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
November 27, 2012
Paleontologists are naming new dinosaurs at an astonishing rate. In fact, they’re only just begun to skim the diversity of dinosaurs preserved in the world’s Mesozoic formations–hundreds of unknown dinosaur species are undoubtedly hiding in stone. But even among dinosaurs that have a formalized identity, there are many that we know relatively little about. Among them is Genyodectes serus, a carnivorous dinosaur known from the tip of its fearsome jaws and little else.
Though it’s far from being a household name, Genyodectes holds a significant place in the history of South American paleontology. Aside from a tooth found a few years before, the incomplete fossil snout of a Genyodectes was the first definitive non-avian theropod dinosaur found on the continent. As described by paleontologist A.S. Woodward in 1901, the remains of Genyodectes mostly consisted of pieces from the lower jaw, as well as the premaxillary bones and fragments of the maxillary bones in the upper jaw, all of which sported frighteningly long, curved teeth.
There was never any question that Genyodectes was a theropod dinosaur. All the principally carnivorous dinosaurs that we know of fell among various branches of this group. But what sort of theropod dinosaur was it? During the 20th century, different paleontologists proposed that it was a megalosaurid (then a generalized term for big predatory dinosaurs), a tyrannosaur or, after additional theropod remains started to come out of South America, one of the stubby-armed abelisaurids.
After the specimen was given a fresh cleaning, paleontologist Oliver Rauhut reexamined Genyodectes with an eye towards what the dinosaur was and where it came from. Based on notes and geological details, Rauhut proposed that the dinosaur was found in Cañadón Grande in Argentina’s Chubut province in a Cretaceous deposit that probably dates to around 113 million years old. And, based on the limited remains, Rauhut hypothesized that Genyodectes was a later, southern cousin of North America’s Ceratosaurus. While the only known specimen of Genyodectes was cracked and damaged by erosion, the size and the anatomy of the dinosaur’s teeth most closely resembled that of Ceratosaurus–especially in having extremely long teeth in the maxilla. Given this relationship, we might expect that Genyodectes had some kind of skull ornamentation like the nasal and eye horns of its cousin, but we need more fossils to be sure.
Rauhut, O. 2004. Provenance and anatomy of Genyodectes serues, a large-toothed ceratosaur (Dinosauria: Theropods) from Patagonia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 24, 4: 894-902
November 19, 2012
Which was the biggest dinosaur ever? We don’t know. Even though the size-based superlative draws a great deal of attention, paleontologists have uncovered so many scrappy sauropod skeletons that it’s difficult to tell who was truly the most titanic dinosaur of all. But, among the current spread of candidates, Futalognkosaurus dukei is one of the most complete giant dinosaurs yet found.
Discovered in 2000, and named in 2007 by Universidad Nacional del Comahue paleontologist Jorge Calvo and colleagues, Futalognkosaurus was one of many dinosaurs found in an exceptionally rich, roughly 90-million-year0old deposit in northwest Argentina. From fossil plants to pterosaurs, fish and dinosaurs, the one site entombed vestiges of a vibrant Cretaceous ecosystem. And, on that landscape, no dinosaur was as grand the newly named titanosaur.
Contrary to what you might expect given their skeletal sturdiness, the biggest sauropods are often found as partial skeletons. Our knowledge of Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, Supersaurus, Diplodocus hallorum and other giants is frustratingly incomplete, and figuring out how large they truly were relies on estimation from more complete representatives of other species.
The lack of complete tails from these dinosaurs makes the matter even more problematic. Dinosaur tails varied in length from individual to individual, and different subgroups had proportionally longer or shorter tails. In the case of Diplodocus hallorum, for example, a great deal of the dinosaur’s estimated 100-foot-plus length comes from the fact that other Diplodocus species had very long, tapering tails.
We don’t really know how long Futalognkosaurus was because, with the exception of a single vertebra, the dinosaur’s tail is entirely missing. Nevertheless, the sauropod that Calvo and coauthors described is remarkable for encompassing the entire neck, back and associated ribs, and the majority of the hips. Together, these elements represent over half the skeleton and comprise the most complete giant sauropod individual yet known.
Even if skeletal incompleteness keeps us from knowing exactly how big Futalognkosaurus was, the collected bones can leave no doubt that this was a truly enormous dinosaur. Calvo and coauthors estimated that the whole animal stretched between 105 and 112 feet in length, which would put it in the same class as the more famous (and less complete) Argentinosaurus. As the paleontologists at SV-POW! said when they posted images of Futalognkosaurus bones next to Juan Porfiri, who helped describe the dinosaur, there’s no doubt that the sauropod was “darned big.” The challenge is finding and filling in the parts of the dinosaur’s body that have not yet been found. There will undoubtedly be other challengers for the title of biggest dinosaur, but, for now, Futalognkosaurus remains our most detailed representative of the biggest of the big.
Calvo, J., Porfiri, J., González-Riga, B., Kellner, A. 2007. A new Cretaceous terrestrial ecosystem from Gondwana with the description of a new sauropod dinosaur. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências. 79, 3: 529-541
Calvo, J., Porfiri, J., González-Riga, B., Kellner, A. 2007. Anatomy of Futalognkosaurus dukei Calvo, Porfiri, González Riga, & Kellner, 2007 (Dinosauria, Titanosauridae) from the Neuquen Group, Late Cretaceous, Patagonia, Argentina. Arquivos do Museu Nacional 65, 4: 511–526.
Novas, F. 2009. The Age of Dinosaurs in South America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 201-202
November 16, 2012
Many dinosaurs have gained fame thanks to their gargantuan size. A creature in the form of a dipldodocid or tyrannosaur would be wonderful at any scale, but the fact that Apatosaurus was an 80-foot-long fern-sucker and Tyrannosaurus was a 40-foot carnivore make their skeletal frames all the more spectacular. Even as an adult, long after my first encounter with their bones at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, I still feel tiny when I look up at what’s left of the great dinosaurs.
But not all non-avian dinosaurs were gigantic. There were 100-foot giants, like the sauropod Argentinosaurus, but there were also pigeon-sized theropods such as the strikingly-colored Anchiornis. Indeed, a significant part of how we know dinosaurs really ruled the earth is because they occupied such a wide range of body sizes–from the breathtakingly large to the diminutive. And, earlier this month, Field Museum of Natural History paleontologist Peter Makovicky and colleagues added a previously unknown tiny dinosaur to the ever-growing roster of Mesozoic species.
Named Alnashetri cerropoliciensis, the small dinosaur is mostly a mystery. All that we know of it, Makovicky and coauthors report, are a set of articulated hindlimbs from a single animal found in the roughly 95-million-year-old rock of La Buitrera, Argentina. (The dinosaur’s genus name, the paper says, means “slender thighs” in a dialect of the Tehuelchan language.) Yet those appendages contain enough clues about the dinosaur’s identity that the researchers were able to figure out that the specimen represented a new species of alvarezsaur–one of the small, possibly ant-eating dinosaurs recognizable by their short, stout arms and long skulls set with tiny teeth. While the paleontologists acknowledge that their Alnashetri specimen might be a juvenile, Makovicky and collaborators estimate that the dinosaur was comparable to its relative Shuvuuia in size–about two feet long.
How Alnashetri resembled other alvarezsaurs, and where it departed in form, will have to wait for more complete specimens. Further research is also needed to narrow down when this dinosaur lived, but for the moment, Alnashetri appears to be the oldest alvarezsaur found in South America. If only we knew more of this dinosaur! As Makovicky and coauthors conclude, “continued fieldwork and future discoveries hopefully will provide more information on the anatomy of Alnashetri and allow a more definitive evaluation of its affinities and its significance for understanding biogeography and evolutionary trends such as body size evolution within alvarezsaurids.” At least the enigma has a name.
Makovicky, P., Apesteguía, S., Gianechini, F. 2012. A new coelurosaurian theropod from the La Buitrera fossil locality of Rio Negro, Argentina. Fieldiana Life and Earth Sciences, 5: 90-98
August 23, 2012
When paleontologists at the Argentine Museum of Natural Science in Buenos Aires threw the curtain back on the new dinosaur Bicentenaria argentina last month, they showed off a beautiful mount of tussling dinosaurs. But I couldn’t help but wonder about the reconstruction. Just how much of the dinosaur had been found, and was there any direct evidence that these dinosaurs fought each other?
Frustratingly, I couldn’t obtain immediate answers. The press event preceded the actual paper describing Bicentenaria. But last night I finally got my claws on the description of this archaic, peculiar dinosaur and its possible behavior.
Although Bicentenaria is new to science, the dinosaur’s remains were first discovered years ago. In 1998, during a drop in the water level at Argentina’s Ezequiel Ramos Mexía Reservoir, Rauel Spedale discovered and collected the disarticulated, scattered remains of several Bicentenaria from a small quarry. There was no single complete skeleton, but the quarry contained multiple skull and postcranial bones from several animals. The largest of these dinosaurs would have been about 10 feet long.
According to the analysis of the accumulated bones by paleontologist Fernando Novas and colleagues, Bicentenaria was an archaic form of coelurosaur. This is the major group of theropod dinosaurs that includes tyrannosaurs, the fluffy compsognathids, the sickle-clawed deinonychosaurs, the utterly strange therizinosaurs and birds, among other disparate lineages. Bicentenaria didn’t belong to any of these subgroups but was near the base of the coelurosaur family tree.
Yet, despite its old school anatomy, Bicentenaria was definitely not the ancestral coelurosaur. Not even close. Coelurosaurs were already a diverse group by the Late Jurassic, meaning that they started to proliferate before 150 million years ago. Yet Bicentenaria lived around 95 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous. It was over 55 million years too late to be a true ancestor of the other coelurosaur groups.
Bicentenaria can still help paleontologists visualize the anatomy early coelurosaurs, though. Based on the evolutionary analysis in the new paper, Bicentenaria preserved features seen in much, much older dinosaurs that were at the base of the coelurosaur family tree. While not an ancestor of coelurosaurs, the skeleton of Bicentenaria can help scientists figure out what the actual progenitors of the group were like.
The study also speculated about the dinosaur’s social life. Since the small quarry yielded multiple individuals, Novas and collaborators concluded that these dinosaurs must have been socializing when they died. More than that, the paleontologists tie in other theropod bonebeds to suggest that a gregarious lifestyle was the ancestral condition of theropod dinosaurs, “if not Dinosauria as a whole.”
I’m not so sure. The fact that multiple dinosaurs of the same species died in the same place, by itself, isn’t evidence that the animals lived together. It is only evidence that the dinosaurs were buried together. Even though there have been many claims of “dino gangs” and “dueling dinosaurs” based upon associated skeletons, we need to know the details of how those animals died and became buried before we can accurately reconstruct their behavior. Just because we find dinosaurs buried together doesn’t necessarily mean they were socializing before they perished. Some bonebeds really do seem to contain dinosaurs that were in a social group when they perished, while others represent assemblages of individuals that died at different times and were later washed together. The geologic and taphonomic context is critical.
In this case, unfortunately, Spedale did not take any notes on the arrangement of the bones or the context in which they were found. That data is lost. But one quarry block indicates that the bones of the dinosaurs were transported by water and stirred together. The dinosaurs died elsewhere and only parts of them ultimately became preserved in the same spot. This complicates the social Bicentenaria hypothesis. Did all the dinosaurs in the quarry die together, or did their bodies accumulate in a particular place–perhaps due to a drought or other event–over time before being washed together? We don’t know. Bicentenaria very well could have been a social dinosaur, but the evidence isn’t strong enough to say for sure, much less hypothesize that a gregarious lifestyle was the ancestral condition for all theropods. There’s a lot that we can learn about dinosaur lives from their bones, but the intricacies of their social lives remains obscured by the quirks of the fossil record.
Novas, F., Ezcurra, M., Agnolin, F., Pol, D., Ortíz, R. 2012. New Patagonian Cretaceous theropod sheds light about the early radiation of Coelurosauria. Rev. Mus. Argentino Cienc. Nat., n.s. 14(1): 57-81 (PDF)