Monday, June 18, 2012

Prehistoric Animal of the Week: Paraceratherium

Welcome to the new "Creature of the Week" post! We took a little bit of extra time to decide on the prehistoric animal we were going to review and after some careful consideration, we have our rhinoceros. Let's pump our fists in welcome of Paraceratherium.

Paraceratherium (sp.)
Otherwise known as Indricotherium, this rhinoceros ancestor is one of the largest land mammals known to science. Praceratherium was approximately 5.5 meters (18 ft) tall at the shoulder, 10 meters (33 ft) in length from nose to rear. When the head was raised it would reach a height of about 8 meters (26 ft). Weight estimates are about 20 metric tons (30 short tons). Paraceratherium was by all accounts an herbivore. It lived during the Eocene to the Oligocene from about 37.2 to 23 million years. Paraceratherium was essentially a large hornless over-sized rhinoceros. It had tusk-like upper teeth and forward-pointing lower teeth. The upper incisors pointed down, while the lower incisors jutted outward from their position. Paraceratherium's lips were extremely mobile and probably aided the herbivore with stripping leaves from trees. What can be inferred from Paracertherium is that the animal was a browser that enjoyed leaves, twigs, and possibly shrubbery. Named in 1911 by Forster Cooper, Paraceratherium has a complex taxonomic history with names like Balucatherium and Indricotherium being in reference to this magnificent beast. Paraceratherium lived in Eurasia and Asia and its remains were found originally in Pakistan in 1911. 

Paraceratherium credit Christopher DiPiazza 2012 (c)
That does it for this week. Stayed tuned for next week as we take another look at another prehistoric critter from long ago! If you have a suggestion, e-mail me at: tyrannosaur*at*jplegacy.org.

References
Lucas, S. G. & Sobus, J. C. (1989), The Systematics of Indricotheres. 358-378 in Prothero, D. R. & Schoch, R. M., (eds.) 1989: The Evolution of Perissodactyls, Oxford University Press, New York, New York & Oxford, England, ix-537 - argues that Indricotherium should be included under Paraceratherium

Antoine P.-O., Shah, S.M.I., Cheema, I.U., Crochet, J.-Y., de Franceschi, D., Marivaux, L., Métais, G., Welcomme, J.-L. (2004). New remains of the baluchithere Paraceratherium bugtiense(Pilgrim, 1910) from the Late/latest Oligocene of the Bugti Hills, Balochistan, Pakistan. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences 24: 71–77.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Extinct Animals Are Still Animals!

As someone with a degree in Animal Science, I find it gets a bit irritating when people ask what my involvement in paleontology has to do with my background.  I don't understand why some people think dinosaurs always need to be separated from the rest of the animal kingdom!  Being extinct (for the most part *cough* birds *cough*) doesn't stop them from being animals still.

I find many people tend to view dinosaurs with a different eye than they do for living animals.  Maybe its because no human has ever seen something like a Tyrannosaurus or a Triceratops alive and therefore its much more difficult to imagine them than it is to just go to a zoo and look at rhinos and lions.  Even so, I get the impression that dinosaurs are treated more like mythical monsters.  Granted, many fictional monsters are indeed based off of dinosaurs like Godzilla, for instance.  Its more than likely that many ancient mythical creatures that appear in folklore were inspired by the discovery of dinosaur bones by those civilizations.  Think about it.  Almost every culture including the ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, Mesopotamians, the Aborigines,the Chinese, ancient Greeks, Norse and even Native Americans all have their own sort of large reptilian monster such as a dragon in their stories.  These cultures were separated by great distances and thousands of years yet they all have these monsters in common.

Norse

Chinese
Mesopotamia

I'm not saying these people had no imagination.  But the imagination still needs to be inspired by something.  They were probably finding dinosaur bones.  They just weren't calling them dinosaurs is all.  It is believed that one mythical creature, the griffin (part eagle and part lion), was inspired by Protoceratops bones being discovered by ancient nomads thousands of years ago in central Asia.


"Do we know each other?  You look eerily familiar..."


Regardless if they were the inspiration for mythical monsters or not, dinosaurs were still just animals like any critters alive today.  Yes sure, they probably fought and killed each other from time to time, which makes for great television, but they also probably spent a lot of their time sleeping, eating and having babies.  I say it all the time on my various blog posts but its so important to me that I can't help but continue to bring it up; The best way to understand long extinct animals is to look at animals that are alive today. 

Today
Back in the Jurassic

Think of the natural world as a sort of major league sports team like baseball.  Professional baseball has been played for generations.  If you were to go back in time and watch a baseball game thirty years ago you would see two teams, a pitcher, a batter, outfielders...you get the idea.  Now flash forward to today and watch a game on television.  You will see the same game being played with the same rules but the individual people in each role will of course be different.  Nature works the same way.  Any ecosystem today has animals that each fill a certain niche.  A niche is sort of like a job description for an organism.  All organisms have their own niches in their natural habitats.  Go back in time and you will see dinosaurs had niches very similar, if not identical to those that animals occupy today.


Today
Same scene back in the Jurassic

There are a few academic paths a person can choose when they want to go on to study paleontology.  Many people choose to study geology.  But paleontology is a field of many elements.  Backgrounds like ecology, anatomy and just all around general biology are just as important. 


Works Cited

Mayor, A. (2000). The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-05863-6.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Field Station: Dinosaurs Review and First Impressions

For a long time now it seems all I have been hearing about is this new attraction in Secaucus, NJ called Field Station: Dinosaurs.  Representatives for the company were present at recent Museum events, including the ones I was at in Morristown and Newark and they have even been all over the local news stations hyping up their new park.  Here is a link with their information.  Below is a video about the park as well.



The guy in charge of this whole place is Guy Gsell and the guy from the New Jersey State Museum who seemed to be the one responsible for the dinosaurs and all the scientific bits is Jason Shein.  Now keep in mind that I haven't managed to make the trip over there yet since I work during the weekends and they are only open to schools during the week as of now.  I for sure plan on paying a visit to check this place out as soon as my schedule allows it though.  However, I do want to share my first impressions with you based off of the information I am reading from their website, various articles I have read about them, and their video.

This line is from their website,

"Scientists from the New Jersey State Museum have worked to ensure that the exhibition encompasses the latest theories and discoveries in the fields of paleontology, geology, and environmental studies."

Here is one from Newsday's site,

"Gsell and paleontologist Jason Schein of the New Jersey State Museum traveled to the factory in Zigong, China, where the dinosaurs were made, to ensure their realism, including what their skin should look like and what posture each should have. "We provided a lot of information on where they lived and when they lived," Schein says."

Here is one from the New Jersey State Museum's site,

"The NJSM's paleontologists in the Bureau of Natural History have been working closely with Field Station staff almost from the beginning.  We are providing only the most relevant, up-to-date scientific theories and data to be presented with each animal and throughout the exhibit."

So you may be thinking "Great!  Its fun AND scientifically accurate!"  Literally every article I see about this place they make a very clear and bold point to say that their dinosaurs are scientifically up to date and accurate.

They are not.

I'm looking at photos that have come out of these models and I could literally write a dozen blog posts about the glaring inaccuracies on these robotic dinosaurs. Now you may be saying "Aw come on, Chris.  Its a fun dino-theme park for kids!  don't be such a stiffler!" and under normal circumstances I wouldn't.  I have seen lots of parks with robot dinosaurs or life-size dinosaur models and I don't say a thing because after all, they are for fun and entertainment purposes.  Its not like they were backed up by museums and such.  The problem here is this place was.  They went out of their way to say so in literally every article I have read and every video I have seen as you can see in the quotes above.  The models Jason Schein and Guy "ensured realism for" are very off in the scientific realism department.  I'm not talking about little nitpicky inaccuracies that are up to personal speculation either.  These models have serious anatomical problems like incorrect proportions of limbs, heads and totally misshapen skulls.  I have some photos I found on these sites and I want to go over them with you if you don't believe me.

The first is of a sauropod dinosaur (long-neck type...erm...Littlefoot).  I'm not sure which genus its supposed to be but regardless its wrong.   The biggest problem I see with these guys is the feet.  As you can see on these models the hind feet have four large claws on them all facing straight forward.  The front feet have five claws. 

Sauropods from Field Station: Dinosaurs

 Now check out this photograph of the feet from an actual sauropod skeleton. 


Apatosaurus from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City
We know based on bones and trackways from these dinosaurs that they only had three claws on the hind legs and that these three claws face outwards.  Even worse, the front limbs only had one claw that jutted out towards the animal's middle.  The rest of the foot/hand was devoid of claws all together and would have resembled more of a stump than anything else.  Like I said this is not based on guesswork or speculation.  This is based on hard facts in the form of actual bones and tracks from the animal.

My sketch comparing right and wrong ways to depict sauropod hands.

Next is Dilophosaurus.  You may recognize this animal as the "spitter" from Jurassic Park.  The skull is the wrong shape and the teeth are too numerous and too small. 

Dilophosaurus from Field Station Dinosaurs

Here is a photograph of the real skull from this animal. 

Dilophosaurus from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City

Its clear to see that this is a very distinctive looking dinosaur.  The teeth are quite large and jagged.  One hypothesis is that Dilophosaurus was a fishing dinosaur.  Using those teeth to snare slippery prey by the water's edge.  Regardless as to if this idea is true or not, the model at the Field Station doesn't showcase the way the actual head looks.  You will also notice that the eye socket and the hole before the eye (called antorbital fenestra) are also totally different shapes from the Field Station robot's.

Here is their version of my favorite dinosaur, Triceratops.   If you look closely at the head you can see where they sculpted an ear hole.  The hole in the actual skull where they put this is called the infratemporal finestra and appears in some form on all dinosaur skulls. 



A common mistake while reconstructing ceratopsid dinosaurs is to stick the ear there when in fact this is not correct.  The ear should really be found behind the animals skull.  Its funny because looking at the Field Station's other dinosaur robots they actually put the ears in the right place but with poor triceratops, they messed it up.

My sketch of the right and wrong way to give Triceratops ears.


Here is a link to a page on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's site all about the latest most recent scientific reconstructions of the awesome three-horned dinosaur.  You can see pictures of the actual animal's skull as well as a cool video of how it would have looked based on the most recent studies.

Last is what looks like their Tyrannosaurus.  The thing that bothers me the most about this guy as well as many of their other dinosaur models is the hands.  See how they are facing downwards like a rabbit's or a kangaroo's?  That's the typical posture for so many dinosaur hands in pop culture.  In reality most dinosaurs physically could not strike that pose.

 

The hands on a dinosaur like Tyrannosaurus should be facing inwards towards the middle as if they were clapping.  Check out my sketch I drew below.

This should be the case not only for Tyrannosaurus, but also for all theropods, ornithopods like the duckbills and even the ceratopsids.  If you go to any good museum with dinosaur skeletons, they all have the mounts in this correct posture.  All the credible paleo-artists also depict dinosaurs this way.  Scroll back up and look at the photos of their Dilophosaurus and Triceratops.  You will see that neither of them have the correct hand posture either.  We know dinosaurs carried their hands like this because the bones won't fit together any other way.  Also, if you look at the wing of a chicken (a living dinosaur) you will see that the manus, or hand bone, can't twist.  Its fixed facing inwards. Extinct dinosaurs would have been the same.

Dinosaur arms

So after all of this here is my question: If the Field Station keeps announcing how legit and scientific they are, how come I can pick out all of these problems just simply by glancing at photos from their website alone?  Its not even like these inaccuracies are hard to spot either.  Keep in mind I haven't even been able to visit the park yet and this is just from the photos they have decided to release to the public!  How could Guy Gsel and Jason Shein (a paleontologist) go all the way to China, check out the models and dub them the most accurate, up-to date reconstructions?

Look, I don't have anything personal against these guys.  They clearly love dinosaurs and the fact that they are trying to make a place like they have is cool in my book.  My problem is if they are going to go out of their way literally every time they are interviewed and published to say how scientific they are, they should be able to actually back it up.  All they needed to do was just look at the real fossils and the answers are right there!   

So here is my verdict about Field Station: Dinosaurs based on what I have seen so far:  The models themselves superficially resemble the dinosaurs they are based on but they do not "encompass the latest theories and discoveries in the fields of paleontology" nor do they "provide only the most relevant, up-to-date scientific theories and data to be presented".  If they are going to say all of this about their park, they need to back it up.  They failed to do this. 

Works Cited

"Digital Dinosaur." Triceratops. Web. 01 June 2012. <http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/triceratops/Triceratopsdigital.htm>.

 "Dinosaurs Had Wrists Like Birds." LiveScience.com. Web. 01 June 2012. <http://www.livescience.com/6140-dinosaurs-wrists-birds.html>.

Lockley, M. G. Tracking Dinosaurs: A New Look at an Ancient World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

"This Dinosaur Had a Jersey Attitude." The Record. Web. 01 June 2012. <http://www.northjersey.com/recreation/90722004_This_dinosaur_had_a_Jersey_attitude.html?page=all>.