Thursday, July 13, 2017

That Time I Won a Beer Art Contest Because of Dinosaurs

I won a beer contest because of dinosaurs.  That's a cool sentence I can say now without being a liar.  I'll tell you all about it.  Let's start at the beginning.

I wouldn't call myself a total beer expert, but I have learned to appreciate craft beers for the last several years.  That being said, I must admit the way I usually go about choosing a new beer to try, unless something in the description REALLY catches my eye...is the title.  It a beer has a cool title I am much more likely to try it.  If the bottle or can has cool art on it...I am also more likely to give it a a taste.


That being said, whenever I find beers that have pictures of dinosaurs on the cans or dinosaur-themed names I immediately buy them.  Sometimes they are good.  Sometimes they aren't my thing, taste-wise.  However, I must admit I found my all time favorite beer to date thanks to this ridiculous method.  It all started when my now fiance and I were visiting her family in New Jersey a few years ago.  We decided to stop at her favorite wine and beer store, called Spirits Unlimited, to get a bottle of wine to bring.  Fun history lesson; Spirits Unlimited is sort of famous in New Jersey.  The store used to be a Food Circus store during the 1950s.  To help advertise this they built a thirty-foot clown sign out in the parking lot that is still there today.  The clown's name is Calico, he's sort of famous locally, and he's horrifying.


His nickname is the "Evil Clown" in case you needed an even more obvious reason to be terrified.

So we were in this store hunting for wines and as usual I wander off to look at the craft beers.  On a shelf off to the side, near the cash register, I find a single large bottle of beer from Brooklyn Brewery, called "Quintaceratops".  Since it was dinosaur-themed I bought it, tried it that very night, incidentally fell in love with its dark, rich taste, and it is still my favorite beer to this day.  Sadly it was part of a limited stock and is no longer in production.

You know what else is sad?  The label art for Quintaceratops.  If the guys from Brooklyn Brewery are reading this, I'm sorry, I love you, but I need to be honest here and say the label looks lame. You see, the name, "Quintaceratops" is in reference to the fact that this beer was made using four times the amount of malt than a standard beer + rum = five + dinosaurs are cool =  Quintaceratops is the name.  Naturally, someone who knows a lot of dinosaurs would immediately think of the ceratopsian, Pentaceratops, which also has a reference to the number, five, in its name.  The designers over at Brooklyn Brewery maybe didn't know Pentaceratops existed and instead opted to put an image of a Triceratops with two extra horns growing out of its face...which is fine by me!  That sounds like a cool fantasy dinosaur and would make for some sweet bottle art.  The problem is the fact that the image that appears on the label is simply a little profile of that mythical Triceratops-like dinosaur surrounded by text.  What a missed opportunity!

Pentaceratops is not amused that its more popular relative, Triceatops, got the role it was born to play upon seeing the bottle label.  Awkward.

Fast forward a few years to last month when my fiance and I are living in Philadelphia.  Philly Beer Week, a week in June where bars all over the city hold special events promoting local craft beers, is happening.  I'm on my day off, eating breakfast, when I get a text from my fiance at work telling me about this beer can art contest going on that afternoon nearby.  (Check out how proactive she is and how much of a bum I am by the way.  She is at work and manages figure this out in her break time.  Meanwhile I was getting ready to binge watch NETFLIX or pet our cat, Petrie, for most of the day.)  I decided I had nothing to lose and made my way over to the Garage Bar in Fishtown, Philadelphia, and find out that Brooklyn Brewery is one of the breweries sponsoring the art contest.  One of the judges explains to all the participants that we are to draw and color our own design for an already existing beer from one of the sponsoring breweries.  The second that information hits my brain I think to myself "QUINTACERATOPS SHALL GET THE LABEL ART IT DESERVES."


Immediately I get to work.  The design I chose was of Pentaceratops, the real "five-horned" dinosaur, with the Brooklyn Brewery logo on its frill.  (Fun fact; Pentaceratops actually didn't have any more horns than Triceratops since they both had three on the face and two jugal horns.  I guess jugal horns only count as horns sometimes.  Scientific naming can be weird.)  I tried my best not to get psyched out by the competition since there were definitely some skilled artists participating.  Sometime during the hour and a half I was working I was given a free beer, which was cool.

Early stages of development.

I was able to finish with plenty of time, luckily, and simply waited for the judges to make their choice.  To my delight, my design ended up winning first place.  The judges apparently think dinosaurs are cool, too, and were thrilled to see one incorporated into a design.  Secondly, they were impressed that I chose a beer of theirs that was discontinued, and therefore not very well-known by most people. It was a good day.  Special thanks to Brooklyn Brewery sales representatives, Ben and Chris, for liking my design enough to give it first place.

Finished design before being wrapped onto the can.  I wanted to keep the color scheme of the original bottle label.

I guess the moral of this story is you never know when constantly thinking about dinosaurs is going to lead to a cool experience and a good story.  If anyone from Brooklyn Brewery is reading this and you need more dinosaurs on any can or bottle art, shoot me an email.  I'd be honored to have your beer grace my artwork. 

Sent this photo to my fiance as I walked out, covered in sweet Brooklyn Brewery prize loot.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Smilodon: Beast of the Week

This week, thanks to multiple requests, we will be looking at a really popular prehistoric mammal.  Make way for Smilodon!

Smilodon was a prehistoric cat that lived in many parts of what is now North and South America during the Pleistocene epoch (more casually referred to as the "ice age"), from 2.5 million years ago to as recent as only ten thousand years ago.  There are currently three named species of Smilodon.  The most well-understood is Smilodon fatalis, which is known from literally hundreds of specimens found in California, which measured between five and six feet from snout to rump and a little over three feet tall at the shoulder as adults.  Smilodon populator was the largest, with canine teeth that could measure up to eleven inches long. Smilodon gracilis was from the oldest time, likely a direct ancestor of the other two, but only known from very partial remains so details of its anatomy is mostly unknown other than the fact that its teeth were more slender than those of its later relatives.  The genus name, Smilodon, translates to "Smiling Tooth" in reference to the fact that this cat had HUGE top canines that likely would have stuck out of the mouth at least partially even when the jaws were completely closed.  Assuming its diet was the same as modern cats, Smilodon would have been an obligate carnivore, eating only other animals.  (I hear you cat people out there.  "But, Chris!  My cat at home eats grass and other plants all the time!" Ah, yes.  But what does your kitty do after consuming the grass?  BARF!  In fact, because they cannot digest plant material, cats specifically eat grass to induce vomiting when they don't feel well.)

Smilodon fatalis with cub.  Reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.  Color scheme inspired by modern pumas.  Because of the vast span of places Smilodon remains have been found, it likely was adapted to living in a multitude of different habitats.  Pumas are known to exhibit the same success today, living in mountains, deserts, forests, and even tropical everglades.  That being said, Pumas aren't particularly closely related to Smilodon over any other modern cat.

Smilodon is a very popular and well-loved prehistoric mammal not just in the paleontology community, but also to the general public in general.  It is certainly up there with Woolly Mammoths, and even popular dinosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops.  However, it is only rarely referred to by its actual name in popular media, often called a "saber-toothed....tiger".   (I'm cringing just typing that.) Word to the wise; never EVER refer to Smilodon as a "saber-toothed tiger" in earshot of a paleontologist. If you do forget the proper genus name, it's always safe to refer to it as a "saber-toothed cat" instead.  This is because Smilodon was not a tiger.  In fact, Smilodon and its closest relatives appear to have diverged from modern cats, including tigers very early in cat evolutionary history, about 23 million years ago.  In other words, despite the fact that Smilodon was a cat, there is no species of living cat that we can say is any more closely related to Smilodon than any other.  The subfamily that Smilodon is part of, called machairodontinae, and the subfamily that includes everything from tigers to housecats, called felinae are as distant as they can be within the cat family.  That being said, could Smilodon have even roared?  Think about it.  Only modern cats in the specific genus, panthera, like lions, jaguars, and tigers, can roar.  Every other cat, including Cheetahs, Pumas (mountain lion), and house cats cannot.  It is very possible, since it was so distantly related, that saber cats, like Smilodon, couldn't roar either.  (Sorry if I killed your nostalgia/childhood there.  Just thinking out loud here.)

Smilodon skeleton on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Despite how popular Smilodon is, many people don't actually know that much about it, often assuming it was just another big cat that happened to have long front canines.  In reality, Smilodon had lots of really interesting features about it beyond the teeth. On the skull, aside from the front teeth, it had a particularly robust and almost blunt-looking face to accommodate the roots of those huge front canines.  So reconstructions of Smilodon that look like a just lion or tiger with long fangs are wrong.  Smilodon also had proportionally longer arms than those of other known cats, and a short, almost stubby tail.

Overall, Smilodon had a much stockier build than most cats.  This suggests that it relied on strength over speed to capture prey.  It is very possible that in life, Smilodon would have been an ambush predator, surprising animals that get too close to its hiding spot, then relying on its strong arms to overpower and contain struggling prey.  In fact, looking at the arm bones of Smilodon, it was determined that it would have had the strongest arms of any known cat!  Also remember that like all cats (except Cheetahs) Smilodon was armed with hooked, retractable claws on each limb, which were probably great at latching onto into, and immobilizing prey even further.  If you have ever played with a house cat before, you might be familiar with the behavior they do that involves holding on with their front claws, and rapidly kicking with their back feet.  As cute as this behavior is in house cats (my fiance and I endearingly refer to it as "gripp'n and kick'n"), it is actually a really effective disembowel tactic when dealing with actual prey.  Imagine how much damage a Smilodon could have done, digging its hooked front claws, backed up by those extremely powerful arms, and shredding its prey's insides with its hind claws at the same time!  Check out the video below of my cat, Petrie, who was happy to demonstrate this behavior on my foot for you all.  Thanks, Petrie.  (Don't worry.  My foot is still intact from the incident.)



But what about those amazing teeth?  Smilodon's teeth are actually the subject of much debate.  At first glance it seems like a no-brainer that they were simply an extreme stabbing/biting adaptation.  But it's not that simple.  You see, Smilodon's teeth were actually pretty delicate and prone to breaking if put under too much pressure.  So in life, if a Smilodon was just chomping as hard as it could into anything, it was bound to get hurt.  Remember, mammals don't constantly regenerate teeth like reptile do, either.  So where crocodiles and dinosaurs could afford to be less careful with what they bite, Smilodon can't.  With this in mind, a next logical guess would be that maybe Smilodon's long canines were for sexual display?  Plenty of other animals, living and extinct, have unusually shaped or large body parts, including teeth, for this reason.  The only problem with this hypothesis is the fact that we have literally hundreds of Smilodon specimens on the fossil record, and all of the adults have the same long teeth.  If they were really for sexual display, it is much more likely that they would differ between sexes, likely longer in males than in females.  Because this is not what the data shows us, we are probably safer going back to guessing that Smilodon was using those teeth for something other than looking cool, like dealing with prey, but it probably had to be much more meticulous about how it went about it.  Going back to those unusually powerful front limbs, a strong current hypothesis is that Smilodon used its arms to hold still struggling prey so it could use its canines to carefully stab the perfect spot, likely the jugular vein or the trachea(wind pipe).  The arms would have helped ensure that the teeth weren't damaged by the prey when it was still alive.

Smilodon skeleton on display at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum in Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Smilodon's jaws can open wider than those of any other cat in order to make clearance for the saber teeth.  Despite this, at first glance, even with some clearance, those canines would get in the way if Smilodon tried to bite a piece of food off a carcass with the front of its mouth.  Looking at house cats eat bite-sized kibble can't help us here as a reference.  For a better clue we need to look at cats that have to bite off chunks of food from larger carcasses.  What you will notice is that when eating off large carcasses, cats actually don't use the front of their mouths that often to bite off smaller pieces.  They use the sides of their mouths, armed with large, sharp teeth, called carnassals, to cut meat like scissors.  This may have been how Smilodon got around its massive canines to feed itself, as well.  Check out the clips of exotic cats eating in this video below.  You will notice that most of the time, they are biting with the sides of their jaws to process food.  (at one point in the video they show a random Binturong, which is not a cat, but a civet.  Cute, but not as relevant.)




La Brea, California, is home to tar pits that are tens of thousands of years old, and is where the majority of Smilodon specimens on the fossil record have been found.  During the Pleistocene, animals would occasionally get trapped and die in these tar pits.  While these unfortunate animals were likely giving off distress calls, they would have attracted meat eating-animals to come and eat them, including Smilodon.  Those meat-eaters in turn would get stuck, themselves, and also die, attracting even more meat-eaters and...well you get the idea.  Hundreds of Smilodons have been unearthed out of these tar pits, as well of lots of other kinds of ice age animals, especially predators.  In fact, most of the remains that are found in these tar pits are of meat-eaters because of stuck animals acting as bait.  Even today, animals are still getting stuck and dying in the La Brea tar pits.

Thanks to all these wonderful specimens, paleontologists were able to learn a lot about Smilodon, including how it grew.  Like most mammals, Smilodon had a set of baby teeth, which would later fall out and be replaced by bigger, adult teeth.  The cool thing about Smilodon, however, is that the adult teeth didn't initially cause the baby teeth to fall out.  In fact, when it came to the famous saber canines, there was a period of about a year in a Smilodon's life where the adult canines were growing in next to the baby teeth.  The specimens that show this are extremely rare, even from La Brea, which suggests that juvenile Smilodons at that age probably weren't going out to hunt, and likely were still having food brought to them by parents.

Underside of juvenile Smilodon skulls.  The left one shows the baby canines alongside the growing adult canines.  These skulls were unearthed at the La Brea Tarpits, and are on display at the George C. Page Museum in California.

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


References

Antón, M. (2013). Sabertooth (1st ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Feranec, R. C. (2004). "Isotopic evidence of saber-tooth development, growth rate, and diet from the adult canine of Smilodon fatalis from Rancho La Brea". Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology206 (3–4): 303–310. 

Kurtén, B.; Werdelin, L. (1990). "Relationships between North and South American Smilodon". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology10 (2): 158–169. 

Meachen-Samuels, J. A.; Van Valkenburgh, B. (2010). "Radiographs reveal exceptional forelimb strength in the sabertooth cat, Smilodon fatalis"PLoS ONE5 (7): e11412. 


Mihlbachler, M. C.; Wysocki, M. A.; Feranec, R. S.; Tseng, Z. J.; Bjornsson, C. S. (2015-07-01). "Using a novel absolute ontogenetic age determination technique to calculate the timing of tooth eruption in the saber-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis"PLoS ONE10 (7): e0129847. 

"Vegetarian Cat?" Vegetarian Cat? – Dr. Sophia Yin. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2017.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Safari Ltd Review: Coelophysis

It's always exciting when I get verification that Prehistoric Beast of the Week is getting noticed.  I love hearing from friends and family that they take the time to read what I post.  However, hearing it from strangers, especially in person, whether they come to see me at a museum, or other special event, has a certain surrealism to it.

I recently experienced a third kind of excitement when I was noticed by a major toy company that want's me to help spread the word about their dinosaur products.  Safari Ltd, known for making detailed, hand-painted, educational toys of dinosaurs since 1982, sent me an email, saying they would like to partner up with Prehistoric Beast of the Week, in hopes that I would review some of their models on here.  Of course, I said yes, and a few weeks later I got a big box in the mail from them, containing some of there awesome dinosaur figures.  So without further ado, let's get to know Safari Ltd's version of Coelophysis!

If you aren't already familiar with Coelophysis, it was a relatively small, meat-eating dinosaur that lived during the late Triassic period, about 200 million years ago, in what is now the Western United States, especially New Mexico, where it is the official state fossil.  Adults measure about ten feet long from snout to tail.  The genus name translates to "Hollow Form" in reference to the dinosaur's hollow bones, which was a trait common to lots of dinosaurs, actually.  For more detailed information on this dinosaur, be sure to check out my Beast of the Week post on it from 2015.

Full body shot of Safari Ltd's Coelophysis.  In my opinion, it's the best available toy of this dinosaur.

Safari Ltd's Coelophysis is part of their newest line of dinosaur toys for 2017.  When I first saw they were making Coelophysis for this year I excited for a few reasons.  First of all, Coelophysis is very rarely made into a toy, despite how well-known it is.  In fact, before this, I can think of only three or four other instances when Coelophysis was specifically made into a toy (and none this detailed)  The second reason I was pumped for this figure is because Coelophysis was a dinosaur who's bones I had the privilege of excavating  a few years ago with the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum in New Mexico, so it has a special little place in my heart in that respect.

The proportions are great on this model.  Most of Coelophysis' length is tail and neck, which this toy showcases.  The shape of the head matches almost perfectly with some of the real Coelophysis skulls that have been unearthed.  We know, thanks to many well-preserved, and complete individual specimens of this animal, that Coelophysis skulls likely became longer and more slender as they aged, or maybe even differed depending on sex.  Judging by the long snout and two bony ridges on the top of the face, this model is probably supposed to be of an adult.  The legs are not too skinny, which is great.  Yes, Coelophysis was a slender animal, but it still would have needed muscles to get around!

My cast of a Coelophysis skull.  The Safari Ltd model matches this wonderfully.

I am hard pressed to find anything really wrong with the proportions of this model, actually.  If I were to really nitpick, I'd say the lengths of the fingers are off.  In reality Coelophysis' first finger was shortest, middle finger was longest, and the third finger was in the middle.  This toy has the third finger longer than the first two.  On a good note, they did include the tiny, almost unnoticeable vestigial fourth finger.  In fact I only just noticed that fourth finger now as I'm reviewing it.

Note how the third digit is longer than the first and second.  But check out that vestigial fourth finger!

Another tiny note is the fact that Coelophysis would have held its tail out in the air behind it for balance in life, while this model has the tip of the tail resting on the ground.  HOWEVER I completely understand that in order for a model of a dinosaur made of plastic, and not of muscles and a sense of balance, would need the tail as a third point of contact to the ground in order to stand.  Safari Ltd has made other bipedal dinosaurs that balance just on their feet, but the feet had to be proportionally larger and wider, which would be much more noticeable if they tried to do it on a dinosaur as lightly built as Coelophysis.  I have also seen Safari Ltd and other toy companies put bipedal dinosaurs on a platform stand to get rid of the balance issue, but personally, I kind of hate the stands.  It sort of kills the play value of a toy.

I love the fact that the sculptor decided to add texture of feathers to this model.  This model goes all out with an even coat over most of the body except for the feet, hands, and face.  It even has feathers down the whole length of the tail!  We actually have no direct evidence of feathers on Coelophysis, but we have found feathers in a lot of other theropod fossils, as well as a few non-theropod dinosaurs.  Because of this, we have reason to think that basal theropods, like Coelophysis, may have had some kind of feathering on their bodies, too.  Using relatives that surround a kind of organism on a family tree to infer a feature, in this case feathers, is called phylogenetic bracketing.  Coelophyis may have used feathers in a variety of ways.  Feathers could have helped keep Coelophysis' body temperature regulated, keeping body heat in when then environment was cold, and shielding the animal's skin from the sun, when it was hot out.  Feathers could also help parents keep their eggs warm.  Maybe mom/dad sat with their eggs and kept them warm that way, or perhaps parents plucked their feathers out and used them as nest material?  Feathers also can slightly obscure an animal's profile, making it easier for it to hide in certain environments.  So the next time someone tells you a prehistoric dinosaur wouldn't have needed feathers, you can list at least three reasons why it would!

Texture on the face showcases small scales, which is totally plausible, and looks good.  This model has the teeth from the upper jaw sticking out despite the fact that the mouth is closed.  Whether or not certain dinosaurs had visible teeth when the mouth was closed is the subject of a lot of debate among paleontologists and paleoartists right now.  The look that this model chose to go with regarding this is still plausible as far as I know.


The feet show the same wide-rectangular scales that you see on the toes and tarsals of modern birds, which I think is a great touch.  In modern birds, these scales were found to be made of the same material as veined feathers, and is therefore used against artists who depict these scales on featherless dinosaurs, or dinosaurs with basal feathers.  The only problem with this assumption is the fact that crocodilians have similarly shaped scales on their fingers and toes so the structure is totally capable of popping up from different materials...OR crocodilians have ancestors with veined feathers.  Whichever idea you want to go with those kinds of scales are totally fine on any kind of dinosaur reconstruction, feathers or not, including this sculpt.

This toy showcases wide, rectangular scales on the toes and feet, which is totally plausible for this dinosaur.

The colors of this model are pretty, but still believable.  Most of the body is painted orange.  The ventral parts of most of the body are white.  There is a lateral black stripe that separates the orange and white parts on the neck, torso, and tail.  This part of the color scheme reminds me of a Thomson's Gazelle. There are also perpendicular black bands on the end part of the tail.  The hands and feet are greenish gray and the snout is painted pale blue.  The two ridges on the top of the snout are painted red, as are the thin rings around the eyes.  This splash of red could possibly be intended to show a sort of intraspecies display for Coelophysis.  Of course we have no idea what colors Coelophysis was in real life, but what Safari Ltd has going on here is definitely within the wide realm of possibility.

Overall I think this is currently the best toy form of Coelophysis on the market so far.  It's not very often that you can get an accurate toy of a Triassic creature, so this Coelophysis is a much welcomed addition to Safari Ltd's line.  It can be purchased anywhere Safari Ltd toys are currently sold, the Safari Ltd website, or the Safari Ltd Amazon site.

Special thanks to Safari Ltd for shipping this beautiful little model over to me to review.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Kaprosuchus: Beast of the Week

This week we shall be looking at a totally unique crocodilian.  Enter Kaprosuchus saharicus!

Kaprosuchus was a prehistoric crocodilian, related to today's alligators and crocodiles, that lived in what is now Niger, Africa, during the Cretaceous period, about 95 million years ago.  Sadly it is only known from one skull, and therefore size estimates for its entire snout-to-tail length vary from anywhere between ten to twenty feet depending on who you ask.  I suppose it depends on how proportionally this beast's head was.  When alive, Kaprosuchus almost certainly ate meat, judging by its teeth, which were enormous and sharp.  Four of these teeth that grew from the lower jaw were so long, in fact, that when Kaprosuchus' mouth was closed, would have stuck out above the top of the snout.  This is how Kaprosuchus earned its genus name, which translates to "boar crocodile" because of the tusk-like appearance of these teeth. 

Life reconstruction of a Kaprosuchus with her nest, by Christopher DiPiazza.  Sadly no fossil eggs or nests from this creature have been found yet.

Kaprosuchus became very popular in the grand scheme of things after it was discovered and published.  A few toy companies made figures of it, it was featured on an episode of the BBC show, Primeval, it even appeared in several electronic games, including the latest Jurassic World game.  When a new fossil creature is discovered, this rarely happens.  It is hard to carve out a niche in popular culture next to Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and VelociraptorKaprosuchus was able to do this because it just looks so different.  Not only that but its unique look is also intimidating.  This crocodile has four pairs of super long teeth that extend beyond the snout when the mouth was closed!  How could you not showcase that? 

But what were the teeth actually for?  What is interesting is that Kaprosuchus' teeth were actually pretty different from those of other crocodilians not just in length, but in structure, too.  Kaprosuchus' teeth, especially the longest ones had an edge to them, like blades.  This means that they would have been better at cutting meat, rather than grabbing and holding onto prey, like the teeth are in most of its relatives, which are more cone-shaped, with a round cross-section.  At the same time, however, Kaprosuchus'skull still shows us that it still could have delivered a devastating bite, since the bones surrounding the nostril hole were fused together, forming a structure that could handle pressure better. Kaprosuchus' jaws show us that it could have opened its mouth extremely wide in life, even ensuring that those long teeth totally clear each other, to not get in the way when biting things.  In addition to weapons, I have to wonder if the extremely long teeth on this beast could also have been used for display within the species.  Sadly we only have one skull so far, but I can't help but wonder if the teeth were different sizes in males and females.  Modern male crocodilians are typically larger than the females.  Perhaps Kaprosuchus was similar in a way?  We may never know. 

Kaprosuchus skull.  Note how four (almost five) pairs of teeth extend past the snout when the jaws are closed.  Photo by Carol Abraczinskas originally used for Sereno PC, Larsson HCE (2009)


Kaprosuchus also had eye sockets that were close together, but faced more forward and outward than what we see in modern crocodilians, who's eye sockets face above the skull, so the animal can see while mostly submerged in water.  This has led many to speculate that Kaprosuchus spend more time on land than what we typically see in other crocodilians from that time.  However, the eyes were at about the same level, if not a bit higher than where the nostrils were.  Also, the nostril hole does face upward, like in aquatic crocodilians.  I have heard some who defend the terrestrial hypothesis say that this was an adaptation that left the front of the snout solid to be used as a ramming weapon, but again, modern crocodilians ram too while still being mostly aquatic.  Kaprosuchus may have spent more time out of the water than say a modern alligator or crocodile, but personally, I am not completely sold on the fully terrestrial idea for this animal.  Maybe one day if someone discovers the body of this beast, the placement and length of the legs will tell us more clues as to how it lived!

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

References

Sereno, Paul; Larsson, Hans; Larsson, Paul Sereno, Hans (2009). "Cretaceous Crocodyliforms from the Sahara". ZooKeys. 28: 1–143.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Postosuchus: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out a beast that shows us that evolution is capable of truly amazing things and how deceiving looks can really be.  This creature also helps teach us it's okay to change our perceptions as we learn new things, especially in science.  Enter Postosuchus kirkpatricki!

Postosuchus was a pseudosuchian archosaur, more closely related to crocodilians than to dinosaurs, that lived in what is now the Southern United States, specifically New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and as far east as North Carolina, during the Triassic Period, between 221 and 203 million years ago.  It was one of the largest animals in its environment, with adults measuring between thirteen and fifteen feet long from snout to tail, and ate meat, probably hunting many of the other Triassic animals from the area, including fellow pseudosuchians, Shuvosaurus and Desmatosuchus, and the dinosaur, Coelophysis.  The genus name, Postosuchus, translates to "Post Crocodile", in reference to Post Town, Texas, where the first Postosuchus bones were unearthed.  The species name is in honor of the Kirkpatrrick family, who helped in Postosuchus' excavation.

Postosuchus life reconstruction in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza.
 
Postosuchus has gone through a few makeovers over the years since it was discovered.  Because the first group of specimens' bones were not always found articulated, and often times among those of other species, early Postosuchus skeletal reconstructions accidentally were partially made of bones from other kinds of animals.  An example of this would be a the pelvis, hand, and toe bones, which would later be found to have really belonged to Shuvosaurus.  Because of this, Postosuchus was often depicted as being able to walk on four or two legs when alive.  However, we now know that it was much more likely to have been an obligate biped, only able to walk on its hind legs, like most theropod dinosaurs. This is thanks to more complete remains of Postosuchus found more recently, proving that the arms and hands were actually much smaller than previously thought, and were incapable of supporting its weight even if they could reach the ground.  The pelvis was much larger than originally thought, too, meaning the animal's center of gravity was over the hips.

Postosuchus brass skeletal mount on display at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum in Tucumcari, New Mexico.  This mount is actually outdated.  Parts of the pelvis actually belong to Shuvosaurus, and the four-legged stance is improbable.  The vertebrae, especially behind the skull, would have much shallower neural arches in reality.

Postosuchus' skull was tall overall, but narrow laterally in the front, gradually getting wider towards the back.  It had prominent ridges over the eyes, forming an overhanging shelf, perhaps to help block out sun glare in life.  The eye sockets were relatively large, and partially faced forwards, suggesting Postoscuchus may have relied on its sense of site to hunt.  Due to large hollow areas connected to the nostrils, it likely also had a good sense of smell in life.  Postosuchus' jaws were lined with relatively long, pointed teeth that were serrated, for better cutting meat.  Some of the teeth were much longer than the others in certain parts of the jaws, like the tip of the lower jaw, and the mid-section of the upper jaw.  This would have made Postosuchus' mouth act like a deadly trap if it were to bite into a still-living/struggling animal.

Brass cast of Postosuchus skull at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum.  Note how the longest teeth are in the middle of the upper jaw, and the front of the lower jaw.

Osteoderms have also been discovered with Postosuchus.  Osteoderms are pieces of bone that grow under the skin of an animal.  Modern crocodilians are most famous for having osteoderms, which they use as armor, as well as for built-in solar panels, to better absorb heat from the sun.  The osteodersm associated with Postosuchus appear to have been growing in two rows down the back.  It is still uncertain as to what their purpose was.

Photographs of Postosuchus foot bones from Karin Peyer's 2008 paper, describing the specimen found in North Carolina.  Note how Postosuchus would have walked on four toes on the ground.  This is different from what you'd see in MOST theropods.  (Therizinosaurs walk on four toes.)

Within pseudosuchia, Postosuchus belongs to the family called rauisuchidae.  Rauisuchians all exhibited fully erect posture, and typically had large heads with sharp teeth.  Not surprisingly, they are often mistaken for meat-eating dinosaurs.  They even possessed hollow bones, a trait normally associated with dinosaurs.  However, Postosuchus, like all pseudosuchians, shows some key differences from dinosaurs that give it away as more closely related to crocodilians.  It's ankles are the biggest giveaway because they could rotate, like those of modern crocodilians, rather than the more rigid, one-way bending ankles all dinosaurs have.  It also would have walked with it's first four digits touching the ground and its outermost fifth digit, which was much shorter, out to the side.  Postosuchus was another amazing example of convergent evolution.  In this case, it evolved the same body design you would see in large meat-eating dinosaurs like Megalosaurus or Allosaurus...before large, meat-eating dinosaurs even evolved!

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

References

Chatterjee, Sankar (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.

Long, Robert A.; Murry, Phillip. A. (1995). "Late Triassic (Carnian and Norian) tetrapods from the southwestern United States". New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Bulletin. 4: 1–254.

Nesbitt, Sterling J.; Norrell, Mark A. (2006). "Extreme convergence in the body plans of an early Suchian (Archosauria) and Ornithomimid Dinosaurs (Theropoda)"Proceedings of the Royal Society B273 (1590): 1045–1048.

Novak, Stephanie E. (2004). A new specimen of Postosuchus from the Late Triassic Coelophysis Quarry, siltstone member, Chinle Formation, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico (M.Sc. thesis). University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Peyer, Karin; Carter, Joseph G.; Sues, Hans-Dieter; Novak, Stephanie E.; Olsen, Paul E. (2008). "A new Suchian Archosaur from the Upper Triassic of North Carolina". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 28 (2): 363–381.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Zalmoxes: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out an unusual ornithopod.  Check out Zalmoxes!

Zalmoxes was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Romania, during the Late Cretaceous, between 70 and 66 million years ago.  There are currently two named species, Zalmoxes robustus and Zalmoxes shqiperorumZ. shqiporum is deemed the "larger" species at about eight feet long from beak to tail, but Z. robustus's largest known individuals, at about six feet long, were determined to be sub-adults, so it is likely Z. robustus could have grown more than what the fossil record shows.  The genus name is in reference to Zalmoxis, a character from ancient Dacian (province in Romania) folklore.

Zalmoxes robustus life reconstruction in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza.

Zalmoxes is considered an ornithopod dinosaur, and is currently thought to be within the iguanodontid clade on the dinosaur family tree.  This would make it a close relative of the more famous, Iguanodon, as well as Mantellisaurus, and Tenontosaurus.  However, within iguanodontidae, Zalmoxes is part of the more specific family, called rhabdontidae.  Rhabdontids were generally smaller, but robust, bipedal dinosaurs.  Despite that they are currently considered most related to iguanodontids, they have also been compared to the even smaller, and more lightly-built hypsilophodontids.

Possibly the most striking feature about Zalmoxes is its skull, which is large when compared to its overall body size.  At the tip of Zalmoxe's triangular-shaped skull, it had a short beak, that would have helped it clip vegetation.  This food would later be processed by its small teeth in the back, which were backed up by a very deep lower jaw.  This deep jaw, paired with the high ridge on the back of the skull, suggests there were large muscles attached in life, and therefore Zalmoxes would have had a very powerful bite.  Perhaps it specialized in eating a certain variety of tough plant?

Zalmoxes shqiporum skeletal mount on display in Brussels. By MWAK - Own work, Public Domain,  Note the high section on the top of the rear of the skull where muscles would have connected to the lower jaw. 

The part of the world that Zalmoxes was found in was an island during the late Cretaceous.  Some scientists have suggested Zalmoxes' smaller size, when compared to other ornithopods of its time is a result of island dwarfism.  Island dwarfism is one of several phenomenons that have been observed when animals from the mainland end up genetically isolated from the rest of their original population on an island.  Over time, this new, smaller population, can evolve smaller bodies to better adapt to their new environment.  Note that Zalmoxes lived at the very end of the Cretaceous, right be fore the mass extinction that wiped all of the dinosaurs (except birds) while the majority of other known iguanodontids flourished during the early Cretaceous.  By Zalmoxes' time, the duck-billed hadrosaurs had taken the niches iguanodontids once held.  Zalmoxes being separated from the rest of the world on an island may have been its saving grace in that it didn't have to compete with the same newer forms of dinosaurs its ancestors on the mainland did, and thus was able to persist up until the end of the Mesozoic.

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

References

Ősi, A.; Prondvai, E.; Butler, R.; Weishampel, D. B. (2012). Evans, Alistair Robert, ed. "Phylogeny, Histology and Inferred Body Size Evolution in a New Rhabdodontid Dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Hungary". PLoS ONE. 7 (9): e44318.

Weishampel, D.B.; Jianu, C.-M.; Csiki, Z.; Norman, D.B. "Osteology and phylogeny of Zalmoxes (n. g.), an unusual euornithopod dinosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of Romania" (PDF). Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. 1 (2): 65_123.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Interview with Paleontologist: Daniel Barta

Daniel Barta is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Biology at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History. He grew up in Helena, Montana, and hold Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Earth Sciences from Montana State University. Broadly, He us interested in vertebrate reproduction, growth, and development. His research integrates fieldwork with phylogenetic, histological, and taphonomic techniques to better understand the evolution of ontogenetic trajectories, eggs, and nesting strategies of extinct animals and their living relatives. Fieldwork in the western United States, China, and Mongolia shapes my interests in the faunal evolution and biostratigraphy of the Cretaceous of Asia and North America. Currently he focuses on the post-hatching growth and development of basal theropod and ornithischian dinosaurs. The exceptional sample sizes available at the American Museum of Natural History can provide important insight into dinosaur growth rates and anatomical transformations during development, thereby establishing an essential context for understanding both individual morphological variation and the evolution of the extreme growth and metabolic rates achieved by dinosaurs’ bird descendants. He is passionate about sharing through outreach the thrill of the scientific process and our evolutionary history that it reveals.



Question 1: Let’s start from the beginning.  What was your earliest sign of interest in paleontology that you can remember?

DB: I’m from Helena, Montana, and my earliest sign of interest came from a family visit to Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, when I was about four years old.

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?

DB: My family members, especially my parents, greatly encouraged my interest in the natural world and in paleontology specifically. I still look up to them, and also to so many of my mentors and colleagues who have made great contributions to the natural sciences—there truly are too many to list here!

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?

DB: I’ll highlight three experiences chronologically. The earliest was a “job shadow” experience in sixth grade, when I got to work alongside Jamie Jette, a fossil preparator at the Museum of the Rockies, and learned more about what working with fossils is actually like as a career. This helped solidify my decision to attend Montana State University for my undergraduate studies. The second was my undergraduate research experience in China with Dr. Dave Varricchio of MSU, who later became my master’s thesis advisor. And the third would be a collections visit to the American Museum of Natural History during my master’s research with Dave that introduced me to my current Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Mark Norell, for the first time.

Question 5: You do a lot of work with dinosaur eggs, particularly birdlike theropod eggs.  Did you have a prior interest in this branch of paleontology prior to starting your career? Did it choose you?

DB: It was a little of both. Growing up, I’d always been interested in dinosaur eggs and parental care from reading books and news stories about both Montana’s Egg Mountain locality and the discoveries in the Gobi Desert by AMNH and other expeditions. I thought that they were both just really interesting scientific stories. However, my desire to devote much of my studies so far to dinosaur eggs really grew out of the undergraduate research that I mentioned earlier. I found that there’s a lot of work still to be done to understand the evolution of eggshell microstructure and what fossil egg assemblages can tell us about the biology of the animals that laid them.

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

DB: This is really hard to pick, as I’ve enjoyed all the projects that I’ve been involved with, but I’ll highlight two projects here. I’m really proud of the paper in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica that I co-authored with Dave Varricchio on some Mongolian Cretaceous bird eggs that we named Styloolithus sabathi. It’s not every day that you get to help describe a new type of fossil egg, and I think the paper stands as a nice tribute to the late Karol Sabath of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who made key contributions to the study of fossil eggs. The specimens in our study help to reveal the very non-avian dinosaur-like reproductive mode of early birds, and may also hold implications for why these early birds went extinct along with the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous.

My other favorite project is one of my dissertation chapters that I just recently submitted for review, and though I can’t say too much about it here, it involves anatomical study of the hands and wrists of early dinosaurs. I also recently worked on a couple of egg-citing projects related to dinosaur eggshell, but again, you’ll have to wait for the papers to hear more about those!

Question 7: Where have you travelled for your career?  Do you have a favorite destination when it comes to fossils?  Why?

DB: I’ve been really fortunate to travel a lot for my career. I’ve done fieldwork in Montana, China, and Mongolia, and collections visits and conferences have taken me to Europe, Asia, and South America. Mongolia is my favorite fieldwork destination. The quality of preservation and abundance of fossils there really can’t be beat, and we have some wonderful Mongolian colleagues who are incredibly fun to work with.



Question 9: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work?  How do you handle it?

DB: The criticism of my work that I've faced has, without exception, helped to sharpen my thinking and improve the final manuscripts. I’ve been really lucky in my short career not to have encountered anything directed at me that I would consider unfair or mean-spirited. I think it’s really important for everyone in science to work to ensure a collegial academic environment.

Question 10: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum, I know) were just two of the programs I remember as a kid that helped fuel my obsession with paleontology.  Did you have favorite shows, movies, or even toys growing up that fueled your passion?

DB: Those were two important ones for me as well! I also discovered many of the older dinosaur movies, like "The Land that Time Forgot,” pretty early on and still have a real fondness for those. Another thing that helped spark my initial interest was a blue Brontosaurus toy that my parents bought for me when I was about four (around the same time as my first visit to a museum).

Question 11: One of my pet peeves is when people assume paleontology doesn’t really do any real good in the grand scheme of things and is just a “for fun” science.  Do you think paleontology has a bigger part to than this?  How?

DB: Paleontology provides us with our only direct record of past biodiversity. Many people say that the current biodiversity crisis represents a sixth mass extinction, and we wouldn’t have any context for understanding what a “mass extinction” is without studying fossils. We would know very little about our modern world and even less about how to predict its future without studying past environments and the life that inhabited them.

Question 12: Who was the first paleontologist you met?  How was that interaction?

DB: The first paleontologist I met was Dr. Jack Horner. I attended a talk that he gave at an elementary school in Helena, and I later got to interview him during my sixth grade “job shadow” experience that I mentioned. Both were tremendously inspiring experiences for me as a young student.



Question 13: Why do you think prehistoric animals are so influential to us today?

DB: Prehistoric animals are ambassadors from a succession of alien worlds ( our own Earth at different points in its past), and as such, are both tantalizingly familiar and startlingly strange. I think they provide one of the most accessible “hooks” for people of all ages to learn about the scientific process.

Question 15: What is your favorite prehistoric animal?  Was it different when you were younger?

DB: My favorite prehistoric animals now tend to be whichever ones I’ve studied scientifically, so currently the early carnivorous dinosaur Coelophysis bauri is one of my favorites. Like a lot of people, I was enamored with Tyrannosaurus rex when I was younger, and still am.

Coelophysis

Question 16: If you could use a time machine to go back and pick only one prehistoric animal to bring back from history and observe alive and in person, which would it be and why?

 DB: I think any of the whole range of extinct reptiles, mammals, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates for which we have no obvious modern analogues would be fascinating to observe, as a time machine might be the only way that we would ever be able to answer basic questions about their structures, functions, and behaviors. Among dinosaurs, I would of course love to answer my questions about Coelophysis growth in real time.

Question 17: Back to the time machine.  This time you can go back to any place and time period and have a look at what the environment was really like.  Which one would you pick and why?

DB: I would pick any time and place during the Triassic Period. One could examine not only the ecologies of the range of bizarre, extinct reptile groups, but also see how the components of the “modern” fauna were becoming established.

Question 18: Which is your favorite museum?  Why?

DB: Based on my answers above, this will probably not come as a surprise: my two favorite museums are the American Museum of Natural History and Museum of the Rockies, as they’ve both contributed immensely to the development of my ideas and interests, setting the direction of my professional life.

Question 19: What hobbies do you have?  (Don’t have to be paleo-related.)


DB: I enjoy hiking, bird-watching, spending time with family and friends, and learning about history, music, and the visual arts.