October 22, 2012
Poor, neglected Becklespinax. Although this gaudy, sail-backed theropod was an impressive predator at the time it strode across England around 140 million years ago, the fragmentary remains of this dinosaur have a tangled history only recently highlighted by the discovery of a more completely-known relative. In the history of paleontology, Becklespinax the tale is a tragedy.
The bones of Becklespinax were among the earliest spate of dinosaur discoveries in England, before anyone really understand just how many dinosaurs there were and how widely they varied in form. No surprise, then, that when the British anatomist Richard Owen illustrated a strange set of three high-spined vertebrae in 1855, he assigned them to the carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus. After all, Megalosaurus was already a hodgepodge of theropod remains from different eras, so it’s no altogether surprising that Owen considered the strange vertebrae as part of the same animal. He was confident enough in his assessment that when Owen schooled the artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in dinosaur anatomy for the famous Crystal Palace reconstructions, the anatomist instructed the sculptor to give Megalosaurus a hump between the shoulders on account of the elongated neural spines in the one specimen.
Along with teeth and other bits, the strange sting of vertebrae were thrown together into the species Megalosaurus dunkeri by researchers such as Richard Lydekker. No one found any complete skeleton–just scattered pieces. Then, in 1926, paleontologist Friedrich von Huene proposed that the spines and teeth of this “Megalosaurus” were so different from others of its type that it deserved its own genus–”Altispinax.” So scientists kicked the name Altispinax around for awhile, but this was another hodgepodge dinosaur consisting of various specimens from different places and time periods. In 1991, dinosaur fan George Olshevsky suggested that the set of three vertebrae carry the name Becklespinax altispinax, and, so far, that name has stuck.
But just what sort of dinosaur was Becklespinax? Paleontologist and prolific blogger Darren Naish addressed this question a few years back. The dinosaur was clearly a relatively large theropod, probably over 20 feet long. But, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was no other dinosaur quite like it. Without a more complete skeleton, it was impossible to tell. And even after other big theropods with elongated spines on their backs were discovered–such as the croc-snouted Spinosaurus from the Late Cretaceous of Africa and the deep-skulled Acrocanthosaurus from the Early Cretaceous of North America–the anatomy of Becklespinax didn’t match those forms.
Even worse, the extremely limited material confounded paleontologists who attempted to figure out what the back of Becklespinax looked like. Were those elongated spines a sign of a high sail that ran most of the length of the dinosaur’s back, as in Spinosaurus? Or did it indicate a short, high ornament near the hips? Naish illustrated both possibilities in a 2007 paper he wrote with colleague David Martill. The first vertebral spine contained yet another puzzle. This bone was shorter than the following two. This might have been a pathology, or even because the bones came from the front part of the sail as it was building to its full height. No one knew for sure.
Then along came Concavenator. In 2010, paleontologist Francisco Ortega and colleagues named this carnivorous dinosaur on the basis of a gorgeous, 130-million-year-old skeleton found in Spain. A cousin of the high-spined Acrocanthosaurus from North America, Concavenator also had a weird backbone–the carcharodontosaur had a high, shark-fin-shaped sail just in front of the hips.
In over a century and a half, no one has ever found a better or more complete specimen of the English dinosaur, yet Concavenator offered a glimmer of what Becklespinax might have looked like. Both were sail-backed theropods that lived in the Early Cretaceous of Europe. And while our knowledge of Becklespinax is frustratingly incomplete, the resemblance of the dinosaur’s known remains to the corresponding parts in Concavenator suggest that Becklespinax, too, was a sail-backed carcharodontosaur. Their relationship may even go deeper. While the two dinosaurs lived about 10 million years apart, Naish pointed out, it’s possible that both dinosaur species belong to the same genus. Concavenator corcovatus might, in fact, be rightly called Becklespinax corcovatus. Without a fuller view of what the skeleton of Becklespinax looked like, though, it’s impossible to tell.
Whatever Becklespinax is, paleontologists have almost certainly found other scraps from this dinosaur. The trick is correctly identifying and assembling the scattered pieces. It takes years to untangle the history and form of dinosaurs found during the 19th century, as paleontologist Roger Benson did with Megalosaurus. A skeleton–even a partial one–would be even better. Such a discovery would go a long way towards outlining the nature of the frustratingly-incomplete Becklespinax, although other questions would certainly remain.
Between Acrocanthosaurus, Becklespinax and Concavenator, the massive carcharodontosaurs of the Early Cretaceous were apparently well-decorated predators that bore distinctive ridges and sails on their backs. Why? What good would such ornaments be to large predators? Were they signals of dominance, advertisements of sexual desirability or even just easily-seen markers that an individual belonged to this species and not that one? No one knows. As debates about sexual selection and dinosaur ornamentation heat up, even rapacious carnivores will have a role to play.
Previous posts in this series:
A is for Agujaceratops
Naish, D., and Martill, D. 2007. Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: basal Dinosauria and Saurischia. Journal of the Geological Society, 164 (3), 493-510 DOI: 10.1144/0016-76492006-032
Ortega, F., Escaso, F., and Sanz, J. 2010. A bizarre, humped Carcharodontosauria (Theropoda) from the Lower Cretaceous of Spain Nature, 467 (7312), 203-206 DOI: 10.1038/nature09181
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
April 6, 2012
Every kid knows how Easter eggs wind up in their yard. According to the canonical weirdness that is the holiday tradition, the Easter bunny delivers the colorful eggs overnight. But the origin of the eggs themselves is hardly ever mentioned. According to a well-timed press release from the University of Leicester, non-avian dinosaurs are the best candidates for some of the candy eggs hidden away on lawns.
There is some real science behind the silliness. In the latest issue of Palaeontology, researchers Nieves López-Martínez and Enric Vicens described a new type of dinosaur egg discovered in the Cretaceous strata of northeastern Spain. The roughly 70-million-year-old eggs, given the name Sankofa pyrenaica to distinguish them from other egg forms previously found, exhibited a strange combination of features.
Many non-avian dinosaur eggs are more or less symmetrical in shape, regardless of whether they are spherical or elongated. Bird eggs, such as those from hens, often have an asymmetrical, tear-drop shape in which one end of the egg is more pointed and the other more rounded. There is some overlap in form, though. Eggs attributed to the small, sickle-clawed dinosaur Troodon and to the beaked oviraptorosaur Citipati are both elongated and taper to one end, and so seem similar to bird eggs.
The profile of the newly described egg type is most similar to that of archaic birds. But, according to López-Martínez and Vicens, the microscopic structure of the Sankofa eggs shares more in common with those laid by non-avian dinosaurs such as Troodon than with birds. The Sankofa eggs exhibit a mix of characteristics seen in both non-avian dinosaurs and archaic birds. Without fossils of the chicks developing inside the eggs, or even associated bones of adult animals, exactly what sort of creature laid this egg is ambiguous.
As part of the study, López-Martínez and Vicens created a chart of non-avian and avian dinosaur egg shapes. And, while it didn’t resolve the true identity of Sankofa, University of Leicester paleontologist Mark Purnell employed the comparative diagram in an attempt to track what sorts of dinosaur—avian or otherwise—could have laid the colorful eggs offered in England’s shopping districts. While many treats had the traditional hen egg shape, Purnell found, at least one resembled the Sankofa egg shape. I have to wonder if other Easter egg variations fit within the non-avian dinosaur range. Perhaps an expedition to the supermarket is in order.
LÓPEZ-MARTÍNEZ, N., & VICENS, E. (2012). A new peculiar dinosaur egg, Sankofa pyrenaica oogen. nov. oosp. nov. from the Upper Cretaceous coastal deposits of the Aren Formation, south-central Pyrenees, Lleida, Catalonia, Spain Palaeontology, 55 (2), 325-339 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2011.01114.x
August 2, 2011
Sometime between 145 million and 140 million years ago, in the vicinity of what is now Teruel, Spain, a small herd of sauropod dinosaurs traveled together near a shallow, sandy bay. We know this because they left their footprints in the rock record, and paleontologist Diego Castanera and colleagues have just released an in-press report about these significant trackways in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.
Fossilized sauropod footprints have been described from the region before, but trackways—especially those of multiple individuals—are rare. Moreover, trackways record prehistoric behaviors that we can’t observe from our 21st century perspective, so a collection of tracks left by several sauropods can offer insights into how the animals moved as well as their social lives.
Naturally, knowing the exact genus or species of dinosaur that created the tracks is impossible. Tracks don’t come with labels, and unless an animal literally dies in its tracks, determining the specific creature that created the traces is fraught with uncertainty. Nevertheless, the anatomy of tracks often allows paleontologists to narrow down the list of suspects to particular dinosaur subgroups. In this case, sauropods are the best fit for the kidney-shaped tracks left by the front feet and the roughly triangular prints left by the hind feet, especially given their distance from one another.
What kind of sauropods left the tracks? That’s difficult to say, but Castanera and co-authors propose that small titanosaurs might be the best fit. This widespread sauropod group—which included the gargantuan Argentinosaurus and the dwarf genus Magyarosaurus—was partly characterized by having wide chests, which gave their trackways a “wide gauge”—or a wider gap between the left and right limbs—that matches the pattern seen in the Teruel tracks. The problem is that the bones of titanosaurs are virtually unknown from the appropriate place and time period, so the trackways could have been left by another sort of sauropod which moved in a similar way.
Regardless of what sort of sauropod left the tracks, though, the most significant aspect of the site is that it preserves the tracks of six individual animals moving in the same direction, nearly parallel to each other. This pattern is typical of other trackways where groups of dinosaurs were moving together. The tracksite represents a herd and not simply a collection of unassociated tracks.
These sauropods were relatively small. The hind foot prints are between nine inches and a foot in length—these animals were not earth-shakers. Frustratingly, though, it is presently impossible to tell whether the track-makers were juvenile animals or just small sauropods. If all the animals were juveniles, then the trackway would throw support to the idea that young sauropods stuck together in small herds after they left the nest, but if the dinosaurs were dwarfed then the tracks may indicate a peculiar, isolated environment where isolated lineages of big dinosaurs evolved into small dinosaurs. Such tiny sauropods have been found in Romania, and represent a widespread but poorly understood phenomenon in which island habitats change organisms in strange ways. Whether the tracks found near Teruel represent another case of nano-sauropods remains to be seen.
Castanera, D., Barco, J., Díaz-Martínez, I., Gascón, J., Pérez-Lorente, F., & Canudo, J. (2011). New evidence of a herd of titanosauriform sauropods from the Lower Berriasian of the Iberian Range (Spain) Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2011.07.015
June 25, 2009
Scientists in Spain announced this week the discovery of a large tooth from a predatory dinosaur similar to Allosaurus. Found by local residents in Riodeva, Teruel, the nearly 4-inch-long tooth is the largest predatory dinosaur tooth yet found from the country. Just what dinosaur the tooth belonged to is as yet unknown. The scientists who described it for the journal Estudios Geologicos, as LiveScience reports, are pretty confident that it came from an allosaurid, and may be closely related to the as-yet-unknown dinosaur that left similar teeth in the strata of Portugal. Whatever the dinosaur was, though, it appears to have dined on sauropods. A bone from the sauropod Turiasaurus riodevensis found in the same area as the new tooth bears a large puncture mark that appears to have been made by a large predatory dinosaur. No doubt more exciting discoveries will emerge from Riodeva.