December 13, 2012
Dinosaurs are much more than real monsters that fire our imaginations, but, let’s face it, part of their persistent appeal is that many were enormous prehistoric oddities. And it’s just that aspect of dinosaurian nature that is raising ire in a historically-rich California town and on an Australian golf course.
San Juan Capistrano, California is famous for the local cliff swallows and the historic Spanish architecture, but the town has recently been in the news because of an unwelcome dinosaur. According to the LA Times, a huge sauropod statue erected in the town’s petting zoo has drawn the ire of those who seek to retain some semblance of southern California’s past. Where kids and the zoo’s owner sees the dinosaur as a fanciful distraction, local historians argue that the dinosaur is totally out of place with the rest of the town’s decor. The dinosaur is staying put for now, but may yet be removed if the city decides that there’s just no place for a dinosaur in a place where Californian history and modern life already mix.
A different dinosaur is frustrating Australia’s professional golfers. The wealthy owner of the Palmer Coolum Resort has installed a 26 foot long, animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex in the middle of the course. Along with other recent installations, ESPN reports, the dinosaur is expected to adversely affect the games of Australian PGA Championship golfers set to play there. With the resort’s owner promising more dinosaurs on the way, the sports group has decided to move the tournament elsewhere after this year. Whether a sauropod looks out of place is one thing–having a T. rex get in the way of your shot is another.
Not everyone is so bothered by giant dinosaurs, though. A Best Western hotel in Colorado is taking on an entirely prehistoric theme, including fossil casts and dinosaur sculptures. In addition to attracting tourists, the hotel’s owner says he wants to draw attention to Colorado’s exceptional fossil sites, such as the nearby track site at Dinosaur Ridge. Dinosaur sculptures are frustrating eyesores to some and paleo-vacation essentials to others.
May 7, 2012
Dinosaurs created temporary reefs. At least, the ones whose bodies floated out to sea did.
Even though there were no aquatic dinosaurs, dead dinosaurs sometimes washed down rivers to the coast. When their bodies settled on the ocean bottom, scavengers of various sorts and sizes glommed onto the dinosaurs and formed short-lived communities with their own ecological tempo—perhaps similar to what happens to the carcasses of modern whales. The Cretaceous dinosaur bones found in my home state of New Jersey are the result of this kind of transport and marine breakdown, and other examples have been found at sites around the world.
Even bodies of the heavily armored ankylosaurs were sometimes swept out to sea. They must have been quite a sight—a bloated, belly-up ankylosaur, drifting for as long as the gases inside its body could keep it afloat. One of these dinosaurs, found miles from the closest land at that time, was recently discovered in the oilsands of Alberta, Canada, but this wandering ankylosaur isn’t the only one we know of. When I visited the San Diego Natural History Museum last month, I saw another.
Hung on the wall, the creature was less than half the dinosaur it used to be. Even though additional parts of the dinosaur were recovered when it was excavated during the construction of the Palomar-McClellan Airport in 1987, the articulated hindlimbs and adjoining hip material is what museum visitors are greeted with. (The rest sits in the collections.) At first glance, the specimen doesn’t look like much. But what makes this fossil so strange is the group of associated creatures. Embedded on and around the dinosaur bones were shells from marine bivalves and at least one shark’s tooth. This ankylosaur had settled and been buried in the sea off the coast of Cretaceous California.
Tracy Ford and James Kirkland described the ankylosaur in a 2001 paper included in The Armored Dinosaurs. Previously, the specimen didn’t have a proper scientific name. The dinosaur was simply referred to as the Carlsbad ankylosaur. And the details of the dinosaur’s armor, especially over the hips, seemed to be quite similar to that of another dinosaur called Stegopelta. This would make the Carlsbad ankylosaur a nodosaurid, a group of ankylosaurs that typically have large shoulder spikes but lack a tail club.
After reexamining the specimen, though, Ford and Kirkland came to a different conclusion. The dinosaur’s armor identified it as an ankylosaurid, the armored dinosaur subgroup that carried hefty, bony tail clubs. The club itself was not discovered, but the rest of the dinosaur’s anatomy fit the ankylosaurid profile. And the dinosaur was different enough from others to warrant a new name. Ford and Kirkland called the ankylosaur Aletopelta coombsi. The genus name, meaning “wandering shield,” is a tribute to the fact that the movements of geologic plates had carried the dinosaur’s skeleton northward over the past 75 million years.
We may never know exactly what happened to this Aletopelta. Detailed geological context is essential for figuring out how a skeleton came to rest in a particular spot, and that information was destroyed with the excavation of the skeleton. Still, paleontologists have put together a general outline of what happened to this dinosaur. The unfortunate ankylosaurid died somewhere along the coast, and its carcass was washed out to the sea by a river, local flood, or similar watery mode of transport. Aletopelta settled belly-up and was exposed for long enough to become a food source and even home for various organisms. Sharks and other larger scavengers tore at the carcass, but various encrusting invertebrates also settled on the skeleton. Fortunately for paleontologists, the skeleton was sturdy enough to survive all this and eventually be buried. Even though dinosaurs never lived in the marine realm, their deaths certainly enriched the sea.
Ford, T., Kirkland, J. 2001. Carlsbad ankylosaur (Ornithischia: Ankylosauria): An ankylosaurid and not a nodosaurid. pp. 239-260 in Carpenter, K., ed. The Armored Dinosaurs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hilton, R.P. 2003. Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp.39-40
January 27, 2012
Last week I asked you submit your favorite atrocious roadside dinosaurs. While the sculptures along the main drag of Dinosaur, Colorado come close to the top of the list, my vote last week went to the ugly, ugly dinosaurs outside Stewart’s Petrified Wood near Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Readers sent in a few additional contenders for the title.
Reader Mark Ryan sent in this sad, decaying dinosaur that stands near Interstate 15 in the vicinity of Victorville, California. No wonder the dinosaur needs those metal rods to support itself—its legs look like they’re made of cooked noodles.
A regular favorite of Dinosaur Tracking readers is the truly strange Dinosaur Kingdom in Natural Bridge, Virginia. Suggested as a top choice for weird dinosaurs by reader Laura Wilson, this tourist trap features a peculiar southern mash-up of dinosaurs and the Civil War—Union Soldiers are chomped on and terrorized by Mesozoic monstrosities. This particular shot, sent in last year by Kathy Krein, features a rather surprised looking cowboy who looks as if he’s only just begun to realize that riding a deinonychosaur was a horrible decision.
Reader Kelly Enright sent in a set of several dinosaurian abominations from around the country. This one, complete with glowing eyes, stands guard over Goony Golf in New York.
While not actually a dinosaur, this boxy mosasaur outside Big Mike’s Rocks & Gifts in Kentucky deserves an honorable mention, especially since the poor thing is stranded hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.
While not the absolute worst dinosaur I have ever seen, this Tyrannosaurus at the entrance to Kentucky’s Dinosaur World is one of the creepiest. So if the head is up there, and the legs are on either side, what part of the dinosaur am I walking into, exactly?
We may have a new winner! While this automotive Triceratops—I think?—from Hanksville, Utah does win some bonus points for recycling, my first thought when I opened the image was “Oh geez! Kill it with fire!” This dinosaur is a junkyard nightmare, and surely a top contender for the worst roadside dinosaur ever.
October 3, 2011
I love dinosaurs, and I love puppets. Put the two together and I can’t resist. Among other things—such as the brand new dinosaur hall, which I’ll talk about in a later post—that is what brought me to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County last week. The institution has put together several shows featuring beautifully designed dinosaur puppets, and after seeing a sneak peek on YouTube, I just had to check one out for myself.
I was probably the oldest dinosaur fan in attendance for the museum’s afternoon “Dinosaur Encounters” program. Shortly after I arrived at the North American Mammal Hall where the shows take place, a small collection of toddlers, young children and their parents gathered around. The kids looked astounded when the museum’s fuzzy Tyrannosaurus puppet came roaring out onto the stage. While our host talked about thinking like a scientist and making observations to better understand prehistoric life, the dinosaur walked around the hall, snapped its impressive jaws, and bellowed its heart out. I think many of the kids in attendance were too young to even be scared. Most of them stared in wide-eyed amazement at what, to all appearances, was a real dinosaur right in front of them.
After the show I got a chance to get a closer look at the dinosaur thanks to its puppeteer, Brian Meredith. Drenched in sweat from running around in the hot suit for 15 minutes, Brian pointed out the relatively simple operation of the juvenile tyrannosaur. He simply steps into the dinosaurs body cavity and thinks like a tyrannosaur—as he walks, the dinosaur walks, and a series of strings and other instruments inside let him move the dinosaur’s body parts. The dinosaur’s deep-throated roaring, I was surprised to find out, was not pre-recorded but actually Brian growling through a sub-woofer to make what I consider to be some impressive dinosaur sounds. The hardest part of the operation, Brian said, is seeing where you’re going—the only view he gets of the outside is through a small opening in the tyrannosaur’s neck. Clearly, being inside a dinosaur isn’t easy.
May 23, 2011
Spinosaurus may not be as popular as Tyrannosaurus, but sculptures and models of the sail-backed predatory dinosaur are fairly common along America’s roadsides. This one, photographed by Larry Miller, was spotted outside the Garlic Ice Cream Stand near Gilroy, California. It makes me wonder what sort of ice cream a Spinosaurus would have preferred. Would the crocodile-snouted dinosaur have liked a cone of rocky road, or would it have preferred something a little more attuned to its natural tastes, like a scoop based on its possible fishy prey Lepidotes? I guess we’ll never know.
Have you seen a prehistoric creature in an unusual place? Submissions of dinosaurs—and other ancient beasts—should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.