Saturday, March 28, 2015

Let's Publish Mammoth is Mopey!

As someone who has experience in the field of education as both a formal and informal teacher at schools, museums, and zoos, I know as well as anyone how important learning is, especially when it comes to science.  What many folks fail to grasp, however, is that you will never get anywhere with any learner (regardless of age) unless they are having fun or are in someway invested.  It's true.  This brings me to a book written and illustrated by David Orr from over at Love in the Times of Chamsosaurs, titled Mammoth is Mopey.


This books looks to be everything I could ever want in a kid's book.  In fact, it hits young readers with education on three fronts all at the same time.

1) It teaches them letters and reading, which is paramount for different development stages.  Each page features a prehistoric animal with a name starting with a different letter of the alphabet.  This is good for the very young ones. (3-5 years)   As years go by the book retains its value because it also teaches reading skills.  Ever wonder how to pronounce Estemmenosuchus or Jeholopterus?  Wonder no more with this book because there is a pronunciation key with the names so young readers (and adults in the case of some of the names) can sound them out together.

Just a typical yodeling Yinlong.

2) This book teaches them vocabulary!  Each page of the book features a prehistoric animal and an adjective that starts with the same first letter.  Find out what "dapper" means and why it has to do with Dinofelis rocking a bow tie and top hat.

3) It teaches them science!  Far too often I hear people challenge funding for paleontology, stating "it doesn't do any real good for society and the money is better spent someplace else."  Aside from the fact that this statement is so wrong on a few levels, at the very least, paleontology is a perfect gateway to get kids at the youngest of ages interested in science without even knowing it.  Is every child who was ever obsessed with dinosaurs going to grow up to be a paleontologist?  Perhaps not, but they might turn into doctors, or engineers, or geologists...  Loving one field of science opens doors and minds into other fields if that love persists.  The earlier this takes place the better.

Mammoth is Mopey, makes a point to introduce not just the typical popular creatures, but also some of the lesser-known, more unusual species, that may not always get the limelight they deserve.  In addition to this, each page gives some information about the animal itself for young readers.

Lastly, despite the highly stylized, cartoon flavor of the illustrations, they don't break any rules of scientific accuracy.  Yes, David's Ankylosaurus is anthropomorphically sitting in a chair holding a paintbrush, but the armor placement and shape of the tail club is consistent with what we know according to the fossil record.  (More than can be said about some depictions seen on the Discovery Channel!)  The Velociraptor, despite its vainglorious prancing around, is appropriately feathered.  (Again, something that many programs in the media that pride themselves on being "scientific" repeatedly seem to fail at time and time again.)

4) It's fun.  Like I said, the best way to educate is to wrap it all up with a nice flashy package of fun with a pretty bow of humor on top.  Kids will love reading this book and/or having this book read to them.

More realistic Velociraptor than most of the stuff that gets fed to kids with the "scientific accuracy" label slapped on it nowadays.

So how do you get this book?  Well, it isn't published yet, but it will be soon and you can help the process along!  David and his wife, Jennie, are looking to self publish this book through a site which allows anyone to contribute donations to help them reach their goal.  Depending on how much you contribute, you will get extra stuff like signed copies of the book, buttons, signed prints of the illustrations to hang on your wall, or even a custom illustration Dave can do of any animal of your choice!  Follow this link to get involved!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Carnufex: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we shall be checking out a newly published species of prehistoric crocodile that once called the American South home.  Check out Carnufex carolinensis!

As I said before, Carnufex was not a dinosaur, but a kind of reptile that belongs to the same main group as modern crocodilians.  It lived in what is now North Carolina, USA, during the Triassic Period, 231 million years ago.  Despite the fact that this creature is only known from an incomplete skeleton, paleontologists estimate it measured between nine and ten feet long from snout to tail and it's teeth indicate it was probably a meat eater.  The genus, Carnufex, translates to "Butcher", and the species, carolinensis, is in reference to the part of the United States where it was found.

Carnufex carolinensis feeding on a dicinodont near a river bed by Christopher DiPiazza.

If you were to see a living Carnufex, you might not guess it was related to modern crocodilians at first.  Judging by he length of its forelimb, the paleontologists who discovered and studied it estimate it may have walked around on its hind legs at least some of the time.  In fact, Carnufex could be mistaken for a theropod dinosaur at first if not examined carefully enough!  Here's the thing to remember, though.  The Triassic was a time when dinosaurs had not fully started flourishing yet.  Sure, there were some around, but there were also a lot of other large reptiles coexisting with them that were doing just as well.  Many of these other reptiles, like Carnufex, were from a group called pseudosuchia.  Pseudosuchians include crocodillians like alligators and crocodiles, as well as their relatives like the poposauroids, rauisuchians, and the aetosaurs to name a few.  Many pseudosuchians flourished during the Triassic alongside the very first dinosaurs.  These reptiles filled many niches which would later be taken over by dinosaurs after the end of the Triassic and most of the pseudosuchians had gone extinct for reasons that are still somewhat of a mystery.

Known bones of Carnufex carolinensis.
 
During the time Carnufex was alive, the environment it was in was a series of rivers and marshes amongst warm, moist land with lush plants.  Carnufex likely would not have been spending much time in the water, however.  That's right, crocodiles weren't always swimmers, which you wouldn't have seen until after the Triassic, actually.  Carnufex and its close relatives were adept land-dwellers.  Carnufex would have been the largest, and most formidable predator of its environment, hunting the wealth of other reptiles and early mammals of its home.  

That is all for this week!  Special thanks to paleontologist, Susan Drymala, who worked with and the remains of this this amazing reptile, and approved my reconstruction at the top of this article.  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!

References

Zanno, L.E.; Drymala, S.; Nesbitt, S.J.; Scheider, V.P. (2015). "Early crocodylomorph increases top tier predator diversity during rise of dinosaurs". Scientific Reports 5: 9276. doi:10.1038/srep09276

Monday, March 16, 2015

Plesiosaurus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we will be looking at a creature with a very well known and recognized name, but maybe not well-understood for what it really was.  Check out Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus!

Plesiosaurus swam in the ocean over what is now Dorset, England during the early Jurassic, between about 198 and 175 million years ago.  Its shape is iconic, and recognized by the general public, with its small head on the tip of a long neck, wide, almost turtle-shaped body, and four flippers instead of feet, which it used to propel itself through the water.  Plesiosaurus and its relatives, the other plesiosaurs, were not dinosaurs, but a separate kind of now-extinct reptile that evolved independently during the Mesozoic.  When alive, Plesiosaurus would have eaten meat in the form of fish, mollusks, or any other small sea creature it could catch.  It would have shared its habitat with its fellow marine reptile, Ichthyosaurus.  From snout to tail, an adult Plesiosaurus measured about eleven feet long. The genus name, Plesiosaurus, translates to "near reptile/lizard".

Life reconstruction of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, by Christopher DiPiazza.

Plesiosaurus's skull was somewhat flattened with its eyes facing upwards.  It had many long, pointed teeth, which in addition to looking pretty scary up close, evolved for better catching and holding onto small, slippery prey, like a cage.  When Plesiosaurus' mouth was closed, these teeth would have likely still been visible outside the mouth and interlocked.

Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus skull at the Museum of Natural History in London.

The neck of Plesiosaurus was very long and consisted of up to forty two vertebrae.  The long-necked plesiosaurs have been commonly depicted in artwork and pop culture as swimming with their heads above the water in a perfect S shape, almost like that of a swan.  In real life, however, this was physically impossible.  Real plesiosaurs would have been able to bend their necks up and down to some degree, but not in that iconic Loch Ness Monster pose.  (one of the many reasons why it is impossible for there to be a real plesiosaur living in there today)  They could, however, have moved their necks around from side to side fairly well.  the reason for this long neck is the subject of a lot of debate for paleontologists.  One hypothesis is that the long neck was a tool to help the animal reach into narrow spaces where fish and other prey may have been hiding, like between rocks and coral.  Another idea is that the neck was a good way to distance the large body from the unsuspecting prey.

"Don't mind me, guys.  I'm nothing but a harmless little fish, like you.  Totally not a carnivorous reptile with a giant body attached to the back..."
 
Plesiosaurus' body, like all of the members of its family, was not flexible at all.  It would have been similar to that of a sea turtle, actually.  Like turtles, plesiosaurs would have relied on their long flippers to power them through the water.  They were likely not fast swimmers compared to their contemporaries, the ichthyosaurs.

Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus full skeleton originally found by Mary Anning on display at the London Museum of Natural History.

Plesiosaurus was another one of the well known prehistoric animals that was originally found by famed fossil hunter, Mary Anning, back in the 1800s.  Since then, many specimens of long-necked, flippered reptiles have been named Plesiosaurus but further, recent research has found out that many of these fossils were actually deserving of their own names.  Today, there is only one valid species, Plesiosaurus dolichodierus, and its type specimen is the original fossil that started it all.

Plesiosaurus pencil illustration by Adam Stuart Smith.

That is all for this week!  Special thanks to my friend, and plesiosaur expert, Dr. Adam Stuart Smith!  For more first-hand plesiosaur information be sure to check out his website.  As always comment below or on our facebook page!  

References

Andrews, C. W. 1896. "On the structure of the plesiosaurian skull". Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London, 52, 246-253.

Brown, D. S. 1981. "The English Upper Jurassic Plesiosauroidea (Reptilia) and a review of the phylogeny and classification of the Plesiosauria". Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History): Geology, 35, (4), 253-347.

Storrs, G. W. 1997. "Morphological and taxonomic clarification of the genus Plesiosaurus". 145-190. In Callaway, J. M and Nicholls, E. L. (eds.). Ancient Marine Reptiles. Academic press. London.

Torrens, Hugh 1995. "Mary Anning (1799–1847) of Lyme; 'The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew'". The British Journal for the History of Science, 25 (3): 257–284

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Early Bird (Tracks) from British Columbia: Introducing Paxavipes!

Hello, Dear Readers!

It's been awhile since I've dusted off the Blog: it's been a stressful time for the Shaman, and while Tolkien made the apt observation that harrowing tales make the best stories (The Hobbit), I'm bored of thinking about it, and would much rather talk about paleontology! Our research group had a fun time publishing on my favorite subject: BIRDS! Specifically, we have a recent paper in Cretaceous Research on a new avian ichnotaxon (footprint type) from the Peace Region of British Columbia!

Please join me in welcoming Paxavipes (Peace bird footprint, in reference to the Peace Region) babcockensis (in reference to Mount Babcock, the mountain on which the specimen was discovered) to the ichnological family! OK, that's not taxonomically accurate, as Paxavipes is also part of a new ichnofamily. Bear with me.

Bird tracks have been known from British Columbia, and specifically the Peace Region, since their scientific debut in 1981 with Aquatilavipes swiboldae (Currie, 1981). This specimen was recovered as part of the salvage and study operation performed by the then Provincial Museum of Alberta before the completion of the Peace Canyon hydroelectric dam. The area was so well-known for its palaeontological heritage that it was officially designated a Provincial Historic Resource in the 1930s. Today you would need gills and fins (and a whole bunch of de-silting equipment) to see these localities, as they are now underneath what is known as Dinosaur Lake. The type slab for Aquatilavipes swiboldae now resides in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology (RTMP). At the time of its scientific write-up, it was the earliest known bird track type, being from Gething Formation deposits that are Lower Cretaceous (Aptian, approximately 125 - 113 million years old). Since then, no bird footprints have been published on from British Columbia...until now.

The rock slab on which Paxavipes are preserved was discovered in 2005 by a (then) doctoral student Curtis Lettely (University of Alberta). The slab was discovered in an area locally called The Boulder Gardens. The Boulder Gardens is series of hiking trails leading outdoor adventurers through a gorgeous sup-alpine terrain of visually stunning sandstone erosional features. Check out more information on the PDF here. Boulder Gardens is within the boundaries of the newly established Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark. The Boulder Gardens showcases rock from the Boulder Creek Formation, which is Early Cretaceous (middle-upper Albian, approximately 100 to 105 million years old.)

This was an interesting slab. The rock slab was found vertically embedded in eroded rubble and dirt, and what was exposed was covered in many lichen colonies. Lichen is hard, crusty, and hides any surface details it covers. We could see that there were small theropod footprints (Irenichnites-looking prints), and a few visible bird footprints, but did not know how many prints were preserved on the surface, or anything detailed about their shape, with all of that crusty lichen. That lichen had to go...

Fig. 2 of PRPRC 2005.001.015 from Buckley and McCrea (2009). It's easy to see which part of the slab was exposed for lichen colonization.
...but carefully. Lichen is a resistant organism - what else can you expect when fungi and cyanobacteria form an alliance (symbiotic relationship)? Mechanically scraping off the lichen was not an option, as that would have risked mechanically scraping the track surface and the prints it preserved. After trying out a few different chemicals, we saw that a dilute bleach solution effective at breaking down the lichen to a point where it could be gently brushed away with a soft toothbrush. The technique worked so well that it became the topic of my first first-author publication (Buckley and McCrea, 2009).

Once the lichen was removed, the surface was revealed...and what a reveal! A grand total of 72 bird footprints were visible, which enabled us to make out five trackways - series of footprints made by one bird walking from Point A to B. Single footprints are like an isolated bone or tooth - they give us good information, but not as much as a whole skeleton does. Trackways are like the whole skeleton.

Fig. 4 from Buckley and McCrea (2009) So many bird footprints were visible once the lichen was removed!

Another cool "after lichen" reveal was that the small theropod footprints had tiny skin impressions on them! Check out the teeny tiny pebbly texture:
Fig. 6 from McCrea et al. (2015). Skin impressions such as these give us a good idea of what the soles of dinosaurs' feet looked like. These tubercles likely acted like the treads on our running shoes.

Back to the birds. Since we have trackways, we could tell left footprints from right footprints, but not easily. There was something odd with these particular bird footprints. The usual case for bird footprints is that the outer toe is much more splayed away from the middle toe than is the inner toe (or the toes have a roughly equal amount of splay). These footprints were strange in that the inner toe was more splayed than the outer toe. It wasn't just one or two footprints out the 72: it was the majority of the prints.

Fig. 4 from McCrea et al. (2015) showing the holotype trackway - see the wider splay between the inner digits?

Something was up. There is a bit of natural side-to-side wiggle potential in bird toes, and modern bird footprints can show a big differences in toe splay (70 degrees to 140 degrees between the outer digits), but a consistently larger splay between the inner (digit II) toe and the middle (digit III) toe is not common in Cretaceous avian bird footprints. The only other bird footprint type that shows this toe arrangement is Barrosopus slobodai (Coria et al. 2002) from the Late Cretaceous of Argentina. Because these two footprint types are unique when compared to all other Mesozoic bird footprints (but different enough to still be considered separate footprint types), we formed a new ichno (footprint) family of bird prints called the Paxavipedidae. Any new three-toed bird footprint (no hallux) with consistently wider splay between digits II and II than between digits III and IV and thick digits can be assigned to this new footprint family.

As an ichnologist, when I see a repeated footprint shape or toe arrangement within all that natural variation, I begin to think about the shape of the foot. Specifically, I think about the features of the skeleton that made that footprint shape possible. Looking at modern birds, Paxavipes and Barrosopus prints are very close in shape to footprints of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus).

I love this image by Ryan Hodnett, found on Wikipedia. No, Killdeer are not some strange Octo-Bird: those are young Killdeer hiding under the parent.
Looking at the foot bones of a Killdeer (welcome to my thesis!), the end of the metatarsals (the lower part of the "leg" of the birds that you see hiding in the above image) are shaped in such a way that the inner toe (when attached) is going to be more splayed than the outer toe! Footprints may not always match the skeletons of feet perfectly, since living feet are covered with skin and muscle. In some cases, like with two-toed dromaeosaur trackways, there are features of the animal's skeleton that are expressed in the footprints. When we find these features, we have a good chance of predicting what the skeletal foot of these track-makers would look like. We haven't yet found the track-maker for Paxavipes, but we have a good chance of recognizing it when (if) it is found! [NOTE: This doesn't mean that Killdeer were around in the Early Cretaceous: this means that a bird with a foot shape that resembles a foot of a Killdeer was around in the Cretaceous.]

Next time you are walking along a beach and see little brown and white shorebirds skittering along the edge of the water looking for yummy invertebrates, think about a Cretaceous shoreline: you would likely notice the dinosaurs first, but the small shorebirds still made quite an impression!

References:

Buckley LG, McCrea RT. 2009. The sodium hypochlorite solution for the removal of lichen from vertebrate track surfaces. Ichnos 16(3):230-234.

Coria RA, Currie PJ, Eberth D, Garrido A. 2002. Bird footprints from the Anacleto
Formation (Late Cretaceous), Neuqu en, Argentina. Ameghiniana 39(4):453-463.

Currie PJ. 1981. Bird footprints from the Gething Formation (Aptian, Lower Cretaceous) of northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 1(3-4):257-264.

McCrea RT, Buckley LG, Plint AG, Lockley MG, Matthews NA, Noble TA, Xing L, Krawetz J. 2015. Vertebrate ichnites from the Boulder Creek Formation (Lower Cretaceous: middle to ?upper Albian) of northeastern British Columbia, with a description of a new avian ichnotaxon, Paxavipes
babcockensis
ichnogen. et isp. nov. Cretaceous Research 55:1-18.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Qijianglong: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

It is time to review another exciting new discovery just published this year.  Make way for Qijianglong guakr!  Qijianglong was a plant-eating sauropod dinosaur that lived in what is now China, during the Jurassic Period, about 160 million years ago.  It had an extremely long neck that made up about half of it's fifty-foot long body length.  The genus name, Qijianlgong, translates to "Qigiang Dragon" in reference to the district in which its remains were discovered.  Many dinosaurs from China have been named as dragons.  Qijianglong, in particular reminded paleontologists of a traditional Chinese dragon because of its extremely long neck, giving it a superficially serpentine appearance when they were digging it of the earth.

Qijianglong life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Qijianglong is a great find because it is one of the few sauropod skeletons, where the skull was actually preserved. (or partially preserved)  It is very common to find headless sauropod skeletons in the field.  This could be because the skull of a sauropod is very delicate and small compared to the rest of the body and is usually the most likely part to deteriorate, float away, or get eaten by scavengers after the dinosaur died.  In fact, one of the most famous dinosaur mistakes in history revolves around souropod skulls. (or lack thereof)

Qijianglong skeletal mount on display at the Qijiang Museum in China.

So what's the deal with that long neck?  We have reviewed some long-necked dinosaurs on here before but never anything as extreme as this!  Sauropod necks have confused scientists ever since they were first discovered.  It is most likely that they used these necks to better reach food in the form of leaves at the tops of trees, similar to a giraffe today.  However, unlike the giraffe, there were many different kinds of sauropods, often living in the same habitat  together, throughout the Mesozoic.  Maybe this was one of the driving forces for sauropods to evolve so many different neck lengths, in an evolutionary attempt at developing niches.  We also know, thanks to studies done on the neck vertebrae of Qijianglong, that the neck was not really able to bend from side to side that much.  It could, however, angle the neck upwards at the base, if it wanted to.  This makes sense if it was browsing for leaves at treetops.  

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

References

Xing, L; Miyashita, T; Zhang, J; Li, Daqing; Ye, Y; Sekiya, T.; Wang F; Currie, P (2015). "'A new sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of China and the diversity, distribution, and relationships of mamenchisaurids'". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.