Deinocheirus: why beer-bellies are bad-ass and the importance of being weird

Today started out as a fairly normal day. I overslept thanks to marathonning House late into the night/morning (note: not due to working late/early on my publication, oops), I dragged myself out of bed and into the office. I then, still half-asleep checked Twitter (the morning ritual was well underway) and then suddenly, I displayed both ends of the NedryGrant excitement chart (patent pending) simultaneously. Deinocheirus. It was DeinocheirusDEINO-RUDDY-CHEIRUS! At the moment, I’m in an office full of volcanologists, so no-one understood my excitement (in fact most thought I had some form of disposition, I mean I was practically frothing at the mouth with excitement). I immediately texted Richard and all my other palaeontological friends/colleagues with two words: DEINOCHEIRUS PUBLISHED.

My face on the morning of the 22nd October 2014. (I even laughed like a Dilophosaurus).

Story time

So why was I so stupidly excited? Well, I’m glad you asked. To explain this excitement, our tale begins in 1965. It was July, and the Polish-Mongolian Palaeontological Expedition had stumbled upon a ‘monster’ find. Forelimbs and a shoulder girdle 2.4 metres long belonging to a 70 million-year-old dinosaur with surely the largest forearms of a bipedal animal ever. However, that was all they found. What in the Seven Hells was this magnificent beast? Surely these the arms of some superpredator, akin to Allosaurus or perhaps a mega-Velociraptor? Deinocheirus mirificus was (‘unusual horrible hand’) was ‘born’. For seven-years, this was the most likely explanation. In this time, palaeontologists and members of the public alike went wild with fantastical recontructions of this new and wacky beast, some even going as far as noting that the arms were used much like those of a giant sloth. Alas, in 1972 John Ostrom (the guy responsible for revolutionising the way we think about dinosaurs in relation to birds in the 60s) noted that the bones in the forearm of Deinocheirus appeared similar to those found in the ornithomimosaurs, a group of secondarily-herbiverous theropod dinosaurs very similar to modern ostriches. This agreed with the sentiments of the team that initially discovered Deinocheirus, so it was settled, the beast was in fact an ornithomimosaur. Mystery solved. Right?

Dem Claws.

Dem Claws.

Unfortunately not. Fast forward a little over 40 years later to October 2013, and we still hadn’t found any more remains of the all-too mysterious Deinocheirus. That was all to change. At the SVP 2013 Symposium (one of the biggest annual events in palaeontology) there were hushed, exciting whisperings of new Deinocheirus material (apparently, I couldn’t afford to go). And then, a speaker emerged and confirmed it, Deinocheirus was back, the mystery was apparently solved. New material had been discovered and we now had a 95% complete skeleton to work with. However, this wasn’t fully shown at SVP, and the entire palaeontological community had to wait with baited breath until the work was published. One of the greatest mysteries of 20th and 21st century dinosaur palaeontology had been solved, but we had to wait. It was agonising. Personally, I grew up enthralled with the mystery of Deinocheirus as did many palaeontologists, both young and old, so to be kept in the dark like this was painful.

The Big Reveal

Fast forward again, exactly (pretty much) to a year later. Late October 2014. A dreary-eyed, 20-something-year-old palaeo grad-student is almost hyperventilating over an image he found on Twitter. Ladies and gentlemen, Deinocheirus has landed. And bloody hell if it isn’t the weirdest thing we’ve ever seen.

Deinocheirus-990x980

The Beer-Bellied weirdo in all it’s glory. Deinocheirus mirificus.

Mystery Solved

Standing almost as tall as T. rex, and weighing in at a hefty 6 tonnes Deinocheirus is the biggest ornithomimosaur to dateSo it was big, no biggie right (heh)? Wrong, in addition to it’s monstrous size it’s also (and I might have already said this) bloody weird. With a really deep lower jaw, no teeth, huge forearms, relatively small hindlimbs, a big old “beer belly” (the best description of dinosaur’s anatomy ever, thanks Tom Holtz!) and tall neural spines (similar to those seen in SpinosaurusDeinocheirus sure is different to the ‘typical’ ornithomimosaurian body plan of Galimimus, with long legs and many other features that suggested it was a fast runner. Quite the opposite, Deinocheirus was a big, sluggish brute with a huge appetite. After 50 years, the mystery of Deinocheirus seems to be solved then, it’s a incredibly odd looking, slow moving, bulky, T. rex sized, beer-bellied behemoth. Myth busted, right?

Skeletal reconstruction of Deinocheirus mirificus. Modified from Lee et al. 2014.

Skeletal reconstruction of Deinocheirus mirificus. Modified from Lee et al. 2014.

Again, wrong. These new specimens are that good that we can already begin to hypothesise how Deinocheirus actually lived out it’s seemingly odd, slow lifestyle. Deinocheirus was discovered in the Nemegt Formation, a deposit which is 70 Million years-old (Late Cretaceous), and was an ecosystem similar to that of the Okavango delta today. First off, over 1400 gastroliths were present, probably used to aid in digestion of food, (mainly plants) making up for the lack of teeth. The morphology of it’s jaws and its broad bill (similar to those found in hadrosaurs and ducks) suggest that certain muscles associated with biting were small, meaning that Deinocheirus probably ate soft (and possibly water-dwelling) plants. But there wasn’t just some stones in that big beer belly, no sir! Evidence of a half-eaten fish was found as well, indicating that Deinocheirus was no means a fussy eater, and probably a ‘megaomnivore’ eating pretty much anything it could get it could swallow. This seems to fit well, especially when you consider Deinocheirus’ place in the Nemegt ecosystem, as generalist ‘all you can eat’ type deal (finally, a dinosaur I can relate to) it wouldn’t be in such harsh competition with the other herbiverous dinosaurs in the area that mostly ate plant matter from trees. However, not only do you need to outcompete you friendly neighborhood herbivores to keep on truckin’ in a Cretaceous world, you also need to be not eaten yourself. The main threat in the Nemegt ecosystem was probably the 12 metre long, 5 ton tyrannosaur, Tarbosaurus. However, Deinocheirus seemingly has an answer to everything by sacrificing speed for bulk and size, it was probably too big (and bloody hell, those claws) for Tarbosaurus to safely take on.

Deinocheirus_fin_colcorr_lres

Deinocheirus in situ. Image credit: Andrey Atuchin.

We also know a few more tricks that Deinocheirus had up its exceedingly large sleeves. Remember those Spinosaurus-like neural spines? They were probably there to support the bulky beer belly, similar to an “asymmetrical cable-stayed bridge“. It also had broadended tip-toes (pedal unguals, to be technical), allowing it not to sink when wading into wetter areas. And those claws? No longer used as lethal disembowlers, but for digging/plant gathering. So Deinocheirus seemingly was perfectly adapted to life on the braided, meandering rivers of the Nemegt ecosystem, unafraid of pesky Tarbosaurus, perfectly content to munch away until its heart (and beer belly) was content, and then waddling to the next patch of river to devour (and P.S Deinocheirus didn’t half walk funny).

And the moral of the story is…

By now, you’ve probably found literally hundreds of grammatical and spelling errors, due to the fact that I’ve been excitedly vomiting words onto my laptop in wave after wave of dino-induced mania. Yes it’s weird, and yes I love it because it’s pretty much me in dinosaur form, but why is this important? You’ll probably see this on IFLS (I F***ing Love Science) in a summary post, with ‘weird fat dinosaur discovered’ alongside ‘cure for cancer found’ and ‘artificial intelligence finally sorted’, making palaeontology, yet again look like the stupid and childish sibling of all the other sciences (e.g. “dino with big nose discovered”, unfortunately not a joke). But this is more than just some crazy guys with beards and stetsons finding a random pile of bones and shouting eureka until Nature finally publishes their work. Oh no. This, as well as many other finds over the last year shows us just how extreme dinosaurs can get. In the past 12 months, we’ve had a new, now with more swimming (TM) Spinosaurus recontruction, Dreadnoughtus, possibly the largest dinosaur ever, as well as long-snouted and pygmy tyrannosaurs. Not to mention feathered ornithischians (R). Dinosaurs have often been regarded as evolutionary extremes, and we’re only now beginning to understand just how these extreme animals lived and evolved.This understanding allows us to further understand evolution works, and how organisms can evolve in various environments and under different conditions.Not only is Deinocheirus a weird and wonderful beast, but when we look at it as a living, breathing animal, rather than a poster-child for all things weird and wonderful, we can begin to further understand  the evolutionary processes involved in theropods, a group which would garner the evolution of an incredibly diverse and successful group of animals, the birds. Deinocheirus exemplifies that palaeontologists, by investigating extremely adapted animals, such as dinosaurs, can further the understanding of the the process of evolution, one of the most important processes on Earth, and just how far it can go, and what wonderfully strange creatures it can help to explain.

So there you have it. Deinocheirus. It sure is a good day to be a palaeontologist.

Taxon of the Week: Postosuchus

In this week’s TotW, Ryan takes us through the posto child of the ‘rauisuchians’, Postosuchus.

When someone mentions the Mesozoic, you instantly think about dinosaurs. Admit it, it’s fine, there’s no judgement on this blog. You also will predominately think about dinosaurs from the Jurassic and the Cretaceous, with good old T. rex and co. (allosaurs, carcharodontosaurs, spinosaurs etc.) ruling the roost at the top of the food chain, whilst sauropod behemoths (amongst other ridiculously sized herbivores) wandering about in herds etc. etc. However, the Triassic (seemingly the Cretaceous and Jurassic’s ugly sister) is often forgotten about. Yes, we don’t have things which are outrageously large or ridiculously bipedal (or do we..?), but in the Triassic, crurotarsans (crocodile-line archosaurs) were having a bit of a field day.

awesomesozoic

The image that immediately springs to mind as soon as you mention ‘Jurassic’ or ‘Cretaceous’. Clearly.

Here on TDS, we think the Triassic (as well as plenty other eras, not just the Jurassic and Cretaceous) is pretty awesome too. The Triassic was a time of recovery, the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event had been and gone (and almost taken all of life on Earth with it). Dinosaurs were just starting out, and sitting on top of the food chain was, you guessed it, Postosuchus. If you look at the skull of Postosuchus kirkpatricki below, look carefully. Back in the 1980s famous palaeontologists thought Postosuchus (along with Poposaurus) could be a tyrannosaur ancestor. You can see where they’re coming from. Postosuchus was first discovered in 1922, and for 60 odd years after that, people didn’t really know what to make of it. First reports penned it as a Coelophysis, 20 years later, other finds were thought to belong to a new phytosaur. It wasn’t up until 1985 that the holotype, a well preserved skull and some postcranial remains, of Postosuchus kirkpatricki was formally announced. 

BronzePostosuchus

Totally not a dinosaur. No seriously.

Weighing in at almost 300kg, at reaching almost 4m when fully grown, Postosuchus was one (if not the) largest predator in the Triassic. With good long distance vision, a decent sense of smell, and a possible Jacobson’s organ, and oh, not to mention, over 7cm dagger-like teeth, this killing machine well may have taken down a fair few aetosaurs in it’s time (not a small feat). So fairly fearsome, but not as impressive as the theropods that were to come later in the Mesozoic, surely? Well, again, no.

tumblr_m3zd8iT4YA1rrpn3bo1_500

These coelophysoids clearly came to the wrong neighbourhood.

What makes Postosuchus (and many other ‘rauisuchians‘) so interesting are its hindlimbs. One of the major dinosaurian innovations was the erect hindlimb posture, enabling more efficient locomotion. In the Triassic, descendants of crocodiles (who now have the ‘sprawling’ hindlimb posture) such as Postosuchus had a go at this hindlimb arrangement (evolutionary speaking). Whilst debated, many palaeontologists view Postosuchus (amongst other Triassic crurotarsans) as being bipeds (or at the very least facultative bipeds). So that means Postosuchus could use it’s forelimbs to kill things as well as it’s terrifyingly huge mouth (like bears do). To summarise, Postosuchus is a nightmare-inducing, killer croc-bear from back in time. It also raises the question (to be investigated by a future blog post on TDS, hopefully) of why exactly did dinosaurs survive through to the Jurassic, and rauisuchians go extinct, and why did crurotarsans go back to being solely quadrupedal?

biobeast-sm

Killer croc-bear from back in time. (Thank you internet).

Told you the Triassic was awesome. (Also, more to come on the locomotory strategies of Triassic crurotarsans to come, right after I finish my final 4th year exams…).

Bonus picture (because it’s cool and reasonably accurate, although not as accurate as the previous picture):

Postosuchus_mural

There’s no escape from the Post(o) Man (not actually a man).

References

  • Case, E. C. (1922). “New reptiles and Stegocephalians from the Upper Triassic of western Texas”. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 321: 1–84.
  • Case, E. C. (1932). “On the caudal region of Coelophysis sp. and on some new or little known forms from the Upper Triassic of western Texas”. University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology Contributions 4 (3): 81–91.
  • Case, E. C. (1943). “A new form of Phytosaur pelvis”. American Journal of Science 241 (3): 201–203. doi:10.2475/ajs.241.3.201.
  • Chatterjee, S. (1985). “Postosuchus, a new Thecodontian reptile from the Triassic of Texas and the origin of Tyrannosaurs”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 309 (1139): 395–460. doi:10.1098/rstb.1985.0092.
  • Drymala, S. & Bader, K. (2012). Assessing predator-prey interactions through the identification of bite marks on an aetosaur (Pseudosuchia) osteoderm from the Upper Triassic (Norian) Chinle Formation in Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona, USA). Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Program and Abstracts 2012, p89.

What’s New(s): 6/01/2014 incl.; Naked Dinosaurs, Saudi Arabian dinosaurs and Ichthyosaur storms.

Christmas is a time of rest, festive cheer, spending time with loved ones and (probably most importantly) food.       This is seemingly not the case for academics. Firstly, Richard and I have been busy revising for our January finals, so whilst we’ve tried to give you a few juicy morsels over to tide you over the festive season, we’ve not really had chance to bring you the latest news. Coupled with this is that over this year’s festive period there’s been a lot of palaeontology going on. Holiday, what holiday?

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PhD Comics, get used to laughing (and crying) along to them as a postgrad.

So here is a What’s News(s) bumper edition, with 5 of the biggest news stories in palaeontology over the festive period. This week, we’ve got Saudi Arabian dinosaurs, naked dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, body-size trends in evolution and some Hungarian palaeoneurobiology! Since we don’t want to spam you, we might start evolving our What’s New(s) sections so they are weekly, rather than as-and-when the news comes out (unless it’s really cool).

The first Saudi Arabian dinosaurs. Like has been previously stated, new dinosaur finds aren’t rare occurrences. They happen roughly every 1.5 weeks. Big deal right. Wrong (again). Benjamin Kear’s team have discovered a few caudal vertebrae and some teeth from Saudi Arabia, from the Maastrichtian (75 Ma, ish), and have confidently identified the vertebrae to be from a titanosaur, and the teeth to be from an abelisaurid. The confidence of these groupings is the first time that fossils the Arabian peninsula have been able to be classified as dinosaurian without contention. It also stretches the palaeogeographical ranges of titanosaurs and abelisaurids to the northern margin of Gondwana, whilst showing us (with just one find) that dinosaur ecology in this area may have been quite diverse in the mid-late Cretaceous. The papers also open access (over here on PloS One).

saudidinos

A-C: vertebra of a titanosaur from Saudi Arabia; D-F: tooth of a abelisaurid (again from Saudi Arabia). From Kear et al. (2013).

Naked dinosaurs a common sight during the Mesozoic. For a pretty ‘young’ blog, we’ve already mentioned naked dinosaurs (ooo err!) twice. That says a lot about Richard and I. Moving swiftly on… Since the discovery of the feathered Sinosauropteryx in 1996 (and a plethora of other feathered Chinese dinosaurs since) has caused a bit of frenzy. So much so, that even the Jurassic Park conceded, and created this monstrosity (they’ve now de-conceded, and have yet again ignored feathered dinosaurs). Since 1996, palaeontologists have endeavoured to find just how far back feathers go in the dinosaur lineage. Up until the early 2000s, we thought we had it covered, and that feathers were ancestral to theropods (with discoveries such as Dilong paradoxus, a feathered tyrannosaur sparking fierce debate over whether good old T. rex  had a majestic feathered coat). Yet, as always, it only takes one discovery to turn everything upside down. Pscittacosaurus was that discovery. Pscittacosaurus is a ceratopsian (basal relative to the frilled dinosaur celebrity Triceratops), but with some proto-feathers. Crazy times.

bakker deino

Richard’s favourite naked dinosaur, Deinonychus (which probably wasn’t naked at all).

Paul Barrett then set about to try and solve just where the feathered dinosaur bus stopped. He and his team looked at all of the dinosaur skin impressions found to date, looking for any sign of feathers (or similar structures) and then considered the data is a evolutionary context. He concluded that despite Pscittacosaurus, most ornithischians (ceratopsians, ornithopods, pachycephalosaurs and thyreophorans) and sauropods would have had scales. With the majority of dinosaurian clades having scales rather than feathers, Barrett tentatively concluded (at SVP 2013, in sunny Los Angeles) that scales were probably the ancestral condition in dinosaurs.  But by now we know that all it takes is one feathered dinosaurs from the Triassic (or even the early Jurassic) to upheave this study.

The I(chthyosaur) of the Storm. Quick bit of local (for British palaeontologists  anyhow) news for everyone. After heavy storms (no, seriously, before any Americans/Canadians/anywhere with ‘proper weather’ complain) a 1.5 m long partial ichthyosaur skeleton has been revealed at the base of a cliff in Dorset, and is being restored by the Jurassic Coast Heritage organisation. Three ichthyosaurs have been revealed in similar ways after storms in the past year along the Jurassic Coast. So remember kids, 80mp/h winds and floods aren’t all bad.

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That’s right, icthyosaurs can fly. And then they become storms. True story (Not actually true).

Growing fields: body-size trends throughout the fossil record. Whilst by no means is the study of body-size trends through evolutionary history a new field, but Mark Bell has just published a brilliant, relatively short and Open Access (whoop!) introduction to body-size trends in the fossil record. The article really does make you feel rather small (literally). It also goes through some long established rules on body-size evolution (e.g Cope’s rule), whilst also noting some nice examples of giganticism and dwarfism in the fossil record. Finally, he also states that new computer simulations/software maybe able to help us to further understand these trends in the future.

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Where’s Wally, PhyloPic edition. (From Bell 2013 and PhyloPic).

The very Hung-a-ry dinosaur brain. This gem of palaeontological news really does show how fieldwork and digital analysis can produce fantastic results. A new find of a partial skull of Hungarosaurus (from, you guessed it, Hungary) has enabled Hungarian palaeontologists to made a cast of the endocranial cavity, allowing them to analyse the braincase of this European anklyosaur. Initial results suggest that the cerebellum (area of the brain associated with motor control) is larger in volume than other ankylosaurs. This may well mean that Hungarosaurus was better able to run than other anklyosaurs (well known for not being the fastest of starters…).

hungarybrain

Endocast of Hungarosaurus. cbl=cerebellum (roughly circled, from Osi et al. 2013)

References:

Kear BP, Rich TH, Vickers-Rich P, Ali MA, Al-Mufarreh YA, et al. (2013) First Dinosaurs from Saudi Arabia. PLoS ONE 8(12): e84041. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084041

Mayr, G., Peters, D. S., Plodowski, G. & Vogel, O. Naturwissenschaften 89, 361–365 (2002)

Zheng, X.-T., You, H.-L., Xu, X. & Dong, Z.-M. Nature 458, 333–336 (2009).

http://www.nature.com/news/feathers-were-the-exception-rather-than-the-rule-for-dinosaurs-1.14379

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-25548426

http://www.palaeontologyonline.com/articles/2014/trends-body-size-evolution-fossil-record-growing-field/

Ősi, Attila, Pereda Suberbiola, Xabier, and Földes, Tamás. 2014. Partial skull and endocranial cast of the ankylosaurian dinosaur Hungarosaurus from the Late Cretaceous of Hungary: implications for locomotion, Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 17, Issue 1; 1A; 18p;
palaeo-electronica.org/content/2014/612-skull-of-hungarosaurus

Animals or antediluvian monstrosities?

The famous painting Duria Antiquior, by the Victorian geologist Henry De la Beche, is acknowledged as being the first piece of palaeoart, ie. depiction of prehistoric life based upon fossil evidence.  Because of this it’s palaeontologically important, but it’s also pretty awesome in itself as a picture, with various marine creatures eating one another as pterosaurs swoop overhead, and even a rare depiction of a pooing plesiosaur.  There is in fact so much awesomeness going on that you’d struggle to find room to swing a cat (or whatever the Mesozoic equivalent is-perhaps Pakasuchus?) anywhere in the crowded landscape.  While a great picture, it doesn’t actually do a very good job of illustrating what a Mesozoic seascape would have looked like, instead depicting various monsters doing battle.

Everything looks so happy

The smiley ichthyosaurs make it all look so jolly.

This brings us to the theme of this blog post: the temptation to ‘mythologise’ prehistoric animals and the world in which they lived.  Duria Antiquior was painted in 1830, and obviously palaeontological understanding has come a long way since then.  Equally, the depiction of overcrowded, overdramatised scenes in palaeoart is fair enough.  No-one would be interested in a Mesozoic seascape if it depicted an empty ocean with something that might or might not be the silhouette of an ichthyosaur in the murky distance.  But this popular view of the prehistoric world as a planet populated by antediluvian monstrosities does still sometimes colour the way that people try to understand it.

One of the fundamental tools available to palaeontologists to help them understand extinct animals is information from animals that are alive today.  To understand how a dinosaur’s moved they would look at the principles that govern movement in modern animals, rather than making up special rules for dinosaurs.  Sometimes, however, palaeontologists give in to the temptation to treat prehistoric life specially.

Azhdarchid pterosaurs were a group of large, long-necked pterosaurs from the Cretaceous, including the famous (for a pterosaur anyway) Quetzalcoatlus.  Their shape has led some to suggest that they fed like modern ground hornbills, hunting on the ground with their enormous beaks (see picture).  One argument (among a number) put forward against this hypothesis is that any azhdarchid that landed on the ground to feed during the Cretaceous would be immediately torn apart by voracious theropods.

Quetz

Admittedly hornbills don’t eat sauropods.

But would this actually be the case? Darren Naish (a proponent of the hornbill-esque feeding idea) points out in a recent blog post that it probably wouldn’t be.  Notwithstanding that the size of these pterosaurs offered protection in itself, there’s no reason to think that every inch of the Cretaceous landscape was being constantly monitored by hungry tyrannosaurs.  Taking the modern African savannah as an example; it’s not like every animal that summons up the courage to peek around the side of a baobab tree is instantly ripped to shreds by lions.  To suggest that azhdarchids could never have been safe seems a bit like mythologising the Cretaceous environment and its predators.

It’s not just predators that have been ascribed ‘special rules’.  Amongst ornithodirans (pterosaurs and dinosaurs) are found a amazing array of crests and weird head ornaments (eg. hadrosaurs in picture below), and a number of suggestions have been put forward for why these evolved.  One of the most prominent has been that of ‘interspecific recognition’, where they helped animals to identify mates of the same species.  This hasn’t been conclusively demonstrated to be the reason for ornaments in any animals alive today, but proponents of this idea claim that dinosaurs represent a special case.

hadrosaur_heads_small

I like to think that this is what the album cover for a hadrosaur boy band would look like.

A counter-explanation put forward has been that of mutual sexual selection, where the crests have been selected for (in both genders) to aid attracting a mate (a more in depth discussion of which is found here).  In modern taxa this often seems to be the explanation for such ornaments, and so seems to me to be the more likely hypothesis for those in dinosaurs:  there is no need to invoke ‘special rules’ for extinct animals.  To do so is just another example of (inadvertently) mythologising them and their ecology.

It is true that there are cases where we can’t treat extinct taxa by the same rules as living ones because we have no living analogues to tell us what the rules are.  Enormous bipedal carnivores and giant fully aquatic reptiles are examples.  However, this doesn’t mean we ought to believe that widely applicable principles that we know from modern ecology wouldn’t apply for no reason other than that the animals in question were extinct.  If palaeontologists were studying the function of these animals’ bones they would prefer modern analogues to ‘special rules’, there’s no reason why the same approach shouldn’t be taken to inferring their ecology.

In the two examples I’ve given here, accusing the palaeontologists in question of viewing extinct animals as ‘antediluvian monstrosities’ is an exaggeration.  I do think however that they serve as examples of people applying ‘special rules’ to the ecology of extinct groups just because they’re, well, extinct.  In depictions such as Duria Antiquior such mythologising is both harmless and useful, and sometimes aspects of prehistoric life appear to have no direct modern analogues.  But to view them as anything more than animals in a world governed by the same ‘natural laws’ as those today just gets in the way of understanding these fascinating creatures.

(Dead) Taxon of The Week: Thecodontosaurus

Over here at TDS central (which is technically the MSc workroom in the Earth Sciences department, University of Bristol) we’ve come up with a way to give you guys a weekly introduction to all the lovely beasties palaeontologists around the world. To this end, Richard and I came up with #ToTW (Taxon of The Week), they may be a dead taxon (#dToTW) or even (if we’re feeling especially rebellious) a living taxon (#aToTW). Each week we’ll take it in turns to post a relatively short post on a different taxon, in an attempt to persuade you all that dinosaurs aren’t the be all and end all. However, in true TDS tradition, we’re going to completely ignore what we just said and talk about dinosaurs (let’s face it, dinosaurs bring all the hits to the yard).

This weeks ToTW is unfortunately a dToTW. But it is very dear to my (Ryan) heart. Back in my 2nd year of my undergraduate degree, this was the first actual dinosaur fossil I ever worked on. It was a huge day for me, I even took pictures of the bone I was working on and showed it to all my friends (they didn’t care). This dinosaur is Thecodontosaurus antiquus. The Bristol Dinosaur.

Thecodontosaurus_env

A vaguely accurate reconstruction of Theco (although no thought to be slightly more bipedal).

Discovered in Bristol all the way back in 1834, Thecodontosaurus (meaning ‘socket-tooth lizard’, eluding to the fact that the roots of the teeth were not fused with the jaw bone, like modern lizards) was the 5th dinosaur ever discovered. And even in 2013, 179 years later, Theco’s (a modern term of endearment, especially within the University of Bristol) still making news (more on that later). Standing at around 30 centimetres tall, and only around 1.2 metres long, a mighty tyrannosaur or colossal sauropod Theco is not. Yet Theco is with a very important dinosaurian group, the prosauropods. Prosauropods are the small Triassic (around 210 million years ago)  ancestors of sauropods, they allow us to investigate just how a group of dog-sized dinosaurs reached ridiculous sizes.

theco tooth

Socket tooth from the Socket-tooth ‘lizard’. Courtesy of the BDP and Andrew Cuff.

Much of the initial Thecodontosaurus findings were made in Bristol, and to this day research is carried out on Triassic fossils and Thecodontosaurus remains. The Bristol Dinosaur Project works mainly on microfossils, to painstakingly piece together the entire ecosystem that Theco may have lived in. The project is open to willing volunteers from both the scientific community, and the general public, it promises to reveal some much needed light on the Mid-Triassic of Bristol. Which by the way was quite a nice to live in (see below). More recently, all of the research on Theco has culminated in the Dinosaur Live Build, where Theco has been brought to live as a full scale (and as accurate has we can get the blighter) model, which got some nice news coverage (and was genuinely fantastic to see). Theco’s now housed above TDS Central (*coughs* Earth Sciences department, Wills Memorial Building). See below for my (edited and festive) picture of him/her (warning: it’s adorable). So here’s to Theco (and a shameless University of Bristol plug).

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Bristol in the Triassic. We have to go back…

Since this is (possibly) the last post before Christmas, may Richard and I wish you a very Merry (gentlemanly) Christmas. 

theco_christmas

Merry Christmas from Theco (and TDS!).

FAQ: Ryan.

First and foremost, what’s your favourite dinosaur?

What a horrific question. It’s like asking a proud parent to choose their favourite child. In my younger days, it was all about the big theropods, tyrannosaurs and the like. But now, I can’t resist the enormous (heh…) charm of sauropods (I prefer the macronarians, Brachiosaurus and the other ‘tall’ sauropods).

Secondly, what’s you favourite (preferably extinct) animal?

A much nicer question question. Pakasuchus kapilimai. As the name suggests it’s a cat-like crocodile. What more could you want? However, honorary mention to Quetzacoatlus (the ‘evil, pin-headed, toothy nightmare monster that wants to eat your soul’, a quote from Darren Naish), because what other flying reptile with a 11m wingspan has a rap about it? Exactly.

tds_pakasuchus

Cute and scaly? Best combo ever. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

What’s your area of ‘expertise’?

I’m not huge expert in anything yet, but I have a passion for biomechanics in the archosaurs (birds, dinosaurs, crocodiles and their ancestors). I’m currently using a lot of computer software to digitally model fossils, so I guess some of my ‘expertise’ lie in digital palaeontology (the shiny-new future, more on that in a future post, probably).

How did you get into palaeontology?

Like most children of the 1990s, I grew up loving Jurassic Park. The scene where Dr. Grant (a personal hero of mine, even as I enter my twenties) first meets the Brachiosaurus is still up there as my favourite movie-moment ever. Even before that, I was an absolute dinosaur-nut. So much so, by the age of 5 I could spell palaeontologist. Since then I’ve never lost that desire to become a palaeontologist. So, after spending primary and secondary school, then college work my behind off I went to the University of Bristol to study on the Palaeontology and Evolution course. I’m now a masters student at the University of Bristol, currently looking for PhD positions to continue my career in ‘dinosaurs’.

theymoveinherds

To reiterate: this is the best film ever. Period.

What do you do in your spare time?

To be honest, I’m pretty much always reading about palaeontology. Here’s a tip for free: if you want to be an academic you have to be almost obsessed with your subject, if not, you’ll just learn to hate it. In the small amount of time I’m not holed up reading about palaeo (more likely: looking at awesome palaeo art), I’m usually performing/hanging out with Bristol Improv, reading other books, playing video games, or on Twitter (desperately attempting to get #notosuchia trending).

Favourite palaeontological paper?

Ah, I remember it well. It was the first paper I read (all the way back in the first year of my undergraduate degree) that I actually enjoyed reading. It was Rayfield (2004), and I only read it simply because it had Tyrannosaurus rex in the title. But it began my interest in biomechanics (even though I was scared by the maths behind FEA). It was one of the first papers (along with Rayfield et al. 2001) to show the importance of new computational methods in palaeontology. Essentially, I like papers with shiny pictures of fossils (and models of fossils). More recent favourites of mine include:

Allosaurus_PE_WitmerLab_still_01

The future of how palaeontologists assess om-nom-nomming in dinosaurs.

You’re a palaeontologist, so you’re like Ross from ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’?

If I had a penny for every time someone asks me this, I’d have paid my student loan off years ago. For simplicity, yes, I’m like Ross from Friends.

And yes Jenniston, I am still awaiting your marriage proposal.

Any tips for any budding palaeontologists out there?

If you’re still in school/college/pre-university, work hard! If you’re in university, work even harder! But seriously, if you want to go into an academic career (not just palaeontology) you’re going to have to get used to hard graft. Also, if there’s any dig sites near you (I’m looking at you American readers), then volunteer! Not only is it great fun, but it looks great when you’re applying for uni/palaeo jobs. If you can’t visit dig sites, read around the subject a lot! We know accessing the primary literature is hard (both in terms of paywalls and understanding), but don’t fear! There’s plenty of really accessible blogs (like us!) giving you news and views on all things palaeo. Also, National Geographic magazine occasionally has some nice articles (palaeo related) inside.

What’s New(s): Acheroraptor.

‘Whats New(s)’ is our new (poorly titled) news and views-esque section, where we keep you up-to-date on the latest findings in palaeontology, as well as explaining some key ideas behind them. For TDS first ever What’s New(s) we’ve got the exciting discovery of Acheroraptor! It also represents the first post on TDS with actual content (and dinosaurs). Huzzah!

New dinosaur fossils are being found all year round. No big deal, right? Wrong. Quite a lot of these new fossils fall under 3 very interesting categories:

  1. Crazy looking (a technical term).
  2. Exceptional preservation (and a shameless Bristol Palaeo plug).
  3. Macroevolutionary importance.
acheroraptor_fossil

Maxilla (top) and dentary (bottom) of Acheroraptor (with non-isolated teeth).

Acheroraptor falls into number 3. Not only does it have one of the best names ever, Acheroraptor temertyorum (literally meaning ‘Underworld thief’), but it’s one of the first major fossils (previously all we had was just isolated teeth) of dromaeosaurs (velociraptors and their close relatives) from North America in the Late Cretaceous. I say ‘major fossils’ but it’s still only 2 bones in the skull, a full maxilla and an almost complete dentary. Oh, and some non-isolated teeth. Nonetheless, the little blighter is (apparently, according to a wonderful reconstruction by Danielle Dufault) a cutie!

archeroraptor

As ‘underworld thieves’ go, this ones adorable.

So why is it important? Palaeontologists reconstruct evolutionary relationships by looking at how morphological features vary between different species. So, the more complete the fossil record is for a species, the more features you can compare, and the more confidence you can have when inferring the evolutionary relationship. So, going from a few isolated teeth, to a couple of (relatively) whopping great big skull bones is a fantastic leap! So, Acheroraptor has (despite being ‘American‘) been found to be more closely related to Asian dromaeosaurs, such as Velociraptor mongoliensis. This means that there was more faunal interchange between ‘America’ and ‘Asia’ back in the Late Cretaceous.

Cool right?

References

Evans, D. C., Larson, D. W. and Currie, P. J. (2013) A new dromaeosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) with Asian affinities from the latest Cretaceous of North America, Naturwissenschaften, 100(11), 1041-1049

FAQ: Richard.

To give people an idea of who we actually are before we start dinosauring at you, we thought we’d introduce ourselves via a series of ‘FAQs’.  Here’s mine!

Richard

First and foremost, what’s your favourite dinosaur?

At the age of 6 I’d immediately have answered Deinonychus, but the naked kind (eg. picture below) without any feathers.  I would then have proceeded to bore you with my standard soliloquy on how the raptors in Jurassic Park were actually more like Deinonychus, thus justifying my obscure dinosaur choice.

bakker deino

The awkward, naked sprint from shower to bedroom was a problem even in the Cretaceous.

Since then my dinosaur tastes have progressed a bit, but I think I’ll still pick Deinonychus.  As well as being nicely symbolic of the paradigm shift towards viewing dinosaurs as active animals, it has also become feathered fairly recently, representing another change in dino-views.  It also had HUGE CLAWS.

Secondly, what’s your favourite (preferably extinct) animal?

While lots of things are awesome I think I probably ought to choose the Devonian placoderm, Dunkleosteus.  While (obviously) all Palaeozoic fish are exciting, a 10m long one with shearing jaw bones is particularly so.  Also comes highly recommended as a fancy dress costume.

What’s your area of ‘expertise’?

I think ‘expertise’, as opposed to actual expertise, is definitely the right word to use.  I enjoy systematics and evolution-based themes, in pretty much any group.  My project this year is on a group of armoured, jawless fish called heterostracans, so I’m looking forward to learning about them as the year progresses.   My undergrad degree is in Zoology, so I like to flatter myself that I bring a critical zoological eye to palaeobiology.  This is probably not actually the case.

How did you get into palaeontology?

Playground conversations about Jurassic Park and the fact that Walking With Dinosaurs came out when I was small and impressionable both contributed to a love of palaeontology from a young age.  My grandfather is a zoologist who has done work on dinosaurs, and so he fanned the flames by doing things like introducing me to a robotic Iguanodon (see picture).  I then wanted to be a military historian for a bit, before doing a degree in natural sciences, which eventually became zoology as I tried to get as far away from cellular biology as possible.  This zoology degree heavily featured palaeo, which reignited my love of it and led me to this master’s degree.

iguano robot2

The model T-8Ig Terminator was swiftly scrapped by Skynet, after proving to be even less successful at blending into human society than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What do you do in your spare time?

Mainly musical things.  I play the ukulele and the clarinet, and dabble in a number of other instruments.  I also enjoy singing; previously this has been in Chapel Choirs and things, but has more recently been barbershop.  I also enjoy reading and baking bread.

Favourite palaeontological paper?

I really like this paper describing paired anal fins (weird!) in the jawless fish Euphanerops because the fossil is quite pretty and it has a really nicely structured, clear diagram portraying the evolution of paired fins in vertebrates.  It also provides a tantalising glimpse into the evolution of key characters in gnathostomes (jawed fish), which (as with so much in evolution) seems to form an evolutionary mosaic rather than a straightforward progression from one character state to another.

SansomPhyloOrig

Bask in the clarity of this figure! Green is for dorsal fins, red is for paired fins and blue is for anal fins. Adapted from Sansom et al, 2013

You’re a palaeontologist, so you’re like Ross from ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’?

Ross never actually seemed like a very good palaeontologist, so I hope not.  I’ve also only been married twice.

Any tips for any budding palaeontologists out there?

I suspect that I still count as a ‘budding palaeontologist’, but disregarding that my tips would probably centre around a general theme of ‘get keen’.  There’s an enormous number of blogs and things on palaeobiology on the internet, and through the medium of Twitter you can get information on opportunities and palaeo news directly from palaeontological luminaries (or at least those luminaries who have Twitter).