December 23, 2011
When it came time for my wife and me to pick this year’s Christmas ornament, there was no question what it had to be: We needed a dinosaur. After all, this year we left New Jersey to settle in the fossil-rich state of Utah, and so it was only appropriate to celebrate our successful move with a dinosaurian decoration. We settled on an Allosaurus pendant from Dinosaur National Monument. This Late Jurassic theropod—one of my favorite dinosaurs—is the official state fossil of my new home, and my first visit to the geologically wonderful national park two years ago was what inspired me to head west. Perfect.
But my wife and I aren’t the only ones to adorn our tree with dinosaurs. Friends have been sending me snapshots of their own tannenbaum dinosaurs over the past few weeks, and yesterday I put out a call for more merry Mesozoic ornaments. I was not disappointed.
Long-time reader Michael Barton tweeted this Cretaceous scene wherein a Triceratops faces off against a Tyrannosaurus. C’mon, guys—don’t you know that this is the time of year for peace on earth and goodwill towards dinosaurs?
Among other dinosaurs, John Pomeranz nestled this particularly colorful Triceratops among the branches of his Christmas tree. With no predators around, this dinosaur clearly doesn’t need camouflage.
Even though pterosaurs aren’t dinosaurs, I couldn’t say no to this photo of one of the flying archosaurs decked out in a Santa hat, sent by Aline McKenzie.
What’s flashier than a Stegosaurus? A sequin-covered Stegosaurus ornament, of course. Thanks to freelancer Helen Fields—who has written about dinosaurs for Smithsonian herself—for this one.
Those sparkly stegosaurs sure do get around. This one, tweeted by Matthew Cobb, had been shuffling around the Christmas tree since 1986.
A vintage theropod reaches out from @scurvygirl’s Christmas tree.
Given their probable diet of conifers, I’m surprised there aren’t more holiday sauropods in the mix. Fortunately for us, though, @ArtfulMagpie has shared this lovely pink sauropod from her Christmas tree. She says “He was a brontosaurus when I got him as a child. I suppose he’s an apatosaurus now!”
A cute little Triceratops lives in Alexandra Witze’s Christmas tree, but where there’s Triceratops…
…Tyrannosaurus is not far behind. Though, based upon the lipstick, I’d say this one is ready to make love, not war.
Of course, the fellows at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs have unique dinosaur decorations, too. These two dinosaurs, sent by Marc Vincent, are out for a nice winter sleigh ride…
… and LITC founder David Orr has this fuzzy Spinosaurus, crafted by his wife.
Even museums have jumped in. This tree—inhabited by many origami dinosaurs—is on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I think this tree wins the category of “most dinosaurs per square inch.” Thanks to fellow science writer Alexandra Witze for the tip about this one.
Do you have holiday dinosaurs in your home? Don’t hesitate to send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will create an end-of-the-year roundup for whatever other dinosaurs might appear. Until then, all of us here at Dinosaur Tracking want you to wish you warm and happy holidays, wherever you are.
December 22, 2011
Winter is the season for dinosaur dinners. Both Thanksgiving and Christmas traditionally feature avian dinosaurs as the main gustatory event, and according to paleontological legend, it was this custom that inspired one 19th century naturalist to realize the connection between roasted birds and Jurassic dinosaurs.
Mark Norell, Lowell Dingus and Eugene Gaffney recounted the story in their book Discovering Dinosaurs. “One Christmas Day,” they wrote, “[Thomas Henry] Huxley was carving a turkey for his annual feast. As he dissected the drumstick he was struck by an unmistakable similarity between his Christmas dinner and the fossils of the theropod Megalosaurus back in his office.” From that day on, the story goes, Huxley was convinced that there was a deep genetic connection between dinosaurs and birds. I heard to same story from my Paleontology 101 professor at Rutgers University. It is a charming bit of lore. And it’s also wrong.
I don’t know where the story about Huxley and the Christmas turkey came from. It is one of those stories that seems simply to exist in the academic ether. (Even the Discovering Dinosaurs authors voiced their uncertainty about the tale in their book.) Fortunately for us, though, Huxley’s many scientific papers trace the development of his thoughts about birds and dinosaurs.
Huxley began associating reptiles—including dinosaurs—with birds on the basis of their anatomy in the early 1860s. Both groups appeared to be different variations of a common skeletal blueprint. But Huxley wasn’t thinking about this in evolutionary terms yet. He was primarily interested in the commonalities of structure and did not immediately start drawing evolutionary implications from the anatomical correspondences he recorded. That changed in 1866, when Huxley read the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s book Generelle Morphologie, an influential volume that connected organisms in a tangled “tree of life.” In regard to birds and reptiles, at least, Huxley realized that he had already established the basic outline of an evolutionary transition from a dinosaur-like creature—something resembling Compsognathus—to flightless birds and culminating in flying birds.
Huxley did not suggest that birds were the direct descendants of dinosaurs. So much geologic time was unaccounted for, and so few dinosaurs were known, that Huxley could not point to any known fossil creature as the forerunner of birds. Instead he made his argument on anatomical grounds and removed the issue of time. Dinosaurs were proxies for what the actual bird ancestor would have been like, and flightless birds (such as the ostrich and emu) stood in for what Huxley thought was the most archaic bird type. (We now know that Huxley got this backwards—the earliest birds could fly, and flightless birds represent a secondary loss of that ability.) As Huxley went about collecting evidence for his case, though, he also gave dinosaurs an overhaul. They were not the bloated, plodding, rhinoceros-like creatures that Richard Owen had envisioned. Dinosaurs were more bird-like than anyone had imagined.
In October of 1867, Huxley met with John Philips, an English geologist and a curator of Oxford’s museum. As Huxley related in his 1870 paper “Further Evidence of the Affinity Between the Dinosaurian Reptiles and Birds,” Philips wanted to discuss details of marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs in his museum’s collection, but as he and Huxley made their way over toward the displays they stopped to look at the bones of the carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus. Then Huxley spotted something peculiar:
As Prof. Phillips directed my attention to one after the other of the precious relics, my eye was suddenly caught by what I had never before seen, namely, the complete pectoral arch of the great reptile, consisting of a scapula and a coracoid ankylosed together. Here was a tangle at once unravelled. The coracoid was totally different from the bone described by Cuvier, and by all subsequent anatomists, under that name. What then was the latter bone? Clearly, if it did not belong to the shoulder-girdle it must form a part of the pelvis; and, in the pelvis, the ilium at once suggested itself as the only possible homologue. Comparison with skeletons of reptiles and of birds, close at hand, showed it to be not only an ilium, but an ilium which, though peculiar in its form and proportions, was eminently ornithic in its chief peculiarities.
Earlier naturalists had made a mistake. They had misidentified the shoulder girdle, and one part of what was thought to be part of the shoulder was actually part of the hip. Another strange piece, previously thought to be a clavicle, also turned out to belong to the pelvis. This rearrangement immediately gave the dinosaur a more bird-like character. It wasn’t only the small, gracile forms such as Compsognathus that shared skeletal features with birds. Philips himself had been pondering the bird-like characteristics of Megalosaurus even before Huxley arrived, and Huxley’s visit confirmed what Philips had previously suspected. The resulting, updated conception of Megalosaurus was closer to the animal as we know it today—a theropod dinosaur with a short forelimbs, long legs, a long tail for balance and a deep head filled with sharp, recurved teeth.
Huxley’s Christmas revelation is apocryphal. Rather than being instantly struck by the idea that birds and dinosaurs were closely related, Huxley carefully built up an argument over many years that birds evolved from something dinosaur-like. As far as I know, his only sudden realization regarding Megalosaurus involved the rearrangement of bones in Philips’ care at Oxford. And I think this brings up a crucial point often missed or glossed over in accounts of Huxley’s work. Through his efforts to untangle bird origins, Huxley was pivotal in revising the image of dinosaurs into active, bird-like animals. New fossil finds, as well as a new anatomical framework, changed dinosaurs from ugly beasts into graceful, unique creatures during the 1870s, thanks at least in part to Huxley’s efforts. (Too bad that succeeding generations of paleontologists would unravel this vision by casting dinosaurs as dumb, cold-blooded reptiles.) Even if Huxley didn’t say birds are dinosaurs, he certainly made dinosaurs more bird-like.
For more information on Huxley’s thoughts on dinosaurs and birds, please see my paper “Thomas Henry Huxley and the Reptile to Bird Transition” and chapter 5 of my book Written in Stone.
Huxley, T.H. 1870. Further Evidence of the Affinity Between the Dinosaurian Reptiles and Birds. The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, vol. xxvi. 12-31
Norell, M., Dingus, L., Gaffney, E. 2000. Discovering Dinosaurs: Expanded and Updated. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 11
January 3, 2011
With the start of 2011, the holiday season is now behind us, but while visiting the American Museum of Natural History, I spotted a lovely group of yuletide dinosaurs. Arranged around a Christmas tree were origami versions of many creatures, living and extinct, including numerous dinosaurs. Stegosaurs, ceratopsians, coelurosaurs—the variety of paper dinosaurs was quite impressive. I especially liked the long-necked sauropod, although the selected posture for its neck would likely stir debate among paleontologists.
Have you stumbled across a dinosaur in an unexpected place? If you have, and have a photo of the encounter, send it to us via email@example.com!
December 9, 2010
I have never been particularly good at sending out Christmas cards. By the time I get into the holiday spirit and remember, it is usually December 24th. This year, however, the Etsy member FrankNBones has given me a good excuse to do things right with a unique set of dinosaur holiday cards!
Featuring the dinosaur celebrities Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Velociraptor, Brachiosaurus, Dilophosaurus and Parasaurolophus, each card depicts a dinosaur skull with a holiday flourish. (I especially like the Dilophosaurus skull with the jingle bells.) Each one is unique. As their creator explains on the store page:
These original, hand-pulled linocut carvings are printed on 5×7 inch cards. The linoleum blocks were cut by hand, inked, and printed individually. Due to the printing process, there are variations and imperfections from print to print, and no two cards are the same.
Now all I have to do is figure out what to write inside them. (“RAWR”?)
December 24, 2008
It’s traditional to leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, but what do you do if Santasaurus is coming to town? I guess that depends on what kind of dinosaur he is. If he’s a predatory theropod, it might be a good idea to pick up some ground chuck and hide the cat, but if he’s an ornithischian, then a bowl of greens would do nicely.
In the children’s book The Dinosaur’s Night Before Christmas, a Night at the Museum-like Christmas story where all the dinosaurs come to life, Santasaurus turns out to be the horned dinosaur Styracosaurus. (Why his sleigh is pulled by other dinosaurs and not a team of Mesozoic mammals, though, is anyone’s guess.) A fanciful retelling of A Visit from St. Nicholas, the book even comes with a CD with paleontologically reinterpreted versions of traditional Christmas songs that will no doubt have parents saying “Turn that racket down!” before the new year.
If lots of kids had their way, though, they would be getting a living dinosaur for Christmas, and that’s the plot of another children’s tale (this time on video) called The Christmas Dinosaur. In this story, a young boy receives a pterosaur (not actually a dinosaur) for Christmas, and it proceeds to be naughty while simultaneously teaching a lesson about being nice. In real life, though, there would probably be plenty of difficulties with claw marks on the couch, piles of dino droppings, and keeping it away from the mailman.
I don’t want to be too much of a Scrooge, though. Happy holidays and merry Christmas to all who will be having visions of dinosaurs dance in their heads tonight!