October 2, 2012
The Early Jurassic is a mysterious time in dinosaur evolution. In North America, at least, paleontologists have uncovered scores of dinosaur tracks from this critical time when dinosaurs had been handed ecological dominance in the wake of a mass extinction, but body fossils are rare. In the orange sandstone that makes up so much of Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah, for example, only a handful of skeletons have ever been found. This formation–called the Glen Canyon, Navajo, Nugget or “Nuggaho” depending on who you ask–preserves immense sand dunes that recorded prehistoric footsteps but rarely bone. The recently described sauropodomorph Seitaad, and a group of as-yet-unnamed coelophysoids, are exceptionally rare finds.
Yet, from Connecticut to Arizona, there is one dinosaur that is constantly presented as an icon of dinosaurs circa 190 million years ago. This is Dilophosaurus–the 20-foot-long, double-crested theropod that gained dubious fame thanks to Jurassic Park. (Contrary to the film, there’s no evidence that this carnivore was a “spitter” with a collapsible neck frill.) At sites where Early Jurassic theropod tracks are found in abundance, Dilophosaurus is invoked as a possible trackmaker. But is this really so?
The remains of what would eventually be named Dilophosaurus were discovered in 1942 by Jesse Williams near Tuba City, Arizona. It took another 12 years before paleontologist Samuel Welles mistakenly attributed the bones to a new species of Megalosaurus –“M.” wetherilli–and the name Dilophosaurus itself wasn’t actually coined until 1970. Despite all this shifting around, though, Dilophosaurus wetherilli became a symbol of top Early Jurassic carnivores. Paleontologists had found plenty of Early Jurassic tracks made by a Dilophosaurus-size dinosaur, and now they finally had a body.
Frustratingly, though, we usually don’t know what dinosaur left a particular trace fossil unless the animal literally died in its tracks. While Dilophosaurus is a good fit for many large-size, Early Jurassic tracks, and may very well have left tracks at places such as St. George, Utah’s megatracksite, there’s no way to know for sure. And it seems unlikely that the same species of dinosaur that left tracks in Early Jurassic Utah also made footprints in the mud of what would become the Connecticut Valley. Who knows how many mid-sized theropods might have stalked lakeshores during this time? We don’t know, and the situation is made all the more irksome since the sediments which preserve tracks often don’t contain body fossils. We know these dinosaurs from the bottom of their feet but little else. Until future discoveries fill out the fauna of North America’s Early Jurassic, Dilophosaurus will remain the most familiar and iconic predator of its epoch.
Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. University of California Press: Berkeley. pp. 94-95
September 24, 2012
Paleontologist R.T. Bird inspected many dinosaur trackways while combing Texas for the perfect set to bring back to the American Museum of Natural History. During several field seasons in the late 1930s, Bird poked around in the Early Cretaceous rock in the vicinity of the Paluxy River for a set of sauropod footprints that would fit nicely behind the museum’s famous “Brontosaurus” mount. Bird eventually got what he was after but not before poring over other intriguing dinosaur traces. One of the most spectacular seemed to be made by a swimming dinosaur.
Known as the Mayan Ranch Trackway, the roughly 113-million-year-old slab is almost entirely made up of front foot impressions. The semicircular imprints were undoubtedly left by one of the long-necked sauropod dinosaurs. But towards the end of the trail, where the dinosaur’s path makes an abrupt turn, there was a single, partial impression of a hind foot.
At the time Bird and his crew uncovered this trackway, sauropods were thought to be amphibious dinosaurs. Other than their immense bulk, what defense would they have had but to trundle into the water, where theropods feared to paddle? Under this framework, Bird thought he knew exactly how the Mayan Ranch Trackway was made. “The big fellow had been peacefully dog-paddling along, with his great body afloat, kicking himself forward by walking on the bottom here in the shallows with his front feet,” Bird wrote in his memoir. The great dinosaur then kicked off with one of its hind feet and turned.
With the exception of well-defended dinosaurs such as the ceratopsids and stegosaurs, many herbivorous dinosaurs were thought to be at least semi-aquatic. There seemed to be only two options for Mesozoic prey species–grow defenses or dive into the water. In time, though, paleontologists realized that the sauropods, hadrosaurs and other herbivores didn’t show any adaptations to swimming. Our understanding of the ecology of these dinosaurs was based on false premises and faulty evidence.
In the case of the Mayan Ranch Trackway, for example, there’s no indication that the sauropod that made the trackway was swimming. A more likely scenario has to do with evolutionary changes among sauropods. While the sauropods that dominated the Late Jurassic of North America–such as Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and Barosaurus–carried much of their weight at the hips and left deeper hindfoot impressions, the center of mass shifted among their successors–the titanosaurs–such that more of the weight was carried by the forelimbs. Hence, in some trackways, the deeper impressions made by the forefeet are more likely to stand out than those made by the hindfeet, especially if some of the top layers of the rock are eroded away to leave only “undertracks.” What seemed to be evidence of swimming sauropods instead owes to anatomy and the characteristics of the mucky substrate the dinosaur was walking on.
As far as I’m aware, no one has yet found definitive evidence of swimming sauropods or hadrosaurs–the two groups previously thought to rely on water for safety. Stranger still, paleontologists have recently uncovered good evidence that theropod dinosaurs weren’t as bothered by water as traditionally believed. In 2006, paleontologists Andrew Milner, Martin Lockley and Jim Kirkland described swim tracks made by Early Jurassic theropods at a site that now resides in St. George, Utah. Such traces weren’t the first of their kind ever discovered, but the tracksite was one of the richest ever found.
Small to medium-sized theropods made the St. George swim tracks–think of dinosaurs similar to Megapnosaurus and Dilophosaurus. Even better, the large number of smaller-size swim tracks hints that whatever dinosaurs made these tracks were moving as a group as they struggled against the current in the lake shallows. The larger dinosaurs, on the other hand, were a bit taller and able to wade where their smaller cousins splashed around.
A different team of researchers announced additional evidence for swimming theropods the following year. Paleontologist Rubén Ezquerra and co-authors described dinosaur swim traces from Early Cretaceous rock near La Rioja, Spain. Based on the details of the track and their direction, the theropod was swimming against a current that pushed the dinosaur diagonally. Along with other theropod swim tracks, the researchers noted, the discovery meant that paleontologists would have to revise their ideas about the kind of habitats theropods lived in and what carnivorous species would do. Theropod dinosaurs were not so hydrophobic, after all.
Does this mean that dinosaurs like Dilophosaurus were adapted to an amphibious lifestyle? Not at all. As Ezquerra and co-authors pointed out, the swimming strokes of these dinosaurs were exaggerated walking motions. The way the dinosaurs moved on land allowed them to be adequate swimmers while crossing rivers or lakes, but, compared with semi-aquatic animals such as crocodiles and otters, no known dinosaur shows traits indicative of a primarily waterlogged existence. (And dinosaurs found in marine sediments don’t count as evidence, as these were washed out to sea prior to burial. I can’t imagine ankylosaurs taking to life among the high seas, in any case.) Some dinosaurs could swim, but that doesn’t mean that they made the water their home. Still, thanks to special prehistoric traces, we can imagine packs of Megapnosaurus fighting to get ashore, and Dilophosaurus strutting into the shallows, aiming to snatch whatever fish were foolish enough to swim into the carnivore’s shadow.
Bird, R.T. (1985). Bones for Barnum Brown, edited by Schreiber, V. Forth Worth: Texas Christian University Press. pp. 160-161
Ezquerra, R., Doublet, S., Costeur, L., Galton, P., Pérez-Lorente, F. (2007). Were non-avian theropod dinosaurs able to swim? Supportive evidence from an Early Cretaceous trackway, Cameros Basin (La Rioja, Spain) Geology, 40 (10), 507-510 DOI: 10.1130/G23452A.1
Milner, A., Lockley, M., Kirkland, J. (2006). A large collection of well-preserved theropod dinosaur swim tracks from the Lower Jurassic Moenave Formation, St. George, Utah. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin, 37, 315-328
March 28, 2011
Remember the Woodcraft dinosaurs? I loved playing with those skeletal plywood puzzles as a kid, and a giant-sized version of one recently made a guest appearance on the show The Amazing Race. A few of the competing teams were tasked with putting together plus-sized Dilophosaurus skeletons, though I bet a true dinosaur fan would have kicked their tails.
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”?)
March 4, 2009
If there is one top complaint paleontologists have about restorations of dinosaurs in movies, it is that the filmmakers never get the hands right. Theropods, be they Tyrannosaurus or Velociraptor, are always shown with their “palms” facing downwards—even though this would have been anatomically impossible. Paleontologists have long known that they held their hands so that their palms faced each other, almost as if they were holding a basketball.
A new paper published in PLoS One by a team of scientists from Utah and Colorado confirms what paleontologists have long known from the structure of the bones. About 198 million years ago, a large theropod dinosaur trudged along a muddy stretch of land, leaving well-defined tracks behind it. It also stopped every now and then to crouch down on a small berm near an ancient lake. When it did so, impressions were made of the positions of other parts of its body like its tail, hips, and hands.
The hand impressions showed that this dinosaur held its hands facing each other. This is important because it means that this way of holding the hands, which is also seen in modern birds, appeared relatively early among theropod dinosaurs. It is yet another trait considered “bird-like” that appeared in dinosaurs first.
As is typically the case, the precise identity of the trackmaker cannot be determined. Footprints, like fossils of organisms, are traditionally given their own genus name so that scientists can identify the same types of prints from different locations. The Utah tracks were attributed to a well-known track genus called Eubrontes, although the theropod Dilophosaurus (which is known from the same area, even if it is geologically a little younger than the tracks) seems like a good candidate for the animal that made the marks.