Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Wendiceratops: Beast of the Week

Today we will be looking at another unique ceratopsian.  Check out Wendiceratops pinhornensis!

Wendiceratops was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Alberta, Canada, during the Late Cretaceous Period, between 78 and 79 million years ago.  From beak to tail, Wendiceratops measured about twenty feet long.  The genus name translates to "Wendy Horned Face", honoring Wendy Sloboda, the fossil hunter who first discovered this dinosaur's bones, and the fact that it had at least one horn on its face.  The species name, phinhornensis, is in reference to the Pinhorn Reserve, the area of land on which its bones were unearthed.  As stated above, Wendiceratops was a ceratopsian dinosaur, characterized by having a curved beak, horns, and a frill.  More specifically, it was a member of the centrosaurine ceratopsian family, charcterized by their thick snouts.  Other centrosaurine ceratopsians were Pachyrhinosaurus, Styracosaurus, and Nasutoceratops.

Wendiceratops life reconstruction in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza.  I opted for small brow horns as guesswork since that part of the skull has yet to be found.

Wendiceratops is interesting because its initial discovery in the earth, its study and description, scientific publication, and eventual display at the Royal Ontario Museum, all took place in Canada.  It was a truly home-grown fossil discovery!

Photograph of Wendiceratops' frill horns from Evans' 2015 paper.

Wendiceratops is known from several partially complete individuals.  Among those individuals we can piece together a decent idea of what this ceratopsian looked like.  Most striking about it was the eight horns that grew from the top of its frill.  These horns curved forward and downward, covering the top front portion of the frill.  Forward-curling frill horns aren't previously unheard of in ceratopsians.  Vagaceratops, and its relative, Kosmoceratops, had horns like that too, however they were from a different branch of the ceratopsian family tree, the chasmosaurines.  This means that forward-curling frill horns evolved at least twice within ceratopsian dinosaurs.

Chasmosaurines vs Centrosaurines!  To be fair, all of these ceratopsians didn't coexist at the same time, either.

also sported a nose horn, but it wasn't pointed, like that of Styracosaurus, but rather flattened laterally.  Sadly, the section of the skull that would have included the brow horns was never found, so we still don't know what they were like, or if they were there at all.  The purpose of all this ornamentation on the frill is still mostly a mystery, but it is likely that these horns were used for interacting with members of the same species.  It is even possible that males and females had different shaped or sized horns.

Wendiceratops skeletal mount on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada.  Note this reconstruction sports long brown horns.  This is guesswork since brow horns were sadly never found.

Like its relatives, Wendiceratops had a very deep snout with a large nasal cavity.  Its beak was curved and backed up by many rows of small teeth that were ideal for shearing plants.  Beyond the skull, Wendiceratops was also found to have a uniquely shaped ischium.  The ischium is the backwards-facing bone at the bottom rear of a dinosaur's pelvis.  Wendiceratops' was wider and more rectangular at its tip, which is previously unknown in centrosaurine ceratopsian dinosaurs.

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


Evans, David C.; Ryan, Michael J. (2015). "Cranial Anatomy of Wendiceratops pinhornensis gen. et sp. nov., a Centrosaurine Ceratopsid (Dinosauria: Ornithischia) from the Oldman Formation (Campanian), Alberta, Canada, and the Evolution of Ceratopsid Nasal Ornamentation"PLOS ONE10 (7): e0130007.

Ryan, M.J.; Holmes, R.; Mallon, J.; Loewen, M.; Evans, D.C. (2017). "A Basal Ceratopsid (centrosaurinae: Nasutoceratopsini) From the Oldman Formation (Campanian) of Alberta, Canada "Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences54.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Interview with Paleontologist: Jamale Ijouiher

A graduate of Liverpool John Moores University, Jamale Ijouiher is an expert on the North African biota after a decade of research. Having work experience at the Museum & Gallery, Cardiff and the Pontypridd Museum and Tourist Information Centre. Jamale has been involved in many scientific endeavours, most notably in North Africa. Jamale is currently a member in good standing with the The Palaeontological Association and the British Society of Authors.

Question 1: Let’s start from the beginning.  What was your earliest sign of interest in paleontology that you can remember?

JI: I honestly can’t remember that far back as I’ve apparently had an interest in palaeontology from the very beginning. But after racking my brains, some early memories that come to me include my grandparents taking me to see some dinosaur footprint; I can’t quite remember where, but they were Triassic in age I think. 

Question 2: Did you have any professionals or family members who served as role models when you were younger?  Do you still have any now?

JI: Growing up I remember Bob Bakker inspiring me with his dynamic interpretations of prehistoric life. I suppose another, arguably stronger but more subtly, influence was David Norman who wrote for a ‘‘science’’ magazine called Dinosaurs! that I collected diligently as a child. For a while that magazine was the only dinosaur fix I could get.

And while I wouldn’t call them heroes per say, I’ve always had an interest in the history of our profession and with the early pioneers like the Sternberg’s, Mantell, Owen, Stromer, Anning, Cope & Marsh. While modern science allows us to study fossils in a way they never could have imagined, I think part of me still secretly wishes I had been born back in those days.

As for my current role models, while there are still palaeontologists I admire greatly, I think the late professor Alan Turner deserves that accolade the most. He was one of my lecturers while I studied at Liverpool John Moores University and later my main adviser when I was writing my dissertation. Despite being primarily a mammal specialist, we became friends and he did a lot to help me move my career forward even when I had graduated and moved on. He is greatly missed.

Question 4: Was there anything you did or learned as you were on your way to your current career that you feel got you to where you are?  By this I mean any sort of field experience, a class, networking with the right people, or possibly something different or all three?

JI: The most important lesson I’ve learnt so far is to have more confidence in myself. I tend to be shy, previously lurking around the margins of the palaeo-community; so, starting to attend conferences and networking with others in our profession was a major step forward for my career.
My advice to anyone starting on a career in palaeontology is to always put yourself out there; my career wouldn’t have taken off without the friends and acquaintances I’ve made and the wealth of advice, information and encouragement they provided.

Question 5: You do a lot of work with North African fossils.  Did you have an interest in this branch of paleontology prior to starting your career or did it choose you?

JI: Oh, it definitely chose me (laughs). Some people assume my interest is because I’m of Arab descent, but that’s not true at all. I’ve always tended towards Mesozoic palaeoecology, the more unusual or extreme the ecosystem the better.  

So, when my mother got me Nothdurft's book, The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt, as a present I quickly became enthralled. That book literally changed the course of my entire career. The absolute uniqueness of the environment they described and the fauna it contained immediately pressed my buttons. And since then Gondwanan palaeontology, practically North Africa, has been my entire life.

Question 6: What was or is your favorite project in paleontology so far?  Would you be able to tell us about some of your current projects?

JI: My favorite project has to be A reconstruction of the palaeoecology and environmental dynamics of the Bahariya Formation of Egypt. That was the first scientific paper I ever published and served as the basis for my new book. So, I can say, hand on heart, that it was the one that started it all.
My long-term goal is to make the Old Kingdom - which I hope to continually update with new information and reissue over the years - the first in a whole series of text books on Mesozoic Africa. The next text book I’ve got planned will be the first of a two-part series on Southern Africa. Hopefully I’ll start writing it sometime next year.

As for current projects, I’ve had a planned study on the nutritional value of Weichselia reticulata on the backburner for quite a while now, given the difficulty I’ve had in acquiring modern Matoniaceae specimens to work with. But I’m still hopeful that I can proceed once some living specimens are located.  

I’ve also got a YouTube series on palaeoecology planned; the first episode is written, it’s just a matter of finding time to actually put a video together.

Question 7: Why did you decide to start The Old Kingdom?

JI: As palaeontology progresses I’ve noticed there seems to be an increasing trend in scientific publishing to reconstruct whole ecosystems as opposed to simply name checking various important species from all over the world. Books like Jurassic West, Extinct Madagascar, Dinosaurs of Eastern Iberia, Beasts of Antiquity, Lost Land of the Dodo to name a few of the top of my head.

Given the amount of information now available to us, I’ve long felt that such a comprehensive overview is long overdue. So, while finishing A reconstruction of the palaeoecology and environmental dynamics of the Bahariya Formation of Egypt I made a snap decision to actually do it myself; given the inexorable rise of self-publishing, online publishing and open publishing, the time seemed to be ripe as you don’t need museum affiliations to conduct research and publish anymore.

Question 8: Where have you travelled for your career?  Do you have a favorite destination when it comes to fossils?  Why?

JI: I’ve traveled to quite a few places, mostly in Britain, but I’ve seen some of America and Africa as well. My favorite destination has to be the Kem Kem beds of Morocco. Never found anything noteworthy yet, but I still live in hope.

Question 9: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work?  How do you handle it?

JI: Yes, I’ve had my share of criticism; but it’s to the credit of our profession that it’s almost all been constructive and fair. Usually it inspires me to snap back and work even harder to correct mistakes or gather evidence to further prove my point. When looking back at my first drafts of A reconstruction of the palaeoecology and environmental dynamics of the Bahariya Formation of Egypt, I can’t believe how much I’ve upped my game since then.

Question 10: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum, I know) were just two of the programs I remember as a kid that helped fuel my obsession with paleontology.  Did you have favorite shows, movies, or even toys growing up that fueled your passion?

Yes, Jurassic Park and the Land Before Time where two of my mainstays as a child as well. But now that you mention it there were two other tv series that I remember fondly. One was a miniseries called THE DINOSAURS, which had fantastic animated sequences. Amazingly I’ve actually still got the VHS tapes after all these years (although I only ever had two of the four episodes).  

Another favorite series I watched religiously was Jurassica on the discovery channel, although I sadly I don’t have any copies of it on DVD or VHS.

I have no idea how well either of these series stand up today in terms of scientific accuracy; maybe since were going down memory lane I should try to find time to revisit them and find out for nostalgias sake.

Question 11: One of my pet peeves is when people assume paleontology doesn’t really do any real good in the grand scheme of things and is just a “for fun” science.  Do you think paleontology has a bigger part to than this?  How?

JI: Ugh, you have no idea how badly that argument, ‘‘Why waste money on a field that contributes nothing?’’, irks me as well; especially given how superficially logical and seductive it sounds initially. 

As far as I’m aware no other branch of science, with the possible exception of the space program, suffers these slings and arrows. The answer to the question of whether or not Henry VIII suffered from McLeod syndrome will provide no economic gain either yet historians aren’t constantly told to justify their existence.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that knowledge should be gathered for its own sake, not because you can profit from it further down the road. And given how badly science education is deteriorating in the western world, palaeontology has a vital part to play in cultivating an understanding of the earth sciences in the next generation.

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

JI: I wish you hadn’t asked me that as I’m bad with names and the first palaeontologist I met was when I was invited to a series of lectures as a boy by someone at the British museum of natural history. I remember having a wonderful time, but I can’t for the life of me remember his/her name. So, if that person ever reads this I offer my apologies.

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

JI: I think this is due to the fact that there is nothing like them around today. And the more ancient the species the more alien and fascinating it seems to us.

Question 15: What is your favorite prehistoric animal?  Was it different when you were younger?

JI: Strangely enough, given my love of North Africa, my favorite dinosaur has got to be Dilophosaurus wetherilli. I fell in love with that guy after seeing Jurassic Park and it continues to hold a place in my heart despite quickly learning of the inaccuracies of that portrayal. 

Question 16: If you could use a time machine to go back and pick only one prehistoric animal to bring back from history and observe alive and in person, which would it be and why?

JI: Now that’s a tough question, and one that would probably get a different answer out of me each time you ask it. At the moment you caught me in an Australian phase so I’d have to plump for Leaellynasaura amicagraphica.

Question 17: Back to the time machine.  This time you can go back to any place and time period and have a look at what the environment was really like.  Which one would you pick and why?

JI: Bahariya. No question. That ecosystem has been my life’s work and seeing it in life would be a dream come true.

Question 18: Which is your favorite museum?  Why?

JI: I’ve recently become enamored of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, although I’ll probably have a new favorite by this time next year since I’m fickle when it comes to my favorites.
I’ve also got high hopes that the Natural Science Museum Rabat and the Cairo Geological Museum can become world class natural history institutions in their own right.

Question 19: What hobbies do you have?  (Don’t have to be paleo-related.)

JI: I’m into cryptozoology. Shocking I know, but it’s not all about fairytale creatures like Nessie or Bigfoot. There are valid creatures, like the Bramble Cay melomys, that might actually exist and investigating these possibilities is valid scientific research.

I must also confess to being a big Sci-Fi fan, especially the old school Steampunk science fiction like H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne; although I also enjoy modern fare such as Babylon 5.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Beelzebufo: Beast of the Week

This week let's check out a prehistoric amphibian!  Enter Beelzebufo ampinga!

Beelzebufo was a large frog that  lived in what is now Northern Madagascar, during the Late Cretaceous, about 70 million years ago.  Specimens are fragmentary, but the largest individuals appear to have been between nine and ten inches long from snout to rump.  Like all amphibians, Beelzebufo would have been a meat-eater as an adult. (Assuming it started as a tadpole, which commonly will eat algae.) The genus name translates to "Beelzebub Toad", in reference to Beelzebub, the biblical demon and sometimes alternate name for Satan.  The species name, ampinga, means "shield" in Malagasy, in reference to the frog's wide, broad skull.

Beelzebufo emerging from hibernation during the first heavy rain of the year.  Watercolor reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

When Beelzebufo was first published, very fragmentary remains were on the fossil record at the time. This mostly consisted of material from the skull, which was proportionally huge for any frog.  That being said, early size estimates put Beelzebufo at sixteen inches long, making it by far the largest member of anura (Order that includes frogs and toads.  Toads are actually within the frog group.  So all toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads...so we can just say frogs.) of all time.  More recently, however, more fossils from this giant frog have been uncovered, including limbs that were paired with skull fragments that are similar in size to the largest skull fragments already known.  As it turns out, Beelzebufo wasn't quite as huge as originally thought, being closer to nine or ten inches long instead of sixteen.  It just had a gigantic head for its body.  Nine or ten inches is still really big for a frog, though.

Diagram of Beelzebufo's skeleton from Evans' 2014 paper.  Dark blue is previously known material.  Light blue is newer material that led them to believe this frog was smaller than sixteen inches.  Grey is guesswork, using modern frog relatives as reference.

Another cool thing about Beelzebufo, was that it had a rough texture on the surface of its skull.  This suggests there was some kind of tough covering there in life, possibly as defense against predators or maybe even for protection during combat within the species.  Large species of frogs today get extremely violent towards each other, especially during mating time, so assuming Beelzebufo could have engaged in similar activity during the Cretaceous isn't out of the question.

It was determined, by measuring the bite force of modern frogs, then scaling the numbers up, that the largest Beelzebufos would have had extremely powerful bites for frogs at over 2,000 Newtons of force, or 400 pounds per square inch.  Beelzebufo's teeth were numerous, and closely packed in the mouth, forming a sort of ridge-like structure lining the jaws.  This combination of features would have ensured that whatever Beelzebufo decided to strike at, most likely did not escape once bitten.  Like modern frogs, Beelzebufo probably had a sticky tongue it could flip out to initially capture prey, pulling it towards the jaws, which would do the rest of the work before swallowing the prey whole.  Also like modern frogs, it is safe to assume Beelzebufo was a voracious hunter, not particularly caring what kind of prey it went after, as long as it could fit in its gigantic mouth.  In my time as a zookeeper, I have witnessed living frogs even attempt to eat prey that was larger than them. (and by prey I mean my hand.)

Close up diagram from Evans 2014 paper showing the tough skull surface and the teeth of Beelzebufo.

The environment Beelzebufo would have called home appears to have been seasonally dry, which was quenched by annual wet seasons.  Amphibians normally cannot survive in dry habitats.  We can observe many amphibians today get around this environmental hurdle by hibernating part of the year, then waking up to breed during the rainy season.  It is possible that Beelzebufo could have done something similar.  In addition to dryness, this frog would have needed to watch out for meat-eating dinosaurs, like Masiakasaurus, or even the large Majungasaurus, that might have viewed the large frog as prey.

That is all for this week!  As always comment below!


Evans, S., Groenke, J., Jones, M., Turner, A., Krause, D. 2014. New material of Beelzebufo, a hyperossified frog (Amphibia: Anura) from the Late Cretaceous of MadagascarPLoS One. 9, 1: e87236.

Evans, S., Jones, M., Krause, D. 2008. A giant frog with South American affinities from thee Late Cretaceous of MadagascarPNAS. 105, 8: 2951-2956

 Lappin, A. Kristopher; Wilcox, S.C.; Moriarty, D. J.; Stoeppler, Stephanie A. R.; Evans, Susan E.,; Jones, Marc E. H. (2017). "Bite force in the horned frog (Ceratophrys cranwelli) with implications for extinct giant frogs". Scientific Reports

Monday, April 23, 2018

Sharing Your Home with Salamanders

Earth Day is important.  It's the yearly reminder to everyone to treat everyday like Earth Day.  (Seriously, we can't afford to be good to our planet only one day per year.) That being said, I'd like to share with you my experiences with some wild neighbors I have met over the years and give you some pointers on how best to enjoy them and respect them, yourself.  I'm talking about amphibians.

Amphibians are awesome.  They're too often lumped with reptiles, both groups together being referred to as "herps", a term that I find dreadful since it takes away the individuality of both, vastly different, and equally fascinating clades of animals.  They're not even that closely related.  If anything we should be lumping birds with reptiles if we're going off genetics.  Why can't we just say "reptiles and amphibians"?  Is it that hard?

Growing up and living in the North Eastern United States, I have had the privilege of encountering many amphibians since childhood.  For reasons I cannot explain, I always found myself drawn to salamanders and newts, known as caudates, the most.  (I have shared some experiences with some pets that fall into this category before.)  My first wild Salamander encounter happened when I was eleven years old, while riding my bike through a trail near my house.  I decided to move a small log out of the trail and to my pleasant surprise, found a Redback Salamander sleeping underneath!

Redback Salamander(Plethodon cinereus) I photographed near my family's house in New Jersey.

Redback Salamanders are by far the most common caudates in this, and many areas throughout Eastern North America.  They are tiny, barely a few inches long, with slender bodies and tiny limbs.  What is remarkable about is that they don't have lungs, belonging to a family called plethodontidae, appropriately nicnkamed, the "lungless salamanders".  So how do they breathe?  Redback Salamanders, like all amphibians, have absorbent skin that is permeable by both liquids and gases.  This means that they can breathe and drink through their skin.  This adaptation, combined with their tiny size, enables Redback Salamanders to absorb enough oxygen through their skin through diffusion, instead of breathing via air passageways and lungs, like many other tetrapods (vertebrates that are not fish) do.

"Leadback" morph Redback Salamander I photographed near Rutgers University in New Jersey while on a field trip.  My now wife (then crush who was in the class with me) had expressed that she wanted to see a salamander.  Upon finding this little guy I immediately ran through the crown, interrupting the professors lecture, to show her.

Redback Salamanders get their name from the reddish brown band running down their backs.  However, many individuals of this same species exhibit an alternate coloration, which is black with tiny white speckles, nicknamed "Leadback Salamanders". (rhymes!)

When I went to college at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I spent a lot of time enjoying their botanical garden and walking trail.  Part of this trail passed over a shallow brook with lots of smooth, flat rocks.  During Fall, I would gently lift up some of these rocks and would often find another awesome salamander, the Two-Lined Salamander!

Two-Lined Salamander (Eurycea bislineata) I photographed near Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Two-Lined Salamanders get their name because they have two dark lines running down their backs.  The rest of the body is a pretty golden-brown color.  These little guys are in the same family as Redback Salamanders, also lungless, but prefer to spend their time in shallow water, hiding under and between rocks, rather than on land, under logs.  You can't find salamanders like this in just any stream, however.  The water must be cold, clear, and clean.  Finding them in a body of water is a good indicator that the ecosystem surrounding is likely a healthy one, devoid of pollution.  Animals like this, that tell us with their presence or lack of presence if a habitat is healthy or not, are called indicator species.

Probably the highlight of my salamander encounters so far occurred when I was visiting family friends in Pennsylvania on their farm  They told me they often find salamanders in their old spring house, which made sense since salamanders typically like cold, wet, dark places.  When I peeked inside, sure enough, to my delight, I encountered my very first (and only to date) wild Red Salamander!

The only wild Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) I ever met to date.  The poor photo quality is because the salamander kept moving, the lighting was poor in the springhouse, and I was shaking from nervousness at finally finding one in the wild.  (I know...I'm a nerd.)

Red Salamanders are also members of the plethodontid family, but are larger than Redbacks and Two-Lined, growing up to six or seven inches long.  The one I encountered was still very young, likely recently metamorphed from the tadpole-like larval stage.  This species gets its name because of the color of its skin, although some individuals, like the one I met, are more orange, than red.  This brightly-colored skin is a warning to most predators that it is distasteful to eat.  Red Salamanders spend most of their time in cold bodies of fresh water during  the spring and Summer, hang out mostly in muddy burrows near the water in Fall, and will hibernate in burrows during the Winter.

Salamanders, and all other amphibians are precious, not just because I like them, but because without them, entire ecosystems, including us, would be in trouble.  Amphibians are all carnivorous as adults, and consume insane amounts of small invertebrates, including ones that can harm us.  Mosquitos, especially when they are in their aquatic larval forms, are a staple food source for many amphibians.  If there are fewer amphibians in a given freshwater habitat, then more (female) mosquitos will live to adulthood to suck blood from and spread disease among larger animals, including us.  (don't get me wrong, I respect mosquitos, and they are important in their own way to the earth, but too many of anything is no good.)

Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris) I photographed in the Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey.  Pickerel Frogs can be distinguished from their close relatives, Leopard Frogs, by looking at their double row of dark patches down the middle of  the back, and their more brownish color.

In turn, amphibians, themselves are important food for larger animals.  Raccoons, foxes, snakes, all sorts of birds, and large fish, and even some invertebrates, like giant water beetles and dragonflies in their nymph forms, eat amphibians regularly.  Without amphibians, these animals may have much harder times staying fed.

Sadly, amphibians happen to be some of the most sensitive animals in any given habitat. Their permeable, absorbent skin, which normally is an advantage to them for respiratory and hydration purposes, can also be their downfall when their homes are polluted.  If a water source has been tainted with pesticides or other human-made chemicals, amphibians absorb it  the most intensely and therefore are usually the first organisms to die off.  As stated before, because of this, amphibians serve as indicator species for environments they live in, telling biologists, ecologists, or anyone else who wants to learn about the state of that area, how polluted it may or may not be simply be being present or not.

American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) I met on my street one night.  The little guy was hunting insects under a street lamp.

So what can you do to help our amphibian friends?  Glad you asked!  Here is a list of things that I know of that can help.

1) Don't buy produce from sources that use pesticides.  Pesticides end up in water habitats where amphibians live via rain runoff.  IMPORTANT: Just because a product says "organic" on it does not mean it was pesticide free.  Also, a product that doesn't say "organic" very well may be from a safe source.  Do your research if you can to learn as much as you can about where food available to you comes from to best figure this out.

2) Use safe fertilizer in your gardens.  Some fertilizers are made of harmful chemicals to amphibians that can end up in their homes via rain runoff.  AGAIN: research what these chemicals are before you pass judgement.  The whole "if you cannot pronounce the name = dangerous" is not always true.  Do research on the ingredients in different fertilizers to find out more.

3) Where possible, leave large logs, flat pieces of bark where they are instead of cleaning them up.  These things can be homes to amphibians, as well as a lot of other small animals.  You can even put out man-made structures, like flat planks of wood to create potential homes for these critters.  Just make sure its in places where it is allowed and not where someone might trip over or hurt themselves.  (should be a no-brainer, but these days you can't be too careful)  If you are looking to meet a wild amphibian, and are suspecting one might be under a log or large plant, carefully put the object back the way it was after lifting it, hen place the salamander or other creature you met directly next to the log so they can crawl back under themselves.  If you put the log down over them you might accidentally squish them.  That being said, keep handling to a minimum, if any at all, since their absorbent skin soaks up whatever touches them.

4) Be alert for amphibians crossing the roads while driving.  A huge culprit for amphibian deaths is human development on their habitats, including roads.  Many amphibians seasonally migrate to breed.  Often times this involves crossing roads that have been built through their territories.  Especially on rainy days in the early Spring, be extra cautious for frogs and salamanders trying to make their way across roads.  You can also join local conservation organizations to help amphibians cross roads in known breeding areas, as well as help local scientists count individual animals of each species for ecology research.  (it's fun!)

5) Pick a captive-bred pet instead of a wild-caught one.  And always do all the research and homework on a particular species first.  (Never impulse buy) Once you have confirmed that you can appropriately care for an amphibian (or any species for that matter) for the duration of its lifespan, seek out a captive bred animal instead of one that was wild caught.  Sadly, many amphibians in the pet trade are taken from the wild.  A pet store employee SHOULD tell you truthfully where an animal for sale came from.  Reptile expos which typically occur every other month in many states also have lots of experienced breeders, selling their captive bred animals.  Always ask, though, since many animals at reptile expos are wild-caught as well.  Captive-bred animals are not taking numbers away from wild populations, are more likely to be disease-free, parasite-free, and are already thriving in captivity.  Wild caught animals, other than being taken from their natural habitats, weakening that ecosystem, are often stressed from transportation, and may not accept food or ever adjust to living in a tank.  It's an all around bad situation.  If you find a wild amphibian, yourself, enjoy looking at it, take a picture (no flash), then leave it be! 

6) Support AZA accredited zoos and aquariums that have amphibians.  Zoos and aquariums that are AZA (Association o f Zoos and Aquariums) by definition, contribute large portions of their funds towards wildlife conservation and research.  This means that when you pay to visit a zoo, a chunk of that money helps pay for their efforts to save and learn more about endangered species in the wild, as you see and learn about their captive bred counterparts up close.  All these places proudly share the research and conservation they are currently involved in wherever possible.  Reach out to volunteers and staff there to learn more.  Having been a zookeeper, myself for many years, I can say we are always happy to talk to people about the work we do to help wild animals!

Japanese Dunn's Salamander (Hynobius dunni) I bought for a pet that was captive bred.  This genus is related to the Giant Salamanders found in China and Japan.

Iranian Kaiser Newt (Neurergus kaiseri) I bought for a pet that was captive bred.  Arguably one of the most strikingly-colored amphinians out there.

Hope you enjoyed me sharing my thoughts and love of all things amphibian with you.  Remember, treat EVERYDAY like Earth Day.  We need to protect the things we love!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Archaeopteryx: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out an extremely famous little dinosaur that has produced arguably one of the most important fossils in history.  Let's check out Archaeopteryx!

Archaeopyeryx was a small, meat-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Germany during the late Jurassic Period, about 150 million years ago.  The largest specimens measure a little under two feet long from nose to tail. The genus name translates to "Ancient Wing".  The most widely used species name, lithographica, in reference to a lithograph since all the Archaeopteryx fossils are preserved in flat slabs of rock.

Life reconstruction of Archaeopterx defending a fishy meal from a Pterodactylus.  Watercolor by Christopher DiPiazza.

Archaeopteryx was the first fossil discovered that showed visible evidence of feathers.  In fact, the first ever unearthed specimen of this dinosaur was simply just one preserved feather!  It wasn't until a year later that an actual skeleton with feathers was found.  These beautifully preserved fossils showed that Archaeopteryx had long wing feathers growing out of its arms, thick feathers on its legs down to the ankles, and a row of long feathers arranged on each side of its tail, which was long, like that of a non-avian dinosaur's.  Eventually a total of twelve specimens of this little dinosaur would be unearthed and had paleontologists and biologists alike talking.  Archaeopteryx, like birds today, had a fused clavicle (wishbone) and the first toe on each foot appears as if it could have possibly flexed in the opposite direction of its other toes, in a grasping action.  Many birds today use this same adaptation to perch.  That being said, Archaeopteryx had many features that are closer to non-avian dinosaurs than to birds.  It had teeth in its jaws, three long fingers tipped with hooked claws on each hand (although some modern birds do have claws on their wings, but not as long as Archaeopteryx's) and it had a long, bony tail. (birds have short, highly reduced tails.)  Another interesting feature is that by looking closely at the bones of all the Archaeopteryx specimens on the fossil record, paleontologists determined that Archaeopteryx would have grown a bit more slowly than many birds today, which usually hit maturity within several weeks.  Archaeopteryx would have taken almost an entire year to reach the size it was when it died.  Because of this combination of features, Archaeopteryx was and still is considered a very important fossil that plays a part in our understanding of evolution. It was discovered shortly after Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published, and further strengthened the idea of long term descent with modification by posing as an almost perfect "transitional fossil" between birds and other reptiles.

Most complete of the Archaeopteryx specimens on the fossil record, now on display in Berlin, Germany.  Note the long, bony tail and the imprints of long feathers on the tail, legs, and wings.

So was Archaeopteryx truly a bird?  Since its discovery it was long  considered so, often posing as "the first bird" or the "ancestor of all living birds".  Since it's discovery there have been at least a few other dinosaurs that might take the title as "oldest bird" known to science, however.  There was also some suspicion among some paleontologists that Archaeopteryx may have been more closely related to dromaeosaur dinosaurs, like Velociraptor, than to birds.  Most recent studies, however, place Archaeopteryx somewhere in between.  It likely wasn't a true direct ancestor of the birds we see today, but rather was probably more basal than what we would consider the earliest birds.  A sort of "stem-bird" or "proto-bird" if you will.

Fast little sketch I did comparing the tails of modern birds to Archaeopteryx. Internal vertebra are in blue.  Note how the "tails" of modern birds are really just feathers growing out of a stump.  Archaeopteryx, on the other hand, had a true tail supported by its skeleton with feathers growing from either side of it.  The arrangement always reminded me of a fern.

Archaeopteryx has been the victim of some prejudice with regards of its life reconstructions over the years.  Because it was so birdlike in its appearance, it is often depicted as such.  Countless artists have recreated Archaeopteryx perching in trees or flying in the air, like a songbird.  It is also very common to see reconstructions of this little dinosaur with very brightly colored feathers to really drive home the plumage aspect, despite the fact that for every bright yellow or blue bird alive today, there are plenty of brown and black ones.  But how accurate are these depictions?

First let's look at the habitat Archaeopteryx would have lived in when alive.  The part of Germany its fossils were found in would have been mostly underwater during the late Jurassic, save for a series of close islands.  These islands would have been pretty dry, inhabited by mostly low growing plants that could survive dry, sandy soil and lots of sun.  There doesn't appear to have been any large animals living here at the time.  Archaeopteryx's neighbors were all relatively small, including the pterosaurs, Pterodactylus, Aerodactylus, and Rhamphorhyncus, as well as the slightly larger dinosaur, Compsognathus.  In the interior of these islands were fresh and brackish lagoons.  These lagoons were where all the fossilized Archaeopteryx, and other animal specimens from this place that have been discovered, ended up shortly after they died.  There they remained, mostly undisturbed, being covered by layers of mud, to be fossilized over time.  Because of what we know about this environment, Archaeopteryx wouldn't have had many tall trees to roost in, and likely would have been more comfortable running around on the ground, like most theropod dinosaurs of the time.

So we know Archaeopteryx was probably comfortable running around on the ground...but it still had those big wings.  Could it fly?  This is also the subject of much debate.  First thing to note is that Archaeopteryx' wing feathers were what we call asymmetrical.  This means that the barbs on the front side of the feather vein are more narrow than those on the back side.  This is a characteristic seen in modern birds that can fly, to reduce drag while in the air.  The tail feathers of Archaeopteryx were also very broad, which would have provided extra lift and maneuverability if it was in the air.  Archaeopteryx' brain was large compared to the rest of its body.  The parts of the brain associated with sight and coordination were strongly developed, which are both qualities seen in modern birds that enable them to fly.  However, Archaeopteryx's arms weren't capable of being raised past its back.  So if it were to flap its wings, it couldn't perform the strong upstroke that flying birds do today.  It also lacked a keel bone, the extended part of a bird's breastbone that is the attachment site for all the breast muscles that allows most birds to perform powered flight.  (Fried Archeopteryx would have been lacking in the white meat department.)  That being said this doesn't mean Archaeopteryx couldn't have had enough muscle in its arms and chest to get the job done.  As of now, most paleontologists would guess that Archaeopteryx, given its combination of traits, was probably capable of limited flight at best.  It was by no means an areal master, like many of the birds you see today, but maybe could fly for short distances if it had to.  I would imagine its flight ability similar to that of a pheasant or chicken for a possible living comparison.  Great at running, but also capable of short bursts of flight if need be.

Archaeopteryx skeletal mount on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA.  Note the lack of prominent keel bone, that would be present in most bird skeletons.  Skeletal reconstruction sculpted by Larry Martin and mounted by Bruce Mohn.

As for the colors, believe it or not we can confirm what color Archaeopteryx was!...well...actually we can confirm what color one of its feathers was.  You see, most of the Archaeopteryx specimens preserved only imprints of the feathers, but not the feathers, themselves.  That is except for one isolated feather specimen that appears to have been a covert, that would have grown from the top of the wing.  By using electron microscopes and x-rays, paleontologists were able to detect melanosomes that survived the fossilization process.  Melanosomes are organelles in the cells of feathers that determine what color the feathers are.  The visible color of the feather depends on the shape of the melanosomes.  So by looking at the shapes of the melanosomes seen in the Archaeopteryx feather, and then comparing them to the melanosomes in feathers of modern birds that we can visibly see the colors of, it was determined that this Archaeopteryx feather was...black!  Specifically matte black, not shiny or iridescent black. (which we have found in other prehistoric dinosaur feathers!) So there you have it...at least one feather on the wing of Archaeopteryx was black.  The colors on the rest of the body are still a mystery, however.

Isolated wing feather associated with Archaeopteryx that provided data on what coloration it probably was in life.

So when alive, Archaeopteryx was at least partially black in coloration and running around on the sandy beaches and shallow scrubby forests of its island habitat.  When it wanted to, it could fly short distances up into a short tree or across a small lake or pond to escape predators or to chase down prey.  It likely would have been hunting small animals, like insects, lizards, and possibly small fish.  At the same time it would have needed to look out for predators, like the slightly larger dinosaur, Compsognathus, or competitors, like the pterosaurs that frequented the islands it lived on.

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


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Monday, April 9, 2018

Hamipterus: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out a pterosaur that gave us tremendous insight on how pterosaurs reproduced!  Enter Hamipterus tianshanensis!

Hamipterus was a medium-sized pterosaur that lived in what is now China, during the early Cretaceous period, about 120 million years ago.  Judging by its pointed teeth it was likely a meat-eater in life.  The largest individuals of this species have wingspans of about eleven feet.  The genus name translates to "Hami Wing" in reference to the Hami region in China where it was found, and the fact that it's was  pterosaur...which have wings.

Female (left) and male (right) Hamipterus.  It is likely these pterosaurs met in large groups on sandy banks to nest.

Hamipterus is known from over forty individuals, that all died at the same time millions of years ago.  This was sad for them, but awesome for paleontologists, who got a great sample size of individuals to study.  In this large group were two kinds of adults with differently shaped crests.  Like it's relative, Pteranodon, it it likely that these differing crests represent males and females, suggesting sexual dimorphism in yet another pterosaur.  The females likely were the individuals with shallow ridge-like crest that ran from the top of the snout to the top of the cranium, over the eyes.  The males had similar crests, but the front part on the snout was flared out more, rounding out towards the tip of the snout.  In addition, the individuals with the larger crests (probably the males) were larger, with eleven-foot wingspans, while the shorter-crested females typically appear to have only had roughly five-foot wingspans.

Skulls of a  (probably) female Hamipterus on the left and (probably) male on the right,.  Note the males, larger, more protruding crest. (image from Xiaolin's 2017 paper)

The teeth of Hamipterus were pointed, and interlocked when the jaws were closed. It is most likely this pterosaur was eating meat, possibly specializing in grabbing slippery fish and other aquatic prey when alive.

Amazingly enough, eggs were also found buried among the bones of the Hamipterus!  This suggests that all these individuals may have died while in a nesting colony.  Large groups of animals nesting in the same area is a behavior seen by many kinds of modern birds, so the fact that pterosaurs may have done the same is exciting.  However, the eggs, themselves, of Hamipterus weren't very similar to those of birds, which have hard, brittle, outer shells.  Upon close examination, it was discovered that the Hamipterus eggs had very thin outer shells but relatively thick membranes under the shells, meaning they would have been leathery and pliable in life.  This is much more similar to the eggs of many kinds of snakes and lizards.  Like many squamates (snakes and lizards), Hamipterus may have buried its eggs in the fine sediment until they (would have) hatched.

The fossilized egg of Hamipterus (left) compared to that of a  modern Rat Snake's on the right. (image from Xiaolin's 2017 paper)

The embryos, themselves, found in some of these eggs show fully developed legs, but underdeveloped arms.  This lead some to believe that the baby pterosaurs were unable to fly as soon as they hatched, and therefore needed to be taken care of by one or both of their parents until they could better fend for themselves.  However, keep in mind that these were embryos that had underdeveloped arms, so it is very possible that they weren't done growing before hatching and by the time they did hatch, they very well may have had more developed wings, capable of flight right out of the egg.  We still don't know for sure!

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


Xiaolin Wang; Alexander W.A. Kellner; Shunxing Jiang; Qiang Wang; Yingxia Ma; Yahefujiang Paidoula; Xin Cheng; Taissa Rodrigues; Xi Meng; Jialiang Zhang; Ning Li; Zhonghe Zhou (2014). "Sexually dimorphic tridimensionally preserved pterosaurs and their eggs from China". Current Biology24 (12): 1323–1330.

Xiaolin Wang, Alexander W. A. Kellner, Shunxing Jiang, Xin Cheng, Qiang Wang, Yingxia Ma, Yahefujiang Paidoula, Taissa Rodrigues, He Chen, Juliana M. Sayão, Ning Li, Jialiang Zhang, Renan A. M. Bantim, Xi Meng, Xinjun Zhang, Rui Qiu & Zhonghe Zhou (2017). Egg accumulation with 3D embryos provides insight into the life history of a pterosaur. Science 358(6367): 1197-1201.