Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Ferrisaurus: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out a newly described dinosaur!  Ferrisaurus sustutensis was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now British Columbia, Canada, during the late Cretaceous period, about 68 million years ago.  It was a small member of the ceratopsian group of dinosaurs, measuring just under six feet long from beak to tail.  The genus name, Ferrisaurus, translates to "Iron Reptile" in reference to the fact that its bones were found near railroad tracks.

The ceratopsian dinosaurs, known for their elaborate frills, horns and beaks, were extremely successful at the end of the Cretaceous, having diversified into many different forms.  In North America, the earliest known ceratopsian, called Aquilops, was only about the size of a housecoat, but by the latest cretaceous its lineage would diversify into many much larger forms.  Triceratops, which could grow to thirty feet long, is the most famous member of this group, but there were other ceratopsians that lived at the same time as Triceratops that were still quite small and would have occupied a different niche.  Ferrisaurus, which was about the same size as an average human, was one such example.

Life reconstruction of Ferrisaurus in watercolors by me.

Within ceratopsians, Ferrisaurus was a member of a more specific family, called Leptoceratopsidae. These smaller ceratopsians typically didn't have any long horns on their faces like their bigger relatives did, but they still had powerful curved beaks and bony frills behind their heads.  Unfortunately, Ferrisaurus' skull was never discovered, but it can be guessed that it would have looked similar to other more completely known members of this family.  Judging by the jaw proportions in known leptoceratopsid skulls, these dinosaurs would have had devastatingly powerful biting power, which they likely used to eat tough plant material, but they also could have used this as an effective weapon to ward away would be predators, despite their small size.

Photograph of the radius (lower arm bone) of Ferrisaurus on the left compared to those of other leptoceratopsids.  Photo is from the recently published paper by Dr. Victoria Arbour, which is linked below.

Ferrisaurus is unique because its front limbs were proportionally shorter to its body than those of its closest known relatives.  Also its toes were differentiating lengths to each other compared to those of other leptoceratopsids.  Another striking fact about this dinosaur is the fact that it lived in what is now British Columbia, all the way up in Western Canada, an area that is not known for having many dinosaur fossils.  The presence of Ferrisaurus gives hope that paleontologists might discover more dinosaurs in the same area one day to illustrate a better idea of the kind of life that called British Columbia home 68 million years ago!

References

Arbour, Victoria; Evans, David (2019). "A new leptoceratopsid dinosaur from Maastrichtian-aged deposits of the Sustut Basin, northern British Columbia, Canada".

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Placodus: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out a really cool, specialized reptile from the Triassic.  Get a load of Placodus gigas!

Placodus was a marine reptile that lived in what is now Germany, France, Poland, and China, during the middle Triassic period, about 240 million years ago.  From snout to tail, it measured about six feet long and it would have eaten shellfish when alive.  The genus name, Placodus, translates to "flat tooth" because as we will learn, it's teeth were indeed quite flat!

Placodus gigas life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Placodus had a very wide and barrel-shaped midsection, which was flatter on the bottom.  It's vertebra overlapped and its belly ribs angled upwards to almost connect with the top ribs, so this creature would not have had a very flexible body.  It likely used its more flexible tail as its main source of propulsion in the water, with aid from its proportionally short arms and legs, of which the fingers and toes were likely webbed.  Placodus could have probably hauled out on land and clumsily walked around if it needed to.  They likely hatched from eggs like many reptiles do, and had to come out of the ocean at least to lay eggs.

Placodus skeleton on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  This beast always reminded me of a giant newt...or a reptilian walrus.

Placodus also had a row of small bony plates down the middle of its back.  They may have been to help break up its shape as a form of camouflage, or possibly taken part in some kind of intraspecies display to impress mates and intimidate rivals.  Modern lizards with ridges down their backs use them in similar ways today.  These small plates also may have aided Placodus in thermoregulation, expanding its surface area and acting as small solar panels to absorb more warmth from the sun, as it was likely ectothermic like many of today's reptiles and would have needed the sun in order to stay warm.  Living in and near the ocean, it would have been easier to lose heat due to the water, so staying warm enough have the energy to to swim would have been important to an animal like Placodus.  If you've ever been to the beach, even on the hottest days, you will notice being near or in the water is always much cooler.

Close up of Placodus' skull at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  Note the chisel teeth in the front of its jaws and the extremely wide, flat teeth in the back of its mouth.  It is very likely Placodus was a specialist at eating shellfish.

Placodus' head is perhaps its most interesting feature.  It had a short skull, with its eyes and nostrils on the top, implying it was spending time in the water and therefore wouldn't need to surface much in order to breathe and see.  Modern swimming animals like frogs, alligators, and beavers, to name a few, have similar facial arrangements for this very purpose.  In the front of its mouth, it had forward-facing teeth that were chisel-like.  Inside its jaws, even on the roof of its mouth, it had wide, platform-like teeth.  It is almost certain that Placodus specialized in eating shellfish, like mussels and clams.  The front teeth would have been ideal for raking them out of the seafloor, or plucking them off of rocks, and the back teeth were perfect for crushing shells once they were in the mouth.  Modern day walruses, which are not related to placodus, but also specialize in eating bivalves, have similar teeth in the backs of their jaws.  In fact, in many ways Placodus likely filled an overall similar ecological niche as walruses do today.  Placodus belonged to the now extinct family of reptiles that flourished during the Triassic, called placodontidae.  All members of this group had similar flat teeth for crushing shelled mollusks.

Underside of Placodus' skull.  Check out how the entire roof of the mouth is covered in those wide, flat teeth!  Cast on display at the Naturalis Museum in the Netherlands.  Photo credit: Ghedogedo from Wikipedia.

That is all for this week!  As always please feel free to comment below!

References

Naish, D. 2004. Fossils explained 48. Placodonts. Geology Today 20 (4), 153-158.

Rieppel, O. (2002). Feeding mechanisms in Triassic stem-group sauropterygians: the anatomy of a successful invasion of Mesozoic seas Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 135, 33-63

Monday, September 30, 2019

Cryodrakon: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out a newly described giant pterosaur.  Check out Cryodrakon boreas!

Cryodrakon was a large pterosaur, a flying reptile related to dinosaurs, that lived in what is now Alberta, Canada, during the late Cretaceous period, between 76 and 77 million years ago.  The fossils that we can definitely assign to this species imply that it had a wingspan of about fifteen feet wide, but an isolated vertebra that may have been from the same species suggest it could have grown even larger.  When alive, Cryodrakon was likely a meat-eater, specializing in snapping up small animals and probably scavenging as well.  The genus and species name translates to "Ice Dragon of the North Wind" in reference to Canada's icy winters.  It should be noted, however, that when Cryodrakon was alive, its environment was much warmer than it is today.

Cryodrakon life reconstruction in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza

Cryodrakon belonged to the family of pterosaurs called azhdarchidae.  Azhdarchids were the largest animals, let alone pterosaurs, to ever fly.  They are characterized by their long necks and proportionally huge skulls, which were often longer than their torsos.  They were also known to be better at walking around on the ground than other pterosaurs.  The most famous member of this group is Quetzalcoatlus northropii, which was also the first discovered.  That being said, despite being the most well-recognized member, Quetzalcoatlus northropii is only known from very fragmented remains, in the form of one wing.  So for a long while before other members of the family were discovered, we didn't even know what these pterosaurs really looked like.

Cryodrakon has actually been known on the fossil record for decades, but its bones were always suspected to have simply been more material from a smaller species of Quetzalcoatlus, since they both lived in North America.  Recently, however, they were extensively compared to to each other and diagnostic differences were found!  It turns out that the air chambers that are inside the bones, which scientists have found out are unique for different pterosaur species, are differently arranged in Cryodrakon and Quetzalcoatlus in the same bones.

Photo of the right humerus of Cryodrakon.  Credit: Dave Hone.


Cryodrakon is actually known from a pretty good number of fossils.  Scientists have found very young individuals, which would have only had wingspans of about six feet.  The most complete specimen is known from a neck vertebra, ribs, legs, and part of the wing.  Judging by the wing bone, it would have had a wingspan of about sixteen feet.  However, another vertebra from around the same location was found that measures almost two feet long!  This vertebra MAY be from an older Cryodrakon, which would make its max wingspan over thirty feet, which is comparable to the biggest pterosaurs known, like Quetzalcoatlus northropii. However, this one vertebra is badly damaged and it is currently impossible to confirm if it is indeed from an older Cryodrakon or simply a larger species of pterosaur.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below!

References

Hone, D.; Habib, M.; Therrien, F. (September 2019). "Cryodrakon boreas, gen. et sp. nov., a Late Cretaceous Canadian azhdarchid pterosaur". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Triceratops: Beast of the Week

Here at Prehistoric Beast of the Week, I do my best to cover a different prehistoric animal each week (or as close as I can get to each week).  I make a point to shine a spotlight on some of the lesser-celebrated creatures that don't get as much attention as they deserve, or newly described ones that are hot in the news.  Many times I cover special requests of readers like you.

We're not doing any of that this week.  Today we will shamelessly revisit my favorite animal (let alone dinosaur) the mighty Triceratops!

Triceratops horridus in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza.

Triceratops
was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now North America during the late Cretaceous period between 68 and 66 million years ago and adults measured about thirty feet long from beak to tail.  There are currently two species of Triceratops recognized.  Triceratops horridus lived a few million years earlier and had a longer, more narrow snout, and Triceratops prorsus lived later and had a deeper snout with a much longer nose horn.  The genus was one of the largest and most well studied members of the ceratopsian family with many good specimens on the fossil record.  When alive, Triceratops would have coexisted with other well known dinosaurs like Ankylosaurus, Edmontosaurus/Anatotitan, Pachycephalosaurus, Dracorex and of course, Tyrannosaurus rex.  

Quick sketch comparing the two recognized species of Triceratops.  The slightly younger T. prorsus on the left and T. horridus on the right.  I feel it is important to note the exact shape and tilt of the brow horns seem to still be subject to individual variation even within each species.

The name, Triceratops, translates to "Three Horn Face" which makes sense considering this animal indeed had three horns...on its face; one short one between the nostrils and a long one above each eye.  Triceratops also had a round frill that was made of solid bone.  This is unique to this genus since all other ceratopsians known have holes, or what are known as fenestrae, in their frills to make them lighter.  The exact reason why Triceratops had a solid frill is the subject of some debate.  One such explanation could be for stronger defense against predators.  While the horns and frills of ceratopsians were probably for display purposes, I'm sure they were effective weapons against predators if need be as well.  That being said consider the fact that Triceratops lived alongside Tyrannosaurus.  This may be a result of an evolutionary arms race where the predator and prey keep evolving more advanced weapons and defenses to deal with one another.  Another very likely idea that is supported by evidence in the form of healed wounds on Triceratops frills, is that they played a larger role in intraspecies combat for dominance, and needed to take hits from the horns of other Triceratops regularly.

Triceratops horridus skeletal mount at the National Museum in Washington D.C.

In addition to the horns and frill, Triceratops is also known for its curved beak, which it could have used for clipping vegetation.  Beyond the beak, farther into the mouth were batteries of many small teeth perfect for slicing the tough plant material. The jaws themselves would have been backed up by extremely powerful muscles which would have allowed the dinosaur to bite through the tough vegetation it was eating.  I also wouldn't be surprised if Triceratops, and other ceratopsians regularly used biting as a form of defense.

Baby(left) and juvenile (right) Triceratops skulls on display at the National Museum of Natural History.  Note the upturned horns of the juvenile.
Like I stated above, Triceratops is a well-studied animal thanks to a huge amount of fossils that have been found from it over the years.  Among these fossils we have massive adults, possessing some of the largest skulls of any land animal all the way down to tiny babies with horns no larger than my thumb.  We also have what are believed to be juveniles, older than babies but not yet sexually mature adults, with upturned brow horns which would grow more forward later in life.

Some scientists believe that the animal we call Triceratops was actually only a sub-adult form of a more mature form, which is currently considered a different genus, TorosaurusTorosaurus had a longer frill that is much thinner than that of Triceratops and possessed two finestrae (holes).  Despite the fact that this hypothesis has been getting a lot of press lately (because Triceratops is such a popular animal) a lot of paleontologists still don't agree with it.  One major problem with this idea is the fact that many definite Torosaurus skulls are smaller than some Triceratops skulls.  Even though this doesn't completely disprove the hypothesis (individual size variation is possible) a lot more solid evidence and data is needed to prove it.  As of now, Triceratops and Torosaurus are still widely accepted as different genera.

Torosaurus skull on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philladelphia.  Note the two large finestra in the frill.

Within the past few years there was even some preserved scaly skin discovered from a Triceratops.  The scales, believed to be from the animal's back, are all either heptagon, hexagon or pentagon shaped and arranged much like mosaic tiles.  They vary in size with larger ones surrounded by smaller ones forming almost rosette-type patterns.  The larger scales also come up to a shallow point like a Hershey kiss...or a nipple. The scales from the ventral(belly) side of the animal are supposedly rectangular shaped like the belly scales from a crocodile.

Chunk of fossilized Triceratops skin.  Check out those nipple scales.

The texture of Triceratops' skull implies that there was a layer of keratin, the same material that horns and beaks are made of, over almost the entire face and head!  This facial covering could have made Triceratops look like it was wearing a helmet, or the keratin also may have grown in scale-like formations, or even scute-like patterns like the shell of a turtle.  Regardless, the newest discoveries on Triceratops are implying it would have been a seriously awesome-looking beast!

I suppose we shall stop here.  Hope you enjoyed my birthday as much as I have!  As always you are welcome to comment below!  Farewell until next time.

References


Dodson, P.; Forster, C.A.; and Sampson, S.D. (2004) Ceratopsidae. In: Weishampel, D. B.; Dodson, P.; and Osmólska, H. (eds.), The Dinosauria (second edition). University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 494–513. ISBN 0-520-24209-2.

Farke, A. A. (2004). Horn use in Triceratops (Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae): testing behavioral hypotheses using scale models. Palaeontologia Electronica, 7(1), 1-10.

Horner, J. R., & Marshall. C. (2002). Keratinous covered dinosaur skulls. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 22(3, Supplement):67A.

Lehman T.M. (1987). "Late Maastrichtian paleoenvironments and dinosaur biogeography in the Western Interior of North America". Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology and Palaeoecology 60 (3): 290. doi:10.1016/0031-0182(87)90032-0.

Longrich NR, Field DJ (2012) Torosaurus Is Not Triceratops: Ontogeny in Chasmosaurine Ceratopsids as a Case Study in Dinosaur Taxonomy. PLoS ONE 7(2): e32623. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032623
Rega, E.; Holmes, R.; and Tirabasso, A. (2010). "Habitual locomotor behavior inferred from manual pathology in two Late Cretaceous chasmosaurine ceratopsid dinosaurs, Chasmosaurus irvinensis (CMN 41357) and Chasmosaurus belli (ROM 843)". In Ryan, Michael J.; Chinnery-Allgeier, Brenda J.; and Eberth, David A. (editors.). New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs: The Royal Tyrrell Museum Ceratopsian Symposium. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. pp. 340–354. ISBN 978-0-253-35358-0.
Scannella, J.; and Horner, J.R. (2010). "Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30 (4): 1157–1168. doi:10.1080/02724634.2010.483632.



Ostrom, J. H. (1966). "Functional morphology and evolution of the ceratopsian dinosaurs". Evolution 20 (3): 290–308. doi:10.2307/2406631. JSTOR 2406631.


Thursday, September 19, 2019

Interview with Paleontologist: Melanie During

Melanie During is a vertebrate paleontologist, currently employed as a research
assistant at Uppsala University in Sweden. She is Dutch and recently moved to Sweden
to begin her new job, while she continues to search for a fitting PhD program. Melanie
has a BS in Earth Sciences from the University of Amsterdam and a MS in
paleoclimatology from the VU (Vrije Universiteit) Amsterdam. A life-long fascination with
extinct fauna and evolution drove her to independently familiarize herself with vertebrate
morphology and comparative anatomy through elective courses (i.e. at Utrecht
University). During her bachelor and master education, she performed research on the
geochemistry, trackways, and vertebrate body fossils of Dutch early Middle Triassic
records exposed in the Winterswijkse Steengroeve quarry complex. This quarry, it’s
fossils and the citizen scientists who have been collecting there for more than 50 years
drew her to become increasingly involved in the excavations and research. Since 2015,
she acts as board member of the Workgroup Muschelkalk Winterswijk that seeks to
connect professional paleontologists with enthusiastic citizen scientists. This quarry also
led her to meet her life-partner, with whom she returns to the quarry every year to help
assist in the annual student excavations. For her master’s thesis, she studied fish and
dinosaur fossils from the unique Tanis locality (North Dakota, US). Here, latest
Cretaceous fossiliferous seiche deposits directly associated with the K-Pg boundary
event are preserved in exquisite detail. For this project she was able to do an
experiment at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France, where X-
ray micro-computed tomography (μCT) and virtual segmentation was used to study
fossils without preparing them from the rock. This work, which is currently being
prepared for publication, was awarded the Dutch Escher Prize for the most outstanding
master thesis in Earth Sciences. Melanie studies tetrapod evolution broadly, but is
specifically interested in adaptations and extinctions. Specifically, the rise of the marine
reptiles prior to that of the dinosaurs during the Triassic, and the extinction of the
dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, and how the selectivity of the K-Pg extinction
could be explained. She is still at the beginning of her career and is currently looking for
a vertebrate paleontological PhD program in Europe.

Pretending to be Mother Mary with a ¼ scale model of a T-rex skull.
Photograph by Juliën Kavish Lubeek.

Question 1: What was your first sign of interest in paleontology that you can
remember?

MD: As a young girl I was always playing outside and collecting rocks, spiders, bugs and
other things from nature. One day when I was around 7 years old, the municipality in
which I lived decided to replace the shells on the paths in the local park that I crossed to
get to school. As I walked to school the next day, I arrived hours late with pockets full of
shells, which I collected by carefully walking next to the path. As I was curious to some
of the shapes that I had never seen before, I went to the library and started comparing
the pictures to the shells I had found. When I finally found the comparison to some of
the shells, these turned out to be fossils, some of which even index fossils, for the
Miocene or the Eocene- and a fascination was born.

Question2: Did you have any family members or other people in your life who
served as role models when you were younger? 

MD: No, as a young girl I mostly played outside alone because no one in my family
understood my tendency to bring home dead things or rocks.

Question 3: Do you have any now?

MD: Oh, I have many by now. From citizen scientists, such as my ´surrogate mother´ Tineke
Lammerse to professionals such as Dr. John de Vos or to commercial paleontologists
as Pete Larson. They have all shown eager to teach me, take me out into collections or
into the field and discuss the fossils.

Excavating a piece of Triceratops parietal near Newcastle Wyoming in 2015.
Photograph by Pete Larson.

MD: Hmm, it would be hard to identify specific things or actions. If I would want to explainQuestion4: What specific things or actions do you feel most helped you get to the
point in your career where you are now?

how I got my Masters, from a low socio-economic background and three foster homes, I
think it is due to my stubborn perseverance.
My current position is that of a research assistant at Uppsala University in Sweden,
while I am also frequently hired to lecture to middle school, high school- and undergrad
students. All of these activities stem from my tendency to want to share my passion and
grasping onto every form of outreach that I could find.

Question 5: It seems that much of your work is with Triassic fossils.  Was this
something you specifically wanted to work with and sought out?  Or did it choose
you?

MD: In a way it chose me, since I am from the Netherlands, which has relatively few in-situ
fossils. The first time I visited the Winterswijk Limestone Quarry was in 2014, and for my
bachelor thesis I studied a section of 270 footprints from Rhynchosauroides peabodyi,
which are extremely plentiful in this quarry. The Triassic period is such a phenomenally
strange time; just after the largest known mass extinction and just before the dominance
of the dinosaurs-it is a period of rapid evolutionary radiation enabled by the great
number of empty niches.
Directly after handing in my bachelor thesis, the annual Winterswijk student excavation
commenced and I was in! Subsequently I wrote my first ever publication on a strange
vertebra from a durophagous placodont, I studied the bulk geochemistry of the entire
stratigraphy (to be published later this year) and I joined the citizen scientists working
group (Werkgroep Muschelkalk Winterswijk) in order to enhance collaboration between
collectors and researchers. Although I have also worked on the K-Pg extinction for my
master thesis and am currently working on late Devonian material, the early middle
Triassic marine reptiles of the Germanic Basin will always be among my favorite study
material and I look forward to working on them in the future.

Lifting a slab of fossiliferous Muschelkalk together with Dr. Dennis Voeten in
2019. These big slabs were subsequently passed on to students who would use their
hamers and chisels to make them smaller and look for fossils. Photograph by Prof.
Anne Schulp.

Question 6: What has been your favorite project so far?

MD: Beyond a doubt that would be my master thesis, which is still unpublished, so I cannot
say too much about it. However, I can mention that I worked on the material from Tanis
(North Dakota), where the last day of the Cretaceous was preserved in phenomenal
good condition. The material contained so many ´firsts´ for me, including: first time I
studied fossils that were buried as they died, first time I found soft tissues, first time I got
to use synchrotron μCT analysis and 3D modelling techniques, and the first time I
managed to directly answer the research question I initially asked prior to any analyses.
In other words, a little patience and I’ll happily share it with the world once the paper is
out.

Question 7: What are you working on right now?

MD: I am currently employed in the lab of Per Ahlberg at Uppsala University in Sweden,
where I model synchrotron microCT data of Late Devonian coprolites, which aid in the
PhD project of Hannah Byrne. Hannah is currently studying the biotic transition at the
Devonian-Carboniferous boundary, and coprolites are very informative if you want to
figure out who ate whom. For those unaware, coprolites are fossilized excrement, or
poop. It´s a shitty job, but somebody´s gotta do it –pun intended ;).
This research assistant position is a perfect bridge between my masters and my future
PhD, I am further developing useful skills and working in a great team where I will
expand my network. I admit I am somewhat picky when it comes to PhD positions and
the ones I want are heavily competed for, therefore hopefully this job will increase my
chances and I am definitely not bored or unhappy in the meantime

“Preparation day” 2017, a day for the Workgroup Muschelkalk Winterswijk in
which citizen scientists and professionals share their findings and discuss preparation
methods. Photograph by Jos Lankamp.

Question 8: I know you have a pretty great twitter account.  How do you think
social media plays into your profession? 

MD: Wow, thank you! In all honesty I have only recently passed the 1000 followers mark, but
it went relatively fast from there. My social media is an enormous outreach outlet to me,
trying to offer motivation and encouragement to current students, offering evocative
information to potential future paleontologists and sharing some inside information with
my international colleagues. It has offered me a direct link to journalists and
paleontologists whom I would otherwise have never met. The majority of my invited
lectures actually come from sharing my field-experiences directly on twitter and this has
a direct effect on my lecturing experience. One day I hope to create paleontological
documentaries and I am 100% sure that having an extensive online network will help
with that.

Excavating Triceratops material (at least a Femur and Tibia are clearly in
view) for Naturalis in the summer of 2015. Photograph by Prof. Anne Schulp.

Question 9: Where has paleontology taken you geographically?  What is your
favorite place you have spent time in so far?

MD: Oh wow, well I’d have to separate a few things then. So, paleontology has taken me
places for study and work, it has taken me places for conferences, it allowed me to
meet my partner Dr. Dennis Voeten who I visited in many places, and it has taken me
places for fieldwork.

I have done the majority of my education in the Netherlands, in Utrecht and in
Amsterdam, with an internship at the Black Hills Institute for Geological Research in
South Dakota, US. Currently I am employed in Uppsala, Sweden. I have attended
conferences in Grand Rapids, MI, US; Berlin, Germany; Opole, Poland; Lyon, France;
Munich, Germany; Brussels, Belgium (and several in the Netherlands). I have met
Dennis Voeten in Winterswijk, while he was doing his PhD in Olomouc, Czech Republic
and Grenoble, France, where I traveled to frequently, and I have done fieldwork in: the
Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, UK, Scotland, Poland, US.

Question 10: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work?  How do you react to
it?

MD: Oof, yes, often enough. I find that criticism on my work is actually tremendously helpful.
Although I may not always agree with the criticism, I`m very welcoming to other points
of view and sometimes it shows me that I just did not explain my reasoning well enough
and there is something to gain.
Criticism on my work is actually not the only criticism I get, and I have had a great deal
of criticism directed at my work, which was actually criticism on my flamboyant
personality, my big mouth or my non-academic activities. That sort of criticism has
caused me a great deal of sadness several times and I have both learned to make sure
that I take all the necessary academic steps to prevent them, as well as the develop
broader shoulders and wave my pink hair prouder than I ever have before.

Question 11: Where there any forms of media or entertainment that you think
helped fuel your interest in paleontology?

MD: Hmm, well, my interest in paleontology is continuously fueled through (social) media
today and in the past 10 years. As a child however, I grew up without cable and with
expensive dial-up internet and I didn’t even see the Jurassic Park movies before
becoming an adult. The public library was all I had and it certainly fueled my interest.

Melanie “riding” a T-rex Stan replica during her internship at the Black Hills
institute for Geological Research. Photograph by Peter Larson.

Question 12: Some people say that paleontology doesn't do any real good for
humanity and is just a "for fun" field.  What are your thoughts on this view? 

MD: Honestly paleontology will likely never cure cancer or solve today’s great problems of
humanity. Calling it a “just for fun” field, however stems from looking directly at the
current world’s problems and then at what paleontology does to solve them, which is
cherry-picking.
Paleontology, like many of the STEM fields, focuses on the cores of long-term
problems. Bit by bit and step by step, as the centuries go by, we learn and understand
more about life on Earth. These are never-ending fields, and we will likely never answer
all the questions, since the answer of one question typically results in more new
questions. In the process, however, we have learned that the Earth is round, and it’s the
third planet in our Solar System, which is about 4.6 billion years old and has inhabited

life for about 3.8 billion years. Life has experienced at least 5 mass extinctions and over
99% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. Diseases such as we humans suffer
today, are found back in fossil bones dating back to at least the Triassic (about 240
million years ago) and are therefore nothing new. Paleontology is the non-written history
of Earth´s life´s past, it has already happened, and studying this history provides us with
an insight in the future, a future that includes climate change and mass extinctions.

Dissecting a modern Ostrich for comparative osteological analysis, in 2016
in my backyard in Amsterdam North, photograph by Sander Liem.

Question 12: Who was the first paleontologist you met?  How did that go?

MD: The First paleontologist I ever met was Dr. John de Vos, at the time curator at Naturalis
Biodiversity Center (the National Natural history museum) in Leiden and Teylers
museum (oldest museum in the Netherlands) in Haarlem. He gave a guest lecture in the
elective course “Big History”, during the course I asked just a bit too many questions
and he quickly suggested I talked to him after the lecture. After the lecture I happily
came up to him and he gave me his card: “Send me an email and I’ll give you a tour
through the museums, you can be a paleontologist too, don´t let anyone tell you any
differently!” Needless to say, I followed his advice. After the two tours through the
museums he introduced me to several more Dutch paleontologists, including Prof. Jelle
Reumer who supervised my subsequent bachelor thesis.

Question 13: Why do you think prehistoric animals are so influential to humans?

MD: In a way they test your imagination. When I studied the footprints of Rhynchosauroides
peabodyi, I was studying at least 13 individual trackways, some overlapping and some
clearly deposited later than others. I could not help but imagine a soft of Persian Gulf,
where all these reptiles would wander over the tidal flats.
Paleontology takes you back to times when nature was still unaffected by humans, I’m
not saying it was much better then, because for instance Winterswijk was a hypersaline,
dry and hot environment during the early Middle Triassic. Yet imagining that on this
Earth, where you now walk and find a fossil, this animal actually walked around and
lived out its entire life under very different and yet very similar circumstances. What was
it? Under what circumstances did it live? How did it move? What did it eat? How did it
die? Are the most basic questions and every answer will lead to more questions. It just
tickles your brain a little. In my case it makes me extremely curious and it is that
curiosity that makes for such fanatic paleontologists.

Melanie together with Prof. Anne Schulp, drawing out swimming traces in the Winterswijkse Steengroeve in 2015.  Photograph by Remco Bleeker.

Question 14: What is your favorite prehistoric animal? Why?

MD: Oh dear, every time a child raises their hand after my lecture to ask me this question, I
fall completely silent. Honestly, this is one of the hardest questions there is and I´m
genuinely afraid I give a different answer every time I get it.
Therefore, today I will say it´s the Placodont, a shell-crushing marine reptile from the
early Middle Triassic, with big fat pachyostotic bones and elaborate palatal dentition (flat
and wide teeth all across the roof and bottom of its mouth).

However, tomorrow I may say Nothosaurus, or Triceratops, perhaps the day after I’ll say
Oviraptor or Titanosaurus. Although I’m mostly fond of Mesozoic reptiles, I’m not really
focused on which one is my favorite and as long as it has a spine, I’d be interested in
studying it.

Melanie during the fieldwork for her master thesis in ‘Tanis’ North Dakota
(US). Photograph by Jackson Leibach.

Question 15: If you could go back in time and observe any prehistoric time
period/community, what would it be?  Why?

MD: I would love to observe the K-Pg extinction, although I expect that to be a little painful to
witness. It ties in with all my interests, from Earth Sciences to astronomy to
paleontology and it has literally kept me up at night wondering how this catastrophe led
to such a discriminating mass extinction.

Question 16: Back to the time machine.  If you could bring back any animal from
earth's history back to modern time to observe alive, what would it be and why?

MD: The very first living organism.

Question 17: What is your favorite museum?  Why?

MD: Teylers Museum in Haarlem. It is the first and oldest museum in the Netherlands and to
this day largely maintains its original architecture, interior and collection. Teylers
Museum is the only museum in the Netherlands that has been open to the public
continuously since 1784. It is home of the “Haarlem specimen” of Archaeopteryx*,
which John Ostrom himself could borrow when he thought it was misidentified as a
pterosaur. The museum was also extremely welcoming to house the 14 th annual
meeting of the European Association of Vertebrate Paleontology (EAVP), for which I
was in the organization committee. To this day, this is one of the most remarkable
experiences of my life, seeing 200 paleontologists make their way through 19 th century
cabinets full of fossils and other scientific curiosa to attend conference sessions.

*most recently it has been identified as Ostromia crassipes, but it would not surprise me
if this is not the last name it will ever have.

The group photo of the 14 th annual EAVP meeting at Teylers Museum in
Haarlem in 2016, Melanie is located in the bottom left (pink hair, green top).

Question 18: What are your hobbies?  (doesn't have to be paleontology-related)

MD: Hobbies? I don’t have time for hobbies?! -No I’m joking, I absolutely think hobbies are
vital for life.
Let’s see, other than paleontology, my time is spent on:
-Singing (in bands, on stage, or just at home while doing the dishes)
-Acting (in commercials or films)
-Painting, drawing and crafting in general.
-Sewing. I made a dinosaur dress for my thesis defense and try to make clothes every
now and then. My machine will finally come to Uppsala next week and I’m trying a fun
new project I named:” Everything can have pockets” where I attempt to give all my
clothes pockets.
-Repairing. Whether it’s a flat tire on my bike or my car needing new brake-pads, I like
figuring things out and getting my hands dirty.
-Going out to festivals, rock shows or parties. Fun is to be had!

Wyoming at night with the Milky way in 2015. photograph by Servaas Neijens.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Qianzhousaurus: Beast of the Week

This week we will be looking at an unusual theropod that earned the nickname, "Pinocchio rex".  Check out Qianzhousaurus sinensis!

Qianzhousaurus was a meat-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now southern China, during the late Cretaceous, between 72 and 66 million years ago.  From snout to tail it measured about twenty nine feet long.  The genus name translates to "Guangzhou Reptile" in reference to Guangzhou, the city near where its bones were discovered.

Life reconstruction of Qianzhousaurus sinensis by Christopher DiPiazza.

Qianzhousaurus was a member of the tyrannosaurid family, so it was actually a very close relative of the famous, Tyrannosaurus rex.  However, Qianzhousaurus was much more lightly built and probably a faster, more agile runner than its more famous relative.  Most notable, however, is Qianzhousaurus' extremely long, narrow snout.  This snout was proportionally longer than that of any other known tyrannosaurid's.  The exact funtion of such a feature is mostly a mystery, but perhaps it specialized in hunting a different sort of prey than what commonly assumed for a tyrannosaurus.  A narrow snout may have helped Qianzhousaurus snap up smaller, faster prey, or continue to pursue small prey even if it was hiding in a burrow or other small space.  The longer snout may also have been an adaptation for scavenging, being able to reach more pieces of meat in hard-to-reach crevices on a carcass other carnivores wouldn't have access to.

Hooded Vultures form Africa use their specialized bills, which are much longer and narrower than those of other vultures, to reach pieces of meat off carcasses their competitors cannot access.  Qianzhousaurus' snout may have served a similar purpose.  (photo taken by me at the Berlin Zoo.)

Inside of Qianzhousaurus' jaws would have been long, sharp teeth, which were certainly ideal for processing meat.  It also had small ridges down the top of its snout and a thin, triangular bony crest right between its eyes which may have been extended with keratin in life to form a decorative structure of some sort for intraspecies display.

Skull of Qianzhousaurus from Junchang's 2014 paper.  Note the small ridges over the nostril and triangular crest just before the eye socket.  These structures may have been covered in more extensive keratin to form a display structure in life.


No arms were ever found from Qianzhousaurus, unfortunately.  That being said, if it was indeed a true tyrannosaurid, it likely only would have sported two fingers on each hand, like all of its relatives.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on the facebook page!

References

Junchang Lü, Laiping Yi, Stephen L. Brusatte, Ling Yang, Hua Li & Liu Chen, 2014, "A new clade of Asian Late Cretaceous long-snouted tyrannosaurids", Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3788 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Adratiklit: Beast of the Week

This week we will be looking at a newly discovered dinosaur that also breaks a few records!  Let's check out Adratiklit boulahfa!

Adratiklit was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Morocco, in Northern Africa, during the middle Jurassic period, about 168 million years ago.  The genus name translates from Berber to "Mountain Lizard" and the species name is for Boulahfa, the part of Morocco where it was found.  From snout to tail it could have measured roughly twenty feet long, but this is only based on fragmentary remains.

Life reconstruction of Adratiklit in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza.  This is mostly educated guesswork since only a few bones are known.

Adratiklit is exciting because it is the oldest known member of the stegosaurid family, being from the middle Jurassic, 168 million years ago.  Stegosaurids, of which Stegosaurus is the most known member, were plant-eating dinosaurs that had proportionally tiny heads, bony plates on their backs, and spikes on their tails.  All other known members from this group lived several million years later, in the late Jurassic, around 150 million years ago give or take a few million years depending on the taxa.  The other interesting thing about Adratiklit is that it lived in what is now northern Africa, an area that no stegosaurid has ever been found in before.

A vertebra from Adratiklit.  Image from Maidment's paper listed below.

Adratiklit is only known from a few bones, including vertebrae and a humerus.  That being said, paleontologists were still able to identify these bones as being from a stegosaurid of some kind thanks to a number of diagnostic characteristics.  Based on the details of these bones, they were also able to deduct that Adratiklit was most likely most closely related to stegosaurids that lived in Europe, like includes the long-necked Miragaia and the slightly less mysterious Dacentrurus.  There were other stegosaurids that lived in Africa, like the extremely spiky Kentrosaurus, but its bones were found in what is now Tanzania, which despite being on the same continent, is geographically very far away from Morocco.  In fact, Morocco is actually a bit closer to Europe than it is to Tanzania.  (People often forget how gigantic Africa is.)

Since Adratiklit is only known from such fragmentary remains, a lot of the specifics of how it looked in life are a mystery.  Since it was a stegosaurid, we can assume it had plates and spikes growing out of its back and tail, but their shape, lengths, and arrangement, all of which vary depending on the taxa, we can only guess.  Did it have mostly plates and only four spikes on the tail like Stegosaurus?  Perhaps it had more spikes all the way up its back like Kentrosaurus?  Did it have a long neck, like Miragaia?  Maybe we'll find out one day if more of this amazing dinosaur is discovered?

References

Maidment, Susannah C. R.; Raven, Thomas J.; Ouarhache, Driss; Barrett, Paul M. (2019-08-16). "North Africa's first stegosaur: Implications for Gondwanan thyreophoran dinosaur diversity". Gondwana Research.