June 16, 2009
Earlier this week the Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Discovery Center Museum, both in Rockford, Illinois, held a ground-breaking ceremony on a $10 million expansion for the museums. The construction will give both institutions more exhibition space, and if the comments of Burpee Museum of Natural History director Alan Brown are anything to go by, the space will be packed with dinosaurs:
“This is a culmination of four years of very hard work trying to raise the funds. We’re very excited about it. The impact on Rockford we think is going to be significant to tourism, reputation. We think we’re going to be the dinosaur capital of the world.”
Which raises the question: what is the present dinosaur capital of the world? Naturally, it depends on who you ask. The town of Drumheller in Alberta, Canada justifiably touts itself as a top dino spot, but the town of Glen Rose, Texas has also been playing up its reputation as a place rich in dinosaur fossils. Which town deserves the title of the “Dinosaur Capital of the World?”
If you selected “other,” let us know in the comments what town or city you would nominate as “Dinosaur Capital of the World.”
May 28, 2009
There appear to be three themes that pop up in many of the major summer blockbusters being released this year: time travel, robots, and dinosaurs. I have already covered two of this summer’s bigger dino-flicks, Ice Age 3 and Land of the Lost, but the newly-released Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian also features a CGI-created dinosaur.
Unlike the dinosaurs in the other two films, the Tyrannosaurus in Night at the Museum 2 is only partially brought back to life. It is the skeleton from New York’s Natural History Museum that goes rollicking through the halls when the museum closes its doors, not unlike the one that begged for french fries in that old McDonald’s commercial. That, of course, is fantasy, but the similar dinosaur skeletons housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History must look pretty imposing when all the lights go off.
Some museums (but so far not including NMNH [Ed note: oops.]) are allowing visitors to spend the night. Boston.com contributor Geoff Edgers recently wrote of his experience staying overnight at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York regularly runs sleepovers for children. I wish such events were not just offered to kids though; I would love to spend a night at the museum, too!
May 8, 2009
A few months ago my colleague Mark Strauss mentioned the controversy surrounding the state dinosaur of Texas. Previously the state’s patron dinosaur was the sauropod Pleurocoelus, but this has turned out to be a mistake. Pleurocoelus was initially named for bones found in Maryland and the same name was applied to fossils from Texas. As it turns out, however, the Texas bones are distinct enough to merit a different genus name, Paluxysaurus.
The change should have been relatively simple. Texas was not really getting a new dinosaur; the name of the fossils were just being changed. Things got complicated, however, when ten-year-old Shashwatch Murphy petitioned to have the state dinosaur changed to Technosaurus. It was a valiant effort, but unfortunately for Murphy, Technosaurus was actually not a dinosaur at all and could not be considered for the honor of state dinosaur.
Paluxysaurus looked like a shoe-in for the “new” state dinosaur, but the Texas representatives decided to use the opportunity to engage in a little legislative theater. Some of the primary supporters of the resolution, like representatives Mike Hamilton and Mark Homer, put on dinosaur suits to show their support for the name change (even if Hamilton mixed up the words “extinct” and “instinct”). Some of the other representatives gave them a hard time, though. Representative Dan Gattis made known his opposition to the bill as “In accordance with the international fourth-grade spelling bee and grammar rules … the author [of the bill] cannot even spell or pronounce all the words in his resolution.”
If Gattis opposed the bill, he was the only one. The measure passed by a vote of 132 to 1 (even though it still has to pass through the state senate). Unless there are any more shenanigans to be played out, it looks like Paluxysaurus is the new state dinosaur of Texas.
April 29, 2009
Mass extinction is an extremely difficult subject to study. It is one thing to identify a mass extinction in the fossil record, but it is quite another to be able to fully explain its cause. It is not surprising, then, that the triggers for the great mass extinctions in earth’s history are hotly debated. The end-Cretaceous extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs (among other creatures) is no exception.
A new paper published in the Journal of the Geological Society has once again stirred debate over whether the impact of an asteroid about 65 million years ago caused the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Written by Gerta Keller and Thierry Adatte, the paper suggests that the asteroid that impacted at the site of Chicxulub came 300,000 years before the mass extinction, thus making the asteroid a poor candidate for the extinction’s trigger. The key to the hypothesis presented in the paper is a 30-foot layer of rock near the impact site that sits right above the impact layer. Keller and Adatte argue that this layer accumulated relatively slowly, over 300,000 years, and no species go extinct within it. It is not until the upper limit of the layer that species go extinct.
Keller has long been a critic of the hypothesis that the end-Cretaceous extinction was sparked by the asteroid strike at Chicxulub. In the past she has favored multiple asteroid impacts as an explanation, although more recently she has preferred the activity of volcanoes that formed the Deccan Traps rock formation in India. The volcanoes erupted at the end of the Cretaceous, between about 68 and 60 million years ago, and they were so violent that some scientists think that they were the primary agents of mass extinction. Either way, though, over the past several years Keller has sampled rock in regions close to the Chicxulub impact crater and since at least 2003 has been saying that the asteroid struck 300,000 years prior to the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.
The problem with many of Keller’s papers, however, is that she has often sampled the area closest to the impact crater. This is the area that was the most affected by the immediate after-effects of the strike. Huge waves swept towards the coast, shock waves ran through the rock, and earthquakes were triggered by the impact. All of this makes the area in and around the crater very geologically complex. As paleontologist J. Smit has pointed out, for instance, fossils that Keller had previously identified as being Cretaceous in age really came from the Paleocene, the epoch right after the Cretaceous. Smit’s observations are more consistent with what is seen at end-Cretaceous boundary sites elsewhere.
While it is important to study the Chicxulub impact crater and the surrounding area, the best evidence for the timing of the impact and the end-Cretaceous mass extinction is found farther afield. The correlation of sites around the world shows that many of the groups that went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous went extinct at or shortly before the impact layer. There still many places in the world, primarily in the southern hemisphere, where the end-Cretaceous mass extinction has yet to be studied in detail, but the asteroid remains a major contender for the cause of extinction. But debate will continue and Keller’s hypothesis will stand or fall according to the evidence.