October 5, 2012
The end of the Cretaceous ended in one of the most catastrophic mass extinctions of all time. Among the various forms of life that were toppled were the non-avian dinosaurs. Triceratops and company didn’t exactly fall like dominoes, but, in this short video created by Flippycat.com, domino dinosaurs replay the epic destruction. And stay tuned for the behind-the-scenes video at the end. Just as the last non-avian dinosaurs had an evolutionary backstory stretching back millions and millions of years, it took a long time to set up the toy dinosaurs for their downfall.
September 28, 2012
Triceratops was an A+ dinosaur. But, awesome as the hulking ceratopsid was, it didn’t have mutant superpowers. Indeed, despite a website’s claim to the contrary, there’s no evidence that this three-horned behemoth defended itself with poisonous quills.
Even though it was posted over a year ago, I’ve received a few emails this week asking about a Listverse post by user “TyB” titled “Top 10 Dinosaurs That Aren’t What They Were.” For the most part, the list is a simple summary of how new discoveries and ideas have revitalized images of dinosaurs. When the article gets to Triceratops, though, the scientific accuracy careens off the rails.
Rather than being covered in smooth, wrinkly skin, the article states, Triceratops had “alligator-like, flat scales, called scutes, on its belly, and the rest of its body was covered in large scales and knobs.” I don’t know of any published study on Triceratops’ body covering, but it wouldn’t be surprising if, like other dinosaurs, Triceratops had bumpy skin with larger knobs or ornaments here and there. But here’s where things get strange:
Its back and tail also had a series of weird, fist-sized bumps, each one holding a nipple-like structure which has yet to be explained by scientists. These structures may very well be anchoring points for porcupine-like quills, like those found on Triceratops’ older cousin, Psittacosaurus. Or perhaps, some scientists suggest, they were poison glands, oozing toxins to protect the Triceratops’ hindquarters from T-Rex attacks.
I have no idea what this blogger is talking about. I had never heard the idea of a poisonous Triceratops before reading the list, and I don’t know of any paleontologist who has advocated such a notion. I think I know where the post’s author got the basis for their idea, though. For years, there have been rumors of a Triceratops–now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science–that was preserved with skin impressions and possible evidence of bristles along the tail. The scuttlebutt, along with evidence of feather-like bristles in the archaic ceratopsian Psittacosaurus, spurred artists to start putting tufts of quills on Triceratops tails.
No one has formally published a description of these structures, though. Whether they’re truly bristles, some other true body covering or a preservational artifact is unknown. It’s not unreasonable to think that Triceratops had patches of bristles, but the truth is that there’s no positive evidence that such ornamentation actually adorned the dinosaur, either.
But I’m confounded by the suggestion that the base of the quills provided space for “poison glands.” Bristles on Triceratops are iffy to start with, and no one has ever demonstrated that dinosaurs used venom or other toxins for defense. In 2009, one group of researchers proposed that the feathered, sickle-clawed Sinornithosaurus had a venomous bite, but their suggestion was quickly refuted. There’s so evidence that dinosaurs were venomous, poisonous, toxic or otherwise relied on biological warfare. As far as I can tell, the toxic Triceratops is entirely the invention of the list’s author.
That’s not all. In the same post, the author states that “After examining the beak and jaws, paleontologists reached the conclusion that Triceratops may have been partially carnivorous, probably scavenging after T-Rex, or even scaring smaller predators away from their kills.” Again, no one has actually studied this in detail, but, unlike the poison hypothesis, this idea is actually plausible.
Paleontologist and artist Mark Witton raised this point in a description of a gorgeous Styracosaurus illustration he drew a few years ago. As Witton pointed out, the scissor-like jaws of big ceratopsids were probably capable of slicing through flesh as well as plants, and it’s not unreasonable to think that these dinosaurs occasionally picked over meaty carcasses to supplement their diets with some protein. After all, as paleontologist Darren Naish has illustrated, cows and deer do the same thing today. Herbivores can indulge in a meaty meal, just as carnivores sometimes chomp fruit and greens. What we need now is someone to model how a Triceratops skull would handle munching on flesh and bone to put some more science behind the speculation.
September 12, 2012
What could be better than seeing a living Triceratops? Riding one, of course. Doctor Who showed us that much.
Sadly, old “three horned face” is long gone. I wouldn’t count on the dinosaur to be brought back to us by way of genetic experiments or alien arks filled with dinosaurs. But don’t despair, Triceratops fans. An art group called Wreckage International combined Triceratops with a Jeep to create “Adrianne,” a working autosaurus. You can hear about how Adrianne was created here. No word yet on whether the next model will resemble Torosaurus.
[Hat-tip to Texas Triffid Ranch]
September 6, 2012
Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that there’s a very easy way to make me annoyed–all you have to do is start whining about how dinosaurs are less cool since paleontologists discovered that many non-avian species sported tufts and coats of fluff, fuzz, bristles and feathers. My reaction is usually along the lines of “Brian SMASH!” Even though I understand that some people find scaly, monstrous dinosaurs aesthetically appealing, I have no patience for the callow assertion that science has somehow ruined dinosaurs through the addition of plumage.
Cartoonist Randall Munroe summed up my feelings–albeit in a more concise and positive way–this week at XKCD. Restoring dinosaurs with protofuzz and feathers isn’t just about giving Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor and company a new look. Dinosaur feathers, and feather-like structures, are allowing paleontologists to think of dinosaurs in new ways. In particular, Munroe cites a PLoS One study about how feathers may have played into the predatory behavior of sickle-clawed dromaeosaurs such as Deinonychus. According to paleontologist Denver Fowler and co-authors, Deinonychus may have used its famous “killing claw” to pin down small prey just like modern hawks and eagles do. More than that, the avian raptors flap to help stabilize themselves while immobilizing their prey, and Deinonychus–almost certainly a feathered dinosaur–may have done the same.
We can’t know for sure whether Deinonychus killed prey like a big, grounded version of a hawk. But it’s possible. Either way, though, studies like these show that prehistoric dinosaur feathers are allowing paleontologists to look to modern birds to generate new hypotheses and tease out previously-unknown aspects of dinosaur lives. As I’ve mentioned before, feathers are the key to figuring out dinosaur colors. How wonderful is that? Again, Munroe says it better than I can: “The past keeps getting cooler!”
Post script: Munroe isn’t the only cartoonist to take on dinosaurs this week. FoxTrot’s Bill Amend had a few suggestions for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur hall renovation. Paleontology curator Matt Carrano responded to the idea of installing a “Tourist Chompsognathus” at our Around the Mall blog.
September 5, 2012
What do Spider-Man, a dinosaur and a banana have in common? This is not a trick question. In this old animated public service announcement–dredged from the depths of the internet by io9–Spider-Man stops the rampage of an amphibious carnosaur, and all he asks for in return is a simple banana. I can only imagine that the wall-crawler had an unfortunate realization soon after he swung away–”You fool! Think of all the bananas you could have bought with four hundred million dollars!”