September 11, 2012
I have a soft spot for Dryptosaurus. The enigmatic tyrannosauroid was found in my previous home state of New Jersey, and, more than that, played a key role in helping 19th-century paleontologists revise their understanding of just what a dinosaur really was. I even took the theropod’s original name–”Laelaps“, sadly found to be preoccupied by a kind of mite–as my nom de blog. The dinosaur perfectly combines my love of tyrannosaurs and the history of science with a reminder of where I came from.
Despite the historic importance of Dryptosaurus, though, the Late Cretaceous predator has since been overshadowed by bigger, badder dinosaurian carnivores. While Dryptosaurus seemed to be the baddest the prehistoric Jersey shore had to offer when E.D. Cope first described the tyrannosauroid in 1866, and was forever immortalized by artist Charles R. Knight in his “Leaping Laelaps” painting, more complete skeletons of other theropods had relegated Dryptosaurus to the background. Even worse, there’s little hope that we’re ever going to completely comprehend this dinosaur. Many isolated bones have been attributed to Dryptosaurus over the years, but New Jersey’s Cretaceous dinosaurs are known from bits and pieces that were washed out into the primeval Atlantic. Even if there is another partial skeleton out there somewhere, the suburban sprawl of the Garden State has probably paved over it by now.
That’s why I’m ecstatic that the exceptional artist and sculptor Tyler Keillor is planning on creating a full-scale Dryptosaurus restoration. Even though much about this dinosaur remains unknown, I think Keillor’s Kickstarter project is a wonderful way to pay tribute to one of my favorite dinosaurs. Even better, the project will highlight the long history of American paleontology and the critical role East coast fossils played in our ever-shifting understanding of dinosaurs. I’m confident Keillor can successfully bring the dinosaur back to life, or as close to it as art supplies will allow–two years ago, I interviewed Keillor about a full-size, fuzzy Dryptosaurus head he had created. It’s a gorgeous sculpture that really captures the spirit of the dinosaur. Now it’s time to put the rest of the tyrannosauroid’s body in place.
August 20, 2012
Last fall, fossil tracker Ray Stanford and paleontologists David Weishampel and Valerie Deleon announced something wonderful–a rare impression of a baby ankylosaur. The delicate specimen, officially named Propanoplosaurus marylandicus and on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, is an Early Cretaceous snapshot from Maryland that gives us a fleeting picture of how these armored dinosaurs started life. And the fossil is even more spectacular given the rarity of dinosaur bones found in the area. Paleontologists have discovered teeth and bone fragments over the years–including bones from “Capitalsaurus” in Washington, D.C.–but even partially complete skeletons remain elusive. Dinosaur tracks are far more common, and, according to the Washington Post, Stanford may have discovered a footprint of an adult ankylosaur in an unexpected place.
As reported by Brian Vastag, the print sits on the property of a NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Stanford stumbled across the lone track earlier this summer and recently led NASA scientists out to the site to show them the fossil depression. Though the track has started to erode, and may have been damaged by a lawnmower, the roughly 112-million-year-old track still shows four toe imprints. According to David Weishampel, the track could have been made by a nodosaur–a member of the heavily-armored ankylosaur subgroup that lacked tail clubs but often sported prominent spikes along their sides.
Officials at the NASA campus are already moving to protect the fossil, and they plan to bring in paleontologists to look for other dinosaur tracks. The NASA scientists want to keep the site a secret, Vastag reports, but ultimately want the public to be able to see the track. What happens next will depend on the laws that regulate how fossils can be removed and curated. But it seems that there is more than just a lone track at the spaceflight facility. When Stanford took the NASA scientists out to the site, he and other researchers found several more possible dinosaur tracks. The high-tech NASA facility may have been founded on a Cretaceous dinosaur stomping ground.
June 22, 2012
There has never been a better time for dinosaurs. Skeleton by skeleton, museum by museum, the reconstructed frames of the prehistoric creatures are being updated and repositioned in shiny displays garnished with interactive screens and smartphone tours. The last of the tail-dragging holdouts – leftovers from before the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 70s and 80s changed our perspective of how a dinosaur should look – are being disassembled and reconstructed in more active, agile positions. Among the latest museums to revamp their dinosaur exhibits is California’s Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
The museum’s new dinosaur hall opened last July. I spent a day among the new exhibits a few months later. On the September day I visited, the windows encircling the hall let incoming sunlight wash over the skeletons and cast their shadows over the floor. This was quite different to the dark, dusty displays I encountered as a child, and more akin to the open, bright aesthetic New York’s American Museum of Natural History developed when they renovated their dinosaur halls in the late 90s.
Unlike the AMNH displays, which were arranged as an evolutionary tree of dinosaurs, the Los Angeles museum doesn’t seem to have any discernible floorplan. An elegant, ostrich-like Struthiomimus skeleton greets visitors to the lower gallery, while, just behind the mount, an Allosaurus harasses a Stegosaurus. The exhibit’s centerpiece – a three-part Tyrannosaurus growth series, from juvenile to young adult – looms nearby. From there the lower gallery displays continue on, past the shovel-beaked Edmontosaurus skull I recently wrote about and the resurrected frame of a stalking Carnotsaurus, before taking a turn into a larger room where models of the small, bristle-tailed dinosaur Fruitadens mingle with the skeletons of Mamenchisaurus and Triceratops. With the exception of a small subsection devoted to marine reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs, the displays are not organized according to chronology, ecology, or evolution. Each is a little island to itself.
Upstairs is a different story. While the lower gallery is full of skulls and reconstructed skeletons, the exhibit’s upper floor is not as densely-populated by fossils. That’s a good thing. Downstairs visitors get to see the products of paleontology – genuine specimens and reconstructed hypotheses of what dinosaurs were like – but the top floor takes greater care to explain the science of what we know. The interactive displays explore the basics of fieldwork – with an amusing tabletop game that asks you to make decisions about how to spend a day in the badlands – and various aspects of dinosaur biology, including pathologies and senses. And, in a nice touch, the upper gallery empties out into a small alcove where a few of California’s local dinosaurs are displayed. Almost every dinosaur exhibit makes room for Tyrannosaurus, but I think it’s especially important to show off local prehistoric notables to help local visitors understand just how much their home state has changed through the course of time.
Paleontologist Andrew Farke published a review of the same exhibits in the latest Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology issue. Farke was just as impressed as I was by the stunning visual displays, but came away with the same concern:
The exhibits make abundantly clear that dinosaurs and their aquatic counterparts were living, breathing animals, but in what context? Many of the most eye-catching sections in the Hall of Dinosaurs feel as if they’ve been yanked out of space and time, with little sense for how the organisms fit within their ancient ecosystems or the tree of life.
Dinosaurs are not only wonderful creatures to gawk at. Any dinosaur skeleton is a snapshot of evolution, ecology, and extinction – a thread we can follow back through time to understand the world as it once was. The NHMLA deserves credit for creating beautiful displays and showcasing a few of the ways we can extract delicate details from ancient bones, but, without their essential evolutionary context, the hall’s dinosaurs can easily be cast as prehistoric monsters that have no relevance to the modern world. We know that isn’t the case. Our mammalian ancestors and cousins evolved alongside dinosaurs, and, as one small display points out, dinosaurs live among us today as birds. The “Age of Dinosaurs” and “Age of Mammals” have always been the same – the earliest mammaliformes evolved around the same time as the first dinosaurs, and dinosaurs, in avian garb, are a beautiful part of our modern world. If we don’t highlight our connection to dinosaurs through time and evolution, we may let the magnificent creatures slowly slip away from us and turn into irrelevant, hoary monsters.
Post-Script: Paleontologist Jack Horner just happened to be visiting the same day I wandered the museum galleries. The museum’s fuzzy Tyrannosaurus puppet came out to greet Horner, and the paleontologist shook hands with the tiny tyrant. [Horner is the man in green in the video below]
June 18, 2012
On June 23rd, the Royal Ontario Museum is going to open a tribute to some of the largest and strangest dinosaurs ever found, in Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants From Gondwana. The centerpiece of the celebration is a full-size mount of the huge sauropod Futalognkosaurus—a long-necked, 105-foot titan that was described in 2007. And as part of the lead-up to the exhibit’s debut, the Toronto Star is featuring a time-lapse video of how paleontologists put the dinosaur together. After just a few hours, an 87-million-year-old giant stands again.
May 21, 2012
Cretaceous Utah was a strange place. Today’s arid, sage- and juiper-covered badlands in the southern part of the state preserve the remnants of swampy prehistoric environments that sat along the coast of a vanished seaway. And these wet habitats were inhabited by an array of bizarre dinosaurs that paleontologists are still in the process of describing. Among the recent discoveries is Utahceratops gettyi, a roughly 76-million-year-old horned dinosaur that has just been put on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah. (Full disclosure: I am currently a paleontology volunteer at the museum.)
Even though the new Natural History Museum of Utah building opened last fall, the museum is still in the process of installing a few more fossil skeletons. Utahceratops is the latest to be added to the petrified cast, standing right next to the hadrosaurs Gryposaurus and Parasaurolophus. I was happy to see the dinosaur’s skeleton come together in the exhibit last week. There was a full artistic reconstruction in the 2010 paper that described the dinosaur, but it’s another thing altogether to see the dinosaur’s reconstructed skeleton—posed as if to walk right off the museum’s Cretaceous platform and head right out the door.