Dinosaurs Unearthed!

Growing up in Nova Scotia, despite its many excellent and significant palaeontological treasures, meant that there weren’t many dinosaur fossils for me to gawp at regularly. The Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History (which I loved) had only a few small fossils on display, and besides an exciting appearance by the Dinosauroid when I was small, did not have any big traveling dinosaur exhibits come through. But when I was in Grade 1 or so, DINAMATION came to town and seared its robotic dinosaurs all over my brain forever. And so I think I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for animatronic dinosaur displays.

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Crystal Geyser Quarry Quest

I just got back from my first stint of fieldwork for the year, and my first time doing fieldwork in the States. This was just a brief jaunt out to Utah and Colorado for two weeks, but it was a nice sampling of some interesting and different field localities compared to my previous experiences. Today’s post: Crystal Geyser quarry in Utah!

So scenic, so majestic. Such altitude.

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On Failures of Imagination

Yesterday I talked about ‘expected surprises‘ with regards to Yi qi. Yi qi is a surprise because its anatomy is so unlike other theropods, and it suggests that dinosaurs were experimenting with flight and/or gliding in some ways that were quite different from our current understanding of feather and bird wing evolution. But it was also not entirely unexpected, because scansoriopterygids had super weird anatomy to begin with that gave us enough information to speculate about possible gliding adaptations in those dinosaurs, even though the general consensus was that it was pretty far-fetched.

But today I wanted to talk about a related feeling, which I like to call the Failure of Imagination. Last summer I was working my way through a DVD set of classic sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure movies that I had picked up at some point. I wound up watching a lot of these with friends and basically Mystery Science Theatre 3000-ing the films, and in particular the old space adventure movies from the 40s-60s provided much entertainment. It’s really fun to take a look back and see what sorts of things people envisioned the future holding for us – space travel, exoplanet exploration, robots. But what also struck me was the things that the filmmakers and storywriters couldn’t even imagine.

They could imagine spaceships and robots, but they couldn’t imagine wireless technology. Or storing information in digital form rather than on spools of tape.

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) 

They couldn’t imagine non-button-and-dial-based instrumentation. 

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Crash of Moons (1954)

And they definitely couldn’t imagine women in roles other than administrative assistants (or as the bad guys). SO MANY SPACE SECRETARIES.

 First Spaceship on Venus (1960)

I kept thinking to myself – what sorts of failures of imagination are we having in palaeontology today? We can imagine so many things. But I wonder what kinds of things we won’t even know we don’t know. When we try our hand at speculative biology, what will scientists 80 or 100 years from now think was charming, or quaint, or ahead of its time. Failures of imagination are one of those things that make me nervous as a scientist, because I don’t like the idea that I won’t even know what I’m not imagining.

A Body for Terrible Hands

It was a whirlwind year for dinosaur palaeontology, yet again. This week I’m writing about what I consider the most important news in my science field for 2014, for the Science Borealis blog carnival. There are so many great stories to choose from! Kulindadromeus and feather-like structures in ornithischians? The bizarro new reconstruction of a short-legged Spinosaurus? Both of those stories were pretty interesting, but my choice has to be the description of multiple skeletons of the Mongolian ornithomimosaur Deinocheirus. Continue reading

Happy birthday, Dynamosaurus!

Today marks the auspicious anniversary of one of the most significant dinosaurs ever described: Dynamosaurus imperiosus! Surely one of the greatest and most fearful of all of the predatory dinosaurs, it stomped through the Maastrichtian of Wyoming and other parts of western North America. Dynamosaurus is noteworthy for its diagnostic dermal plates, which ran in transverse rows down its body and which formed a large knob of bone at the end of the tail. The function of these plates are still hotly debated, but they certainly gave Dynamosaurus a unique look among theropods.

I kid, of course, but I think Dynamosaurus deserves a mention on its more famous relative’s naming day as well. Tyrannosaurus, Dynamosaurus, and Albertosaurus were all named by Osborn in 1905 and although Tyrannosaurus and Albertosaurus have proven to be distinct from each other, Dynamosaurus turned out to be a junior synonym of Tyrannosaurus. If Tyrannosaurus hadn’t appeared first in the publication, good ol’ T. rex might not be the household name it is today and we might all stand and gape at Sue or Scotty or Stan the Dynamosaurus. The distinctive osteoderms are probably Ankylosaurus osteoderms, although I haven’t attempted to track down the specimens myself or any papers that discuss their identity, so I suppose they could also be Maastrichtian nodosaurid osteoderms. Updated 2 October 2015: Last year when I fired this off quickly I completely forgot that the Dynamosaurus osteoderms are figured in Ken Carpenter’s 2004 Ankylosaurus paper!

Anyway, happy birthday, Dynamosaurus. I still like you, even if you never existed.

Osborn HF. 1905. Tyrannosaurus and other Cretaceous carnivorous dinosaurs. Bulletin of the AMNH 21: 259-265.

Osborn HF. 1906. Tyrannosaurus, Upper Cretaceous carnivorous dinosaur (second communication). Bulletin of the AMNH 22:281-296.

The Systematic Position of the King of the Monsters

A few weeks ago I was really excited to be contacted by Danielle Venton, a freelance writer working on a piece for Popular Mechanics about the biology of Godzilla! With a new big-screen appearance by Godzilla right around the corner, I thought this was a fun exercise in speculative biology. The piece is out now at Popular Mechanics and I highly recommend checking out “The Impossible Anatomy of Godzilla“. Continue reading

Thoughts on Tarbosaurus, part 4

Well, a lot has happened since the auction of a nearly complete Tarbosaurus was halted last May. At the end of December, Eric Prokopi surrendered his claim to the Tarbosaurus and other Mongolian and Chinese dinosaur fossils in his possession, and pleaded guilty to several charges surrounding the Tarbosaurus case. The Mongolian government is renewing its commitment to preserving its outstanding natural history heritage by creating a new dinosaur museum in capital city Ulaanbaatar, and several museums elsewhere in the countryside.

I hope the awesome leather Tarbosaurus makes the trip to the new digs.

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