(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.

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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.

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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. 

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Merry Christmas from Theco (and TDS!).

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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.

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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’.

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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:

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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.