December 14, 2012
There’s always something new to learn about dinosaurs. Whether it’s the description of a previously-unknown species or a twist in what we thought we knew about their lives, our understanding of the evolution, biology, and extinction is shifting on a near-daily basis. Even now, paleontologists are pushing new dinosaurs to publication and debating the natural history of these wonderful animals, but the end of the year is as good a time as any to take a brief look back at what we learned in 2012.
For one thing, there was an exceptional amount of dino-hype this year. A retracted paper that mused on the nature of hypothetical space dinosaurs, a credulous report on an amateur scientist who said he had evidence that all dinosaurs were aquatic, and overblown nonsense about dinosaurs farting themselves into extinction all hit the headlines. (And the less said about the Ancient Aliens dinosaur episode, the better.) Dinosaurs are amazing enough without such sensationalist dreck, or, for that matter, being transformed into abominable human-raptor hybrids by Hollywood.
Not all the dinosaurs to wander into the media spotlight were atrocious, though. The glossy book Dinosaur Art collected some of the best prehistoric illustrations ever created, and the recently-released All Yesterdays presented dinosaurs in unfamiliar scenes as a way to push artists to break from severely-constrained traditions. Dinosaurs were probably much more unusual than we have ever imagined.
Indeed, new discoveries this year extended the range of fluff and feathers among dinosaurs and raised the question of whether “enfluffledness” was an ancient, common dinosaur trait. Paleontologists confirmed that the ostrich-like Ornithomimus–long suspected to have plumage–sported different arrangements of feathers as it aged. New insight on the 30-foot-long carnivore Yutyrannus affirmed that even big tyrannosaurs were covered in dinofuzz. And while both Ornithomimus and Yutyrannus belonged to the feathery subset of the dinosaur family tree that includes birds, the discovery of fluff on a much more distantly related theropod–Sciurumimus–hints that feathers were a much older, more widespread dinosaur feature than previously expected. Paired with previous finds, Sciurumimus suggests that protofeathers either evolved multiple times in dinosaurian history, or that the simple structures are a common inheritance at the base of the dinosaur family tree that was later lost in some groups and modified in others.
While some traditionalists might prefer scaly dinosaurs over fuzzy ones, feathers and their antecedents are important clues that can help paleontologists explore other aspects of paleobiology. This year, for example, researchers reconstructed dark, iridescent plumage on Microraptor on the basis of fossil feathers, and, as display structures, feathery decorations will undoubtedly have a role to play in the ongoing debate about how sexual selection influenced dinosaur forms. Feathers can also be frustrating–a new look at the plumage of Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx will undoubtedly alter our expectations of how aerially capable these bird-like dinosaurs were and how they might have escaped predatory dinosaurs that dined on the prehistoric fowl. Such lines of inquiry are where the past and present meet–after all, birds are modern dinosaurs.
Feathers aren’t the only dinosaur body coverings we know about. Skin impressions, such as those found with the ankylosaur Tarchia, have also helped paleontologists discern what dinosaurs actually looked like. Pebbly patterns in Saurolophus skin can even be used to differentiate species, although paleontologists are still puzzled as to why hadrosaurs seem to be found with fossil skin traces more often than other varieties of dinosaur.
And, speaking of ornamentation, a damaged Pachycephalosaurus skull dome might provide evidence that these dinosaurs really did butt heads. How the adornments of such dinosaurs changed as they aged, though, is still a point of controversy. One of this year’s papers threw support to the idea that Torosaurus really is a distinct dinosaur, rather than a mature Triceratops, but that debate is far from over.
Other studies provided new insights into how some dinosaurs slept, the evolutionary pattern of dinosaur succession, what dinosaur diversity was like at the end of the Cretaceous, and how dinosaurs grew up, but, of course, how dinosaurs fed is a favorite place that lies at the intersection of science and imagination. A poster at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting deconstructed how Tyrannosaurus rex–suggested to have the most powerful bite of any terrestrial animal ever–tore the heads off of deceased Triceratops. The herbivorous Diplodocus, by contrast, munched soft plants and stripped branches of vegetation rather than gnawing on tree bark, and the tiny, omnivorous Fruitadens probably mixed insects with its Jurassic salads. Studying dinosaur leftovers also explained why paleontologists didn’t find more of the mysterious Deinocheirus, which thus far has been identified by only one incomplete fossil–the long-armed ornithomimosaur was eaten by a Tarbosaurus.
We also met a slew of new dinosaurs this year, including the many-horned Xenoceratops, the archaic coelurosaur Bicentenaria, the sail-backed Ichthyovenator, the stubby-armed Eoabelisaurus, and the early tyrannosaur Juratyrant. This is just a short list of species I wrote about–a few that add to the ever-increasing list.
To properly study dinosaurs and learn their secrets, though, we must protect them. One of the most important dinosaur stories this year wasn’t about science, but about theft. An illicit Tarbosaurus skeleton – pieced together from multiple specimens smuggled out of Mongolia–has brought wide attention to the fossil black market, as well as the poachers and commercial dealers who fuel it. The fate of this dinosaur remains to be resolved, but I’m hopeful that the dinosaur will be returned home and will set a precedent for more vigorously going after fossil thieves and their accomplices.
Out of all the 2012 dinosaur stories, though, I’m especially excited about Nyasasaurus. The creature’s skeleton is as yet too fragmentary to know whether it was true dinosaur or the closest relative to the Dinosauria as a whole, but, at approximately 243 million years old, this creature extends the range of dinosaurs back in time at least 10 million years. That’s another vast swath of time for paleontologists to examine as they search for where dinosaurs came from, and those discoveries will help us better understand the opening chapters in the dinosaurian saga. That’s the wonderful thing about paleontology–new discoveries open new questions, and those mysteries keep us going back into the rock record.
And with that, I must say goodbye to Dinosaur Tracking. On Tuesday I’m starting my new gig at National Geographic’s Phenomena. I’ve had a blast during my time here at Smithsonian, and I bid all my editors a fond farewell as I and my favorite dinosaurs head off to our new home.
Editor’s Note: Best wishes to Brian on his future travels and we all thank him for his hard work over the past 4 (!) years, writing every day about something new on dinosaurs. It’s not nearly as easy as he makes it look. – BW
December 13, 2012
Dinosaurs are much more than real monsters that fire our imaginations, but, let’s face it, part of their persistent appeal is that many were enormous prehistoric oddities. And it’s just that aspect of dinosaurian nature that is raising ire in a historically-rich California town and on an Australian golf course.
San Juan Capistrano, California is famous for the local cliff swallows and the historic Spanish architecture, but the town has recently been in the news because of an unwelcome dinosaur. According to the LA Times, a huge sauropod statue erected in the town’s petting zoo has drawn the ire of those who seek to retain some semblance of southern California’s past. Where kids and the zoo’s owner sees the dinosaur as a fanciful distraction, local historians argue that the dinosaur is totally out of place with the rest of the town’s decor. The dinosaur is staying put for now, but may yet be removed if the city decides that there’s just no place for a dinosaur in a place where Californian history and modern life already mix.
A different dinosaur is frustrating Australia’s professional golfers. The wealthy owner of the Palmer Coolum Resort has installed a 26 foot long, animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex in the middle of the course. Along with other recent installations, ESPN reports, the dinosaur is expected to adversely affect the games of Australian PGA Championship golfers set to play there. With the resort’s owner promising more dinosaurs on the way, the sports group has decided to move the tournament elsewhere after this year. Whether a sauropod looks out of place is one thing–having a T. rex get in the way of your shot is another.
Not everyone is so bothered by giant dinosaurs, though. A Best Western hotel in Colorado is taking on an entirely prehistoric theme, including fossil casts and dinosaur sculptures. In addition to attracting tourists, the hotel’s owner says he wants to draw attention to Colorado’s exceptional fossil sites, such as the nearby track site at Dinosaur Ridge. Dinosaur sculptures are frustrating eyesores to some and paleo-vacation essentials to others.
December 12, 2012
Dinosaurs never cease to surprise. Even though documentaries and paleoart regularly restore these creatures in lifelike poses, the fact is that ongoing investigations into dinosaur lives have revealed behaviors that we never could have expected from bones alone. Among the most recent finds is that dinosaurs were capable of digging into the ground for shelter. Burrows found in Australia and Montana show that some small, herbivorous dinosaurs dug out cozy little resting places in the cool earth.
But when did dinosaurs develop burrowing behavior? The distinctive trace fossils found so far are Cretaceous in age, over 100 million years after the first dinosaurs evolved. That’s why a new PLoS One paper by paleontologist Carina Colombi caught my eye. In the Triassic rock of Argentina’s Ischigualasto Basin, Columbi and coauthors report, there are large-diameter burrows created by vertebrates that lived approximately 230 million years ago. Archaic dinosaurs such as Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus roamed these habitats–could dinosaurs be responsible for the burrows?
Colombi and colleagues recognized three different burrow forms in the Triassic rock. Two distinct types–differentiated by their diameter and general shape–were “networks of tunnels and shafts” that the authors attributed to vertebrates. The third type showed a different pattern of “straight branches that intersect at oblique angles” created by the burrowing organism and the plant life. The geology and shapes of the burrows indicate that they were created by living organisms. The trick is figuring out what made the distinct tunnel types.
In the case of the first burrow type, Colombi and collaborators propose that the structures were made by small, carnivorous cynodonts–squat, hairy protomammals. In the other two cases, the identities of the burrow makers isn’t clear. The second type included vertical shafts that hint at a vertebrate culprit. Dinosaurs would have been too big, but, Colombi and coauthors suggest, other cynodonts or the bizarre, ancient cousins of crocodiles–such as aetosaurs or protosuchids–could have created the burrows. Unless remains of these animals are found associated with the burrows, it is impossible to be sure. Likewise, the third type of trace might represent the activities of animals that burrowed around plant roots, but there is no clear candidate for the trace-maker.
As far as we know now, Triassic dinosaurs didn’t burrow. Even though they were not giants, they were still too large to have made fossils reported in the new research. Still, I have to wonder if predatory dinosaurs such as Herrerasaurus, or omnivores like Eoraptor, dug poor little cynodonts out of their burrows much like the later deinonychosaurs scratched after hiding mammals. There’s no direct evidence for such interactions, but, if small animals often sheltered from heat and drought in cool tunnels, perhaps predators tried to nab prey resting in their hiding places. One thing is for sure, though: we’ve only just started to dig beyond the surface of Triassic life.
Colombi, C., Fernández, E., Currie, B., Alcober, O., Martínez, R., Correa, G. 2012. Large-Diameter Burrows of the Triassic Ischigualasto Basin, NW Argentina: Paleoecological and Paleoenvironmental Implications. PLoS ONE 7,12: e50662. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050662
December 11, 2012
Dinosaurs are often thought of as kid’s stuff. In America, at least, going through a “dinosaur phase” is just another part of childhood, and somewhere along the way we’re expected to stop acting like walking encyclopedias to Mesozoic life. Yet this narrow view of dinosaurs as nothing more than pre-teen kitsch obscures the essential truths these animals can share with us about evolution, extinction, and survival.
As paleontologist Michael Novacek argues in the video above, the history of dinosaurs is also our history–our mammalian ancestors and relatives snuffled and scurried through a dinosaur-dominated world for more than 150 million years. We can’t understand where we came from without considering dinosaurs. And, says paleontologist Matt Bonnan, “Dinosaurs put our place in the world into perspective.” By asking questions about dinosaurs–when did they live and what was the world like then?–the history of life on Earth comes into focus, and the answers to these queries help us better understand the pervasive forces of evolution and extinction through time.
These critical aspects of nature can be difficult to detect on the timescales of our lives, but become much more apparent when we can peek into deep time by sifting through the remains of creatures that roamed the Earth long ago. An individual dinosaur discovery might not have any practical use or even significantly change our understanding of the past, but when considered together with the ever-growing body of research about dinosaurs, it can help us understand how we came to be on this planet and may even give us some clues about the future–how species emerge and decline, how creatures adapt, and how life evolves after catastrophic extinction events.
What do you think is the best case for the importance of studying dinosaurs?
December 10, 2012
Spinosaurs are often called “fish-eating dinosaurs.” Their long, shallow snouts recall the jaws of crocodiles, and, based on gut contents and fossil geochemistry, it seems that these dinosaurs truly were piscivores. Yet spinosaurs weren’t on a strict fish diet. In 2004, Eric Buffetaut and colleagues described a spinosaur tooth embedded in the fossilized neck vertebrae of an Early Cretaceous pterosaur found in Brazil’s roughly 110-million-year-old Santana Formation. The paleontologists couldn’t say whether the dinosaur caught its prey on the wing or scavenged a fresh carcass, but, based on fossils previously found in the same geologic formation, one spinosaur stood out as the probable culprit–Irritator challengeri.
The spinosaur’s quirky name symbolizes its unconventional back story. As explained in the 1996 description of the dinosaur by David Martill and colleagues, the mostly complete skull of Irritator had been artificially modified by a commercial fossil dealer prior to being purchased and making its way into the collection of Germany’s Stuttgart State Museum of the Natural Sciences. The tip of the snout was made up of bone from elsewhere on the skull, “concealed by blocks of matrix removed from other parts of the specimen and a thick layer of Isopon car body filler.” The fabrication not only deceived the buyers, but was especially difficult to remove from the authentic fossil. Martill and colleagues named the dinosaur Irritator as a tribute to “the feeling the authors felt (understated here) when discovering that the snout had been artificially elongated.”
Martill and collaborators originally proposed that Irritator was a maniraptoran dinosaur–a relative of the feathery deinonychosaurs, oviraptorosaurs, and their kin. That same year, however, paleontologist Andrew Kellner recognized that Irritator was actually a spinosaur–one of the croc-snouted, and often sail-backed, predatory dinosaurs. Kellner also named what he suspected was another spinosaur found in the same geologic formation–”Angaturama limai“–but many researchers suspect that this animal is the same as Irritator, and the so-called “Angaturama” remains may even complete the missing parts of the Irritator skeleton.
But even after Irritator was properly identified, there was still work to be done. Diane Scott undertook the painstaking work of fully cleaning the skull of the encasing matrix, which led to a new description by Hans-Dieter Sues and coauthors in 2002. Irritator is represented by the most complete skull yet known for any spinosaur. Among other new aspects, it was apparent that the back of the skull was significantly deeper among spinosaurs than had previously been thought. And even though Martill and co-authors originally described a prominent crest on the top of the spinosaur’s skull, the fully-prepped fossil showed that this bone did not actually belong to the Irritator skull.
There’s still much we have to learn about spinosaurs. Most of these dinosaurs are only known from bits and pieces. And despite starring in Jurassic Park III, Spinosaurus itself is among the most poorly known dinosaurs of all, and the fragmentary nature of so many of these dinosaurs makes it possible that paleontologists have named too many genera. In their study, Sues and coauthors argue that Suchomimus is really just a different species of Baryonx, and even Irritator might be a distinct species of Spinosaurus. Researchers have only just begun to track the record of these long-snouted dinosaurs, although, hopefully, future finds will not be quite so aggravating as Irritator.
This is the latest post in the Dinosaur Alphabet series.
Buffetaut, E., Martill, D., Escuillie, F. 2004. Pterosaurs as part of a spinosaur diet. Nature. 430: 33
Martill, D., Cruickshank, A., Frey, E., Small, P., Clarke, M. 1996. A new crested maniraptoran dinosaur from the Santana Formation (Lower Cretaceous) of Brazil. Journal of the Geological Society 153: 5-8.
Sues, H., Frey, E., Martill, D., Scott, D. 2002. Irritator challengeri, a spinosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 22, 3: 535-547