Friday, January 19, 2018

Interview with Marine Biologist: Melissa Marquez


Today we have the honor of getting to know Melissa Marquez, a marine biologist, most famous for her work with sharks!

Melissa Cristina Marquez is a Latina marine biologist and wildlife educator with a BA (Hons) in Marine Ecology and Conservation degree from New College of Florida, USA and an MSc in Marine Biology from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. Marquez currently resides in Sydney, Australia.

She is a freelance environmental contributor, wildlife artist, aspiring children's book author, and founder of The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), a program that brings attention to the unusual and diverse sharks (and their relatives) of the world and the threats they face. Marquez is also host of the Spanish marine conservation podcast, ConCiencia Azul. You can follow her adventures around the world on Twitter (@mcmsharksxx).



Question 1: At what age did you become interested in sharks?  Were they always a passion of yours? 

MM: I grew up watching David Attenborough documentaries and The Wild Thornberry’s on Nickelodeon. When I moved to the USA from Mexico I got to watch Shark Week for the first time and became hooked on sharks! My first love was manatees, though… but they just didn’t end up exciting me as much as Chondrichthyans (sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras).

Question 2: Did you have any professionals or family members who served as role models when you were younger?  Do you still have any now?

MM: People like David Attenborough, Sylvia Earle, and Eugenie Clark are big role models I’ve looked up to. Now, while those three have been instrumental to my pursuing of marine biology, I also have colleagues that I also look to as role models.

Melissa gearing up for a shark dive in the Bahamas.

Question 4: Was there anything you did or learned as you were on your way to your current career that you feel got you to where you are?  By this I mean any sort of field experience, a class, networking with the right people, or possibly something different or all three?

MM: I think networking is the best skill I’m using and is allowing me many of the opportunities I’m getting today. Of course everyone needs to take advantage of field experiences (such as internships) and take certain classes (I recommend learning R-programming and ArcGIS for an edge in graduate school). But networking is an art and can be hard to do! I talk about networking tips that worked for me in these three (One, Two, Three) articles for my #STEMSaturdays series with femSTEM.

Question 5: Is the field of marine biology different now than from when you started as far as you can tell?  How about from when you were a child? 

MM: I don’t think it has changed in that you still have passionate scientists trying to unravel the mysteries of this massive ecosystem that sustains our planet. If anything, it has changed for the better—programs like Blue Planet have brought the magic of the ocean to everyone’s fingertips and has inspired many to come study and help protect the ocean.

 
One of my favorite TEDx Talks was Melissa's about the representation of female scientists in marine biology.

Question 6: What was or is your favorite professional experience so far?  Would you be able to tell us about some of your current projects?

MM: I think getting to do dorsal fin ID with great white sharks and inputting all that data into a dataset to be analysed was the moment where I realized, “Holy crap, my field is really cool and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I’m currently looking for a PhD position, so I’ll tell you some of the science communication outreach projects I’m a part of:
·       The Fins United Initiative is a shark, skate, ray and chimaera education and conservation program aiming to unite fin lovers worldwide. Through partnerships with K-12th grade educational institutions, The Fins United Initiative provides easy-to-access materials that educators can use in their classrooms.
·       Little Fin Fighters: A collaboration between the organisation Keep Fin Alive and The Fins United Initiative in educating younger generations about plastic pollution and how to reduce their plastic pollution footprint.
·       Shark Bites Book Club: The Fins United Initiative is proudly teaming up with authors around the world to introduce The Shark Bites Book Club to promote and encourage science literacy in all ages.
·       ConCiencia Azul: The Spanish version of Speak Up For Blue Podcast. ConCiencia Azul interviews Latinx* marine science researchers and we discuss ocean-related topics, as well as speak about some of the unique hardships Hispanic/Latinx countries face.  The show will post a new episode once a week starting February 2018. // *Note: Latinx is a gender neutral term often used in lieu of Latino or Latina.
·       Writing efforts: This upcoming year, in-between my jobs, I will be putting much of my effort into becoming an author and writing books that will help promote and encourage science literacy in all ages.

Melissa giving her "Shark Talk" to a group


Question 7: You have traveled to a lot of interesting places around the world for your research.  What was your favorite traveling experience so far?  Do you see yourself traveling more in the future?

MM: I honestly can’t pick just one favourite traveling experience- they are all treasured for one reason or another. I’m fortunate enough to have traveled to over 20 countries in my short life. But I do hope I continue to get to travel in this line of work. Currently I have a conference in Malaysia in June lined up; I may go to another conference in Brazil, too.

Melissa doing field work in Mexico

Question 8: What is the biggest misconception about your line of work that you find people tend to believe? 

MM: Many people think marine biologists are constantly out at sea with animals and that just isn’t the case. Like most scientists, we spend a fair bit amount of time inside (writing, analysis of data, doing research, applying for funding grants, etc).

Question 9: How much of your work takes place in the field with the animals vs. in a lab setting?

MM: The majority of my time is spent behind a computer analyzing data and creating science outreach materials for The Fins United Initiative. Field work is usually in batches of “seasons” and depending what you are studying, your time in one place (be it the lab, field, or at a computer) varies.

Melissa out on a boat, on another collection trip.

Question 10: Was there anything about your career that you had to learn/do that you were not expecting?  How did you conquer it?

MM: I was definitely not expecting how isolating some of the work can be! But that’s just the nature of our work, at times. You learn to be the best company to yourself, haha.

Question 11: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work or for what you do?  How do you handle it?

MM: Of course! I’m big on journalists using the correct terminology when they cover fatal shark encounters (and will call them out on using inflammatory language such as “shark attack,” “man-eating monster,” or “terrifying killing machines”). This has gotten a lot of ire from the certain people in the public who turn their anger at the situation to me. I’ve gotten death threats and told that they wished I was the next person to die from a shark bite. At first I was really shocked by the viciousness of people but I’ve developed some thick skin over the years. If I truly am getting harassed or feel like I’m in danger, I don’t have second thoughts on reporting the person.


Question 12: Do you ever work with aquariums?  If so, in what capacity?

MM: I’ve worked with aquariums in the past as someone who helps take care of the elasmobranchs in the facility. Feeding them, mainly. You can see the one of my elasmobranchs in New Zealand on the cover of SMORE magazine.

Melissa handling a carpet shark (Cephaloscyllium isabellum) in New Zealand.

Question 13: One of my favorite things about what you do is that while you do great scientific work, at the same time you are constantly communicating with more general audiences, as well, to actively dispel lots of stigmas attached to sharks and their relatives.  What are some of the most common misconceptions that people have about sharks that you wish would disappear?

MM: My main two would be this: sharks intentionally eat people and sharks don’t get cancer. First, “rogue sharks” (a shark that has a taste for human flesh) are not real and no scientific evidence backs their existence. We are not on the menu for sharks! Secondly, there are many documented observations of sharks that have growths (possible tumors) on their bodies. They have fantastic immune systems but as susceptible diseases like cancer regardless.

Melissa holding a spiny dogfish after a collection trip for the aquarium she worked at.

Question 14: You are most famous for your work with Sharks and their relatives, rays, skates, and chimeras.  Do you have experience working with any other kinds of marine life?  What about land animals?

MM: I do! In the past I’ve been lucky enough to work with dolphins, whales, manatees, otters, and a variety of other marine life. While interning in Belize I was also in charge of a slew of jungle animals- including ocelots!

Question 15: Are there any species that you want to work with that you have not worked with before?

MM: Plenty! I would love to work with mako sharks, oceanic white tips, whale sharks, thresher sharks, more deep sea sharks… the list goes on!

Question 16: What is your favorite animal overall? (Be as specific as you need to be.)

MM: The tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is hands down my favourite animal. No competition. I’ve been face-to-snout quite with them numerous times and they are just perfect in my mind. Everything from their big eyes that watch your every move down to their uniquely shaped teeth and their gorgeous pattern on their skin… I can’t get enough of them! Tiger sharks are actually what sparked me to open my Etsy store that focuses on shark patterns- to showcase their beauty without the distraction of teeth.

 
Melissa up close and personal with a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) in the Bahamas.

Question 17: Why should preserving endangered marine life and their ecosystems be important to the everyday person?

MM: The marine ecosystem covers the majority of our planet yet we know so little about it and are destroying it! We need to remind people that their actions, especially those near the coasts, affects the ocean. And if you harm the ocean, well that affects everyone, even if those people live far from the ocean. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone (spread from fertilizer going down the Mississippi) is a good example of this!

Question 18: What can we all do to help preserve marine ecosystems?  

MM: 
1.     Eat sustainable seafood.
2.     Reduce your plastic pollution footprint (reduce, reuse, recycle).
3.     Help educate others about why the marine ecosystem is important.
4.     Donate to NGOs and other charities (or research facilities) to help support marine science research!

Melissa on the beach in her native Puerto Rico.

Question 19: What would your advice be to anyone trying to make a career in marine biology (or science in general for that matter) now?

MM: To follow your passion! You may get people in your life that tell you that you shouldn’t pursue marine biology (or science) but if that’s what fires you up then GO FOR IT. It’s your life and you should live it the way you want to, regardless of other’s opinions.
Education-wise, I suggest to many scientists to take computer programming/language classes (being well versed in R or foreign languages if great to have), make sure to take a few writing classes and to always take the required science and maths!

Question 20: What hobbies do you have? (Don’t have to be science-related.)

MM: I just moved to Australia, so my husband and I love going for hikes around the Sydney area to check out our new home! We’re excited to get a car and go on road trips, too. I’m a runner, love scuba diving, and like to cook as well. During my down time you can always find me reading.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Compsognathus: Beast of the Week

This week we will be looking at a popular, but often misunderstood dinosaur.  Let's check out Compsognathus longipes!

Compsognathus was a relatively small, meat-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Germany, France, and possibly Portugal, during the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago.  From snout to tail, an adult measured about three and a half feet long.  The genus name, Compsognathus, translates to "delicate jaw" and the species name, longipes, translates to "long foot", both in reference to this dinosaur's anatomy.

Compsognathus longipes with Archaeopteryx chick as prey.

The first specimen of Compsognathus discovered back in the mid 1800s was only a little over a foot long, and was considered the smallest known dinosaur.  In addition, there were not many small-ish fossil dinosaurs known yet, either, so Compsognathus became sort of an oxymoron, and therefore quite popular.  It almost always would appear in books about dinosaurs for years to come as "the smallest dinosaur!" often being compared to a chicken in size.  However, during the 1970s, a larger specimen of Compsognathus was unearthed in France that was over three feet long.  Not huge...but certainly bigger than a chicken, proving the original German specimen was only a juvenile when it died.  Thanks to many more dinosaur discoveries since then, Compsognathus was far from the smallest nonavian dinosaur, but for some reason that stigma hasn't fully shaken even today.

Compsognathus that was discovered in Germany.  This specimen was roughly the size of a small chicken, and was for many years regarded as the smallest kind of dinosaur. (not including birds)

One cool thing about Compsognathus is that we know what it was eating before it died.  Both specimens on the fossil record have the bones of lizards in their body cavities, proving this dinosaur was a meat-eater, and likely quite agile if it was catching lizards in life.  The teeth in the front of Compsognathus' mouth were straight and pointed, while the teeth lining the sides of its jaws were more flattened, and blade-like.  This would have enabled it to capture and process small prey.  Compsognathus had two relatively short arms, each equipped with two long fingers and a third shorter finger.  For a while Compsognathus was believed to have only had two fingers because of the incompleteness of the first uncovered specimen.

Thanks to well-preserved specimens of other closely related dinosaurs that preserved down-like feathers on their fossilized bodies, it is logical to assume Compsognathus also had some sort of feathering in life.  This is despite the fact that no fossils of Compsognathus, itself, provide  fossilized feathers, themselves.The kinds of feathers found on members of Compsognathus' family would have been fine and soft in life, and may not have fossilized under the conditions that Compsognathus, itself, was in.

Compsognathus skeletal mount on display at the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

During the late Jurassic, the parts of Europe that Compsognathus was native to were a chains of small islands in a shallow sea.  The islands would have been relatively dry, sandy, but also would have had inland lagoons.  Some of Compsognathus' neighbors would have included all matter of marine life, small lizards, the pterosaurs, Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhyncus, and fellow feathered dinosaur, Archaeopteryx.  Since no remains from any large land animals have been found from this habitat, it is likely these small islands could only support animals under a certain size threshold due to a lower availability of food and space.  It is very likely that Compsognathus was the top predator of its community.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on the facebook page!

References

Chen, P.; Dong, Z.; Zhen, S. (1998). "An exceptionally well-preserved theropod dinosaur from the Yixian Formation of China". Nature. 391 (6663): 147–152.

Seebacher, F. (2001). "A new method to calculate allometric length-mass relationships of dinosaurs". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 21 (1): 51–60.  

Stromer, E., 1934, "Die Zähne des Compsognathus und Bemerkungen über das Gebiss der Theropoda", Zentralblatt für Mineralalogie, Geologie und Paläontologie, Abteilung B, Jahrgang 1934: 74–85

Therrien, F.; Henderson, D.M. (2007). "My theropod is bigger than yours...or not: estimating body size from skull length in theropods". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 27 (1): 108–115.

 Zinke, J. (1998). "Small theropod teeth from the Upper Jurassic coal mine of Guimarota (Portugal)". Palaontologische Zeitschrift. 72: 179–189. doi:10.1007/bf02987825. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Squalicorax: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out a another prehistoric shark.  Lets look at SqualicoraxSqualicorax was a shark that lived in the oceans that once covered North America, Europe, and Northern Africa.  There were four species of Squalicorax sharks, which between all of them, lived between roughly 84 and 68 million years ago.  Growing up to over sixteen feet long from snout to tail, Squalicorax would be considered a large shark, and a top predator in today's oceans. However, Squalicorax would have shared space with a myriad of other enormous marine animals, including giant marine lizard, Tylosaurus, which was possibly its predator.  The name, Squalicorax, translates to "Raven Shark".  I hypothesize this is due to the fact that there is strong fossil evidence of Squalicorax being a scavenger in life, and ravens are also known scavengers in their ecosystems on land.  (Although I cannot for the life of me find anything explaining the etymology on this animal.  If anyone reading this knows better and has a source, please let me know so I can fix it.)  Like all sharks, Squalicorax was a meat-eater.

Two Squalicorax falcatus feast on the remains of a dead juvenile Tylosaurus.

Squalicorax would have looked like a modern Gray Reef Shark, or possibly a Great White Shark, at a glance when alive.  It had a streamlined body, long triangular pectoral fins, and a tall dorsal fin.  However, its teeth were more similar to those of a modern Tiger Shark's, being shallow, finely serrated, and slightly curved to the side.  This means Squalicorax was adapted to cutting and gnawing at its food, an adaptation seen in sharks that frequently scavenge.  This is backed up by the fact that Squalicorax teeth marks have been found in the bones of other animals that would have been too large for it to have hunted.  Even entire Squalicorax teeth have been found embedded in some of these bones.  Fossil animals that this shark scavenged from include turtles, large fish, mosasaurs, and even a duck-billed dinosaur, which had probably died in a riverbed and washed out to sea.  Of course, there is no reason to assume Squalicorax only scavenged and never hunted live prey, too.  Most modern sharks, including all the species Squalicorax shares resemblance with, will hunt or scavenge depending on what food is available to them.

Squalicorax tooth, note how short and wide it is and the serrations.  When the shark bit into something and turned its head from side to side, these teeth would act like a saw to cut pieces of meat into bite-sized chunks.

Sharks, as you may already know, possess a skeleton that is almost entirely made of cartilage.  This soft tissue does not preserve well and hardly ever fossilizes.  Because of this, many prehistoric sharks are only known from teeth and jaws, leading experts to only hypothesize as to what they looked like by comparing their teeth to those of modern sharks.  Not the case with Squalicorax!  A wonderfully preserved fossil from this shark was unearthed in what is now Kansas that includes a fully fossilized head, spine, and pectoral fins!

Wonderfully preserved Squalicorax skeleton on display at the National Musuem in Washington D.C.

That is all for this week!  As always leave comments below!  Special thanks to paleontologist, Nathan VanVranken for his insight during the making of this article and life reconstruction above.

References

David R. Schwimmer, J. D. Stewart and G. Dent Williams. Scavenging by Sharks of the Genus Squalicorax in the Late Cretaceous of North America. PALAIOS Vol. 12, No. 1 (Feb., 1997), pp. 71-83

Monday, December 11, 2017

Miragaia: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out a unique plated dinosaur.  Enter Miragaia longicollumMiragaia was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Portugal during the Late Jurassic Period, about 150 million years ago.  From beak to tail it measured roughly twenty feet based on the skeleton material that has been found.  The genus name is in honor of the village of Miragaia, near where its bones were first uncovered.  However, "Miragaia" also translates to "wonderful Gaia".  Gaia, in Greek mythology, was the titan of the earth, and mother to many of the gods.   The species name, longicollum, translates to "long neck" for reasons that don't need explaining once you see what this dinosaur looks like.

My Miragaia life reconstruction in watercolors.

Long necks are nothing new or unusual for dinosaurs.  Sauropods, being the most famous for having them, as well as many theropods, including lots of living birds!  Miragaia, however, was none of those things.  Miragaia was a stegosaurid, a close relative to the more famous, Stegosaurus.  Among stegosaurids, Miragaia had a noticeably long neck, which consisted of seventeen vertebrae.  Stegosaurids, in general tended to have relatively long-ish necks, consisting of between nine and thirteen vertebrae (depending on the species) possibly to help them access as much low-growing vegetation as possible without having to move their bodies while feeding.  The specific reason why Miragaia's neck was as long as it was is still somewhat of a mystery.  What's even more interesting is the fact that since it lived during the late Jurassic, Miragaia was coexisting with sauropods, which also had extremely long necks.  Perhaps it was evolving to compete with its sauropod neighbors?  Keep in mind, despite being quadropedal, Miragaia was probably able to rear up on its hind legs for short periods of time, perhaps to reach higher vegetation while feeding.  This is because, if it was anything like more completely known stegosaurids, its center of gravity would have been in its hips, making its front end much lighter.  Maybe it's neck allowed it to feed in a space just below the larger sauropods, but beyond other stegosaurids?  We may never know for certain. 

Miragaia is an interesting find because it was not discovered by paleontologists looking for fossils.  Its remains were found on accident by construction workers, while building a road.  Because of this, only the front half of Miragaia's skeleton was found, the back part unknowingly may have been destroyed during the construction. 

Going off the front half, however, there are a number of interesting things to note about this dinosaur other than the  neck.  Part of Miragaia's skull was preserved, including the beak.  Miragaia's beak was relatively small, but flared out slightly on either side, making an almost upside-down heart shape.  This beak was likely ideal for clipping vegetation to be processed by the small teeth farther back in the mouth.

Photograph of most of Miragaia's bones that are on the fossil record.  Photo credit: Dr. Mateus.

Miragaia had bony plates on its back, just like all known stegosaurids.  These plates (at least the ones that were found) were relatively small, and were arranged in pairs, like those of its relative, Kentrosaurus.  The plates may have been for display between members of the species.  They also might have had a roll in temperature regulation or even could have helped with camouflage by obscuring the animal's profile, depending on what kind of environment it was in.  Many living reptiles have similar adaptations today, like spines and sails for those purposes.  Stegosaurids are also known for having spikes, usually, but not limited to the tail.  One fossilized spike was found in association with Miragaia that was hypothesized to have been on the tail in life.  Unfortunately, because the back half of Miragaia was never found, whether or not it had more spikes, like Kentrosaurus, or more plates, like Stegosaurus, is still uncertain.  Because of this, life reconstructions of Miragaia (that include the animal's rear) can vary and still all be considered as accurate as possible.  That being said when I was consulting with paleontologist and stegosaurid expert, Heinrich Mallison, about painting Miragaia, he half-jokingly suggested that if I really wanted my reconstruction to be accurate, I'd paint a dead individual with its back end eaten away by scavengers!

There. Accurate.  And yes, that Torvosaurus totally ate all the tail spikes too.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!

References

Mateus, O.; Maidment, S. C.R.; Christiansen, N. A. (2009). "A new long-necked 'sauropod-mimic' stegosaur and the evolution of the plated dinosaurs". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 276 (1663): 1815–21.

Waskow, Katja; Mateus, Octavio (2017). "Dorsal rib histology of dinosaurs and a crocodylomorph from western Portugal: Skeletochronological implications on age determination and life history traits". Comptes Rendus Palevol.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Magical Dinosaurs: The Gathering

Many know me for my involvement in science and art.  However, in my free time, sometimes I unwind and socialize with the world's best trading card game, Magic: The Gathering.  Magic is a game where two or more players, each representing a special kind of wizard, called a planeswalker, duel, using spells, which are represented on trading cards.  The thing about Magic that I love the most is every player has his or her own deck and cards.  Since there are literally thousands of different cards, decks vary greatly.  Your deck is unique, like you.  Every card in there was hand-picked by you.  (Unless you are one of those who copies the "top tier" decks from the internet.)  A Magic deck is in many ways an extension of its owner, and every game played is a unique and personal experience for players.  I find that beautiful.

So what does this all have to do with paleontology?  Stay with me!  I'll get there!  The most common way to attack your opponent in Magic is to summon creatures to attack him/her for you.  Being a fantasy game, you can expect to see creatures like dragons, elves, goblins, in addition to lots of lesser known, and even some creature types that are unique to the  game.  One thing that always bothered me was the fact that there were so few dinosaurs in magic.  Only two, to be exact.  To add insult to injury, some time later, the two dinosaurs that did exist, were officially changed to be considered "lizards" to help the continuity of the game.  From that point on every so often a creature was released that was clearly based on a dinosaur, but the typing (which is important sometimes in Magic because rules and effects will be based on "creature type") would always be "lizard" or sometimes "beast".

Pygmy Allosaurus was the only dinosaur card in existence for a long time.  The two-fingered hands, curled lip, and arctic habitat only mildly irked me because hey, beggars can't be choosers!  Then it was officially changed to "lizard".  Artwork by Anson Maddocks.

As a paleontology nut who is very much engrossed in evolution and taxonomy, referring to a dinosaur as a lizard was painful.  But it didn't stop me!  I spent weeks and weeks hunting down all the creatures I could find that were based on dinosaurs, despite them officially being classed as lizards or beasts, and finally put together my very own dinosaur deck!

It's clearly a dinosaur given it was made in the nineties (when feathers were still not widely known on dromaeosaurs).  It's even called "raptor"!  Nope.  lizard.  Artwork by Bob Eggleton.
Gonna be honest, this deck was by no means my strongest.  In fact, it lost more games than it won simply because what I wanted it to do was going against what the game wanted to do at the time.  I was focused on the flavor of the deck rather than the effectiveness.  If dinosaur had been an effective type I wouldn't have had to sacrifice and limited myself in the way that I did since Magic does have cards meant for decks where all the creatures are the same type...but that wasn't the case here, despite what the illustrations showed.
I was so convinced this Hystrodon (labeled "beast") was meant to be a stylized nodosaur of some kind.  Looking back maybe it was really supposed to be a giant pengolin...hmm.  I may have been wrong about that one.  Artwork by Anthony S. Waters.

That is until this year.  2017 was the year of the magic set, called Ixalan, taking place on a mysterious tropical island, inhabited by...dinosaurs.  Actual official dinosaurs!  Not only that, but all the lizard and beast cards that were clearly dinosaurs from before, were officially changed to dinosaurs, too!  Nerd Chris was very happy.

"Magic is finally adding dinosaurs officially!  I hope they have feathe- oh...oh wow..."  Artwork by Simon Dominic.

The comeback of dinosaurs in this set of Magic made ripples that extended beyond the Magic community.  Paleontologists and the like caught wind of it too.  Many had things to say on social media about it regarding the design choices of the dinosaurs in this latest set of of Magic because of the feathers.  This is because every single dinosaur you see in this new set of cards has feathers. Ironically, when dinosaur designs are inaccurate due to feathers, it's almost always because of a lack of feathers where they should be, like on dromaeosaurs and tyrannosauroids.  The designers over at Wizards of the Coast, however, went overboard in the opposite direction of going crazy with feathers.  Sauropods, hadrosaurs, even ankylosaurs are adorned with visible, colorful plumage.  The set also includes pterosaurs that are covered in birdlike feathers!  This did not sit well with many.  Comments like "Why can't they just make them realistic?" were common.  One commenter complained that since Magic does living species of animals realistically, there was no excuse to not treat extinct dinosaurs the same way.  (Which I pointed out was totally false.  Magic stylizes the crap out of living species of animals all the time.)

All you pulling the "They do realistic living animals why not extinct ones" card (no pun intended) this is a rhino.  Sit down.

So why didn't Wizards of the Coast simply just stick to science?  To answer this question we need to look into the flavor and story behind the game.  You see, Magic is a franchise that takes place over many universes, or planes, as they call them.  A creature on one card, within the context of the story, might never meet nor have heard of a creature in another card.  This gives the designers freedom from being bound to a specific style or look for years and years.  For instance, a goblin from the Dominarian plane is green-skinned with pointy ears and a big nose, while a goblin from Kamigawan plane would have red skin, with a wide mouth and a bumpy shell on the back.  They're both different versions of the same type of creature.  They just vary depending on where they're from.  Like I said earlier, dinonsaurs had been in Magic before. (they just weren't called dinosaurs)  Those earlier dinosaurs were pretty typical in design for a fantasy franchise.  Scaly...green...and not particularly accurate. 

The developers at Magic knew the official release of the dinosaur type would be a big deal.  They wanted to make the dinosaurs honor our current scientific understanding, but they also had to make these dinosaurs their own.  The plane of Ixalan is not our universe.  None of the dinosaurs featured are named after real genus, like Tyrannosaurus, and Deinonychus.  Instead, Ixalan has dinosaurs like Regisaurus and Ferocidon, to name a few.  So flavor-wise, a real genus of dinosaur wouldn't belong there, anyway.  Design wise, they decided to make it a requirement that all dinosaurs from this set to have bright feathers.  This ensures that when you look at a dinosaur card from Ixalan, you instantly know it is from Ixalan, and not another plane.  Just like you can tell a Dominarian goblin from a Kamigawan one.  This is also nodding at the fact that we now know many real kinds of dinosaurs were feathered, and is in stark contrast to most other fantasy franchises that feature dinosaurs, which take many steps backwards in their design choices, by making them completely scaly.  The folks over at Magic headquarters weren't being ignorant, they knew exactly what they were doing for the sake of the game, but still wanted to let us know they did their science homework by implementing it where they could.  I respect that.

A toothed Pteranodon-ish pterosaur with bird feathers.  And all the science fanboys' heads exploded.  Artwork by Simon Dominic.

Pterosaurs are included, as well, but they are typed as dinosaurs.  Before you start ranting about how "those people don't even know the difference!"  There was actually an article written about exactly this on Magic's official site, by head developer, Mark Rosewater.  What he had to say regarding this is quoted below.

" It was pointed out very early on when we made flying Dinosaurs that labeling them Dinosaurs was scientifically inaccurate.

We had two problems:

  1. Making the flying "Dinosaurs" something other than Dinosaurs hurt the gameplay. Tribal play revolves around the creatures in your deck all being the same creature type, so taking away the creature type limits options for the tribe.
  2. Most people think of things like pterosaurs as dinosaurs. Before the Wikipedia article states that they aren't dinosaurs, it claims "pterosaurs are often referred to in the popular media and by the general public as 'flying dinosaurs.'" This means that if we made them something other than Dinosaurs, we'd get a lot of complaints because the majority of people believe they are Dinosaurs.
So we were in a rough spot. Call them Dinosaurs and we get complaints for being scientifically inaccurate, or don't call them Dinosaurs and we upset an even larger share of the audience and hurt the gameplay. "

The reason why they ultimately decided to type the pterosaurs as "dinosaurs" is the same reason why my old dinosaur deck, which wasn't officially a dinosaur deck, kept losing games.  Having creatures of the same type within one deck, called "tribal", is beneficial.  By splitting pterosaurs off into their own type, it would make both dinosaurs and pterosaurs less playable.  Since, again, this isn't earth and these aren't real dinosaurs, it is passable.  It wasn't a matter of ignorance, it was a difficult call that had to be made for the sake of the game.  I respect that, too.  Plus, some of their flying designs look more like actual flying theropod dinosaurs than a pterosaurs.  Maybe this was done on purpose? 

On top of this some of the designs are actually pretty much spot on, scientifically anyway!  Science fans are quick to complain about Many of the artworks that are clearly stylized and somehow miss the ones that could easily pass for serious paleoart, going off the dinosaurs, alone.

Artist, Jonathan Kuo, knows how to illustrate real dinosaurs.

Also by Jonathan Kuo.  Just take the armor off, maybe dull the colors a bit, and you've got yourself a scientifically accurate Tyrannosaurus!

If you couldn't tell by this point I am totally behind Magic's choice to finally embrace dinosaurs as an official creature type in the game, excessive feathers and all.  I, for one, already have my new and improved, official dinosaur deck ready to go for the next tournament near my home.  What do you think? Was it wise to sacrifice some accuracy for the sake of the game?  Should all the dinosaurs have just been retro-styled with no feathers instead?  Share in the comments below!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Patagotitan: Beast of the Week

Today I will be reviewing a dinosaur that I have wanted to cover as Beast of the Week since last year.  In fact, I have already written a little mini informative blog post about it, as well as my experience attending its unveiling at the American Museum of Natural History in New York last year.  However, because this amazing dinosaur didn't have a name until a few days ago, I had to hold off on doing an official Beast of the Week post on it...until now!  Make way (No, seriously back up. This guy is huge.) for Patagotitan mayorum!

Patagotitan was a massive plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Argentina during the early Cretaceous Period, about 101 million years ago.  It was gigantic, measuring about one hundred twenty two feet long from snout to tail!  The genus name, Patagotitan, translates to "Patagonia titan" in reference to where it was from in Argentina, Patagonia, and the fact that it was freaking huge...because "titan" means big. The species name, mayorum, is in honor of the Mayo family, the people who owned the land on which this dinosaur was found and excavated.

My watercolor painting of a sick Patagotitan in the place where its bones, and the bones of its kin before it (also pictured) will be dug up by humans 101 million years later.

Patagotitan is an amazing dinosaur.  First of all, it was gigantic, definitely one of the largest land animals (let alone dinosaurs) to ever live.  It was a member of the group of sauropod dinosaurs called Titanosauria.  Titanosaurs were sauropods, that unlike many other kinds of long-necked, large-bodied dinosaurs, like the diplodocids or brachiosaurids, survived into the very end of the Mesozoic.  On top of that, the very largest dinosaurs that we currently know, all happen to be titanosaurs, Patagotitan being near the top of even that list.  Even more specific, all of these largest titanosaurs, including Patagotitan, also happen to have lived in what is now Argentina!  Something about that part of the world during the Cretaceous favored extremely large body size in these dinosaurs.  That something is still very much a mystery to paleontologists.  The knee-jerk reaction to answer this question would be that these dinosaurs evolved so large as a defense against predators.  However, even the largest known meat-eating dinosaurs would stop becoming a threat to a healthy sauropod once it reached a certain size, like say.... seventy feet, like Brontosaurus, or a whopping eighty-five feet, like Giraffatitan.  But Patagotitan was one hundred twenty two feet long!  Seems like overkill, but growing to that size would have taken a lot of nutrients and energy.  Natural selection doesn't cause such extreme cases like this to just pop up randomly.  There were reasons. We just haven't discovered them yet!

The front end of Patagotitan and some paleoartist/teacher guy who is probably a model just sayin.  The skeletal mount at the American Museum of Natural History in New York is so large that the head and tail stretch into the two neighboring halls.  The head is modeled after other sauropods, since the skull of Patagotitan was never actually found.

In order to be so large, Patagotitan had some special features about it that prevented it from simply collapsing under its own bulk when alive.  First of all, its bones, despite being so large (the thigh bone is the size of a couch) were hollow inside with lots of air pockets.  This did two things for the animal.  First, it allowed it to be lighter, therefore raising the ceiling of how large it could become without being too heavy to move.  (Birds have the same feature in their bones for lightness too, but they used it to fly, instead of gaining size.  In fact, since birds are also dinosaurs, it is most likely that having hollow bones was originally an ancestral trait for dinosaurs.)  Second, these air chambers were connected in life to its respiratory system, so when the animal was breathing, it was easier for the oxygen to get to where it needed to go throughout its vast body.  Patagotitan's hips were particularly wide, and its legs were also pretty widespread.  This was to help spread out its weight as much as possible when it was standing or walking.  Being that large would have been taxing on an animal, so almost every part of its physiology had to take part in making sure it could support itself. 

The arm and shoulder blade of Patagotitan on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  These are some of the actual bones and have since gone back home, to Argentina.

Another awesome thing about Patagotitan is that it is actually known from several specimens, six to be exact, not just one, which is what we usually get when we find a gigantic dinosaur.  Between these six individuals, paleontologists were able to put together a pretty accurate skeleton of this dinosaur, only leaving about thirty percent of the skeleton still a mystery.  Sadly, the skull was one of these missing parts, but skulls of sauropods rarely preserve because they are very delicate, compared to the rest of the body.  Another detail is that by looking at the geology of the dig site in which they were found, paleontologists found out that these six Patagotitans all died years apart from one another.  So something about that specific area was attracting dying Patagotitans.  Perhaps it was near a river, that dried up from time to time and thirsty dinosaurs would come there looking for water during the dry season and died?  It's a mystery.

Patagotitan's butt.  Note how wide set the back legs are to support its weight in life.

So what's up with that size?  Was Patagotitan the largest dinosaur ever?  Well, that's a little complicated.  The paleontologists who discovered this dinosaur initially thought so.  They measured the height of one of Patagotitan's back vertebra and compared that number to a back vertebra of the dinosaur that was at that time thought to be largest, called ArgentinasaurusPatagotitan turned out to have a taller vertebra, mostly because of a taller neural arch (the crest-like piece of bone that sticks out of the top of the vertebra.  If you run your finger down the center of your back, you can feel your own neural arches.)  Going on those numbers alone, which is all that was really released to the public at the time, it would appear that Patagotitan was the largest of the two.  But there's more to this story, than vertebra, however.

It turns out that despite having a taller vertebra than Argentinasaurus, many of the other bones of Patagontitan's bones that could be matched and compared to Argentinasaurus' were the less massive of the two.  So While the Patagotitan may have been taller in some areas, Argentinasaurus appears to have been more massive.  So it depends on what your definition of size really means.  It's like comparing a giraffe to an elephant.  The giraffe is certainly taller, but the elephant is definitely more massive.  In addition to this, keep in mind that Argentinasaurus is only known from a few bones, and it is very difficult to get an idea of exactly how long its entire body was.  So it is possible that Argentinasaurus was entirely larger in any sense of the word, than Patagotitan

Another thing about size to keep in mind is that none of the Patagotitan specimens were fully grown when they died.  At the same time it is possible that the fossils we have of Argentinasaurus may not have been from the largest individual of its species either...oh the debate goes on!  See what I mean when I say it's complicated?

THAT BEING SAID...At the end of the day it is important to step back and look at this for what it is.  Patagotitan was a really cool, almost completely known dinosaur that was gigantic!  Worrying too much about if it may have been a little larger than the other known gigantic dinosaurs, as if it were some kind of contest, is pointless when there are way more exciting things to take away with the discovery and now publication of Patagotitan!

That is all for this week!  What do you think about Patagotitan?  Feel free to comment below or on the facebook page!

References

Carpenter, Kenneth (2006). "Biggest of the Big: A Critical Re-Evaluation of the Mega-Sauropod Amphicoelias fragillimus Cope, 1878" (PDF). In Foster, John R.; Lucas, Spencer G. Paleontology and Geology of the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation. 36. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin. pp. 131–138.

José L. Carballido; Diego Pol; Alejandro Otero; Ignacio A. Cerda; Leonardo Salgado ; Alberto C. Garrido ; Jahandar Ramezani ; Néstor R. Cúneo ; Javier M. Krause (2017). "A new giant titanosaur sheds light on body mass evolution among sauropod dinosaurs". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 284 (1860): 20171219. doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.1219.

Mazzetta, Gerardo V.; Christiansen, Per; Fariña, Richard A. (2004). "Giants and Bizarres: Body Size of Some Southern South American Cretaceous Dinosaurs" (PDF). Historical Biology. 16 (2-4): 71–83. doi:10.1080/08912960410001715132. Retrieved 2008-01-08.

Ortiz, Edward, and Reuven Blau. “Meet Patagotitan Mayorum, the Biggest Beast in the City.” NY Daily News, 9 Aug. 2017, www.nydailynews.com/news/national/meet-patagotitan-mayorum-biggest-beast-city-article-1.3397477.