Thursday, April 24, 2014

Interview with Paleontologist: Mike Everhart


Today we will be looking at an interview with paleontologist, Michael Everhart.  I always admired Mr. Everhart and his work with marine fossils.  I was thrilled when he agreed to do an interview for Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs!  

 Michael J. Everhart is a 1969 graduate of Wichita State University. After his military service (U.S. Army) he returned to Wichita State for his Masters Degree (1973).  He worked for the Wichita Sedgwick County Health Department for 12 years and served as the Environmental Health Director from 1981-1985. He was hired as the Environmental Affairs manager at the Boeing Company, where he retired after 17 years. Mike has been an Adjunct Curator of Paleontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas since 1998.


Mike is an expert on Late Cretaceous marine fossils of central and western Kansas, and on the history of paleontology in Kansas. In addition, he has worked with the T. rex, " Sue" exhibition at the Sternberg Museum in Hays, and Exploration Place in Wichita. Mike was a contributor to the BBC documentary "Chased by Sea Monsters" and served as one of the senior science advisers on the 2007 National Geographic IMAX film, Sea Monsters. His work has been featured in five made for television documentaries on the History and Discovery channels. 

Mike Everhart holding a Mosasaur skull.


 Mike is the author of “Sea Monsters: Prehistoric Creatures of the Deep” (National Geographic, 2007) and “Oceans of Kansas – A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea” (Indiana University Press, 2005). The Sea Monsters book was awarded in 2008 by the American Library Association, and both titles were honored as Kansas Notable books. In addition, Mike has also written many papers describing the fossils of the Smoky Hill Chalk, including the 2005 naming of a new species of a marine reptile (mosasaur) from Kansas called Tylosaurus kansasensis. Most recently, Mike and co-author Alyssa Bell described two examples of the oldest bird fossils in North America, based on specimens that originated from Russell County, Kansas. 
 
He is the creator and webmaster of the educational “Oceans of Kansas Paleontology” web site: www.oceansofkansas.com which has been on the Internet since December, 1996.  He served as an editor of the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science from 2006 to 2011 and is currently the Managing editor. Mike was President of the KAS in 2005. 

Mike and his dig crew in Kansas.

 Question 1: Who did you admire growing up?



ME: I grew up in the 50s and 60s, so most of my heroes were baseball players (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, etc.) and cowboys (actors, at least… John Wayne, Randolph Scott, etc.).  I was also interested in military figures…. Robert E. Lee, for one.


Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?



ME: About 9 or 10, I became interested in paleontology after reading Roy Chapman Andrews book, All About Dinosaurs. There are two chapters in that book about marine reptiles and pterosaurs from Kansas…. and at that point, I think I was hooked on fossils. I cannot honestly say I ever decided to pursue a career in paleontology… it just sort of happened.


Question 3: You are well known for your work with prehistoric marine life, specifically in the Late Cretaceous.  Did you choose that aspect of paleontology or did it choose you, so to speak?



ME: See answer to Question 2. Once I learned that these marine fossils came from Kansas, there was no point in going anywhere else.


Question 4: You have also authored a few books about prehistoric oceans.  What was that experience like?

ME: Well, first I have to say that I never intended to become an author.  I created the Oceans of Kansas web site in late 1996 and by 2000 or so, people were asking where they could buy the book….At that time, of course, there was no book, but it got me thinking that I certainly had enough things I could write about… When I proposed the idea to Indiana University Press, they jumped on it. There was no comparable book the time and they wanted one. So I sat down and started writing it. The first thing I learned was that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did in many areas.  Writing the book turned out to be a real education for me. So much of what I had to say about paleontology in Kansas was historical… many fossils were literally discovered here first, starting in 1867 with Elasmosaurus. In the process of researching the book, I acquired a huge library of all the papers written by Cope, Marsh and many others, describing what they had discovered in the chalk of western Kansas. Everything came together over the next couple of years and Oceans of Kansas was published in June, 2005. The publisher was cautious, of course, and only printed about 2500 copies in the first press run. The thing that surprised us both was that they sold 1700 of those before the book was even printed in advance orders! Although it’s now almost 10 years old, the book continues to sell well and is one of their best selling books ever.


At the same time that I was working on the book, I was also working with National Geographic on a project documenting the discovery made Charles H. Sternberg. At first it was to be a magazine article and a TV special, but the documentary never worked out. Finally NG received funding from the NSF to make an IMAX movie called Sea Monsters, based on the same information. I was involved from the start as a science advisor (my name is even in the credits!)… but as we finished up the filming and the animations, NG realized that they needed a book to go along with the movie. At the time, Oceans of Kansas was selling nearly as fast as they printed it, so NG contracted with me to write the Sea Monsters book. After all the research on Oceans of Kansas, the writing went very quickly, especially since I wasn’t citing sources like I did on the first book. National Geographic provided all of the color photos and editing and the book came out at the same time as the movie. Of the two books, Oceans is still my favorite because I did everything, including the photography. Sea Monsters was sort of anticlimactic since I was more or less the “hired gun” in a big team of people that put the book together.



All in all, I’ve enjoyed the experience of being an author and sharing my knowledge of Kansas fossils and paleontologists.  I’ve got a couple of book ideas  on the back burner, including a second edition of Oceans of Kansas.



Question 5: What was your favorite prehistoric animal growing up?  What about now?


ME: I don’t remember having a favorite… Like most kids, I went through a “dinosaur phase” with Tyrannosaurusrex, Triceratops and Stegosaurus, but after reading All About Dinosaurs (Question 2) I really became interested in mosasaurs like Tylosaurus, and Pteranodon. Sixty years later, earlier this Spring, I was involved in getting both of these uniquely Kansas fossils named as the official state fossils of Kansas.  How cool is that?


Tylosaurus proriger by Christopher DiPiazza


Question 6: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines.  What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?



ME: Start early and get as much science, math and computing as you can get in public school and college. Paleontology was a ‘classical’ science for many years, basically going out, finding the bones and digging them up. That’s not so anymore. We are getting so much more information about these prehistoric animals from studying their remains with all kinds of new technology. Tomorrow’s paleontologists will be spending more time examining these creatures with cutting edge technology than every before.



Question 7: Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a daunting task. Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make it to the finish line. The rewards are great, but what would you say to someone pursuing professional studies after college?



ME: No matter what field you are in, the learning process doesn’t stop after graduation… it accelerates. Going into paleontology has it’s challenges… there is a lot of competition for relatively few jobs. You have to be the best at what you do and have multiple skills to be an asset to a future employer. No one is going to pay you to just pound on rocks. Get as much education as you can, learn to communicate (writing and reading skills are important). Beyond that, start now developing your contacts… Who you know in the business is important to your future.


Question 8: What was or is your favorite research project?  What are some of your current projects?



ME: My favorite research project has to be my first book, Oceans of Kansas. Along the way, I’ve done a lot of research on mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, sharks and birds with teeth, but those projects seem to blur together. Currently I am working describing the earliest occurrence of a marine turtle called Protostega gigas.



Question 9: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs.  What was your most memorable movie, book or TV program that inspired you with regards to paleontology?



ME: The one that sticks in my mind is Disney’s Fantasia. Even with its faults (animals from different time periods), seeing the animations in association with the music made a big impression on me. After that, I’d have to refer back to Question 2. 



 Question 10: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist.  Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met?  Were you a nervous wreck?

ME: Hmmmm…. The first real paleontologist I ever met was my paleontology teacher in college. He was a crusty old guy who was a recognized expert on invertebrate fossils. At the time, however, I was more worried about the class I was taking from him. I was majoring in biology and the other seven guys in the class were geologists. I figured I was going to be in trouble. As turned out, the professor was a great teacher and I soon discovered that paleontology is mostly about biology, not rocks…. I aced the course.


Question 11: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures.  Why do you feel they continue to fascinate us?



ME: Good question. It’s sad to think we care more about extinct animals (including the possibility of bringing one or more back using their DNA) than we do the tremendous variety of modern creatures now living on the Earth. Mostly I think that dinosaurs and such have been sensationalized by the media for nearly 200 years, and we don’t know any other way to think about them.



Question 12: What is your favorite time period?



ME: Other than now, I’d have to say the Late Cretaceous.


Question 13: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?  What hobbies do you have (not necessarily paleo-related).



ME: Being a biologist by training, I’m interested in living things, both plants and animals. I do some wildlife photography, raise orchids, and try to grow a garden. I like doing research, including the genealogy of my family, and I’m currently interested in leaning more about the people who discovered the first big fossils in Kansas…. but were not paleontologists. 

Thank you so much Mr Everhart!  

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!

References

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

References

Bartholomai, A. 1970. The extinct genus Procoptodon Owen (Marsupialia: Macropodidae) in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 15, 213-233. - See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Procoptodon-goliah/#sthash.8HT22iWn.dpuf
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: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Procoptodon-goliah/#sthash.8HT22iWn.dpuf
Bartholomai, A. 1970. The extinct genus Procoptodon Owen (Marsupialia: Macropodidae) in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 15, 213-233. - See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Procoptodon-goliah/#sthash.8HT22iWn.dpuf
Bartholomai, A. 1970. The extinct genus Procoptodon Owen (Marsupialia: Macropodidae) in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 15, 213-233. - See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Procoptodon-goliah/#sthash.8HT22iWn.dpuf

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! 

Anzu

Nanuqsaurus

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 paint...it was an off day.)  In the end I was left with a very hard-earned, yet worth it, scientifically accurate Caviramus painting!