August 29, 2012
Dinosaur names are important. Each moniker is a title that encompasses the various bones and specimens that paleontologists use to bring dinosaurs to life. When I write Tyrannosaurus rex, for instance, the name instantly conjures up an image of a hulking, deep-skulled bone-crusher that roamed western North America during the last two million years of the Cretaceous. A dinosaur’s name conveys a lot of information.
Some names are more mundane than others. Allosaurus is one of my favorite dinosaurs, but her name translates to “different lizard.” Not very inspiring. Alternatively, some dinosaur names can be hard to pronounce. I always pause before I say Amphicoelias to make sure I don’t butcher the sauropod’s name. And, then again, some dinosaur names are unintentionally funny. Pantydraco, anyone?
Just as there are people who are put off by dinosaur feathers, though, some folks are irritated by what they deem “dinosaurs with dumb names.” One of my neighbors over at WIRED, humorist Lore Sjöberg, wrote a brief whine featuring a list of dinosaurs that he thinks should be renamed for dignity’s sake.
Now, there are some dinosaur names that I’m not totally enamored with. While I understand the dinosaur’s symbolic status, Bicentenaria argentina doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and the same goes for the unevocative Panamericansaurus (yes, named after Pan American Energy). Then there are the names that appeal to the more puerile portion of my sense of humor. Read the name Texasetes too fast and you may get the dinosaur confused with a part of the male anatomy (not to mention the actual debate over whether the name of Megalosaurus should really be “Scrotum“), and you should always be careful with the pronunciation of Fukuiraptor unless you’re actually trying to insult the allosaur.
But what baffles me is that Sjöberg didn’t pick any of these names. Instead, his list includes the likes of Spinosaurus and Giraffatitan. I get his beef with dinosaurs named after places (Albertosaurus, Edmontosaurus, etc.), and I agree that Gasosaurus was comically unimaginative, but Iguanodon? The second dinosaur ever named, and one of the most iconic prehistoric creatures named for the clue in its teeth that led Gideon Mantell to rightly hypothesize that the dinosaur was an immense herbivore? I have to wonder whether Sjöberg would consider “Iguanasaurus– the original proposed name for the dinosaur–to be a step back or an improvement.
I just don’t get Sjöberg’s contention that Giraffatitan is “terrible” because–*gasp*–the sauropod wasn’t actually a big giraffe. Strict literalism only in naming dinosaurs, please. And, really, what would Sjöberg suggest as a replacement for Spinosaurus? When Ernst Stromer found the theropod, the most distinctive thing about the dinosaur was its enormous vertebral spines. What would you call it? Suchomimus–a cousin of Spinosaurus–is a little more poetic, but I like Stromer’s choice just fine.
There’s no reason to focus on the negative, though. There are plenty of awesome dinosaur names. Yes, yes, Tyrannosaurus rex will always be the best, but I still get a kick out of saying the names of the enigmatic sauropod Xenoposeidon, the dromaeosaur Pyroraptor, the stegosaur Miragaia, the ceratopsian Spinops, and the oviraptorid Khaan (“KHAAAAAAN!“). Not every dinosaur name is easily pronounced (say Willinakaqe ten times fast) or truly encapsulates the nature of the animal, but at least paleontologists aren’t naming species after online casinos. Not yet, anyway.
August 28, 2012
I adore feathered dinosaurs. It feels a little strange to say that, but it’s true. Few things make me happier than seeing delicately-rendered restorations of theropods covered in fuzz and ceratopsians with some accessory bristles. The various bits of plumage–from quill-like structures to true feathers–make dinosaurs look even more wonderful and fantastic than the drab, scaly monsters I grew up with. And who wouldn’t love a fluffy like dinosaur like Sciurumimus, perhaps the cutest dinosaur of all time?
Of course, not everyone feels the same way. There are some people who want their dinosaurs to be scaly, scaly, scaly, science be damned. They weep, wail and gnash their teeth whenever a new study suggests that another branch of the dinosaur family tree might have been adorned with plumage. It’s as if they expect the Dinosauria to be consistent with an unchanging canon–sci-fi and comic fans suffer a similar apoplexy when one of their favorite characters deviates from their most cherished storyline.
io9′s “We Come From the Future” show recently debated whether science had “ruined” dinosaurs by decorating so many non-avian species with feathers. (Remember–birds are dinosaurs, too, and there have been some very scary birds in the history of life on earth). Granted, some restorations of feathery dinosaurs really do look stupid, and the minor plumes on the heads of Jurassic Park III‘s Velociraptor didn’t really help.
The show’s point-counterpoint debate on the matter isn’t totally serious, and it’s a way to get a tidbit of science out to a wider audience. That’s a good thing. All the same, I’m pretty sick of people who complain that feathers somehow detract from dinosaurian magnificence. How immature can you get? We all love the dinosaurs we first meet as kids, and, for many of us, those leviathans were drab and scaly. But those earlier versions have been slit from stem to stern by more active, colorful and complex dinosaurs, many of which had some kind of feather-like body covering. Which would you prefer? The scaly, sluggish pot-bellied Tyrannosaurus of the mid-20th century, or a svelte, agile predator that has a few patches of fuzz?
Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that all dinosaurs looked like big chickens. Dinosaurs exhibited an array of body structures–from simple, fuzzy tubes to bristles and full-on flight feathers. Some species, like modern birds, even exhibited several different types of feathers. The weird Beipiaosaurus, for one, had fuzzy protofeathers on much of its body but also had a sort of tail fan created by a different feather type. And “feathered dinosaur” doesn’t mean that the animal was entirely cloaked in plumage. Take Psittacosaurus, for example–this little ceratopsian was a very, very distant relative of birds and had a row of bristles along its tail. The structures were probably visual signals, and I have no doubt that same was true among other dinosaurs. Feathers aren’t just about flight or insulation, but they’re also important in display and communication.
And feathers are the key to dinosaur color. I’m still awestruck that we can recreate the colors of creatures that have been extinct for tens of millions of years. By comparing the microscopic details of prehistoric dinosaur feathers to the feathers of modern birds, we can finally answer that most persistent of paleo questions. That fact, alone, makes feathered dinosaurs especially magnificent.
I’m weary of this Portlandia-esque attitude that dinosaurs are over if they’re feathered. Please. New scientific discoveries are allowing us to gain unprecedented insights into the biology of dinosaurs, including the lives of the fluffy species. Feathers are just part of that bigger picture, and I’m ecstatic that paleontologists are reconstructing dinosaurs in ever-greater detail. The point is this. Feathered dinosaurs are awesome. Deal with it.
August 9, 2012
The road home for an illicit Tarbosaurus is bound to be a long one. Earlier this summer, federal agents seized a skeleton of the tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus that had been put up for auction in New York City. The sale price for the dinosaur topped $1 million, but, as was long suspected and was soon made clear, the dinosaur was illegally smuggled into the United States. Even worse, the skeleton itself was almost certainly illegally excavated from Mongolia and subsequently smuggled out of the country. Mongolian officials, professional paleontologists, lawyers, and United States officials moved quickly to prevent the dinosaur from disappearing into the collection of the tyrannosaur’s prospective buyer.
I see these events as a victory. The fossil black market has robbed many countries of their natural history heritage, especially Mongolia and China, and I was glad to see so many concerned activists work together in the hope that the Tarbosaurus might be returned. As expert paleontologists have concluded, the Tarbosaurus undoubtedly came from Mongolia–a country with strict heritage laws about who can collect fossils, what can be collected, and what subsequently happens to the fossils. All the evidence accumulated so far supports to idea that the Tarbosaurus was looted from Mongolia. But the man who assembled the controversial Tarbosaurus doesn’t agree, and has filed a claim on the dinosaur. Eric Prokopi, who obtained the Tarbosaurus and stood to profit from the auction, believes that the dinosaur is rightly his.
As reported by Wynne Parry at LiveScience, Prokopi and his attorney are trying to defend the sale of the Tarbosaurus by drawing a distinction between raw fossils and the reconstructed end product. “We are just trying to create a factual distinction between a fossil which is imported and a finished piece which is what was being sold at the auction,” Prokopi’s attorney Michael McCullough said.
But this strategy entirely misses the point. Prokopi obviously put a great deal of time, money, and effort into the tyrannosaur skeleton, but that does not change the fact that the skeleton was almost certainly illegally excavated and, as customs documents demonstrate, smuggled into the United States through a false description. How hard Prokopi worked is absolutely irrelevant. And, frankly, Prokopi should have known better than to put so much effort into a significant dinosaur specimen when he admittedly had no idea where the specimen came from or how it was collected. The bottom line is quite simple–the Tarbosaurus was illegally removed from its home strata, and it should be returned to its country of origin of soon as possible.
August 6, 2012
One of the reasons Jurassic Park was so successful–as a novel and a blockbuster film–is that it presented a plausible way to bring dinosaurs back to life. The idea that viable dinosaur DNA might be retrieved from bloodsucking prehistoric insects seemed like a project that could actually succeed. Even though the actual methodology is hopelessly flawed and would never work, the premise was science-ish enough to let us suspend our disbelief and revel in the return of the dinosaurs.
Nevertheless, Jurassic Park brought up the tantalizing possibility that scientists might one day resurrect a Brachiosaurus, Velociraptor or Triceratops. And every once in a while, rumors arise about someone who might just give the project a try. According to the latest round of internet gossip, Australian billionaire Clive Palmer is hoping to clone a dinosaur for an exotic vacation retreat. Palmer has since denied the rumors, but, for a moment, let’s run with the assumption that someone is going to pour millions of dollars into a dinosaur cloning project. Would it actually work?
As Rob Desalle and David Lindley pointed out in The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, there were a lot of steps that Michael Crichton glossed over in his dinosaur cloning regime. The novelist never explained how scientists overcame issues of genetic contamination, figured out what a complete dinosaur genome should look like and, most important of all, figured out how to actually translate all that DNA into a viable dinosaur embryo. It’s not simply a matter of accumulating DNA pieces until scientists have mapped every gene. A creature’s genetics must be read and interpreted within a biological system that will create an actual living organism. There are innumerable hurdles to any speculative dinosaur cloning project, starting with the effort to actually obtain unaltered dinosaur DNA–something that has never been done, and may never be.
If Palmer, or anyone else, wants to create a dinosaur park, it would be far easier to set up a reserve for living dinosaurs. The cassowary–a flightless, helmeted bird–is sufficiently prehistoric-looking to make it a draw for visitors. True, it’s not a Velociraptor, but a cassowary is most certainly a dinosaur that does pack a mean kick. There are plenty of living dinosaurs that could use a hand through conservation programs, so perhaps it would be better to try to save some avian dinosaurs rather than bring their non-avian cousins back from the dead.
August 1, 2012
Almost 20 years since it first debuted, Jurassic Park is still the quintessential dinosaur movie. But what if the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras were flipped, with intelligent Velociraptor pondering the ferocity of our species? This YouTube parody imagines just that, and a follow-up cartoon depicts that dinosaurs’ amazement at seeing living elephants in “Quaternary Park.” I can only hope that the creators of the spoof eventually get to the famous chase sequence, with a tiger chasing after a jeep full of Velociraptor.