What’s new with Dino 101?

The third offering of Dino 101 kicked off again last week, and we’re already into our 2nd lesson, on taphonomy and fossilization. Here’s a quick update for what’s new this time around!

  • A new section about the palaeobiogeography of dinosaurs was filmed, including lots of new scenes at the Royal Tyrrell Museum
  • We get to show off the Edmontosaurus with the “cock’s comb”!
  • We added in some more information on non-dinosaurian critters from the Mesozoic throughout the course, including pterosaurs, marine reptiles, and early mammals
  • I made a bunch of new 3D models for our fossil viewer interactive – now you can enjoy the baby chasmosaur’s skull in three dimensions of terror and amazement!

These are all in addition to some of the snappy upgrades to version 2, like the section on the baby chasmosaur and the fancier study guides.

So far there’s more than 11 000 students registered in Dino 101 v3, which means we’ve now reached nearly 50 000 students from around the world! The on-campus versions of Dino 101, including the flipped/blended PALEO 201, are also underway, and the PALEO 201 team is making some new activities about dinosaur footprints and trackways. I’m sure they’re going to have a great time!

You can join the fun at Dino 101 for free – register now at Coursera! And you can follow the course in its various social media forms, including Facebook and Twitter.

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Paleo201 comes to an end

The first offering of Paleo201, Dinosaurs in the Fossil Record, essentially comes to an end today with the final field trip of the semester. The students will have their exam later in December.

Even though it is a lot of work to be involved in the creation of a new course, I think Paleo201 is a great addition to the University of Alberta’s paleontology offerings. Using the Dino101 content on Coursera, and pitched at an essentially first-year level (despite its 200 designation) for students from all faculties, Paleo201 is what’s called a blended learning course. We rely on the Dino101 course videos to deliver the base lecture content for the course, which means we typically only meet once per week for an in-class lesson. These lessons have included research talks by grad students in our labs on topics relevant to each week’s lesson. However, we also tried to break away from the lecture format for at least some of the in class lessons, to take advantage of some of the resources available on campus. One week we learned the basics of the rock cycle and general Canadian geology using the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Geoscience Garden, an installation of rocks from around Canada arranged in a particular fashion for students to learn basic mapping skills. And last week we did tours of the Paleontology Museum and our prep labs, including sneak peeks of some cool up and coming research projects. FUN FACT: Our Dunkleosteus skull cast was ranked higher than the dinosaur specimens in my highly scientific ‘what did you find most interesting’ poll. Blindingly obvious take-home message for instructors: Students like new things and surprises, and dinosaurs are not necessarily the be-all and end-all!

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Who-oplocephalus: The Fellowship of the Half Ring

Behold, NHMUK R5161: the extraordinary holotype of Scolosaurus cutleri. This is truly one of the most amazing dinosaur fossils that has been collected from Alberta, and is one of the best preserved ankylosaurs in the world. And the best part is that it is on display for everyone to enjoy in the galleries of the Natural History Museum in London.

(Many thanks to Angelica Torices for snapping this photo for me! NHMUK R5161 is beautiful to look at, but difficult to photograph well, and I’m afraid most of my photos from my visit in 2009, while useful to me, are not necessarily that nice to look at.) Continue reading

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Danek Bonebed

The summer is over and school is back in session. Here in Edmonton the leaves already started to turn yellow last week. And somehow the summer got so busy that I hardly posted anything at all here. So, it’s nice to fix that up and talk about what I did on my summer ‘vacation’, by which I mean the time that undergrads are not at university but grad students are.

The ‘summer’ (which doesn’t really start until mid-June in Edmonton, but whatevs) started up with the PALEO 400 field school in early May. For three weeks, students help excavate the Danek Bonebed, a hadrosaur bonebed located right in the city (but in a secret location, to prevent vandalism). Over the course of those three weeks, they get to do everything: shoveling lots of dirt, uncovering bones with fine tools, plaster jacketing, carrying heavy things back to the truck, quarry mapping, field identification, you name it. Each student comes up with a research project related to the bonebed and writes a paper and/or presents a talk in October. This year we had five enthusiastic students and I am looking forward to hearing all about their projects later this fall.

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Thoughts on Tarbosaurus, Part 2

In my last post I talked about the role of museums in conserving fossil resources, with regards to the recent news about the Tarbosaurus auction. I wanted to address some of the other frequent comments I have seen on blogs and news articles. So, we’re now on to:

Comment 2: How do we know the tyrannosaur came from Mongolia? (and the related question, which I’ve decided to lump with this one: Why does the auction company, and subsequent news stories, refer to the specimen as Tyrannosaurus bataar while palaeontologists call it Tarbosaurus? Continue reading

Hearing more about them.

After the talks had ended on the first day of the Hadrosaur Symposium, I had a bit of free time to visit the galleries, which I hadn’t seen in about a year and a half. I was expecting the Alberta Unearthed: 25 Years of Discovery exhibit, but was delighted by this unexpected surprise: a short, but excellent, exhibit on women in palaeontology!

Located on the ramp up to the Darwin exhibit after you exit Lords of the Land, the exhibit consists of 19 or 20 profiles of female palaeontologists. Each framed image included a photo, a brief biography, and an image of a representative specimen or field locality (example above featuring Dr. Betsy Nicholls). I was particularly pleased to see that the Tyrrell had attempted to include women of many different races, nationalities, ages, and career stages, studying a variety of taxa and using many different techniques.

I was particularly intrigued the quote from Naomi Oreskes below the exhibit title, “The question is not why there haven’t been more women in science, the question is rather why we have not heard more about them.” Dr. Oreskes is a historian of science at University of California at San Diego, and her paper “Objectivity or Heroism? The Invisibility of Women in Science” is well worth a read (and really, go read it – palaeontology is all about heroism). It’s a sentiment that I share and that I’ve discussed before: although there may not be an equal ratio of women:men in palaeontology yet, we’re definitely getting closer, so why don’t we seem to be as visible as the men? It is certainly up to us to speak up for ourselves, but it’s really, really nice to see a major institution like the Tyrrell stepping up and hosting an exhibit like this.

I hope that at least some people will take the time to stop and read some of the biographies on their way to the fossils – if I had one complaint, it is that because the exhibit consists only of pictures in a hallway leading to the main exhibits, that it may be easily passed over. If specimens had been incorporated somehow, as they were with the Great Minds, Fresh Finds exhibit (showcasing the work of the museum’s scientists), that might have been able to grab more attention. Sadly, most people walking through this hallway while I was present would pause for a moment at the entrance, but then skip on through the rest of the exhibit. I realize that space constraints probably would not permit anything more than what they have done, however, and the exhibit is pleasant to look at and rewarding for those who take some time to read the biographies. In particular, I hope school groups take advantage of it and that teachers incorporate questions about female scientists into their activities.

I’ll finish here with a very nice video produced by the Tyrrell, featuring Dr. Don Brinkman discussing the work of Dr. Betsy Nicholls, who was a curator at the museum until her death in 2004 and whose work is featured in the Triassic Giant gallery.

Hadrosaurs get their moment in the sun.

Living in Edmonton means I’m in close proximity to the dinosaur capital of Canada, Drumheller, and the wonderful Royal Tyrrell Museum. Last week the U of A crew headed down to the Hadrosaur Symposium, a wonderful event by all accounts with lots of interesting talks and good conversation. I won’t report on the science presented as much of the research is as yet unpublished (although look out for the eventual symposium volume), but thought I would share a few photos and links to symposium goodies. Continue reading

Ankylosaur tail pathologies.

My most recent paper with my coauthor and supervisor Phil Currie appeared online at Historical Biology this week. It is the last of the chapters from my MSc on ankylosaur tail club biomechanics (although I am still working on ankylosaurs, the focus is now on the phylogenetic relationships within the ankylosaurids and their biogeography). However, it contains very little about the biomechanics of tail clubs…

Most of my MSc thesis used a lot of math and fancy-dancy computer modeling to look at whether it is biologically feasible for ankylosaurids to have used their tail clubs for forceful impacts (and therefore as offensive or defensive weapons). But another way to look for evidence of behaviour is to look for injuries, which can sometimes, if you’re lucky, give you clues about some of the more dramatic moments in an animal’s life. So as I was looking at specimens for my MSc (and into my PhD), I always kept an eye open for anything unusual or abnormal that could be a pathology. Continue reading

Fossils in the Tar Sands.

A short but exciting post today!

“More fossils than fuel: dinosaur bones discovered.”

Shawn Funk, a shovel operator at Suncor Energy Mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta, found the remains of a possible ankylosaur earlier this week. The Royal Tyrrell Museum has been up to investigate and has posted some tantalizing photos on their Facebook page.Fort McMurray, for non-Canadians, is where all of the oil comes from.

This would not be the first vertebrate fossil discovered in the oil sands. The ichthyosaur Athabascasaurus bitumineus was named in 2010 by Patrick Druckenmiller and Erin Maxwell, and was found in a Syncrude Mine near Fort McMurray. The specimen was featured in the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s 25th Anniversary exhibition Alberta Unearthed – it is still oozing tar. It’s a beautiful specimen.

The well-known dinosaur-bearing formations of Alberta, like the Horseshoe Canyon Formation, Wapiti Formation, and of course the Dinosaur Park Formation, are all Late Cretaceous deposits. This new dinosaur, however, is from the Early Cretaceous, and is therefore likely to be quite different from the ankylosaurs known from southern Alberta. Ankylosaurs from this time period include lots of nodosaurs, like Sauropelta from Wyoming and Utah, Pawpawsaurus and Texasetes from Texas, and Cedarpelta (which may actually be a shamosaurine ankylosaurid – see Carpenter et al. 2008) from Utah. I will certainly be very interested to hear more about this new find! And great job to the folks at Suncor who spotted the fossil and called in the Tyrrell so quickly.

Papers!

Druckenmiller PS, Maxwell EE. 2010. A new Lower Cretaceous (lower Albian) ichthyosaur genus from the Clearwater Formation, Alberta, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 47: 1037–1053.

Carpenter K, Bartlett J, Bird J, Barrick R. 2008. Ankylosaurs from the Price River Quarries, Cedar Mountain Formation (Lower Cretaceous), east-central Utah. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 28: 1089–1101.