Monday, March 30, 2015

Metoposaurus: Prehisroric Animal of the Week

This week is yet another newly described species!  Say hello to Metoposaurus algarvensisMetoposaurus was a huge amphibian that lived in what is now Portugal, during the Triassic Period, about 230 million years ago.  This slimy beast was large, having been able to grow to ten feet long from snout to tail.  Like all known amphibians (at least as adults), Metoposaurus was probably a predator, snapping up any animal it could fit into its massive jaws, which were lined with many small, pointed teeth.  The name, Metoposaurus, translates to "front lizard" in reference to its gigantic head, which was flat, and made up almost a third of its body length.  Despite the second part of the genus name, this creature was not a lizard (which is a reptile) but more closely related to modern frogs and salamanders.

Metoposaurus algarvensis life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

 Metoposaurus was part of an ancient lineage, called the temnospondyls.  Temnosondyl amphibians are extinct now, but were EXTREMELY successful well into the Mesozoic Era.  The more famous, Eryops, was another example of a temnospondyl.  The species we are covering today (because there are more than one known species of Metoposaurus) is known from multiple specimens that were unearthed in very close proximity to one another at the bottom of what was once a body of water.  It is hypothesized that these creatures met their deaths when their watery habitat shrunk to the point of eventually drying out, which caused them to huddle together to where the moisture was in their last hours of life.  All amphibians need water in order to survive.  Depending on the species, they cant survive without exposure to it for prolonged periods of time.

Two Metoposaurus algarvensis skulls.

When alive, Metoposaurus would have been one of the largest animals in its habitat.  It likely was an ambush predator, since its limbs were proportionally short and not very powerful.  Some scientists believe Metoposaurus was semi aquatic, having rested at the bottom of a body of fresh water, using its flattened head and body to hide from passing prey, sucking them into its huge jaws when they swam too close.  Other scientists believe Metoposaurus was capable of burrowing under loose earth, which is something common amongst modern salamanders, some of which look similar to this prehistoric beast.  Although no actual dinosaur remains have been found from the site Metoposaurus algarvensis is from (which still has many undiscovered fossils hidden within it), it is likely that there were early ones alive back then that even may have fallen prey to this mighty amphibian in its day. 

That is all for this week!  Special thanks to paleontologist, and friend of the site, Steve Brusatte, who helped discover and describe this creature, for lending his expertise to me when writing this post.  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!


Brusatte, S., Butler, R., Mateus, O., Steyer, S. 2015. A new species of Metoposaurus from the Late Triassic of Portugal and comments on the systematics and biogeography of metoposaurid temnospondyls. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi: 10.1080/2724634.2014.912988

Steyer, J. S., Mateus O., Butler R. J., Brusatte S. L., & Whiteside J. H. (2011) "A new metoposaurid (temnospondyl) bonebed from the Late Triassic of Portugal", Abstracts of the 71st Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, 200.

T. Sulej, "Species discrimination of the Late Triassic temnospondyl amphibian Metoposaurus diagnosticus", Acta Paleontologica Polonica, 47, 535-546 (2002)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Let's Publish Mammoth is Mopey!

As someone who has experience in the field of education as both a formal and informal teacher at schools, museums, and zoos, I know as well as anyone how important learning is, especially when it comes to science.  What many folks fail to grasp, however, is that you will never get anywhere with any learner (regardless of age) unless they are having fun or are in someway invested.  It's true.  This brings me to a book written and illustrated by David Orr from over at Love in the Times of Chamsosaurs, titled Mammoth is Mopey.

This books looks to be everything I could ever want in a kid's book.  In fact, it hits young readers with education on three fronts all at the same time.

1) It teaches them letters and reading, which is paramount for different development stages.  Each page features a prehistoric animal with a name starting with a different letter of the alphabet.  This is good for the very young ones. (3-5 years)   As years go by the book retains its value because it also teaches reading skills.  Ever wonder how to pronounce Estemmenosuchus or Jeholopterus?  Wonder no more with this book because there is a pronunciation key with the names so young readers (and adults in the case of some of the names) can sound them out together.

Just a typical yodeling Yinlong.

2) This book teaches them vocabulary!  Each page of the book features a prehistoric animal and an adjective that starts with the same first letter.  Find out what "dapper" means and why it has to do with Dinofelis rocking a bow tie and top hat.

3) It teaches them science!  Far too often I hear people challenge funding for paleontology, stating "it doesn't do any real good for society and the money is better spent someplace else."  Aside from the fact that this statement is so wrong on a few levels, at the very least, paleontology is a perfect gateway to get kids at the youngest of ages interested in science without even knowing it.  Is every child who was ever obsessed with dinosaurs going to grow up to be a paleontologist?  Perhaps not, but they might turn into doctors, or engineers, or geologists...  Loving one field of science opens doors and minds into other fields if that love persists.  The earlier this takes place the better.

Mammoth is Mopey, makes a point to introduce not just the typical popular creatures, but also some of the lesser-known, more unusual species, that may not always get the limelight they deserve.  In addition to this, each page gives some information about the animal itself for young readers.

Lastly, despite the highly stylized, cartoon flavor of the illustrations, they don't break any rules of scientific accuracy.  Yes, David's Ankylosaurus is anthropomorphically sitting in a chair holding a paintbrush, but the armor placement and shape of the tail club is consistent with what we know according to the fossil record.  (More than can be said about some depictions seen on the Discovery Channel!)  The Velociraptor, despite its vainglorious prancing around, is appropriately feathered.  (Again, something that many programs in the media that pride themselves on being "scientific" repeatedly seem to fail at time and time again.)

4) It's fun.  Like I said, the best way to educate is to wrap it all up with a nice flashy package of fun with a pretty bow of humor on top.  Kids will love reading this book and/or having this book read to them.

More realistic Velociraptor than most of the stuff that gets fed to kids with the "scientific accuracy" label slapped on it nowadays.

So how do you get this book?  Well, it isn't published yet, but it will be soon and you can help the process along!  David and his wife, Jennie, are looking to self publish this book through a site which allows anyone to contribute donations to help them reach their goal.  Depending on how much you contribute, you will get extra stuff like signed copies of the book, buttons, signed prints of the illustrations to hang on your wall, or even a custom illustration Dave can do of any animal of your choice!  Follow this link to get involved!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Carnufex: Prehisroric Animal of the Week

This week we shall be checking out a newly published species of prehistoric crocodile that once called the American South home.  Check out Carnufex carolinensis!

As I said before, Carnufex was not a dinosaur, but a kind of reptile that belongs to the same main group as modern crocodilians.  It lived in what is now North Carolina, USA, during the Triassic Period, 231 million years ago.  Despite the fact that this creature is only known from an incomplete skeleton, paleontologists estimate it measured between nine and ten feet long from snout to tail and it's teeth indicate it was probably a meat eater.  The genus, Carnufex, translates to "Butcher", and the species, carolinensis, is in reference to the part of the United States where it was found.

Carnufex carolinensis feeding on a dicinodont near a river bed by Christopher DiPiazza.

If you were to see a living Carnufex, you might not guess it was related to modern crocodilians at first.  Judging by he length of its forelimb, the paleontologists who discovered and studied it estimate it may have walked around on its hind legs at least some of the time.  In fact, Carnufex could be mistaken for a theropod dinosaur at first if not examined carefully enough!  Here's the thing to remember, though.  The Triassic was a time when dinosaurs had not fully started flourishing yet.  Sure, there were some around, but there were also a lot of other large reptiles coexisting with them that were doing just as well.  Many of these other reptiles, like Carnufex, were from a group called pseudosuchia.  Pseudosuchians include crocodillians like alligators and crocodiles, as well as their relatives like the poposauroids, rauisuchians, and the aetosaurs to name a few.  Many pseudosuchians flourished during the Triassic alongside the very first dinosaurs.  These reptiles filled many niches which would later be taken over by dinosaurs after the end of the Triassic and most of the pseudosuchians had gone extinct for reasons that are still somewhat of a mystery.

Known bones of Carnufex carolinensis.
During the time Carnufex was alive, the environment it was in was a series of rivers and marshes amongst warm, moist land with lush plants.  Carnufex likely would not have been spending much time in the water, however.  That's right, crocodiles weren't always swimmers, which you wouldn't have seen until after the Triassic, actually.  Carnufex and its close relatives were adept land-dwellers.  Carnufex would have been the largest, and most formidable predator of its environment, hunting the wealth of other reptiles and early mammals of its home.

That is all for this week!  Special thanks to paleontologist, Susan Drymala, who worked with and the remains of this this amazing reptile, and approved my reconstruction at the top of this article.  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!


Zanno, L.E.; Drymala, S.; Nesbitt, S.J.; Scheider, V.P. (2015). "Early crocodylomorph increases top tier predator diversity during rise of dinosaurs". Scientific Reports 5: 9276. doi:10.1038/srep09276

Monday, March 16, 2015

Plesiosaurus: Prehisroric Animal of the Week

This week we will be looking at a creature with a very well known and recognized name, but maybe not well-understood for what it really was.  Check out Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus!

Plesiosaurus swam in the ocean over what is now Dorset, England during the early Jurassic, between about 198 and 175 million years ago.  Its shape is iconic, and recognized by the general public, with its small head on the tip of a long neck, wide, almost turtle-shaped body, and four flippers instead of feet, which it used to propel itself through the water.  Plesiosaurus and its relatives, the other plesiosaurs, were not dinosaurs, but a separate kind of now-extinct reptile that evolved independently during the Mesozoic.  When alive, Plesiosaurus would have eaten meat in the form of fish, mollusks, or any other small sea creature it could catch.  It would have shared its habitat with its fellow marine reptile, Ichthyosaurus.  From snout to tail, an adult Plesiosaurus measured about eleven feet long. The genus name, Plesiosaurus, translates to "near reptile/lizard".

Life reconstruction of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, by Christopher DiPiazza.

Plesiosaurus's skull was somewhat flattened with its eyes facing upwards.  It had many long, pointed teeth, which in addition to looking pretty scary up close, evolved for better catching and holding onto small, slippery prey, like a cage.  When Plesiosaurus' mouth was closed, these teeth would have likely still been visible outside the mouth and interlocked.

Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus skull at the Museum of Natural History in London.

The neck of Plesiosaurus was very long and consisted of up to forty two vertebrae.  The long-necked plesiosaurs have been commonly depicted in artwork and pop culture as swimming with their heads above the water in a perfect S shape, almost like that of a swan.  In real life, however, this was physically impossible.  Real plesiosaurs would have been able to bend their necks up and down to some degree, but not in that iconic Loch Ness Monster pose.  (one of the many reasons why it is impossible for there to be a real plesiosaur living in there today)  They could, however, have moved their necks around from side to side fairly well.  the reason for this long neck is the subject of a lot of debate for paleontologists.  One hypothesis is that the long neck was a tool to help the animal reach into narrow spaces where fish and other prey may have been hiding, like between rocks and coral.  Another idea is that the neck was a good way to distance the large body from the unsuspecting prey.

"Don't mind me, guys.  I'm nothing but a harmless little fish, like you.  Totally not a carnivorous reptile with a giant body attached to the back..."
Plesiosaurus' body, like all of the members of its family, was not flexible at all.  It would have been similar to that of a sea turtle, actually.  Like turtles, plesiosaurs would have relied on their long flippers to power them through the water.  They were likely not fast swimmers compared to their contemporaries, the ichthyosaurs.

Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus full skeleton originally found by Mary Anning on display at the London Museum of Natural History.

Plesiosaurus was another one of the well known prehistoric animals that was originally found by famed fossil hunter, Mary Anning, back in the 1800s.  Since then, many specimens of long-necked, flippered reptiles have been named Plesiosaurus but further, recent research has found out that many of these fossils were actually deserving of their own names.  Today, there is only one valid species, Plesiosaurus dolichodierus, and its type specimen is the original fossil that started it all.

Plesiosaurus pencil illustration by Adam Stuart Smith.

That is all for this week!  Special thanks to my friend, and plesiosaur expert, Dr. Adam Stuart Smith!  For more first-hand plesiosaur information be sure to check out his website.  As always comment below or on our facebook page!  


Andrews, C. W. 1896. "On the structure of the plesiosaurian skull". Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London, 52, 246-253.

Brown, D. S. 1981. "The English Upper Jurassic Plesiosauroidea (Reptilia) and a review of the phylogeny and classification of the Plesiosauria". Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History): Geology, 35, (4), 253-347.

Storrs, G. W. 1997. "Morphological and taxonomic clarification of the genus Plesiosaurus". 145-190. In Callaway, J. M and Nicholls, E. L. (eds.). Ancient Marine Reptiles. Academic press. London.

Torrens, Hugh 1995. "Mary Anning (1799–1847) of Lyme; 'The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew'". The British Journal for the History of Science, 25 (3): 257–284

Monday, March 9, 2015

Qijianglong: Prehisroric Animal of the Week

It is time to review another exciting new discovery just published this year.  Make way for Qijianglong guakr!  Qijianglong was a plant-eating sauropod dinosaur that lived in what is now China, during the Jurassic Period, about 160 million years ago.  It had an extremely long neck that made up about half of it's fifty-foot long body length.  The genus name, Qijianlgong, translates to "Qigiang Dragon" in reference to the district in which its remains were discovered.  Many dinosaurs from China have been named as dragons.  Qijianglong, in particular reminded paleontologists of a traditional Chinese dragon because of its extremely long neck, giving it a superficially serpentine appearance when they were digging it of the earth.

Qijianglong life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Qijianglong is a great find because it is one of the few sauropod skeletons, where the skull was actually preserved. (or partially preserved)  It is very common to find headless sauropod skeletons in the field.  This could be because the skull of a sauropod is very delicate and small compared to the rest of the body and is usually the most likely part to deteriorate, float away, or get eaten by scavengers after the dinosaur died.  In fact, one of the most famous dinosaur mistakes in history revolves around souropod skulls. (or lack thereof)

Qijianglong skeletal mount on display at the Qijiang Museum in China.

So what's the deal with that long neck?  We have reviewed some long-necked dinosaurs on here before but never anything as extreme as this!  Sauropod necks have confused scientists ever since they were first discovered.  It is most likely that they used these necks to better reach food in the form of leaves at the tops of trees, similar to a giraffe today.  However, unlike the giraffe, there were many different kinds of sauropods, often living in the same habitat  together, throughout the Mesozoic.  Maybe this was one of the driving forces for sauropods to evolve so many different neck lengths, in an evolutionary attempt at developing niches.  We also know, thanks to studies done on the neck vertebrae of Qijianglong, that the neck was not really able to bend from side to side that much.  It could, however, angle the neck upwards at the base, if it wanted to.  This makes sense if it was browsing for leaves at treetops.  

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


Xing, L; Miyashita, T; Zhang, J; Li, Daqing; Ye, Y; Sekiya, T.; Wang F; Currie, P (2015). "'A new sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of China and the diversity, distribution, and relationships of mamenchisaurids'". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Women in Paleontology

Today is international women's day.  A day to appreciate the people who are special to you in your life who happen to be women.  It is also a day to recognize women as professionals and just how far we have come as a society in so short of an amount of time when it comes to women achieving amazing things.

The field of science is a good example of women doing great things.  Science, especially paleontology, used to be heavily male-dominated.  However, more and more women are making names for themselves in paleo and as time goes on, these numbers are only going to grow. When Gary and I go to events at museums and talk to children about dinosaurs, one would expect to see mostly little boys coming up to us to learn about dinosaurs.  However, just as many dinosaur-obsessed little girls are present, as well, and it is wonderful.  Check out future-paleontologist, Lacey, from Morristown's Dinosaur Day at our table in 2012, for instance! Also look at this amazing story about a little girl who took on a major shoe company for only selling dinosaur merchandise for boys!  Awesome job!

I must admit that although I think bringing attention to Women's Day is a great thing, at the same time I wish it didn't have to be a thing at all.  When people see a female paleontologist, or any other profession that is typically male-dominated, they shouldn't have to make a point to mention that she is a female, as if it were some sort of rarity.  Check out this interesting article about strong women in fiction to get an idea of what I mean with regards to a different subject.   In a some ways, every day should really be like women's day.

Painting of Mary Anning by B.J. Donne.  Mary Anning was one of the best fossil hunters of her time...and she was a tween.

That being said, if you want some good examples of females in the field of Paleontology or other related scientific fields, simply check out the links I provided for you below. I have interviewed and made friends with many great scientists over the years, many of whom happen to be women. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

New York City Outing with Heinrich Mallison

As many of you may or may not know, Dr. Heinrich Mallison, paleontologist, and expert on how dinosaurs moved and were able to pose, especially when it comes to stegosaurs and sauropodomorphs.  Fun fact, he is also become a friend of Gary and I's over the years.

I was thrilled to find out Dr. Mallison was going to be in New York City all the way from Germany again this year doing work at the American Museum of Natural History. Naturally we went out for a few beers again just like last year.

Thank you for another great night talking about all things paleontology and biology with a few rants and jokes thrown in.  Here's to more good times!

Make sure to check out Dr. Mallison's interview and his website, Dinosaurpaleo!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Eryops: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Eryops megacephalus was a large amphibian that lived in what is now the United States during the Early Permian, between 310 and 295 million years ago.  It measured almost seven feet long in some cases and would have been a predator, snapping up any smaller animal that could have fit in it's huge mouth.  The genus name, Eryops, translates to "Drawn-out Face" and the species name, megacephalus, translates to "Big Head".  Guess what!  It had a huge noggin.  No, seriously, look at it.  The skull was almost a third of the total body length.  Inside this skull, Eryops was armed with many sharp, cone-shaped teeth.

Eryops snaps up its relative, Cacops in the Permian undergrowth.  Reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Eryops belonged to an extremely successful group of amphibians, called temnospondyli.  Temnospondyls existed on the planet for over 210 million years before finally going extinct, making them the most successful kind of tetrapod (animal with four limbs) in history.  Eryops was one of the larger temnospondyls and likely didn't have too many predators to worry about during the time it was alive other than Dimetrodon.

Check out those teeth!

Eryops is often depicted as being semi-aquatic, hunting in the water much like a modern alligator.  I don't personally see this as a likely lifestyle for Eryops, however.  For one thing, Eryops' tail was very short, and wouldn't have really helped the animal propel in the water like alligators, and its modern relatives, the newtsEryops also had a very robust skeleton, with well-developed limbs that were designed for supporting weight that were in a sprawled posture, jutting out at an almost ninety degree angle from the body.  The vertebrae of Eryops had relatively tall neural arches which could have helped anchor muscle.  It would not have been able to run very fast with this limb design, but it would have still been a sturdy and powerful walker.  Like most amphibians, however, it still would have needed a body of water in order to reproduce.

Eryops skeletal mount on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

I cannot help but make connections between Eryops and one of my all time favorite living ampbibians, its relative, the Tiger Salamander. (Ambystoma tigrinum)  Tiger salamanders, like Eryops, have large, flat heads with wide mouths.  They do not hesitate to devour any creature smaller than themselves and, despite being reliant on water to drink and reproduce, prefer to spend their adult lives on land. 

Another interesting feature of Eryops is that it had well-developed ribs.  This is not typical for amphibians, which normally have very short ribs or no ribs at all!  Most amphibians, like salamanders and frogs, respire through their skin, and don't need ribs.  This method of breathing was not an option for Eryops, however, which was was significantly larger, and had a much higher mass to surface area ratio of its body, and therefore wouldn't have been able to effectively breathe through its skin.  It may have breathed by rhythmically moving the floor of its mouth to help pump air into the lungs.  This method of breathing, called buccal pumping, can easily be observed in modern amphibians, as well.

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


Brainerd, E. L. (1998) Mechanics of lung ventilation in a larval salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum. J. Exp. Biol. 201:2891–2901

Miner, Roy Waldo. The Pectoral Limb of Eryops and Other Primitive Tetrapods. New York: Published by Order of the Trustees, the American Museum of Natural History, 1925. Print.

Pawley, Kat, and Anne Warren. "The Appendicular Skeleton Of Eryops Megacephalus Cope, 1877 (Temnospondyli: Eryopoidea) From The Lower Permian Of North America." Journal of Paleontology 80.3 (2006): 561-80. Web.

Sawin, Horace John. The Cranial Anatomy of Eryops Megacephalus. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.