Monday, March 2, 2015

Eryops: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Eryops megacephalus was a large amphibian that lived in what is now the United States during the Early Permian, between 310 and 295 million years ago.  It measured almost seven feet long in some cases and would have been a predator, snapping up any smaller animal that could have fit in it's huge mouth.  The genus name, Eryops, translates to "Drawn-out Face" and the species name, megacephalus, translates to "Big Head".  Guess what!  It had a huge noggin.  No, seriously, look at it.  The skull was almost a third of the total body length.  Inside this skull, Eryops was armed with many sharp, cone-shaped teeth.

Eryops snaps up its relative, Cacops in the Permian undergrowth.  Reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Eryops belonged to an extremely successful group of amphibians, called temnospondyli.  Temnospondyls existed on the planet for over 210 million years before finally going extinct, making them the most successful kind of tetrapod (animal with four limbs) in history.  Eryops was one of the larger temnospondyls and likely didn't have too many predators to worry about during the time it was alive other than Dimetrodon.

Check out those teeth!

Eryops is often depicted as being semi-aquatic, hunting in the water much like a modern alligator.  I don't personally see this as a likely lifestyle for Eryops, however.  For one thing, Eryops' tail was very short, and wouldn't have really helped the animal propel in the water like alligators, and its modern relatives, the newtsEryops also had a very robust skeleton, with well-developed limbs that were designed for supporting weight that were in a sprawled posture, jutting out at an almost ninety degree angle from the body.  The vertebrae of Eryops had relatively tall neural arches which could have helped anchor muscle.  It would not have been able to run very fast with this limb design, but it would have still been a sturdy and powerful walker.  Like most amphibians, however, it still would have needed a body of water in order to reproduce.


Eryops skeletal mount on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

I cannot help but make connections between Eryops and one of my all time favorite living ampbibians, its relative, the Tiger Salamander. (Ambystoma tigrinum)  Tiger salamanders, like Eryops, have large, flat heads with wide mouths.  They do not hesitate to devour any creature smaller than themselves and, despite being reliant on water to drink and reproduce, prefer to spend their adult lives on land. 



Another interesting feature of Eryops is that it had well-developed ribs.  This is not typical for amphibians, which normally have very short ribs or no ribs at all!  Most amphibians, like salamanders and frogs, respire through their skin, and don't need ribs.  This method of breathing was not an option for Eryops, however, which was was significantly larger, and had a much higher mass to surface area ratio of its body, and therefore wouldn't have been able to effectively breathe through its skin.  It may have breathed by rhythmically moving the floor of its mouth to help pump air into the lungs.  This method of breathing, called buccal pumping, can easily be observed in modern amphibians, as well.


That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page.

References

Brainerd, E. L. (1998) Mechanics of lung ventilation in a larval salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum. J. Exp. Biol. 201:2891–2901

Miner, Roy Waldo. The Pectoral Limb of Eryops and Other Primitive Tetrapods. New York: Published by Order of the Trustees, the American Museum of Natural History, 1925. Print.

Pawley, Kat, and Anne Warren. "The Appendicular Skeleton Of Eryops Megacephalus Cope, 1877 (Temnospondyli: Eryopoidea) From The Lower Permian Of North America." Journal of Paleontology 80.3 (2006): 561-80. Web.

Sawin, Horace John. The Cranial Anatomy of Eryops Megacephalus. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Iguanodon: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we will be looking at one of the most famous and well-studied dinosaurs of all time.  Let's make way for Iguanodon bernissartensis!

Iguanodon was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Belgium, during the early Cretaceous period, about 125 million years ago.  Adults measured roughly thirty three feet long from beak to tail, and would have been comfortable walking on all fours or as bipeds.  Iguanodon belongs to the ornithopod group of dinosaurs, and was closely related to Tenontosaurus and Mantellisaurus.(which even used to be considered a kind of Iguanodon)  Iguanodon also has family ties with the later duck-billed hadrosaurs, like Parasaurolophus and Edmontosaurus.

Iguanodon bernissartensis life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Iguanodon was one of the first ever dinosaurs to be recognized by science.  Humans had been discovering dinosaurs for thousands of years prior, of course, but Iguanodon, along with Megalosaurus, was one of the first to actually be called a "dinosaur".  This happened back in 1822 when scientist, Gideon Mantell and his wife, Marry Ann, discovered some very strange fossilized teeth, in England.  Upon closely examining these teeth, Dr. Mantell realized that they were very similar to the teeth of modern iguanas, which are mostly plant-eaters, and concluded that the fossil teeth he had found must have come from some sort of gigantic, plant-eating reptile.  A few years later, several large bones, including limbs, part of a tail, and some vertebrae were discovered which were determined to be from the same kind of animal.  The animal was named, Iguanodon, which translates to "Iguana Tooth", because of...the teeth...and the fact that they looked like iguana teeth.  

Iguanodon skeletal mount.

The first reconstructions of Iguanodon were based off of very little information, and were largely inspired by modern reptiles, mainly lizards and crocodiles.  Life-sized models of this version of Iguanodon, were erected, along with several other prehistoric creatures, in the gardens of the Crystal Palace, in England.  The palace, itself, has since burned down, but the statues in the garden are still standing, and can be visited still today.  It is a cool reminder of what our perception of dinosaurs used to be when we first started studying them.  


Iguanodon statues in the gardens of the Crystal Palace in England. Note how lizard-like they are and the fact that they have nose horns instead of thumb spikes.

Okay, ready for some confusing information?  Good.  That whole story about Iguanodon being discovered way back in the 1800s and being made into a beautiful statue...may not have been based on the dinosaur that we call Iguanodon today.  If you were paying attention, you may have noticed that that story took place in England, but I said that Iguanodon lived in what is now Belgium!  What's the deal?  You see, since those discoveries in the 1800s, many dinosaurs similar to those specimens have been found, and they were all named Iguanodon.  Pretty soon there were lots different species of large, plant-eating dinosaurs from all over Europe and even parts of the United States with the genus name, Iguanodon.  It wasn't until recently that these dinosaurs were re-evaluated and divided into different genus where necessary.  By the end of it, only one species remained standing with the official genus name, Iguanodon.  It was the most completely known, and it was from Belgium.  The original bones from England were likely from a different dinosaur, we know call Mantellisaurus.  (Which was very similar to the animal we now call Iguanodon, but not the same.)  Thanks, taxonomy!

Mantellisaurus life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.  Note that the arms are much shorter than the legs.  Iguanodon had much longer arms proportionally.
Since the 1800s, many more specimens of Iguanodon and its close relatives have been discovered, giving us a more accurate depiction of what it would have looked like when alive.  We now know it would have had a beak in the front of its snout and could have easily walked on its hind legs if it wanted to.  The front limbs were long, about 75% the length of its hind legs, and each armed with five digits on the hands, the first of which, took the form of a broad spike-like claw.  This spike was originally incorrectly believed to be a nose horn, which can be seen on the Crystal Palace statues.  Scientists are still not completely sure as to what these claws were for, but they could have been for defense against predators, or possibly for fighting within the species for dominance.  The next three digits on the hand were broad and strong, and would have had claws similar to hooves on them.  These fingers were good for supporting the weight of the animal's body when walking on all fours, and were not very flexible.  The fifth, and last digit on each hand, jutted out to the side more and was flexible, possibly for manipulating food.  

skeletal mount of an Iguanodon hand.
Iguanodon would have had stiff tendons running down its back and tail, which would have made its spine rigid.  It would not have been able to run very fast on its hind legs, and would have been reduced to little more than a power-walk when on all fours. (despite what a certain Disney movie might have you believe)  

There is no real evidence that would suggest Iguanodon would have lived in groups when alive, unlike its later cousins, the hadrosaurs.  At one time, fossil sites yielding multiple Iguanodon skeletons caused some people to think they could have been social, but it was later discovered that those skeletons, despite being in the same area, were from animals that each died years apart from one another.  They most likely had each washed down a river and ended up at the bottom of the same lake.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!

References

Carpenter, K.; Ishida, Y. (2010). "Early and "Middle" Cretaceous Iguanodonts in Time and Space" (PDF). Journal of Iberian Geology 36(2): 145–164.

Naish, Darren; Martill, David M. (2001). "Ornithopod dinosaurs".Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. London: The Palaeontological Association. pp. 60–132. ISBN 0-901702-72-2.

Norman, David B. (2004). "Basal Iguanodontia". In Weishampel, D. B.; Dodson, P.; Osmólska, H. The Dinosauria (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 413–437.

Paul, Gregory S. (2008). "A revised taxonomy of the iguanodont dinosaur genera and species". Cretaceous Research 29 (2): 192–216.

Sues, Hans-Dieter (1997). "European Dinosaur Hunters". In James Orville Farlow and M. K. Brett-Surman (eds.). The Complete Dinosaur. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 14.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Jersey boy's Jurassic World jeep!

The movie Jurassic World is fast approaching! Well, for me, it feels like 65 million years away. What is a Jersey Boy who likes dinosaurs to do in order to kill time until it opens? Why dress your jeep up in Jurassic World style of course! Currently, I'm converting my jeep into a vehicle that would be fit for any tour on the island of Isla Nublar. I will keep you all posted, but should be good fun and a perfect way to show what a HUGE fan I am of the series.  



Friday, February 6, 2015

New Prehistoric Animal of the Week Coming February 22nd!

I am going to have to take a little time off as I will be traveling and unable to post a new Prehistoric Animal of the Week until Sunday February 22nd.  I'm pretty good at painting in odd places but on the go like I will be doing is just too much and it is really important to me that I do these posts to the absolute best of my ability.  Never fear!  When I come back they will be as good as ever and I surely have not forgotten the requested dinosaurs you guys have been sending me! 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Prehistoric Pub Welcomes Paleontologist Dr. Andrew A. Farke!

Gary:  Welcome to the Prehistoric Pub!  Our own virtual pub where we can kick back with our guests and talk about paleontology.  Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs is proud to have Dr. Andrew A. Farke as our first guest!  Greetings Dr. Farke. Please, take a seat at our bar and let’s talk.  You are one of my biggest heroes in the field of paleontology and it’s an honor to have you. Let me pour you the first pint!


Andy:  Thanks, Gary! And just “Andy” is fine...I don’t know if I’m quite worthy of hero status, but I’m certainly flattered.

Andy with Centrosaurus. (Photo provided by Andy.)

Gary:  Tell us a little about yourself and then we’ll dive right into some questions for our patrons.

Andy:  Well, where to start? I’m a paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, where I’ve been serving as curator since 2008. I was born and raised in rural South Dakota, and did my undergrad work at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. I got my Ph.D. at Stony Brook University. As a paleontologist, I’m really interested in what makes dinosaurs tick--how they used their bodies, and how they evolved into so many amazing species. The horned dinosaurs are where I spend most of my time.

Gary:  You are currently involved in the field of paleontology. Who did you admire growing up in regards to this fascinating field?

Andy:  I am a child of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, so I grew up admiring the work of folks like Jack Horner, Bob Bakker, and John Ostrom. I got a copy of Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies when I was about 10, and that completely hooked me on the field. It was amazing to think about all the things we could learn, just from fossils and rocks! Of course, I’ve since learned that some of the ideas in Dinosaur Heresies are now outdated or perhaps exceed the data available; but even so it’s a landmark book in my mind. It got me excited like nothing else. I also loved the artwork of folks like Greg Paul, Mark Hallett, Don Henderson, John Gurche, Stephen Czerkas, and Sylvia Czerkas. Their work brought dinosaurs and other animals back to life!

Gary:  At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

Andy:  I first “discovered” dinosaurs when I was four years old; on a family vacation, we went to Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota. It’s a 1930’s era conglomeration of concrete dinosaurs overlooking the city, and my parents bought me a package of plastic dinosaurs in the gift shop. That was the beginning of the end for me! By the time I was in fourth grade, I made up my mind that I was going to be a paleontologist when I grew up.

Gary:  What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

Andy:  It has to be Triceratops on both counts. I love the history of this animal, and I just love the way it looks, too. The skulls are pretty nifty!

Andy in the field in Madagasar.  (Photo provided by Andy.)

Gary:  Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

Andy:  First, cast a broad net in your interests and skills. Learn to communicate well, whether that’s in writing or speaking. I’m still refining my style of communication, and still learning stuff after a few years in the field! If I were to do it all over again, I’d probably seek out a stronger background in computer coding--and I think I’ll probably do that at some point in the future. Software like R is immensely useful, so learning the math and programming behind it is a definite plus. Not to mention some of the most ground-breaking work in paleontology these days relies on R!

Second, keep broad interests in extinct organisms. Lots of people want to study tyrannosaurs, for instance, but the reality is that charismatic groups like this only have so many specimens to go around. Even the study of horned dinosaurs is more crowded than it used to be! It’s not just enough to make a new cladogram or name a new species--what are you going to do with it once you have it? What’s the bigger picture? I advise people to think in terms of general questions, rather than particular species.

Third, be open to opportunities, and be persistent. Time and again, I see people pass up great opportunities to expand their skillsets just because it isn’t exactly the kind of job or internship or whatever that they are looking for. Or, they just drop the ball and miss out. You won’t get any of the opportunities you don’t pursue. As an undergrad, one of the most unintentionally important things I did was sign up to volunteer for an afternoon with a geology professor who was running a seismic line, during my first month of school. It was completely outside my immediate interests at the time (dinosaurs, dinosaurs, and more dinosaurs), but it broadened my experience in geology, and I now have a better understanding for how that technology works. Even more important, the two other students (both freshmen too!) who signed up ended up as some of my best friends in college. We’re all working in paleontology now, and still keep in touch. I benefited immensely from seizing that opportunity, in ways I couldn’t imagine at the time.

Finally, be excellent to each other. A little kindness goes a long ways. I owe a lot to people who were kind to me, and try to pay that forward as best I can (imperfect though my attempts are sometimes!). You still need to stand up for yourself, of course, but if someone tries to feed you a line that it’s necessary to scoop, cheat, or elbow your way into success in paleontology, find some different advice. That’s not the kind of field we need, and not the sorts of colleagues I want. Avoid those sorts of people. If there’s one other thing I’ve learned as I’ve grown older, it’s that your friends’ and colleagues’ worth is not based on the number of papers they publish, or the name of the journals they get into, or the value of their grants, or the title on their office nameplate (or if they even have an office). There are lots of ways to be a paleontologist, and be a successful one at that. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they’re wrong.

Gary:  Were there any subjects in college you dreaded?

Andy:  Oh, I wasn’t too big of a fan of my physics classes. I think it had more to do with the mode of instruction than the subject itself, because a lot of what I’ve done for my research since then is rooted in physics. Also, I’m married to someone with a Ph.D. in physics, so it can’t be all that bad.

Andy on a helicopter lift in Utah.  (Photo provided by Andy.)

Gary:  What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects?

Andy:  I think my favorite project to date centered on a baby Parasaurolophus that one of my students found. It is such a cute little specimen, and we were able to squeeze so much information out of it! Hadrosaurs were a fairly new group to me, and a lot of the work we looked at with dinosaur growth was also new territory. I learned so much! There really is nothing better than having a research project where you get to dive into the literature and learn. I also had some talented students on board, and got to work with paleontologist Sarah Werning as a co-author. She taught me a lot about bone histology (microanatomy) and documenting your methods. And as an added bonus, I liked that we were able to put all of the CT scans, laser scans, and high-resolution images online for everyone to use. We went to the trouble of digitizing the dinosaur--let’s make it available for all! You can see the results at www.dinosaurjoe.org.

As for current projects, I’m doing a lot in the Kaiparowits Formation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Our museum has a tyrannosaur quarry there (well, it’s more like a hadrosaur concretion overlying some tyrannosaur bones…), and lots of other nifty irons in the fire.

Gary:  Jurassic Park was the movie I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?


Andy:  Absolutely Jurassic Park! I still love watching the dinosaur scenes from that movie--beyond the nostalgia value, I think they really nailed the “feel” of seeing live dinosaurs. The scene where they show all of the dinosaurs off in the distance, just doing their dinosaur thing--that still sticks with me!

Gary:  I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist. Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?

Andy:  I think the first professional paleontologist I met must have been Phil Bjork, who was director of the Museum of Geology in Rapid City many years back. I can’t say I was a nervous wreck, but I certainly wanted to make a good impression (I must have been 12 years old at the time).

If I was ever “nervous” to meet a paleontologist, I think it was when I met José Bonaparte at SVP a few years back. I saw him across the lobby at the conference hotel, and I knew I had to take the opportunity to meet him (when would the opportunity come again?!). He was wonderfully gracious, and we had a nice, brief conversation.

Gary:  Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

Andy:  I think a lot of it has to do with their status as “real monsters.” Many of them were unlike anything that’s alive today, yet they are real, and are a part of our planet’s history. That long distance in time yet close physical proximity is a winning and fascinating combination.

Gary:  What is your favorite time period?

Andy:  Cretaceous, no doubt! My favorite animals lived during that time, and it was a pretty cool juncture in earth history from just about every angle.

Andy with a pint of homebrew.  (Photo provided by Andy.)

Gary:  What is your favorite dinosaur from your fieldwork sites?

Andy:  As a grad student, I had the good opportunity to do fieldwork in Madagascar, and I just love the dinosaurs from there. Majungasaurus has to be one of my favorites, particularly because I got the chance to help excavate one of the most complete skeletons known, after my buddy Joe Sertich found the site. They’re such funky animals--kinda like the weiner-dogs of the dinosaur world. Stubby hind legs, ridiculously tiny forelimbs, and a long body.

My second favorite dinosaur find from Madagascar is probably the braincase of the sauropod Vahiny--it is amazingly cool to learn that the specimen you found is going to be the holotype (name-bearing example specimen) for a new species. You can check out the blog post to learn more on the story for that one.

Gary:  Where can our audience go to learn more about your work and support what you do?

Andy:  I’m pretty active on Twitter, so you can find me there @andyfarke. I also blog at The Integrative Paleontologists (http://blogs.plos.org/paleo). You can learn more about my museum at its website (www.alfmuseum.org), on Twitter (@alfmuseum), or on Facebook. There’s always something going on!

Gary:  What else do you enjoy? What other interesting hobbies do you have? I hear you brew your own beer!?

Andy:  Outside of my immediate work in paleontology, I’m pretty passionate about facilitating access to fossil specimens as well as the research on these specimens. I find it a bit ironic sometimes the emphasis that paleontology places on ensuring fossils are safely preserved in a museum--something I absolutely support!--against a background of publishing scientific papers in journals that many folks can’t access, or assembling 3D digital specimens without ever making them downloadable, or even letting people know who to contact to access the data. A lot of my time is spent supporting open access publication as well as encouraging colleagues to make their data available. Fossils belong to the world--so let’s make them available to the world!

And my other passion--which lately has probably tipped into the territory of obsession--is of course homebrewing! I started in the hobby as a teenager, when I helped my dad (who is also a homebrewer) with his projects, even though I couldn’t enjoy the product. A few friends and I got back into it during grad school, and then I began brewing mostly solo when I moved out to California. It’s an immensely fun and rewarding hobby. Of course, you get beer out of it, but like all hobbies the end result is not the whole point. I love being able to switch my mind into a different gear--even though paleontology is awesome, and I really like what I do, it can be refreshing to step away for a few hours and think about something else. It recharges my mental batteries. Also, the hobby of homebrewing can be really sciencey, in a good way. During a brewing session, I’m measuring temperatures and specific gravities, calculating boil-off rates for liquids, culturing yeasts, etc. Basically, running a laboratory. Not all of that stuff is absolutely necessary to get good beer, but I’ve found it to be an enjoyable part of the process (and I end up with better beer than when I don’t do those things). Also, there is a real creativity to beer. You might have a mental image of what the beer will look and taste like, and then have to figure out what grains and yeasts and hops will get you there. There’s always a new challenge. And in the worst case, you still get beer.

Gary:  Have you ever been to New Jersey?

Andy:  I have indeed, many times! My wife is from central Jersey, so I make it out that way every once in awhile to visit her family. I think I was even technically a New Jersey resident for a short time, during a few weeks between moving from South Dakota (where I was born and went to college) to New York (where I went to grad school). For all of the bum rap the New Jersey gets (and I am guilty of picking on it every once in awhile), there are a lot of beautiful corners to the state. Plus, Hadrosaurus!!!! What’s not to like about a place that has the hadrosaur to end all hadrosaurs?

Gary:  It was great having you and I appreciate you taking the time to visit.  I understand you are a busy man.  Could you do me a favor and sign your glass before you go.  We’d like to place it on the wall for all to see!  

Andy:  Done and done. Thanks for hosting!

Gary:  Wow, this is amazing.  Absolutely beautiful.  Thank you!  Anytime Andy and please stop by again!  I owe you a pint next time you are in Jersey.