continental Drift.  See?  One toe per foot.

For thousands of years Procoptodon actually would have coexisted with humans in Australia.  To this day, thanks to generations of oral culture, Aboriginal people tell stories of giant kangaroos from distant times.

That's all for this week!  Check us out next week for an EGGstremely appropriate Easter-themed Prehistoric Animal!  As always we welcome comments below or on our facebook page


Bartholomai, A. 1970. The extinct genus Procoptodon Owen (Marsupialia: Macropodidae) in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 15, 213-233. - See more at:
Prideaux, Gavin J., et al. "Extinction implications of a chenopod browse diet for a giant Pleistocene kangaroo." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106.28 (2009): 11646-11650.

"Procoptodon goliah". Australian Museum.
Bartholomai, A. 1970. The extinct genus Procoptodon Owen (Marsupialia: Macropodidae) in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 15, 213-233. - See more at:
Bartholomai, A. 1970. The extinct genus Procoptodon Owen (Marsupialia: Macropodidae) in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 15, 213-233. - See more at:
Bartholomai, A. 1970. The extinct genus Procoptodon Owen (Marsupialia: Macropodidae) in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 15, 213-233. - See more at:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rough Sketches to Finished Paintings: Part 3

It's time for the third installment of me showing you my doodles that I eventually manage to turn into finished paintings!  If you haven't already, make sure to check out the first and second installments, as well as my concept sketches post

The first one I want to show you is my VERY early scribbles for the giant marine lizard, Tylosaurus.  I was messing around with different pattern and pose ideas. 

You can already see I had decided to use the Sea Crate for a color reference.
Here is the finished product! 

Next is the trendy hadrosaur, Tsintaosaurus.  I actually spent a lot of time settling on a color scheme. The big one in the middle was the first idea, which was inspired by the Marbled Newt. (I may still use these colors for a different dinosaur in the future.  I like newts.)  Then I thought of the color scheme on the bottom which didn't really have any modern animal inspiration connected to it.  Finally, I decided to paint a color scheme using the look on the top right, which was inspired by a Horned Grebe and another species of newt, the Iranian Spotted Newt! 

Here is the finished product! 

Next we have two dinosaurs that were both officially described within a week of each other this year.  They are the North American oviraptorosaur, Anzu, and the Alaskan tyrannosaurid, Nanuqsaurus.  Both of the ideas for these guys, as well as my latest painting of the pterosaur, Caviramus, were born on the same piece of lined paper.  (Inspiration doesn't always hit when preferred art tools are within grasp.)

Then I decided on color schemes by playing with colored pencils on quick graphite sketches.  No need for fine details or shading.  I just need to know how the colors look on the body shape.  Both theropods I gave colors based on modern animals.  I'll save their identities for a later post though.  Can you guess what they are?

Here are the final products! 



Let's go back to that Caviramus!  After I came up with the initial doodle in my notebook, I decided that I really wanted to keep that pose.  It has good depth and movement.  I drew up a sketch on water color paper and asked paleontologist, Dr. Mark Witton, who is an expert on pterosaurs, if he would mind looking it over for me for accuracy's sake.  He kindly accepted.  Below is the first sketch I sent him.

After kindly looking it over, he pointed out that the elongated toes would have been facing inward during flight.  He also recommended I make the crest larger since it likely would have been more elaborate from the structure on the skull in life.  Taking this all in, I made the changes and sent it back to him like this.  (I also tweaked the lower jaw ever so much to match the skull as closely as possible.)


This time Dr. Witton suggested I add more membrane between the back legs.  This structure is called a uropatagium and has been found on several rhamphorhyncoid pterosaur specimens.  He also suggested I make the crest even bigger.  A concaved shape isn't very aerodynamic, and therefore probably not good for a flying animal. Friend, and fellow paleoartist, Vladimir Nikolov, kindly pointed out that I had forgotten to include the poor creature's propatagiums!  The propatagium is a section of membrane on the inside of a pterosaur's elbow.  Again, we know they had these thanks to fossils. 

After making all those changes I began to apply the paint.  (The propotagiums I actually had to add in after the was an off day.)  In the end I was left with a very hard-earned, yet worth it, scientifically accurate Caviramus painting! 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Caviramus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Pterosaurs are often compared to mythical dragons.  Naturally what flying reptile wouldn't be?  There is one pterosaur, however, that I think especially looks like it flew right out of Essos. (Game of Thrones Season 4 today woo!) Check out Caviramus scheplasanensis!

Life reconstruction of Caviramus scheplasanensis by Christopher DiPiazza

Caviramus was a one of the earliest known pterosaurs, having lived during the late Triassic, about 208 million years ago.  It was a fairly small compared to later pterosaurs with a four foot wingspan.  (baby dragon size) Its genus name, Caviramus, translates to "Hollow Jaw" in reference to its jaw which was one of the first parts of it to be unearthed by scientists and its species name is in reference to Mount Scheplasama, which is where it was found in Switzerland.

Everybody loved Daenarys!

Caviramus is known from two specimens which were originally thought to be two different species because the first was so fragmentary.  The second one, originally named Raeticodactylus, preserved much more material than the first, including the whole skull and much of the wings.

The second set of remains discovered of Caviramus, originally called Raeticodactylus.

Unlike many reptiles, Caviramus actually had a variety of different kinds of teeth in its mouth which appear to be designed for doing different things, much like the teeth of most mammals, actually.  In the front it had long, pointed teeth which probably were for capturing prey, possibly fish or other small animals.  In the back, however, it had shorter teeth that may have been used for chewing!  This is an unusual trait, only known to be present in a few species of Triassic pterosaurs.

Caviramus had a small bony crest on its snout.  We now know that pterosaurs with small crests likely had much larger crests when they were alive thanks to examining well-preserved fossils under UV lights.  When the pterosaur was alive, most of the crest would have been made of keratin (same material that your hair and finger/toe nails are made of...and a lot of other stuff on a lot of other animals), which often rots away after death.  This was probably the case with Caviramus' crest as well.  This large crest, like the crests of many pterosaurs, was probably a display adaptation for courtship.  Caviramus also had a tall, flattened portion at the end of it's lower jaw which would have given the whole front of the animal's  face an ax-shape appearance.  It actually looks pretty similar to one of those flying creatures from James Cameron's Avatar movie (called Leonopteryx).

Those tentacle bonding thingies were pretty creepy.

The wings of Caviramus were extremely long and thin. They are similar in shape to those of modern seabirds (which are not that closely related to pterosaurs just convergent evolution!) like gulls and albatross.  Although scientists are not 100% sure as to exactly how Caviramus fed when alive, it very well may have been adapted for soaring over bodies of water with those wings and plucking small fish out of the water with its specially designed teeth.

Special thanks to Paleontologist, Dr. Mark Witton, who is an expert on pterosaurs, for approving the information in this post and for coaching me through making the painting reconstruction of this awesome-looking pterosaur. 

 As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!  Have a creature you'd like to see reviewed?  Let us know and we'll make it happen! 

Works Cited

Fröbisch, N.B.; and Fröbisch, J. (2006). "A new basal pterosaur genus from the upper Triassic of the Northern Calcareous Alps of Switzerland". Palaeontology 49 (5): 1081–1090. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4983.2006.00581.x

Stecher, Rico (2008). "A new Triassic pterosaur from Switzerland (Central Austroalpine, Grisons), Raeticodactylus filisurensis gen. et sp. nov". Swiss Journal of Geosciences 101: 185. doi:10.1007/s00015-008-1252-6.

Osi, A. (2010). "Feeding-related characters in basal pterosaurs: implications for jaw mechanism, dental function and diet." Lethaia, doi:10.1111/j.1502-3931.2010.00230.

Witton, Mark P. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. N.p.: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.