Friday, November 21, 2014

Katrina Van Grouw comes to New Jersey

If you have not already please go back and check out my interview with Katrina Van Grouw, former curator of ornithology at the London Museum of Natural History, and revered author and illustrator of the amazing book, The Unfeathered Bird.  These past few weeks Katrina was traveled to the eastern United States all the way from England to give talks about her book.  I was delighted when she contacted me and told me she was going to be in the area and invited her to the Bergen County Zoo where I work to give one of her talks.  Even though I have read her book, hung out with her in person and heard the amazing story of this book's production (which took most of her adult life to do), her talk was nothing less than wildly entertaining and educational too!

We had a room packed with zoo staff, zoo volunteers, local birders, and anyone else in the area with a love and appreciation for ornithology.  Honestly, I think a person not previously interested in birds would be converted having seen this presentation, though.


One of Katrina's main points to her book was that there is so much more to be fascinated by in birds than just feathers.  We tend to focus on the plumage because it is flashy and colorful but there is so much more going on in a bird's body that is just plain fun to learn about.  Below, Katrina explains all the unique adaptations of a woodpecker that allow It to the do what it does without having its eyeballs fly out the back of its little noggin every time it smashes its bill into a tree.


 Katrina's book took so long to publish because neither science publishers nor art publishers were completely sure what to make of the idea.  The science publishers thought it was too art focused and the art publishers thought it was too scientific.  Neither was sure the book would appear to a wide enough audience.  It wasn't until a fateful night in a pub that she got a deal with Princeton University Press.  Smart move, Princeton.

This is true.

Domestic birds are just as strange.  Crested ducks actually have a hole in their craniums where the fluffy crest grows.  This crest ALWAYS matches the color of the duck's flanks, not the rest of its head.  Also, in a genetically confused attempt to make up for the hole in the skull, the duck's skull has a strange hook-shaped horn-like structure growing out of a different part of its skull.  Selective breeding is weird.


In order to get a dead pigeon to appear as if it is inflating its throat sack, sometimes you need to get creative...

Why didn't I think of that!


Thank you again to Katrina for coming down to share your incredible story with us!  If you have not already, definitely grab a copy of Katrina's book, The Unfeathered Bird.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dawndraco: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we will be checking out a new discovered species of pterosaur that was discovered way back in the 1970s.  Let's celebrate Dawndraco kanzai!

Dawndraco was a large pterosaur that sported a twenty foot wingspan and soared over the oceans that once covered what is now Kansas, USA, during the Late Cretaceous, 86 million years ago.  Back then a shallow body of salt water covered much of the mid-western United States, called the Western Interior Seaway.  During this time, Dawndraco coexisted with many marine creatures including sharks, like Scapanorhyncus, turtles, plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, like Tylosaurus, and its close relative, Geosternbergia.  Its genus and species name translates to "Dawn Dragon from Kansas".

Fossil remains of Dawndraco kanzai at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The discovery and naming of Dawndraco is an interesting story that really starts in 1974 when scientists discovered a beautifully preserved pterosaur skeleton they identified as a Pteranodon sternbergi.  At the time, the genus Pteranodon included two species; Pteranodon longiceps, which had the pointed crests and is the most common pterosaur image in popular culture, and Pteranodon sternbergi, which possessed a wide, triangular-shaped crest.  Fast forward to 2010 and paleontologists are revisiting the Pteranodon genus.  They decided that since Pteranodon longiceps and Pteranodon sternbergi really lived a few million years apart and had very different crests, that Pteranodon sternbergi should get its own genus and so it was renamed Geosternbergia sternbergi.  While they were conducting this research, they realized that the specimen found in the 70s was actually different from both Pteranodon and Geosternbergia.  Its beak was broader longitudinally and the base of its skull was more narrow.  They quickly realized that they had yet another new genus on their hands that had been lying in the museum for decades and never realized it, and thus Dawndraco was born.

Sketch showcasing the three pterosaurs formerly all belonging to the genus, Pteranodon by Christopher DiPiazza.

Dawndraco's wings were exceptionally long and narrow, perfect for soaring over long distances.  This idea is reinforced by the fact that where it was discovered was in the middle of a sea, miles away from any shores at the time that it was alive.  It may have behaved similarly to modern seabirds that also fly long distances over the ocean like Albatross.  Dandraco's beak was extremely long, and possessed no teeth.  Some scientists suggest it hunted prey like small fish and mollusks by plucking them from the ocean's surface as it flew overhead.  Others believe it was more suited to diving into the water and using its long bill and body like a missile to ambush fast-swimming prey.  Dawndraco's skull sadly only preserved the base of the crest so the exact shape of its head ornamentation is somewhat of a mystery.

Life reconstruction of Dawndraco kanzai by Christopher DiPiazza.

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

References

Kellner, A.W.A. (2010). "Comments on the Pteranodontidae (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea) with the description of two new species". Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 82 (4): 1063–1084. doi:10.1590/S0001-37652010000400025.

Witton, Mark P. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Castoroides: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we shall be checking out yet another R.O.U.S..  Make way for Castoroides ohioensisCastoroides was a kind of beaver that lived from the late Pliocene, about three million years ago, to late Pleistocene epoch, about ten thousand years ago.  Castroides was amongst one of the largest rodents in history, measuring as much as eight feet long from head to tail and weighing almost three hundred pounds in the largest specimens.  During the Ice Age, these bear-sized rodents would have occupied marshes and rivers all over the Western United States, Florida, and parts of Canada. In life, Castoroides would have coexisted with other prehistoric mammals like mammoths, sabre-toothed cats, Glyptodon, giant ground sloths, giant bison, and early humans.  The genus and species name of this animal translate to "beaver from Ohio"...which makes sense!

Castoroides life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.  I made a slight mistake in basing the tail off that of a modern beaver's.  Many scientists believe Castoroides had a more narrow tail, more similar to that of a modern muskrat's.

Castoroides has many physical characteristics in common with modern beavers.  Like its modern relatives, Castoroides had eyes placed on the top and sides of its head.  This would have given it the ability to see in all directions except directly behind it at any one time while still staying mostly submerged in water.  Because of this it could also be assumed that Castoroides probably had webbed digits to help it swim.  Unlike it's modern cousins, Castoroides had proportionally larger feet, shorter legs, a longer tail, and longer, broader incisor teeth, whereas those of modern beavers tend to be short and chisel-shaped.  The molars were also different in Castoroides than in modern beavers.  This implies that Castoroides was not specialized for chewing trees, and would have sustained itself on a different, softer food source, like water plants.  In fact, the teeth of Castoroides, despite being a beaver, in some ways resemble those of other rodents, like Capybaras, which do eat water plants. There is also no evidence on the fossil record that suggests Castoroides ever built dams. 

Castoroides skeletal mount on display at the North American Museum of Ancient Life.

For a long time Castoroides was one of the most successful large mammals in North America, since its fossils have been found in so many different areas.  It is uncertain why they went extinct, but it may have had to do with drastic climate change at the end of the Ice Age.  Large animals, being more specialized and requiring more food and other resources in order to survive, are usually hit hardest and commonly go extinct first, when their habitat changes too rapidly.  Some also suggest that Castoroides may have been hunted too much by early humans for meat and their pelts but so far no evidence has been discovered that proves this. 

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!  Have a Request?  Give me a shout out on either of those two places and i will make it happen!

References

Kurtén, B. and E. Anderson (1980). Pleistocene Mammals of North America. Columbia University Press. pp. 236–237. 

Korth, William W (1994). The Tertiary record of rodents in North America. Springer. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-306-44696-2.

 "Giant Beaver: Natural History Notebooks". Canadian Museum of Nature. 2011-05-02.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Olorotitan in Venice

Back in June I attended my friend's birthday celebration at a place called ArteVino in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The place takes private groups and an art instructor guides the group through creating a painting together.  You are even allowed to eat snacks and drink wine!  My friend chose for us to make our own versions of Claude Monet's famous "Sunset in Venice" piece with acrylic paints.  Below is my initial painting just before we finished.


I don't feel like I will ever really be able to compare to Monet's original painting, though.  I needed to add something personal to the painting so it would be different.  Oh, I know...


That's better!  I'm sure an Olorotitan would enjoy Venice if one ever was alive to see it.  That's it for this week, folks!  Stay tuned for this weekend for another prehistoric animal of the week!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Deinocheirus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we will be looking at an amazing dinosaur who's remains were discovered almost fifty years ago, but nobody really knew what it looked like truly until this past year.  Make way for Deinocheirus mirificus!  Deinocheirus was a large, feathered dinosaur that measured about thirty six feet long from beak to tail.  It lived in what is now Mongolia, during the late Cretaceous era, between 71 and 69 million years ago. When alive, Deinocheirus was an omnivore, feeding on plants and small animals, like fish.

Deinocheirus mirifacus life reconstruction.

Deinocheirus is a great example of how paleontology is a field where scientists are always learning new things.  This dinosaur, like I stated, was discovered almost fifty years ago, in 1965, in the form of arms.  That's it.  Just a set of huge, eight foot long arms, each tipped with three roughly equally long fingers, armed with curved claws.  It's full name, Deinocheirus mirificus, even translates to "unusual horrible hand" because that is mainly what paleontologists had to study from this animal for a very long time.  These huge mysterious hands and arms were by themselves very impressive.  They were the longest forelimbs from a theropod dinosaur ever discovered!  This caused the imaginations of many people to run wild with visions of a colossal superpredator, using these claws to tear apart any other dinosaur it coexisted with.  When examining the claws and the hands more closely, however, it was discovered that they were most similar to the shape of the arms and hands of ornithomimosaur theropods, like Struthiomimus.  Ornithomimosaurs are characterized by having long, bird-like necks, small heads, and beaks with very small teeth, or in some species, no teeth at all!  Deinocheirus, although big, was most likely not a monster-sized terror if it was anything like its closest relatives.  This is all anyone knew about this dinosaur for many years.  Deinocheirus was just a big set of arms that was often reconstructed as some sort of extra bulky ornithomimosaur...until the mid 2000s when the rest of it was found, and ultimately published this year.  It was revealed that the mysterious Deinocheirus was stranger in appearance than anyone could have ever imagined!

Casts of the Deinocheirus arms found in the 1960s on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Two, nearly complete between the both of them and what is already known, specimens were unearthed in Mongolia during the mid-2000s.  Amidst their discoveries, poachers actually stole some of the bones and sold them to illegal markets.  These bones were resold a few times in different countries before someone got a hold of them and donated them to the Royal Belgium Museum of Natural Sciences, which in turn, finally returned them to Mongolia with the rest of the skeleton.  What a journey!

So what did these bones tell us about the rest of Deinocheirus?  Where to begin?  Oh!  It had a hump on it's back.  Yes, the neural arches (top portion of the vertebrae) on the back were extremely long and formed a triangular, almost shark-fin shape over the animal's mid-section.  It is believed that these structures would have anchored more muscle for the animal's thighs, sort of like the hump on a modern bison's neck, which attach muscles to the shoulders.

Diagram showing the bones found from Deinocheirus from the journal, Nature, published 10/22/14

Deinocheirus also had a toothless beak, which was narrow near the eyes, then flattened laterally at the tip, which was wide and almost squared off.  The stomach contents found in these new specimens showed the remains of fish and plants.  If we look at modern dinosaurs with similarly shaped beaks, like ducks and spoonbills, we may be able to guess what Deinocheirus was using its beak for.  Interestingly, both ducks and spoonbills also eat small fish and plants.  They use their flat bills to sift through mud and water until they find something suitable to eat, at which point they swallow it whole.  Deinocheirus' stomach also contained over a thousand  gastroliths.  Gastroliths are small rocks swallowed by an animal that doesn't chew its food, to help grind food inside the animal's body.  Gastroliths have been found in many other prehistoric dinosaurs, and are even used today by birds and other reptiles.

Photograph of Deinocheirus' skull and foot bones, as they return to their home country.  Photo is from Mongolia's news site, infomongolia.com

Lastly, Deinocheirus possessed a special bone at the tip of its tail called a pygostyle.  Pygostyles have been discovered on a variety of other dinosaurs, including oviraptorosaurs.  They are mostly seen, however, on birds, and are the site for tail feathers to attach.  This means that Deinocheirus would have had feathers, forming a fan-like shape on its tail, similar to those on a bird.  It is likely Deinocheirus had more feathers on the rest of its body as well. 

That is all for this week!  Deinocheirus is an amazing, fifty-year long story about how paleontologists are always learning new things and how science, although a fact-based field, can certainly change pretty drastically as new data is obtained.  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!

References

Lee, Yuong-Nam; Barsbold, Rinchen; Currie, Philip J.; Kobayashi, Yoshitsugu; Lee, Hang-Jae; Godefroit, Pascal; Escuillié, François & Chinzorig, Tsogtbaatar (2014). "Resolving the Long-Standing Enigmas of the Giant Ornithomimosaur Deinocheirus mirificus". Nature (22 October 2014): 1–4. doi:10.1038/nature13874. PMID 25337880.

Osmólska, Halszka; Roniewicz, Ewa (1970). "Deinocheiridae, a new family of theropod dinosaurs". Palaeontologia Polonica (21): 5–19.

"The "horrible Hand" Deinocheirus Dinosaur's Fossils Are Repatriated to Its Home Country : InfoMongolia.com : News and Information about Mongolia