Thursday, August 25, 2016

Visiting the New Jersey State Museum: Dryptosaurus gets a Mount (FINALLY)

Scroll up.  See the dinosaurs I painted for this site's banner up there?  They are Dryptosaurus and Hadrosaurus, the first two dinosaur skeletons ever recognized by modern science in the United States.  Just as important to me is the fact that they were both unearthed in New Jersey, my home state.  That being said they are both dear to my heart.  In fact, Dryptosaurus I would go so far to say is my all time favorite carnivorous dinosaur.  Sadly, despite their historical and scientific importance, both of these dinosaurs are grossly underrepresented in many aspects of paleontology culture, especially Dryptosaurus for reasons that are still a mystery to me.  Seriously, any appearance this dinosaur ever makes is a rare treat. Toy companies that make dinosaur figures especially frustrate me.  Are you reading this, Safari?  How about you, CollectA?  Seriously, give Dryptosaurus (and Hadrosaurus too while we're at it) a freaking figure already!  You can only redo Tyrannosaurus so many times!

Basically me if a Dryptosaurus toy is ever actually mass produced.

Perhaps even sadder was the fact that despite being such an important fossil discovery, Dryptosaurus never actually got a skeleton of it erected anywhere.  If anything you would only ever see its bones laid out on a flat surface someplace.  And yes, I hear some of you smug, self-proclaimed experts back there. "Dryptosaurus is too fragmentary to get a skeletal mount!" Nope.  Sorry that won't work with me.  Dinosaurs from WAY more scant remains have gotten full skeletal mounts before.

Argentinosaurus huinculensis reconstruction at Museo Municipal Carmen Funes, Plaza Huincul, Neuquén, Argentina.

It seemed that Dryptosaurus would never get a skeletal mount for people to really see and appreciate the true majesty of this amazing beast...until now!  The New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, NJ, is the first facility in history to have not just one, but TWO Dryptosaurus skeletal mounts on display in their new, as of July 2016, natural history hall!  I was able to make a trip over there recently to check them out in person.  They are nothing short of spectacular.


Now that we have seen them and are done scooping the mush back into our open skulls from having our minds utterly blown from sheer awesomeness, lets check these guys out a little more closely.  The first thing you will notice is the especially dynamic pose.  That wasn't chosen for this exhibit purely based on the fact that it looks cool.  There is history there.  Dryptosaurus was one of the dinosaurs painted by famed illustrator Charles Knight back in 1896. (Charles Knight is widely accepted as pretty much the most influential paleoartist of all time.) He depicted two Dryptosaurus fighting in this exact pose and named it "Leaping Laelaps". (Laelaps was the original name of Dryptosaurus)  This was a big deal back then since every other illustration of a dinosaur ever portrayed during that time and even for decades after were as sluggish tail-dragging cold-blooded lizard creatures.  This was extremely progressive and even seen as downright unlikely at that time.  The painting, itself, looks like it was done in the 1990s if one didn't know the context.

Charles Knight's "Leaping Laelaps" painting.  They may not look special by today's standards but at the time this sort of depiction was unheard of and still didn't catch on until almost one hundred years later.

Remember when I mentioned that Dryptosaurus was only known from fragmentary remains?  This means that the folks at the NJ State Museum had to be especially thoughtful when reconstructing the rest of the skeletons since some of the bones had to be made based on guesswork.  This is especially tricky when the skeleton in question is missing a head.  In the case of Dryptosaurus we have some of the skull including part of the jaws and some other bits...but not enough to get a definite picture.  I got into contact with some people I know from the museum, including volunteer, Wayne Callahan, assistant curator, Jason Schein, and Curator David Parris, to get some more details on these skeletons.  What I found out was that elements from a few other related, but more completely known, kinds of dinosaurs were used as references to fill in missing gaps.  Most notably was AppalachiosaurusAppalachiosaurus was another kind of tyrannosauroid that lived on the east coast of North America, and was probably the closest relative to Dryptosaurus that we know of.  Elements from the much older, basal tyrannosauroid, Dilong, and the two-fingered tyrannosaurid, Gorgosaurus, are also used.

The last thing you'd see...

In addition to the Dryptosaurus skeletons, the New Jersey State museum has plenty of other awesome additions to its natural history hall.  There is now a fossil lab right there in the public viewing area where you can see volunteers and scientists prepping real fossils behind glass.  It was there that I met Hank, another volunteer, as he was using an air scribe to chip the excess rock off of a prehistoric crocodile skull that was discovered in southern New Jersey.

Tip of the crocodile's snout
Closeup of one of the crocodile's teeth with Hank's hand for scale.

Finally I saw an old familiar in the form of the New Jersey Elk Moose!  If you have been following me since 2012 you might remember this fellow from a guest article my friend, Amanda, provided when she was studying prehistoric deer.  This very specimen was the one she had to get teeth measurements from.

The NJ Elk Moose on display in the new Natural History Hall at the NJ State Museum.
There is much more to explore at the New Jersey State Museum.  If you get the chance definitely stop by and pay it a visit.  The Dryptosaurus skeletons alone are worth it!