December 14, 2012
There’s always something new to learn about dinosaurs. Whether it’s the description of a previously-unknown species or a twist in what we thought we knew about their lives, our understanding of the evolution, biology, and extinction is shifting on a near-daily basis. Even now, paleontologists are pushing new dinosaurs to publication and debating the natural history of these wonderful animals, but the end of the year is as good a time as any to take a brief look back at what we learned in 2012.
For one thing, there was an exceptional amount of dino-hype this year. A retracted paper that mused on the nature of hypothetical space dinosaurs, a credulous report on an amateur scientist who said he had evidence that all dinosaurs were aquatic, and overblown nonsense about dinosaurs farting themselves into extinction all hit the headlines. (And the less said about the Ancient Aliens dinosaur episode, the better.) Dinosaurs are amazing enough without such sensationalist dreck, or, for that matter, being transformed into abominable human-raptor hybrids by Hollywood.
Not all the dinosaurs to wander into the media spotlight were atrocious, though. The glossy book Dinosaur Art collected some of the best prehistoric illustrations ever created, and the recently-released All Yesterdays presented dinosaurs in unfamiliar scenes as a way to push artists to break from severely-constrained traditions. Dinosaurs were probably much more unusual than we have ever imagined.
Indeed, new discoveries this year extended the range of fluff and feathers among dinosaurs and raised the question of whether “enfluffledness” was an ancient, common dinosaur trait. Paleontologists confirmed that the ostrich-like Ornithomimus–long suspected to have plumage–sported different arrangements of feathers as it aged. New insight on the 30-foot-long carnivore Yutyrannus affirmed that even big tyrannosaurs were covered in dinofuzz. And while both Ornithomimus and Yutyrannus belonged to the feathery subset of the dinosaur family tree that includes birds, the discovery of fluff on a much more distantly related theropod–Sciurumimus–hints that feathers were a much older, more widespread dinosaur feature than previously expected. Paired with previous finds, Sciurumimus suggests that protofeathers either evolved multiple times in dinosaurian history, or that the simple structures are a common inheritance at the base of the dinosaur family tree that was later lost in some groups and modified in others.
While some traditionalists might prefer scaly dinosaurs over fuzzy ones, feathers and their antecedents are important clues that can help paleontologists explore other aspects of paleobiology. This year, for example, researchers reconstructed dark, iridescent plumage on Microraptor on the basis of fossil feathers, and, as display structures, feathery decorations will undoubtedly have a role to play in the ongoing debate about how sexual selection influenced dinosaur forms. Feathers can also be frustrating–a new look at the plumage of Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx will undoubtedly alter our expectations of how aerially capable these bird-like dinosaurs were and how they might have escaped predatory dinosaurs that dined on the prehistoric fowl. Such lines of inquiry are where the past and present meet–after all, birds are modern dinosaurs.
Feathers aren’t the only dinosaur body coverings we know about. Skin impressions, such as those found with the ankylosaur Tarchia, have also helped paleontologists discern what dinosaurs actually looked like. Pebbly patterns in Saurolophus skin can even be used to differentiate species, although paleontologists are still puzzled as to why hadrosaurs seem to be found with fossil skin traces more often than other varieties of dinosaur.
And, speaking of ornamentation, a damaged Pachycephalosaurus skull dome might provide evidence that these dinosaurs really did butt heads. How the adornments of such dinosaurs changed as they aged, though, is still a point of controversy. One of this year’s papers threw support to the idea that Torosaurus really is a distinct dinosaur, rather than a mature Triceratops, but that debate is far from over.
Other studies provided new insights into how some dinosaurs slept, the evolutionary pattern of dinosaur succession, what dinosaur diversity was like at the end of the Cretaceous, and how dinosaurs grew up, but, of course, how dinosaurs fed is a favorite place that lies at the intersection of science and imagination. A poster at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting deconstructed how Tyrannosaurus rex–suggested to have the most powerful bite of any terrestrial animal ever–tore the heads off of deceased Triceratops. The herbivorous Diplodocus, by contrast, munched soft plants and stripped branches of vegetation rather than gnawing on tree bark, and the tiny, omnivorous Fruitadens probably mixed insects with its Jurassic salads. Studying dinosaur leftovers also explained why paleontologists didn’t find more of the mysterious Deinocheirus, which thus far has been identified by only one incomplete fossil–the long-armed ornithomimosaur was eaten by a Tarbosaurus.
We also met a slew of new dinosaurs this year, including the many-horned Xenoceratops, the archaic coelurosaur Bicentenaria, the sail-backed Ichthyovenator, the stubby-armed Eoabelisaurus, and the early tyrannosaur Juratyrant. This is just a short list of species I wrote about–a few that add to the ever-increasing list.
To properly study dinosaurs and learn their secrets, though, we must protect them. One of the most important dinosaur stories this year wasn’t about science, but about theft. An illicit Tarbosaurus skeleton – pieced together from multiple specimens smuggled out of Mongolia–has brought wide attention to the fossil black market, as well as the poachers and commercial dealers who fuel it. The fate of this dinosaur remains to be resolved, but I’m hopeful that the dinosaur will be returned home and will set a precedent for more vigorously going after fossil thieves and their accomplices.
Out of all the 2012 dinosaur stories, though, I’m especially excited about Nyasasaurus. The creature’s skeleton is as yet too fragmentary to know whether it was true dinosaur or the closest relative to the Dinosauria as a whole, but, at approximately 243 million years old, this creature extends the range of dinosaurs back in time at least 10 million years. That’s another vast swath of time for paleontologists to examine as they search for where dinosaurs came from, and those discoveries will help us better understand the opening chapters in the dinosaurian saga. That’s the wonderful thing about paleontology–new discoveries open new questions, and those mysteries keep us going back into the rock record.
And with that, I must say goodbye to Dinosaur Tracking. On Tuesday I’m starting my new gig at National Geographic’s Phenomena. I’ve had a blast during my time here at Smithsonian, and I bid all my editors a fond farewell as I and my favorite dinosaurs head off to our new home.
Editor’s Note: Best wishes to Brian on his future travels and we all thank him for his hard work over the past 4 (!) years, writing every day about something new on dinosaurs. It’s not nearly as easy as he makes it look. – BW
October 19, 2012
For the past six months, the fate of a million-dollar tyrannosaur has been in limbo. A composite Tarbosaurus skeleton has been awaiting the outcome of an ongoing court trial–will the dinosaur bones go home to Mongolia or wind up in the hands of the private collector who successfully bid for the dinosaur?
At every step, the case has become more complex. What was thought to be a single, mostly complete dinosaur turned out to be a jumble of many, and the documents used to import the fossils to the United States hint that these dinosaurs were indeed smuggled out of Mongolia. Earlier this week, federal officials arrested the man who imported and assembled the contentious skeleton.
According to reports by the Guardian and LiveScience, commercial fossil dealer Eric Prokopi was involved in many shady schemes. In addition to the disputed Tarbosaurus, documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office charge Prokopi with trying to smuggle a specimen of the small, feathery dinosaur Microraptor out of China, illegally selling an illicit specimen of the hadrosaur Saurolophus to auction house I.M. Chait and the sale of two other dinosaurs illegally collected from Mongolia. The charges against Prokopi include conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, making false statements and interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods.
From the very beginning, the Mongolian Government, paleontologists and U.S. officials have been skeptical about how a “mostly complete” Tarbosaurus–a tyrannosaur primarily found in Mongolia–could have been secretly exported from a country with a strict commitment to responsible collection and research. But experts also knew that this dinosaur was only one visible point of a massive black market that continues to rob nations of their natural history heritage. Indeed, the new charges assert that the Tarbosaurus was not the first illegal specimen Prokopi tried to sell, and the Florida fossil dealer is hardly unique. How many dinosaurs have been lost in private collections because of unscrupulous commercial paleontologists? With any luck, though, this case may help the United States tighten the laws surrounding fossil sales. We should not only strive to protect fossils at home but to work with other countries to preserve the global story of dinosaurs.
September 25, 2012
Since May, Mongolian officials, a fossil dealer, federal agents and paleontologists have been tussling over a million-dollar dinosaur. And the story of this Tarbosaurus keeps getting more complicated.
When the tyrant was sold by Heritage Auctions, the dinosaur was advertised as being about 75 percent complete. But, according to a court hearing earlier this month, only about fifty percent of the reconstruction came from a single animal. The rest apparently came from any number of other dinosaurs. Eric Prokopi–the dealer who imported, mounted and tried to sell the dinosaur–has not provided any information about where all these fossils came from.
To date, Tarbosaurus skeletons have only been discovered in Mongolia. The color and preservation of the bones of the specimen in question indicates that the primary individual used to make the reconstruction came from that country. But the admission that the dinosaur is an amalgamation of several dinosaurs–all of undocumented origin–complicates the Mongolian government’s claim to the dinosaur. Who knows what kind of monster Prokopi created in his effort to create a salable specimen?
And the lack of paperwork has further marred the case. Upon hearing that experts believe that the Tarbosaurus at the center of the mount could only have come from Mongolia, U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel offered his opinion that the dinosaur could have been found outside Mongolia simply because “We’re finding new things all the time.” It would seem that Castel fancies himself an amateur paleontologist.
This ever-more frustrating case highlights the problematic nature of the fossil black market. All too easily, fossils are poached and shipped around the world without documentation. Should they ever become the subject of an attempt to send the fossils back home, as in this case, the shady dealings of irresponsible commercial dealers hinders attempts to figure out where the fossils came from, much less return a country’s natural heritage.
No one knows what might happen next. The fact that the Tarbosaurus was a “Frankenstein” of many dinosaurs complicates the case, yet the bulk of the evidence indicates that the core of the mount–the 50 percent from a single Tarbosaurus individual–is an illicit specimen that was smuggled into the United States. For now, though, all we can do is wait. The case is set to resume in December.
September 18, 2012
Speckles the Tarbosaurus just can’t catch a break. For one thing, the menacing tyrannosaur is named “Speckles”–not exactly the most intimidating name for the Late Cretaceous carnivore. But, in the Korean-made film Speckles: The Tarbosaurus 3D released last year, things get far worse for our unfortunately-named hero.
If you’re a dinosaur cinema aficionado, you’ve seen Speckles’ tale before. Proving that dinosaur cinema may be the most unoriginal sub-sub-sub genre out there, the story is a mish-mash of elements from Disney’s Dinosaur, the anime treat You are Umasou, the cutesy Pangea, the dinosaur sequence of Fantasia and even Ricardo Delagado’s comic series The Age of Reptiles. This isn’t to say that the resemblances were necessarily intentional, but how many times are we going to see one-eyed Tyrannosaurus villains, dinosaur death marches across arid plains and pterosaur-eye-view flyover shots before someone tries something different? With 150 million years of prehistory to work with, you’d think filmmakers would show some originality.
The story follows the tragic life of Speckles, a young male Tarbosaurus who, of course, quickly gets into all sorts of trouble while exploring the jungles and cliffs of his prehistoric homeland. Best to leave browsing Therizinosaurus alone. Without tragedy, though, the story has nowhere to go, and our protagonist quickly finds himself alone. Speckles loses his entire family in a stampede of herbivorous dinosaurs caused by “One Eye,” a gnarled Tyrannosaurus that personally dispatches Speckles’ mom. From that point on, Speckles is consumed by thoughts of revenge, but not so much so that he passes the chance to court a blue-eyed Tarbosaurus who ultimately becomes his mate.
Things get a whole lot worse for Speckles before they get better. I’m not going to spoil the details here, but it’s really no surprise that the story winds up almost exactly where it began. And unless you’re an especially dinosaur-crazed kid, there’s not much to justify sitting through the hour and twenty minutes it takes to get to that point. The stylistic difference of the similar animated fable You are Umasou let the filmmakers explore issues of identity and family, but Speckles is a slow plod toward an obvious and inexorable end-point without depth or nuance. Speckles is good, One Eye is bad, and it takes far too long for them to finally settle their vendetta.
Fortunately, the dinosaurs don’t talk in this one. At least not in the manner of Disney’s overly-anthropomorphic Dinosaur. Instead, we only hear Speckles internal monologue, even as he misidentifies and mispronounces the names of various prehistoric creatures. (In an early scene, the crested hadrosaur Parasaurolophus is called a “Tyrannosaurus.” D’oh!) Although my favorite howler comes when our hero prematurely believes that he has defeated One Eye at long last. “I defeated him! I’m Speckles!” our narrator taunts.
And now it’s time to pick from Mesozoic nits. The typical problems plague the movie’s computer-generated dinosaurs. The coelurosaurs aren’t sufficiently feathered, the Velociraptor have bunny hands and the way the dinosaurs run and fall down defy physics. And it’s worth pointing out that the entire dinosaurian assemblage is an unnatural amalgamation brought together just for the movie. Tyrannosaurus rex and Tarbosaurus bataar were not neighbors–these two closely-related tyrannosaurs lived in North America and Asia, respectively. Likewise, the supporting dinosaur cast of Torosaurus, Parasaurlophus and company from North America never met Velociraptor, Microraptor and other dinosaurs from Cretaceous Asia. Worse still, despite the fact that none of these dinosaurs lived in prehistoric Korea, the movie is presented as being a look at the Korean Peninsula circa 80 million years ago. Dinosaurs actually found in Korea–such as Koreaceratops and Koreanosaurus–don’t even get a cameo.
As much as I love dinosaurs, I have to wonder if it’s even possible to make a compelling feature-length film from a dinosaur’s perspective. Several films have tried, and several more have been scrapped before they even reached production. Based upon Speckles, and similar films, dinosaur movies seem doomed by standard tropes that make dinosaur cinema frustratingly repetitive. Perhaps it’s best to take a tip from Phil Tippett, creator of “Prehistoric Beast“, and keep dinosaur tales short and savage. Cinematic dinosaurs are awesome to behold, but filmmakers have not yet found a way to make us really care about their individual lives.
August 9, 2012
The road home for an illicit Tarbosaurus is bound to be a long one. Earlier this summer, federal agents seized a skeleton of the tyrannosaur Tarbosaurus that had been put up for auction in New York City. The sale price for the dinosaur topped $1 million, but, as was long suspected and was soon made clear, the dinosaur was illegally smuggled into the United States. Even worse, the skeleton itself was almost certainly illegally excavated from Mongolia and subsequently smuggled out of the country. Mongolian officials, professional paleontologists, lawyers, and United States officials moved quickly to prevent the dinosaur from disappearing into the collection of the tyrannosaur’s prospective buyer.
I see these events as a victory. The fossil black market has robbed many countries of their natural history heritage, especially Mongolia and China, and I was glad to see so many concerned activists work together in the hope that the Tarbosaurus might be returned. As expert paleontologists have concluded, the Tarbosaurus undoubtedly came from Mongolia–a country with strict heritage laws about who can collect fossils, what can be collected, and what subsequently happens to the fossils. All the evidence accumulated so far supports to idea that the Tarbosaurus was looted from Mongolia. But the man who assembled the controversial Tarbosaurus doesn’t agree, and has filed a claim on the dinosaur. Eric Prokopi, who obtained the Tarbosaurus and stood to profit from the auction, believes that the dinosaur is rightly his.
As reported by Wynne Parry at LiveScience, Prokopi and his attorney are trying to defend the sale of the Tarbosaurus by drawing a distinction between raw fossils and the reconstructed end product. “We are just trying to create a factual distinction between a fossil which is imported and a finished piece which is what was being sold at the auction,” Prokopi’s attorney Michael McCullough said.
But this strategy entirely misses the point. Prokopi obviously put a great deal of time, money, and effort into the tyrannosaur skeleton, but that does not change the fact that the skeleton was almost certainly illegally excavated and, as customs documents demonstrate, smuggled into the United States through a false description. How hard Prokopi worked is absolutely irrelevant. And, frankly, Prokopi should have known better than to put so much effort into a significant dinosaur specimen when he admittedly had no idea where the specimen came from or how it was collected. The bottom line is quite simple–the Tarbosaurus was illegally removed from its home strata, and it should be returned to its country of origin of soon as possible.