July 23, 2012
All the non-avian dinosaurs are gone. The last of them died out 66 million years ago. All the same, living dinosaurs – birds – aren’t exactly a substitute for Apatosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and Stegosaurus. We miss the truly spectacular, bizarre dinosaurs that lived and died so long ago. At least we can catch brief glimpses of our favorite prehistoric creatures in the ever-increasing list of dinosaur movies, and among the upcoming titles is a film that uses actual legends for its launching point.
When I was young, one of the first dinosaur movies I ever saw was Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. Drawing from myths and unsubstantiated rumors, the film imagined what would happen if scientists discovered living sauropods in the Congo Basin. Indeed, this part of Africa has been the frequent focus of cryptozoologists and creationists who believe that some sort of swamp-dwelling brontosaur is hiding in the swamps and lakes of the region. There’s not even a single shred of evidence that there are sauropods or other dinosaurs in those wetlands, but that hasn’t stopped naive and self-styled explorers from trying to bring a prehistoric beast back alive.
We can still have a little fun with the idea of living sauropods in the realm of fiction, though. Now, almost 30 years after Baby debuted, The Dinosaur Project is taking a darker spin on the same legend.
According to Empire, The Dinosaur Project is another found-footage horror flick that follows a television crew who ultimately stumble upon dinosaurs that were thought to have disappeared millions of years ago. The movie’s official website doesn’t reveal much – it’s just a fake landing page for the “British Cryptozoological Society” with a plea for any information about the missing expedition – although the film’s trailer offers a few glimpses at the various prehistoric creatures that will thin out the cast. Sadly, though, the dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts look like stiff plastic toys come to life. This isn’t the awesome dinosaur movie we’ve been waiting for, but another piece of stinky movie cheese.
The Dinosaur Project debuts next month in the UK.
February 8, 2012
When Roy Chapman Andrews returned from an American Museum of Natural History expedition to the Gobi Desert in 1923, there was only one thing the press wanted to talk to him about—dinosaur eggs. News had spread quickly that the field team had returned with the first dinosaur eggs ever discovered, and newspapers excitedly tried to outbid each other for an exclusive on the fantastic fossil find. Andrews quickly tired of the popular interest. According to Charles Gallenkamp’s biography of the explorer, Andrews became frustrated that all anyone wanted to talk about was dinosaur eggs. “Vainly did I try to tell of the other vastly more important discoveries of the expedition,” Andrews lamented, “No one was interested.”
The fact that the AMNH expedition had found eggs closely associated with dinosaur skeletons was big news. But Andrews and his team were not the first explorers to find dinosaur eggs. That discovery had been made decades before, only no one seemed to remember it. Paleontologists Eric Buffetaut and Jean Le Loeuff set the record straight in a 1994 paper published in the Dinosaur Eggs and Babies volume.
As far as we know, the first naturalist to discover and describe dinosaur eggshells was the Roman Catholic priest Jean-Jacques Pouech. When not acting as head of Pamiers Seminary in southern France, he explored the geology and paleontology of the Late Cretaceous rock preserved in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. He published a report on some of the fossils he found there in 1859, which included this section:
[T]he most remarkable [fossils] are eggshell fragments of very great dimensions. At first, I thought that hey could be integumentary plates of reptiles, but their constant thickness between two perfectly parallel surfaces, their fibrous structure, normal to the surfaces, and especially their regular curvature, definitely suggest that they are enormous eggshells, at least four times the volume of ostrich eggs.
Pouech had discovered dinosaur eggs, although he did not call them that. Buffetaut and Le Loeuff suspect that Pouech might have been unfamiliar with what dinosaurs were—the term “dinosaur” had been coined only in 1842 by British anatomist Richard Owen—and therefore did not connect dinosaurs with the large pieces of eggshell he discovered. Instead, Pouech thought the eggs might have been laid by enormous birds (an conclusion similar to what New England paleontologist Edward Hitchcock proposed for the creatures that left large, three-toed footprints all over the ancient Connecticut Valley.)
The lack of dinosaurian attribution might have played a role in keeping Pouech’s discovery from gaining the attention of other naturalists, but there was another factor which caused his discovery to eventually be overlooked. In 1859, no one had seen dinosaur eggshell before. It’s not altogether surprising that when Pouech showed the fossils to experts at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, they did not agree that the shards came from large eggs. Privately, Pouech changed his mind—perhaps the pieces were parts of armadillo shells. It was not until 1989 that Buffetaut and Le Loeuff were able to relocated Pouech’s collection. The amateur paleontologist’s original conclusion had been on the right track. The fragments truly were from huge eggs, only ones laid by dinosaurs rather than birds.
The obscurity of Pouech’s discovery and his subsequent reinterpretation of the fossils prevented the find from gaining much attention. But Pouech wasn’t the only 19th-century naturalist to turn up dinosaur eggs. Only a decade after Pouech wrote about his eggshell pieces, the geologist Philippe Matheron also discovered eggshells in the Cretaceous strata of southern France. Matheron wondered whether the eggs were laid by a giant bird or a “hypselosaur”—a creature Matheron believed to be a giant crocodile on the basis of fossil bones he had previously described, but which ultimately turned out to be a sauropod dinosaur.
Matheron never got around to writing a full description of the eggs, but his countryman and colleague Paul Gervais studied the eggs at a microscopic level in an attempt to figure out what sort of creature had laid them. Although the minute details of the eggs did not exactly match the structure of known bird or reptile eggs, the fossils seemed to roughly resemble eggs laid by turtles. Since it seemed most likely that Matheron’s hypselosaur laid the eggs, Gervais reasoned, the creature may have been more turtle-like than originally thought. Additional analyses of Matheron’s eggshells produced similarly tentative conclusions. The microstructure of the eggs alone was not enough to solve the puzzle, and a dinosaurian connection was impossible to make because no one had found an identifiable dinosaur skeleton associated with the eggs.
But some early 20th century French paleontologists were still aware of what had been found before. In the December 1923 issue of the magazine L’Illustration, Andrews claimed that his discovery was the first to confirm that dinosaurs laid eggs. French paleontologist Louis Joleaud wrote to correct Andrews on this point—Matheron had discovered dinosaur eggs decades earlier, even if he incorrectly presumed that an enormous crocodile had laid the eggs. But it seems that this correction did not gain traction, either. Even though the Gobi finds inspired new analyses of Pouech’s and Matheron’s discoveries—both sets of fragments were reinterpreted as dinosaur eggs—the history behind the discoveries from the south of France were lost. A mix of misinterpretation and lack of communication had hidden the discoveries of dinosaur eggs.
Buffetaut, E., and Le Loeuff, J. 1994. The discovery of dinosaur eggshells in nineteenth-century France. in Carpenter, K., Hirsch, K., and Horner, J. eds. Dinosaur Eggs and Babies. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 31-34
Gallenkamp, C. 2001. Dragon Hunter: Roy Champman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions. New York: Viking. p.181
June 21, 2010
Between 1910 and 1916, during the second great dinosaur “bone rush” in North America, the famous fossil hunters Barnum Brown and Charles Sternberg engaged in a bit of friendly competition along the Red Deer River in Alberta, Canada. The areas along the banks, often inaccessible by land, were rich in Cretaceous fossils, and both expeditions used large, flat boats called scows as floating bases of operation from which to collect specimens along the waterway. A century later, paleontologist Darren Tanke and colleagues are going to recreate this journey, right down to the clothes and toilets used by the 20th century crews.
Preparations for the 2010 expedition have been underway for quite some time. The Dinosaur Hunting by Boat in 2010 blog has updates and photos stretching back through last year showing the step-by-step construction of the boat. The scow they have created, based on the boat Brown’s crew used called the Mary Jane, is nearly finished, and the crew will soon set off on their journey along the river. As the paleontologists stop and retrace the ground once prospected by earlier crews they hope to clear up some mysteries about where particular fossils came from, information essential to fully understanding some of the famous specimens the Brown and Sternberg crews collected.
If all goes as planned, the crew should reach Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park around the beginning of August, and there will be public and private events to celebrate the trip. As they go along, however, the scientists hope to provide semi-regular updates about their progress and special events on their blog. While some paleontologists would prefer to hold on to the few comforts they can take into the field (one field scientist I mentioned the scow trip to scoffed and said he wouldn’t go out into the field without his air-conditioned truck), I think the recreation of the scow expeditions is exciting, and I look forward to hearing about its progress as it winds down the Red Deer River.