Sunday, July 27, 2014

Changyuraptor: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Earlier this month, a newly discovered genus of dinosaur was discovered with long, beautifully preserved feathers.  Check out Changyuraptor yangiChangyuraptor was a meat-eating dinosaur, related to Velociraptor and Deinonychus, that lived during the Early Cretaceous period, 125 million years ago, in what is now China.  It measured about four feet long from snout to tail, roughly the same size as a large hawk. (Remember, about half of that length is tail.)  The genus, Changyuraptor, translates to "long feathered hunter" because some of the tail feathers from this animal were a foot in length, longest discovered of any non-avian dinosaur.

A gliding Changyuraptor drops in on a sleeping Microraptor.  Reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.
Changyuraptor is fascinating not only because it was found with feathers intact, but because of the fact that it also had long primary feathers on its legs!  In a sense this dinosaur had "four wings" and may have used them all to help it glide or parachute down from trees.  Changyuraptor wasn't the first dinosaur to be discovered with hind wings, however.  The first was the closely related, and much smaller, Microraptor.  The lesser related, and older, Anchiornis also had long feathers on its legs and feet.

Fossil of Changyuraptor yangi.  Check out those feathers! 

Despite its appearance, Changyuraptor probably couldn't fly.  It's arms and torso just don't appear to be designed for it.  It can, however, help scientists figure out the origins of flight in modern birds.  It is possible that dinosaurs like Changyuraptor may represent an evolutionary offshoot in the family tree near the dinosaurs that would eventually give rise to the flying birds we see around us today.  Maybe four wings was overkill?

Am I the only one who realized that comedian, Demetri Martin actually thought up of four-winged dinosaurs completely independently of their actual scientific discoveries?  In one of his famous stand up routines he invents an animal called a "double hawk" that had four wings coincidentally in a very similar (if not sort of crudely drawn) arrangement as that of dinosaurs like Changyuraptor!

Illustration of the double hawk by Demetri Martin.  Possible example of convergent evolution?

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


Gang Han, Luis M. Chiappe, Shu-An Ji, Michael Habib, Alan H. Turner, Anusuya Chinsamy, Xueling Liu & Lizhuo Han (15 July 2014). "A new raptorial dinosaur with exceptionally long feathering provides insights into dromaeosaurid flight performance". Nature Communications. 5, Article number: 4382. doi:10.1038/ncomms5382.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Saltasaurus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Enter Saltasaurus loricatusSaltasaurus was a sauropod dinosaur that lived in what is now Argentina, during the late Cretaceous period, between 70 and 66 million years ago.  It was small for a sauropod, measuring about forty feet from snout to tail.  Its genus name translates to "Salta lizard/reptile" in reference to Salta, a city near where it was discovered. 

Saltasaurus loricatus reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Saltasaurus is a pretty well studied sauropod.  There are many bones of it on the fossil record, but its real claim to fame was its skin.  Paleontologists found out, thanks to some beautifully preserved fossil remains, that Saltasaurus would have actually had small nodules of bone embedded in its skin.  We see these same sort of structures, called osteoderms, in modern crocodilians and other kinds of dinosaurs, most notably the ankylosauroids.  Never before had sauropods ever been known to have had armor!  It was always assumed that sauropods could get by with just their size, and perhaps tails as weapons.  It is is theorized that Saltasaurus had this dermal bone armor to help protect itself from predators since it indeed wasn't as large as some of its relatives.

Saltosaurus osteoderm fossil.

Saltasaurus belonged to a group of sauropods called the titanosaurs.  Since the discovery of Saltasaurus, other titanosaurs are commonly reconstructed with osteoderms too.  Like all sauropods, Saltasaurus would have stripped leaves off of branches with its teeth, which were only in the front of its mouth.  Titanosaur teeth were long and rod-shaped.  It also had a rather wide, barrel-shaped body, which probably was used for breaking down and fermenting all that tough plant material it was eating all the time.  Since its teeth weren't designed for chewing, Saltasaurus would have swallowed all its food whole and allowed its huge stomach chamber to do all the digesting for it, which would have required a lot of space and energy.  Just think of modern cattle and how big their stomachs are. (four chambers!)  There is a solid chance that sauropods like Saltasaurus also would have been very gassy animals because of this.  (teehee farts!)

Saltasaurus eggs have also been discovered.  They were almost perfectly round and only measured about five inches long in diameter.  Even more interesting, many clutches of these eggs have been discovered all nearby each other and even on top of each other year after year.  This suggests that like many modern reptiles, like certain turtles and birds, mother titanosaurs like Saltasaurus would have laid eggs at the same time in the same place each season.

Saltosaurus egg on display at the Museum of Ancient life in Utah, USA.

Saltasaurus, as well as titanosaurs as a whole, are important to paleontology because they proved that sauropod dinosaurs persisted successfully up until the very end of the Mesozoic era, 65 million years ago.  Prior to their discovery, it was believed that most sauropods died out at the end of the Jurassic period and were replaced by other plant eaters like the hadrosaurs and ceratopsians.  We now know that this is only true for the northern hemisphere.  In what is now South America, Africa, and Australia, sauropods were still the reigning plant eaters of their time!

That is all for this week!  As always please comment below or on our facebook page.  Have a request?  Let me know!


Coria, R.A. and Chiappe, L.M. 2007.Embryonic Skin From Late Cretaceous Sauropods (Dinosauria) of Auca Mahuevo, Patgonia, Argentina. Journal of Paleontology v81(6):1528-1532 doi:10.1666/05-150.1

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Field Work in New Mexico 2014

Greetings everyone!  It is time again to recap how Gary and I's time went last week doing field work in the badlands of New Mexico. 

Sadly I can't give you detailed descriptions on everything we were able to dig up, nor can I post photos of prepped fossils that have not been published.  (I wish I could there are so many exciting new things over at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum!) I can, however show you bits and pieces of our experiences over there that might give you a feel of what it was like.

First things first lets look at the nature of the place.  As you know my background is heavily engrossed in biology, specifically the animal sciences, so whenever I visit a new ecosystem I am extra attentive to the creatures I can find around me.  Last year I saw two kinds of lizards.  This year I found another kind that I instantly recognized, a beautiful Collard Lizard!

Collard Lizard, Crotaphytus collaris, I managed to photograph in the field.

Collard Lizards get their name because of the black coloration that forms a ring around their necks.  Despite the fact that I didn't see any last year, they were the most common lizard I saw this year.  At the dig site I could Identify at least two individuals (a male and a female) who would appear nearby at least once per day.  The site must have become their territory sometime within the last year.

I also managed to see a few Whiptail Lizards.  These guys have beautiful spotted patterns on their skin, and possess an extremely long tail.  (Which is how they got their name.)

One of the several Whitpails we also saw out there.  This one was eating a caterpillar.

On one of the last days there I found a solifugae!  (Not a dead one like last year) The little arachnid was running across the motel carpet!  Despite the alien (even creepy) appearance of this animal, I made sure to gently let her go on her way outside.  Arachnids are not generally harmful to humans and play an important role in hunting other small invertebrates. (cockroaches and mosquitos for instance)

Solifugae I found in our motel room.  They can grow a LOT bigger than this.

 Speaking of cool invertebrates eating other invertebrates, we saw many beautiful dragonflies while in the field.  They would cruise around over the site in large groups, no doubt hunting the mosquitos and gnats that were pestering us.  Thanks, guys!

This striking orange individual favored our truck's antenna as a perch.

 Once we actually started digging it wasn't long before fossils started turning up.  I was privileged enough to get the opportunity to help excavate a juvenile Typothorax armor plate.  We have found many plates from these amazing reptiles before, some over a foot wide!  This one, however was the same shape as one of the larger ones (so we know its not just from another part of the body on an adult) just tiny.  Video!

Gary made a pretty rare find while he was removing rocks from the site, a freshwater clam!  Remember, this site used to be the bottom of a lake 200 million years ago.  We find plenty of Redondasaurus, Typothorax, Shuvosauroids, and Coelophysis, LOTS of fish, but not too often do we actually find mollusks.  We almost mistook the clam as just another rock at first!  Video!

Overall it was a pretty successful week!  Gary came up with the idea that anyone working paleo out in the field should take "field selfies".  Lets do this!

Gary Vecchiarelli
Our friend Donny, who is an intern at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum, and currently working on phytosaur research!
Christopher DiPiazza (me)
Even paleontologist, Tony Martin, got in on the action from Montana!

That's all for this week!  Be sure to check out our facebook page for even more photos from the trip!  I have a few more videos I may put up there, as well! 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Geisonoceras: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we will be checking out an invertebrate which leaves behind some of the most beautiful fossils ever!  Enter Geisonoceras!

Life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Geisonoceras was a cephalopod mollusk, related to modern octopus, squid, cuddlefish, nautolus, and the now extinct, yet highly successful ammonites.  Like them it would have possessed a soft, muscular body with tentacles and a sharp beak, as well as a hard outer shell.  It was most likely a predator, hunting trilobites and other arthropod prey.  Geisonoceras is a genus that contained many species which spanned over much of the world's oceans in a broad time long before the first dinosaurs, from roughly 460 to 390 million years ago.  This ranged across two two periods in prehistoric times called the Ordovician and Devonian.  The shells of this amazing mollusk range in size from a few inches to several feet long.  The name Geisonoceras translates to "Geison Horn".  A geison is a long architectural structure seen on ancient Greek buldings.  Geisonoceras possessed a long, slender, horn-shaped shell so the name fits! 

A rather large Geisonoceras fossilized shell on display at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum in New Mexico.  If you look closely you can see that the stand for this fossil also contains smaller specimens within it!

The shell of Geisonoceras was long and pointed, and would have grown with it from birth.  However, the animal only lives in the first few chambers of the shell, as it is divided into walled sections that become more numerous, making the shell longer as the animal ages.  The shell also contained a hollow tube that spanned its length called a siphuncle.  This structure could be filled with water to control the overall density of the animal, allowing it to control its longitudinal movement in the water. 

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!  Stay tuned for more coverage of Gary and I's trip to New Mexico for Triassic field work!


Walter A Sweet, 1964. Nautiloidea -Orthocerida, Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology Part K, Endoceratoidea, Actinoceratoidea, Nautiloidea. Geological Society of America and Univ Kansas Press. Teichert and Moore (Eds)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Typothorax: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Greetings from New Mexico!  This week we shall be checking out an animal that Gary and I actually work with and dig up in the field.  Introducing Typothorax coccinarumTypothorax was not a dinosaur, but a relative of modern crocodilians, called an aetosaur.  It was closely related to its fellow aetosaur, Desmatosuchus, and more distantly to Postosuchus and ShuvosaurusTypothorax lived 200 million years ago during the late Triassic period in what is now the Southwestern United States.  It would have been mostly a plant-eater and measured about eight feet long from snout to tail.  When alive it would have coexisted with other Triassic reptiles like Redondasaurus, a still unnamed species of Shuvosaurus, and the dinosaur, Coelophysis

Typothorax coccinarum life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Typothorax, like all known aetosaurs, possessed a body that was covered in broad plates of bony armor, called scutes.  These scutes were similar to what we see on modern crocodilians, but they were much broader and covered more surface area of the aetosaur's body.  Typothorax had two rows of wide, rectangular plates running down the surface of its back, small, shallow spike-shaped scutes lining the sides, smaller scutes covering its belly, jagged scutes on the tail, and tiny, almost square-shaped armor bits on its legs.  It wouldn't have been able to move very quickly because of all this but hey, when an animal is that well protected, it had little need to.  It even had a series of small armor plates surrounding its cloaca!  (reptilian equivalent of a butt hole)

Typothorax armor and limb bones on display at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum in New Mexico.

Typothorax had a narrow snout that was upturned at the tip, somewhat like a modern pig's nose.  This suggests that it may have plowed around in the earth with its snout for roots and possibly insects for food.  The proportions of its arms, which possessed shorter forearms and were angled to the sides, also suggests that it was a powerful digger.

Back armor plat from a juvenile Typothorax about to be collected from the field.

In the field, remains from Typothorax are some of the more common fossils that we find in the Redonda Formation.  Of these, we most commonly get pieces of armor plating.  Last year our team found a scute from a Typothorax's back that was about a foot wide!  Hopefully this year we will find more fossils from this amazing reptile!

 That is all for this week!  For more on Typothorax and its environment check out my article about our trip to New Mexico last year.  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page.  Farewell until next time!


Heckert, A. B.; Lucas, S. G. (1999). "A new aetosaur (Reptilia: Archosauria) from the Upper Triassic of Texas and the phylogeny of aetosaurs". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19 (1): 50–68. doi:10.1080/02724634.1999.10011122.

Heckert, A.B.; Lucas, S.G.; Rinehart, L.F.; Celesky, M.D.; Spielmann, J.A.; and Hunt, A.P. (2010). "Articulated skeletons of the aetosaur Typothorax coccinarum Cope (Archosauria: Stagonolepididae) from the Upper Triassic Bull Canyon Formation (Revueltian: early-mid Norian), eastern New Mexico, USA". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30 (3): 619–642. doi:10.1080/02724631003763524.

Martz, J.W. 2002. The morphology and ontogeny of Typothorax coccinarum (Archosauria, Stagonolepididae) from the Upper Triassic of the American southwest. M.S. thesis, Geosciences, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, 279 pp.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jersey Boy Visits England

Last month I had the pleasure of visiting London, England, for a second time.  Did you know that England is where the very first dinosaur to be recognized by science was discovered?  Of course you did!  You also probably know which one it was too... Megalosaurus.  Anyway, I got to visit a lot of nice places, including some great natural history museums as well as meet up with some of my friends whom you may recognize if you visit this site often.  I also am a big fan of fish and chips.  I'm an even bigger fan of eating them.

Pretty much my attitude every time I got hungry over there.  Baryonyx (a fish eater) and Hypsilophodon (a plant eater, maybe a digger of roots) were both discovered in what is now England.

and I did.

The first place I made a point to visit was the London Museum of Natural History, home to the first Diplodocus skeletal mount right in the middle of the entrance hall.  I met my friends, Marc Vincent, who writes for Love in the Time of Chasmosaurus, Niroot Puttapipat, one of the most talented and skilled illustrators of our time (I know when he reads this he is going to be all modest and probably tell me to take it off but I really do mean it.  If you haven't checked out his work yet you should do it...right now.  Also get ready to have your jaw hit the floor because that's totally gonna happen when you see his art for the first time.), and Dr. Adam Smith, a paleontologist who specializes in plesiosaurs. Fun trivia fact: I actually met all these guys about six years ago on Adam's site that reviews dinosaur toys, called The Dinosaur Toy Blog.

From left to right: Niroot, Marc, Adam, and I at the London Museum of Natural History last month.

Sharing a laugh with Charles Darwin in the main hall.
Dr. Smith reflects with one of his subjects.

This past time that we visited there was a seasonal exhibit about mammoths and other ice age megafauna.  there were a number of interesting fossil specimens and artifacts but almost just as interesting was the artwork in the form of life reconstructions of these animals.

Life-size model of a Colombian Mammoth.
There were some pretty cool interactive exhibits too.

There are a lot of other awesome natural history museums I got to see too though.  Most notably was the seemingly small, but surprisingly extensive, Booth Museum of Natural History in the town of Brighton.  This place was literally wall to wall with taxidermy bird specimens.  It was really very impressive.
I swear it was like the TARDIS.  Bigger on the inside.

They also had some nice Iguanodon and Mantellisaurus fossils!

On my last day there I had the privilege of visiting the Grant Museum of Zoology in London.  This is a small place, the building sort of reminds me of the New Brunswick Geology Museum back home, but it is wall to wall, jam packed with all kinds of animal specimens, including taxidermy, specimens in formaldehyde, and especially skeletons.  Lots and lots and lots of bones all over this place.  If you are ever in London and were wondering what the skeleton of...anything off the top of your head looks like, give this place a visit.

Hello, family!

Below is a photo of Marc, Niroot, and myself in our matching dinosaur family crest shirts (if by nerdy you mean totally cool then yes, you would be correct.) illustrated by David Orr.  Wait, who is that on the right there?  It's Katrina Van Grouw!  If you don't know, she wrote and illustrated The Unfeathered Bird, one of the best zoological books (if not the best) of 2013. (If you like birds or are interested in learning more about them definitely pick up a copy.  The book is a must-have for professionals and hobbyists alike.)  Katrina also used to be the curator or ornithology at the London Museum of Natural History.  I was thrilled that she took the time out of her schedule to come out to see us and of course to have her sign my copy of her book. 

That is all for today.  I got to visit a few other REALLY special dinosaur-related places while I was there but I decided to give those their own posts in the future.  One place was very OLD and one place was very NEW.  Farewell until next time!