Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Paleontology Behind Pokemon

Pokemon, the franchise about collecting creatures to raise and battle against one another, is a video game franchise that stands out as one of the most unique and successful...ever.  Yes, I am aware that the premise is similar to dogfighting, but the difference here is that...pokemon isn't real and nobody gets hurt!  I was in fourth grade when it hit the United States and was amongst the first wave of kids to become captivated by it.  Twenty years later (this week!) I still find pokemon to be a great game.  (and not just for kids necessarily, either!)  So what is an article about pokemon doing on a website about paleontology?  Well since it was a franchise about made up creatures with superpowers, how could some of them not have been based on prehistoric animals?  In fact, in order to get certain pokemon based on dinosaurs and other prehistoric life, the player needed to collect fossils in the game and bring them to life!  Don't you wish we could just do that with real fossils?  No more debates about feathers.  Then again, it sort of takes some of the wonder out of it...

Anyway, I decided to make a list of some pokemon that are based on prehistoric animals and explain to you a little bit about the real creatures they were based on.  There are more pokemon than this list that are based on prehistoric beasts, but these are my favorites.  Hope you enjoy!

Venusaur


Venusaur and its younger phases are a little tough to pin down at first.  It has the term "saur" in its name, so the dinosaur bell rings in most people's heads upon hearing about it.  Physically, however, it looks more like a big frog than anything else.  However, looking at this guy's slightly beak-like mouth, protruding teeth, and the presence of small, mammal-like ears, it could very well be based on a different kind of prehistoric creature, a kind of dicynodont.

Lystrosaurus, a kind of dicynodont, at the Museum of Paleontology, Tuebingen. (Photo by Ghedoghedo wikimedia commons)

Dicynodonts of many different kinds lived during the late Permian into the Triassic period.  They were not true dinosaurs, but synapsids, more closely related to more well-known creatures like Dimetrodon...and mammals.  They would have waddled around on four squat legs, and had beaks with tusks they may have used to dig up plant material or invertebrates to eat.  It is unknown exactly what their skin covering was like in life, whether or not they were scaly or fuzzy, or perhaps both.

Aerodactyl



This might be my all time favorite pokemon, since I have been using it ever since I played the pokemon gameboy game back in the late 90s.  Aerodactyl is prehistoric, even in the game, since it needs to be revived from a fossil in order to be obtained. 


Yes, that's my Aerodactyl.  I have cool hobbies.  And for all you really hard-core poketrainers out there, yes, it is IV and EV trained as well.  Leave a comment if you want to exchange friend codes or lose to me in a battle.

Judging by the name and its looks it is clearly a stylized pterosaur...or TERRORDACTILE, as I like to call them.  I have seen other people try to pinpoint exactly which genus of pterosaur Aerodactyl is based on, but I think there is a point where you need to just be okay with the idea that whomever designed this creature, was using their own imagination, too.  It ends up looking more like dragon(also technically based on dinosaurs) than anything else.

Omastar and Kabutops



These guys, along with Aerodactyl, and a few others on this list, also needed to be revived from fossils in the game.  They were also in the first generation of pokemon to be introduced to the world.  Because of this, I was particularly impressed that two of the three kinds of fossil pokemon in the game were actually based on invertebrate fossils (vastly underappreciated even by the paleo community sometimes!) in the forms of an ammonite and trilobite.

Cheirurus, a genus of trilobite that resembles Kabutops. (Photo by By Vassil - wikimedia Collections.)

Ammonites and Trilobites are sort of the poster children for fossils that aren't dinosaurs.  They are relatively common around the world and have easily recognizable shapes.  Ammonites were extinct cephalopods (mollusks with big heads and tentacles like modern octopi and squid) and trilobites were extinct arthropods most closely related to today's horseshoe crabs.  In fact, Kabutops' first "evolution" (young form...pokemon sort of dropped the ball on their definition of evolution.  They should have called it metamorphosis.) looks most like a horseshoe crab.

Anorith



Like the above two pokemon, this guy also is based on an underappreciated invertebrate fossil. Anorith is based on an Anomalocaris, an interesting kind of, now extinct, invertebrate not really like anything alive today.  They are thought to be most similar to modern arthropods, though.  The odd, five-eyed, Opabinia, is in the same order.

Anomalocaris fossil at the Royal Ontario Museum (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts wikimedia commons)
This pokemon "evolves" into  bigger form, which looks more stylized and less like an actual prehistoric animal.
Sceptile



Sceptile's first form, is clearly based on a modern gecko.  But its fully mature form shares a lot of characteristics with theropod dinosaurs.

Dilophosaurus skull on display at the American Museum of Natural History.

It is tough to say exactly which kind of theropod was inspiration for this pokemon.  It could be argued that its based on a maniraptor because of the feather-like leafy appendages growing from its arms.  I have also heard some compare it to a Dilophosaurus because of the two crests on its head.  It most likely is a generally, stylized, cool dinosaur look though.

Torterra



Torterra, like Sceptile, can possibly argued to have been based on a tortoise, since its younger forms are definitely based on testudines.  I think it was at least partially designed after ankylosaurids, however.


Ankylosaurus skull.

Yes, even the name has "Tort" in it, but look at it!  It has to be those horns on the sides of the head.  It really gives it an Ankylosaurus look, even if it doesn't have a bony mass on the tail.

Archeops



Archeops was definitely based on feathered maniraptoran dinosaurs.  In fact, in the game it is even said to have been an ancestor of modern "bird pokemon".  (So pokemon does actually understand the real meaning of evolution!  Good to know.)

Microraptor fossil showing the feathers on the legs and tip of the tail. 

At first when I saw Archeops I thought it was based on an Archaeopteryx, which is the poster child for the bird/nonavian dinosaur connection.  But it could have been drawn more from dinosaurs like Microraptor, since it has a skinny tail with a small fan of feathers at the tip, and long feathers on its legs.  Despite being very stylized, this pokemon is an obvious nod to relatively recent fossil discoveries in the field of paleontology, which I found really cool.

Rampardos and Bastiodon



I love marginocephalians dinosaurs!  So imagine how thrilled I was back in 2006 when I saw that pokemon finally released two fossil pokemon that were based on a pachycephalosaur and ceratopsian respectively.

Stygimoloch skull on display at the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin.

Rampardos and its first form seem to be pretty nonspecific pachycephalosaurs.  I have seen some try to specify that Rampardos is specifically a Stygimoloch because of its horn proportions but honestly, it's a stylized cartoon, so I wouldn't really try to pigeonhole it that much.  Bastiodon, despite that ugly face, was based on some sort of long-frilled ceratopsian, like Triceratops or Chasmosaurus.  I like how they made the epoccipitals look like the top of a castle.



Aurorus



Aurorus was based on an Amargasaurus.  It is pretty cool how they made the sail of the Amargasaurus, into an aurora borealis.  In the game, this sail can rapidly flap like a flag.

Amargasaurus skeleton on display at the Melbourne Museum.

In real life, the sail of Amargasaurus was connected by spines attached to the neck vertebrae.  There have been  few other pokemon based on sauropods, but nothing as specific as this, and a cool genus of sauropod, too!

Tyrantrum

 
It can be argued that there have been a few pokemon based on Tyrannosaurus, before, but they look to be more based on kaijus than than real dinosaurs.  That is until Tyrantrum. 

Not only does this pokemon stand horizontally with its tail balanced behind it like a real large theropod would have, but it also appears to have feathers.  At least that's what I like to hope the white ruffly stuff around its neck and chin is.  I could be wrong.  But if I'm right, pokemon is more with the times than some science-based dinosaur reconstructions!

Hope you enjoyed the list!  Happy 20th, Pokemon!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Pentaceratops: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out yet another awesome ceratopsian dinosaur.  Enter Pentaceratops sternbergii!

Pentaceratops was a plant-eating dinosaur that measured about twenty feet long from beak to tail. As a ceratopsian (horns, beaks, and frills) it was member of the chasmosaurine group, and was closely related to Chasmosaurus and Coahuilaceratops to name a few.  It lived in what is now New Mexico, USA, during the late Cretaceous Period, between 76 and 73 million years ago.  The genus name, Pentaceratops, translates to "Five Horned Face" in reference to the single horn on the snout, two over the eye sockets, and two on the jugals (cheek bone).  I personally feel the name is a bit misleading since many ceratopsians, including ones that are named for having specifically fewer horns, have "horns" on their jugals also.  When I hear "Five Horned Face" I expect two extra horns growing out over the eyes or something...oh well.

Pentaceratops life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Pentaceratops had one of the largest skulls of any land animal.  From beak to the end of its frill, its skull measured almost eight feet long.  Most of this was frill, which was basically a light frame of bone around two large holes, called fenestre.  Large fenestre are common in most ceratopsians (Triceratops being an exception) to make sure the large frills weren't too heavy.  Pentaceratops' frill was lined with small horn-like structures called epoccipitals.  At the top of the frill, there is a "U" shaped dip in the middle, and the middle-most two epoccipitals actually face downwards, instead of out, like the rest.  As is the case with all of its relatives, the frill and horns of Pentaceratops may have served as display adaptations for within the species, possibly attracting mates and/or intimidating rivals.  They also could have aided in deterring potential predators, like the tyrannosaurid, Bistahieversor, which it coexisted with in life.

Pentaceratops skull currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Unlike many ceratopsians, of which paleontologists more often than not only find the skulls of, most of Pentaceratops' body is known, as well.  What is interesting is that the neural arches in the middle of the back are relatively tall.  This suggests that there may have been muscles attaching there that led to the back of the skull, to help hold up the giant frill.

Most recently, in 2011, the remains of a juvenile Pentaceratops were discovered in New Mexico by a team of paleontologists from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.  It took years to finally get the big baby out of the rock until it was finally airlifted, via helicopter, to the museum in 2015 to be worked on further in a lab.  This awesome find will be on display in the years to come when it is fully excavated and prepped!

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

References

H.F. Osborn, 1923, "A new genus and species of Ceratopsia from New Mexico, Pentaceratops sternbergiiAmerican Museum Novitates 93: 1-3

Lehman, T.M., 1998, "A gigantic skull and skeleton of the horned dinosaur Pentaceratops sternbergi from New Mexico: Journal of Paleontology, 72(5): 894-906

Rowe, T., Colbert, E.H. and Nations, J.D., 1981, "The occurrence of Pentaceratops with a description of its frill", In: Lucas, S.G., Rigby, J.K. and Kues, B.S. (eds.) Advances in San Juan Basin Paleontology, University of New Mexico Press, Alburquerque p. 29-48

"National Guard Airlifts Baby Pentaceratops Fossil out of New Mexico Badlands." UPI. N.p., n.d. Web.



Monday, February 15, 2016

Mojoceratops: Prehistoric Beast of the Week

Today we will be checking out a ceratopsian dinosaur that may have used its frill to attract potential mates.  Check out Mojoceratops perifania!

Mojoceratops was a plant-eater that lived in what is now Canada, during the late Cretaceous, between 76.5 and 75 million years ago.  From beak to tail, Mojoceratops was about fifteen feet long.  Its genus name translates to "Mojo horned face" and the species name, perifania, is Greek for "pride".  In the early 1900s, mojos, were trinkets that were said to grant their owners with being more sexually attractive to others. Both parts of the name reference this dinosaur's large frill, which may have been a display adaptation in life, possibly for attracting mates.

Mojoceratops life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.  These dinosaurs, like the rest of their kin, probably used their frills as display adaptations to impress or intimidate each other.

Mojoceratops was one of those dinosaurs that has gone through a few identity mix-ups since its discovery.  Originally, it was classified as a species of Chasmosaurus, another ceratopsian dinosaur that was very similar to it.  Then, some time later, it was re-evaluated and given it's own genus, Mojoceratops, due to the fact that its frill and horns aren't exactly the same as those of Chasmosaurus specimens.  Now, as of 2016, Mojoceratops has been re-re-evaluated...and is once-again considered just another kind of Chasmosaurus since we now understand that ceratopsian frills and horns had a pretty wide range of variability among individuals, even within the same species due to age or sex, possibly.  Regardless of what you call it, Mojoceratops/Chasmosaurus was what it was. (Pet peeve of mine when people say "It never existed!" when a name isn't valid.  The fossil is right there!)

Partial skull, including the frill, from Mojoceratops.  Note the heart shape on the top.  This specimen has since been assigned to Chasmosaurus russelli.

In addition to the tall frill, which had a dip in the middle, making it almost heart-shaped, Mojoceratops also possessed three horns on its face.  The two over each eye were relatively long, thin, and angled upwards and slightly to the sides.  The nose horn was actually pretty flat laterally, and almost rectangular.  Like the frill, these horns were likely display adaptations.  They may have also helped Mojoceratops defend itself from predators if it had to.


Mojoceratops skull on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  When it was first erected it was labelled as a species of Chasmosaurus and the label was never changed.  Now it's been re-reassigned to Chasmosaurus again so extra work averted!  The back part of this specimen's frill was never found and was reconstructed to match other known Chasmosaurus material.

Like all ceratopsians, Mojoceratops had a curved beak that was ideal for clipping vegetation which would then be shredded up by batteries of small teeth in the back of the mouth.  There are some who hypothesize that ceratopsians were omnivores, using their beaks and teeth to eat meat as well, but there is no evidence that suggests this on the fossil record thus far.  Since occasional meat consumption can be seen in modern animals that are typically herbivorous it probably isn't out of the realm of possibility, but it is completely unknown if ceratopsians were exhibiting this feeding hebavior regularly.

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

References

Campbell, J.A., Ryan, M.J., Holmes, R.B., and Schröder-Adams, C.J. (2016). A Re-Evaluation of the chasmosaurine ceratopsid genus Chasmosaurus (Dinosauria: Ornithischia) from the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) Dinosaur Park Formation of Western Canada

Nicholas R. Longrich (2010). "Mojoceratops perifania, A New Chasmosaurine Ceratopsid from the Late Campanian of Western Canada". Journal of Paleontology 84 (4): 681–694.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Prehistoric Valentines: 2016

A few years ago I made a series of prehistoric-themed valentines using my artwork.  I decided this year I would make a few more.  Feel free to print these out and hand them to that special someone.  They probably will generate a strong reaction.  I'm not sure what kind of reaction you specifically would want...but they will get you a reaction of some kind.

Edestus's jaws were specifically designed for open-mouth kissing.

Try this one at a bar...

...or this one.

This one has a 100% chance success rate.

Happy Valentines Day!  Stay tuned for a special Valentine-themed beast of the week on Sunday.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Darwinopterus: Beast of the Week

This week we shall be checking out an important little pterosaur that vastly extented our knowledge about the evolution and overall biology of pterosaurs.  Enter Darwinopterus modularis!

Darwinopterus was a small pterosaur that lived in what is now China during the Jurassic Period, about 161 million years ago.  When alive, it would have been a meat-eater and its wingspan was between two and three feet wide, depending on the exact species.  The genus name, Darwinopterus, means "Darwin's Wing" in reference to Charles Darwin, who is famous for introducing the world to the concept of natural selection, and therefore evolution. The species name is in reference to the word, modular, which is something that is made of different, smaller parts.  There are actually a few known species of Darwinopterus, but D. modularis is the most well-studied.

Darwinopterus raids an Anchiornis nest.  Reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

So why is Darwinopterus such an important find?  Why was it named after Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, and why is it considered "modular"?  If you know about pterosaurs, the answer reveals itself just by looking at Darwinopterus.  All pterosaurs can be sorted into one of two major groups, the rhamphorhynchoids or the pterodactyloids.  The older rhamphorhyncoids lived from the Triassic through the Jurassic period and are identifiable by their long tails and proportionally small hind legs. (Caviramus and Dimorphodon were examples of rhamphorhyncoids.)  The pterodactyloids, which started during the late Jurassic and persisted until the end of the Cretaceous period, all had short tails, longer necks, and proportionally giant skulls. (Pterodactylus and the giant Quetzalcoatlus were pterodactyloids.)  Darwinopterus was a combination of both of these groups.  It wasn't even a blended combination, either.  It's body is almost exactly that of a rhamphorhyncoid, but it had a long neck and huge, long skull, just like a pterodactyloid.  It looks as if someone just took fossils of two different kinds of pterosaur and switched the front and back parts with each other.  These physical features, combined with the fact that Darwinopterus lived at the period of time in earth's history right before true pterodactyloids started to appear, makes scientists conclude it was a transition form between the two groups of pterosaurs, from rhamphorrhyncoid to pterodactyloid.  Keep in mind that all organisms are technically in transition, since evolution is always going on at varying paces, but Darwinopterus happens to show a perfect middle ground between two different forms, that until recently, the evolution of was a total mystery.

Darwinopterus modularis skeleton from Lu's 2010 paper.  Note the large skull, long neck, with the short hind legs and long tail.

Darwinopterus adds more to our understanding of pterosaurs than just their evolution, however.  Luckily, there have been about ten specimens of this pterosaur that have been found.  This isn't a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but compared to most other fossil animals, it is on the high end.  After looking at each of the specimens, scientists noticed that some of them had a small ridge on the top of the skull, which would have anchored a larger crest in life, and others did not.  They also noticed that the individuals with the crest had slightly narrower hips than those without.  Since this was always the combination of features, without ever any crossover, like wide hips and a crest on the same individual) it can be assumed that these were most likely different sexes!  The females had wider hips, for passing eggs, and the males, with narrower hips since they weren't laying eggs, had large crests for display.  This theory was proven further when a beautifully preserved Darwinopterus skeleton with wide hips and no crest was found with an egg still inside her pelvis!

Skull of a male Darwinopterus modularis.  Note the shallow crest on the top of the snout.  Image is from Lu's 2010 paper.

So what were pterosaur eggs like?  Judging by this specimen, the eggs would have had soft, leathery shells, like those of modern snakes, lizards, and turtles.  Many times in movies and television, pterosaurs are depicted with hard-shelled eggs, nesting on cliffs, like birds.  We now thing this idea is wrong, since reptiles that lay leathery eggs need to bury them in soil or sand to prevent them from completely drying out.  (Yes, even though they have shells, they can still dry out!  They still aren't as bound to water like amphibian eggs.)

Female Darwinopterus specimen.  You can see the egg, which fossilized as a yellowish color, right under the tail.  Image is from Lu's 2011 paper.

When alive, Darwinopterus would have lived in forests and was probably adept at climbing and agile flying, to not crash into trees.  The shape and build of its wings show evidence of being able to gain altitude quickly after takeoff, thanks to a curved pteroid bone, which grew from it's wrist towards the neck, which would have supported a small membrane of skin in front of the rest of the wing.  For food, Darwinopterus was probably an opportunistic hunter, especially when it came to small prey like insects, mammals, and smaller reptiles, since that's what the shape of its small, pointed teeth suggest.  I depicted a painting of one back in 2012 eating the eggs of it's dinosaur neighbor, Anchiornis.

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

References

Lü, J., Unwin, D.M., Jin, X., Liu, Y. and Ji, Q. (2010). "Evidence for modular evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull." Proceedings of the Royal Society B,277(1680): 383-389.

Lü, J., Unwin, D.M., Deeming, D.C., Jin, X., Liu, Y. and Ji, Q. (2011). "An egg-adult association, gender, and reproduction in pterosaurs. Science331(6015): 321-324.

Witton, Mark P. "Wukongopteridae." Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.