Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Paleontology Behind Pokemon: Part 2

Since the last time I talked about Pokemon on here many more interesting Pokemon have been created and added to the franchise, many of which are, indeed based on prehistoric animals.  In addition, there were many older Pokemon that I simply didn't have the space to cover in one post. (and I was made well aware of it in the comments section!) So after four years here is the sequel of the paleontology behind Pokemon! (If you don't know what Pokemon are, or haven't read the first post, you can access it here before reading this one.)

Read it?  Good!  Let's get started with part 2!

Lapras


Lapras is from the first generation of Pokemon to be released, and is a long-standing fan-favorite Pokemon design.  Although quite a few creative liberties were added, its general appearance is clearly based on a plesiosaur.  The wide body, four flippers, short tail, and long neck, are all telltale characteristics of this iconic group of prehistoric marine reptiles.  If anything, Lapras may have been more based on legends of lake cryptids, like the Loch Ness Monster, which are mostly based on people's visions of plesiosaurs anyway.  

Plesiosaurus skeleton on display at the London Museum of Natural History.

Unlike real plesiosaurs, Lapras carries its head upright in a swan-like pose most of the time, which was how plesiosaurs were depicted for a long while before more recently when paleontologists figured out they more likely held their necks horizontally in front of them.  Also, Lapras sports a turtle-like shell on its back, a horn in the middle of its forehead, and external ears like a mammal, which are all unique to it, and not to any real plesiosaur.  

Yanmega
Yanmega is the second life stage of the dragonfly Pokemon, Yanma.  Yanmega, however is probably based on the giant prehistoric insect, Meganeura, and not simply a bigger dragonfly, based on the name.  

Meganeura fossil.  This insect differs from modern dragonflies because the patterns on its wings are less complex.

Despite this, Meganeura, wasn't actually a dragonfly, but a different kind of insect that was similar, but still had a few different characteristics, setting it apart, like the structure of the wings.  It lived during the Carboniforous Period, about 300 million years ago, and the largest individuals had wingspans of over two feet.

Lileep and Cradily


Lileep and its evolution (second life stage) Cradily are based on prehistoric crinoids.  Crinoids are a group of invertebrates related to sea stars, also known as sea lilies, that attach themselves to rocks and feed on particles of food that come to them via their feathery appendages.  

Fossil crinoids.

Despite being animals, they superficially look like underwater flowers. (and the Pokemon based on them even have the grass type)  Fossils of ancient crinoids date back to the Ordovician Period, 485 million years ago.

Tirtouga and Carracosta


Tritouga and its evolution Carracosta are fossil Pokemon, which means that in the Pokemon game a fossil needs to be dug up, then revived into a living Tirtouga, in order to have one.

Archelon skeleton on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Because of this they are most likely based prehistoric sea turtles, like Archelon, and not simply a generic modern sea turtle.  Sea Turtles thrived during the Cretaceous Period alongside dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and other marine reptiles, like plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, that are now extinct.  

Dragapult


Dragapult and its earlier forms are the among the newest wave of Pokemon to be added to the franchise.  They are dragon and ghost typing, which at first confused me.  I get that a dragon type could be literally anything remotely reptilian or amphibious looking, which certainly fits here, but the ghost I didn't quite understand.  I noticed it had a transparent tail and floated around like a ghost, but anyone who knows a lot about Pokemon, understands that very few of the designs are truly random, and usually have a deeper, not always obvious inspiration.  For sure there had to be a more specific meaning than simply "floaty ghost dragons are cool".  Then I read the official flavor text in the game for the first stage, Dreepy, and I realized what it was.  

"After being reborn as a ghost Pokemon, Dreepy wanders the areas it used to inhabit back when it was alive in prehistoric seas."

This is a Pokemon based on the concept of long dead prehistoric creatures coming back as ghosts.  Now look at the shape of this guy's head...

Diplocaulus skull on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New  York.

These guys are based on the prehistoric amphibian, Diplocaulus.  Diplocaulus lived during the Permian period, and is known for its wide, boomerang-shaped head.  Diplocaulus also would have had a tail that was flattened from side to side for swimming in fresh water which is also included in Dragapult's design.  (Although Diplocaulus would have swam in fresh water, not the sea.)  It's a wonderful model for a Pokemon design, and adding in the element of it being a ghost, nodding at the fact that this is a creature that normally wouldn't be alive in modern times, is very creative.  

Arctozolt and Dracozolt


The newest wave of Pokemon games also feature prehistoric Pokemon that need to be revived from fossils as well.  However, the game designers attempted to make it different this time by having players revive two of four available fossils together (one front end and one back end) to make one hybrid Pokemon.  This is a nod to the occurances of paleontologists occasionally accidentally assigning certain bones to the bodies of different species, creating a sort of "Frankenstein fossil" if you will.  The Pokemon designers exaggerated this point by purposefully making sure that each Pokemon that resulted from this method of revival looks as lopsided as possible.  

Velociraptor skeleton on display at the Dublin Zoo.

In the case of Arctozolt and Dracozolt, it appears the head and arms are from a small theropod dinosaur, possibly Velociraptor.  Dracozolt even has lightning bolt-shaped wings on the arms, which may be based on how Velociraptor and its relatives had primary feathers on their forearms in life.  The back ends are harder to pinpoint, but they're likely some sort of marine reptile, like an ichthyosaur, and a large dinosaur, possibly a thyreophoran.  

Arctovish and Dracovish



The other two Pokemon resulting from this method of revival have the same two back ends, but the head of a prehistoric fish, no doubt based on Dunkleosteus.  Dunkleosteus was a massive prehistoric fish from the extinct placoderm group of fish, which had bony plates covering their bodies.  Dunkleosteus didn't have teeth, but rather wide, blade-like sheets of bone forming a mouth that worked like a bear trap.  

Arctovish has the fish head on a marine animal body, which would in theory flow fine design-wise, but they made it so the poor Dunkleosteus head is upside down.  To my knowledge there have been no instances of any paleontologist accidentally completely flipping an animal's head in the final reconstruction, but there have been cases where certain skulls were initially a puzzle of exactly how they would have been held on the body, for sure.

Dunkleosteus skull on display at the Vienna Natural History Museum in Austria

As for Dracovish, one might argue that a Dunkleosteus head on a dinosaur body would be really cool, but the Pokemon designers must have really wanted it to look silly and less intimidating, so they stuck the head on the tip of the tail instead.  This might be nodding at the original reconstruction of the famous plesiosaur, Elasmosaurus, by Edward Drinker Cope, who wrongly placed the animal's skull on the wrong end in his first reconstruction, mistaking the long neck for a long tail.  

Edward Drinker Cope's original illustration of Elasmosaurus with the head placed on the wrong end.

That is all for this week!  I know there are certainly more Pokemon that are based on prehistoric beasts.  Can you list any below?  I may do a part three one day if there are enough!

References

Anderson, P.S.L.; Westneat, M. (2009). "A biomechanical model of feeding kinematics for Dunkleosteus terrelli (Arthrodira, Placodermi)Paleobiology35(2): 251–269.

Clarkson, E. N. K., 1979, Invertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution, 3rd Edition: London, Chapman and Hall, 434 p.

Dudley, Robert (April 1998). "Atmospheric oxygen, giant Paleozoic insects and the evolution of aerial locomotion performance". The Journal of Experimental Biology201 (Pt8): 1043–1050.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Interview with Paleontologist: Dana Ehret

Dr. Dana Ehret was born and raised ‘Down the Shore’ in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey. His interest in paleontology started at a young age, when his dad and uncles would take him shark tooth collecting.  Dana attended Stockton University where he received a B.S. in Marine Biology. While at Stockton, Dana was mentored by paleontologist Dr. Roger Wood who introduced him to paleontology as a career and fossil turtles. Dana then attended the University of Florida where he received a M.S. in Geology with a minor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Ecology. His Master’s work focused on growth and skeletochronology in extinct tortoises from the Nebraska Badlands, while his Ph.D. looked at the macroevolution of body size in the megatoothed sharks. Dana has worked as the Curator of Paleontology at the University of Alabama and is now the Assistant Curator of Natural History for the New Jersey State Museum. His research focuses on the evolution and taxonomy of lamniform sharks and turtles, particularly in the Eastern US.



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

DE: I grew up in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey and my parents were from Wall Township. Going back to the 1960s my family went fossil shark tooth collecting at Shark River Park. My uncles first took me when I was about 5 years old. I still have those teeth on my office desk! Finding prehistoric shark teeth in a river just down the road from my grandparent’s house was mind boggling!

My second memory was my grandmother. She drove a school bus and in the summers she would take special needs students to Princeton. Sometimes I would tag along and she would take me to the Princeton University museum. The Cervalces scotti skeleton on display there was the first fossil skeleton I ever remember seeing in person. It’s now at the NJ State Museum, where I work, so I see it every day!

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?

DE: My family was VERY supportive of my interests but didn’t have any formal training in the sciences. I credit two elementary school teachers with fostering my love of science. First, my second grade teacher, Ms. Ardythe Wright. She taught me how to grow avocado trees from pits and gave me a deep respect for natural history. The second was Mr. Rich Muhlenbruck, my 7th and 8th grade science and history teacher. He was AMAZING! We are still good friends and go to lunch whenever we can get together.

Growing up, I never dreamed that I could actually be a paleontologist. I went to Stockton University (then The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey) for undergrad and one of the first classes I took was a general studies ‘Dinosaurs’ class taught by Dr. Roger Wood. He was also assigned as my undergrad advisor. During our first meeting he asked what I wanted to do with my life and I said, “I’d love to be a paleontologist but that’s what old guys on tv do.” He laughed and said, “If that’s what you want to do, then do it.” 13 years of college later, I did it.


Helping tag a Nile Crocodile in St. Lucia, South Africa

Question 3: 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?

DE: I was VERY lucky with my school choices. Undergrad work and field trips really prepared me for my career. I credit Roger Wood and Dr. Margaret Lewis at Stockton University for really giving me a leg up as an undergraduate student. Roger comes from paleontology ‘royalty’, both his father, Albert Wood, and his uncle, H.E. Wood were well-known and respected paleontologists. I did an undergrad research project with Roger on fossil turtles from the Cretaceous of Wyoming and he took me to the Academy of Natural Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian and taught me the proper research methods.

Question 4: Is the field of paleontology different now than from when you started as far as you can tell?  What would your advice be to anyone trying to make a career in paleontology (or science in general for that matter) now?

DE: YES!! I was very lucky with my career trajectory. I went to Stockton to study Marine Biology and met two AMAZING paleontologists that took me under their wing. For graduate school I was accepted into the Geological Sciences program at the University of Florida without an advisor. I was very fortunate to have Dr. Bruce MacFadden accept me as his Masters student after I started. If I had to do it all over again, there is NO way I would’ve done it the same way! These days, I feel that undergraduate students really need to reach out to potential graduate advisors well in advance. My first couple of SVP meetings, there were very few undergrad presentations (and they were all posters.) Today, I see AMAZING talks by undergrad researchers and I’m just blown away! When I talk to undergraduate students, my advice is: get involved! Volunteer, find internships, do a senior thesis project! Anything you can do to set yourself apart. I was lucky enough to be a co-author on a paper as an undergrad because I did an internship and I definitely think it set me apart.


Showing visitors fossils at the Alabama Museum of Natural History for National Fossil Day

Question 5: What was or is your favorite project so far?  Would you be able to tell us about some of your current projects?

DE: My favorite, hands down, was my work on white shark evolution. This was the majority of my PhD work at the University of Florida. I was honored to be asked to describe an extinct species of white shark from the Miocene of the Pacific Basin, Carcharodon hubbelli. It was based on a set of articulated jaws, teeth and vertebrae from Peru that had been in the private collections of Dr. Gordon Hubbell, but donated to the Florida Museum of Natural History. I described the anatomy, growth and paleobiology of this shark, took two trips to Peru and had three papers (two featured articles) come out of the research. I also survived an 8.0 earthquake during one Peruvian trip!

As for current research, my ‘pet project’ now is a new genus of Cretaceous sea turtle from Tennessee. This new turtle is VERY weird and I have a very fun scientific name picked out! I can’t tell you anymore quite yet.


Studying the fossilized jaws of the late Miocene shark, Carcharodon hastalis, at the Museo de Historia Natural de la Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, Peru

Question 6: Do you have a favorite destination when it comes to fossils?  Why?

DE: I have to say, I worked at the University of Alabama/Alabama Museum of Natural History for five years. The late Cretaceous outcrops in Alabama are AMAZING!! The museum owns 140 acres of Campanian chalk called the Harrell Station Paleontological Site. The region has produced fossils including sharks, fishes, mosasaurs, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and lots of invertebrates. The southeastern Gulf Coast of the United States is an overlooked source of amazing fossils.

Searching for late Cretaceous fossils with students at the Harrell Station Paleontological Site in Dallas County, Alabama

Question 7: A popular image of paleontologists is that they are constantly out in the field digging up fossils, which is true to an extent.  What people don’t realize sometimes is that a lot of paleontology work is conducted in a lab as well.  In your experience, how much of your projects (in general) take place in the field, and how much are in the lab?

DE: While collecting fossils is fun and exciting, you then need to prepare, catalogue and describe the specimens. Even though probably 75% of my job duties are in a museum; in the lab, doing outreach, designing exhibits, working on papers, I try to get out in field at any chance I get. Many times I go after work, on weekends and on vacation. When people ask me what I do for fun, I say: Go fossiling! While my job title is Asstistant Curator, paleontology is also my passion. Paleontologists typically have a ‘field season’ which is typically in the spring/summer months. The rest of the year is spent writing, prepping, cataloguing, etc. I would also argue that outreach is an essential part of our field. I’m very, very active on social media, giving talks, working in our public lab, etc.


Question 8: You are most known for your work on turtles and sharks.  Did you choose these subjects for your work or did it “choose you” in a sense?

DE: Most of my colleagues that study both fossil and living turtles can trace their love of turtles back to their earliest memories. My background in turtles came from my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Roger Wood. Roger is a legendary turtle researcher, having described arguably the largest turtle ever, Stupendemys geographicus. When I arrived at the University of Florida, Dr. Bruce MacFadden had a project involving fossil tortoises and I was a perfect fit. My background in turtle conservation also lead to many other seasonal jobs in state and federal agencies. I always joke that I became interested in fossil sharks for ‘the money’. Dr. MacFadden had an NSF grant to study evolution of ‘Megalodon’ and the megatoothed sharks and needed a PhD student. I was available, and he and I worked well together. My background in Marine Biology and my early interest in fossil sharks made me a natural fit!


Studying a female Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias, at the Kwazulu Natal Sharks Board, South Africa

Question 9: Is there a subject you’d like to work on that you have not yet?

DE: I like to joke that I want to cover as many taxonomic groups as possible in my career. But I definitely recognize that I specialize in certain groups of organisms and cannot be an expert in all groups. Thus far I’ve been an author or co-author on papers and research including fossil sharks, turtles, pterosaurs, lungfishes, toothed birds, mosasaurs and even rudistid clams. I’d like to dip my toe into Appalachian dinos at some point though.


Dana posing with Ornithomimus at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey.

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

DE: Of course! That is how science works! One proposes a hypothesis and puts it forward for others to test. I would say the most controversial idea I have proposed in a paper was reassigning ‘Isurus’ or ‘Cosmopolitodushastalis, the broad toothed ‘mako’, to the genus ‘Carcharodon’. Like most people, it can be tough to be criticized, but scientists are mostly respectable and that is how it works. Peer-review to be heart-wrenching when you get a bad review. But at the end of the day, I remember that science is always about questioning and testing the ideas proposed by others. When I review manuscripts I keep in mind that harsh comments can really hurt and I always approach my reviews with sensitivity.
  
Question 11: A common idea is that paleontology is just a “for fun” science, with no real impact or noticeable affect that helps the world.  Do you think paleontology has a bigger part to play to than this?  How?

DE: Of course it does! As a grad student (along with my fellow lab members) we used to practice talking to the public about our research and why it is important. I always include the importance of our work in my talks as well. Why is studying giant, extinct sharks important? Well….. by studying fossil sharks and how they respond to changes in climate, food resources, ecology, etc we can better understand and model what will happen to living species in the future. We are in an unprecedented time of drastic climate change. By learning more about how organisms responded to drastic, sudden changes in their environments through time, we can model how animals may or may not react going forward.

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

DE: I was REALLY lucky!! As a freshman in college I had Dr. Roger Wood as a professor and advisor. By the time I was a junior in college I knew Dr. Margaret Lewis and Dr. Albert Wood. During my senior year of undergrad I had met Drs. Ted Daeschler (Academy of Natural Sciences) and Gene Gaffney (American Museum of Natural History). With regards to Roger Wood, I think we hit it off right away. He was approachable and easy to talk to. As I mentioned previously, Roger really propelled me on my career path!

Question 13: What is your favorite prehistoric animal?  Was it different when you were younger?

DE: Stegosaurus is my all-time favorite prehistoric animal and it hasn’t changed since I was little. I REALLY wanted to work on stegosaurs in grad school. When I got to the Univ. of Florida and first met with Dr. Bruce MacFadden he asked me, ‘What do you want to work on” and I replied, ‘Dinosaurs’. After he stopped laughing he said, NO! Florida has no dinosaurs. In hindsight, I am very happy with my career path.

Stegosaurus in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 14: 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?

DE: That’s easy, and it isn’t prehistoric. The Thylacine! Research and news these days are focused on bringing back mammoths or creating dinosaur chickens via reverse genetic engineering. But if we can’t protect and keep the living species of elephants safe, why bring back ones that went extinct thousands of years ago?  The Thylacine went extinct in the 1930s and it was likely due to humans. Think about it, a marsupial wolf!! A large carnivore with a pouch!! There are many taxidermied specimens and skins in collections around the world, this is doable!

Question 15: 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?

DE: I’m sure a lot of my colleagues would say the Cambrian Explosion, to see all of the wild innovations that organisms were trying out. But not me, the Miocene of Peru and Chile, what we know as the Pisco Formation today would be my choice. What a time! Giant sperm whales (Livyatan melvillei), sharks (Carcharodon hubbelli), whales with walrus-like tusks (Odobenocetops), sloths that swam in the ocean and ate sea grasses (Thalassocnus)…. WOW! The environment was teeming with amazing creatures (I just named a few) and highly productive.

Question 16: Which is your favorite museum?  Why?

DE: Collections-wise I’m biased, the Florida Museum is amazing! As a biologist and paleontologist the Herpetology, Ichthyology and Paleontology collections combined are unparalleled. This museum is a national treasure, both in terms of collections and staff. Exhibit-wise, the American Museum is my favorite. The cladistic approach to fossil life along with the most amazing specimens is my go to museum. I’ve taken my nephews multiple times and subjected them to my own personal tours!

Question 17: What hobbies do you have?  (Don’t have to be paleo-related.)

DE: Where to begin? I am a COLLECTOR! I started working on cars when I was 13 years old. I have a 1970 Dodge Dart, which I’ve owned for 20 years. But I also helped restore a 1963 Pontiac LeMans convertible with my dad before that. I’m also a motorcycle enthusiast and own two bikes. Another hobby is music. I LOVE going to shows! I play some banjo (clawhammer-style), and have some beautiful instruments. I am also a HUGE vinyl collector. I have close to 2000 LPs, 1000+ 45s and am now getting into 78s. When I’m not collecting fossils you’ll see me at flea markets and yard sales throughout New Jersey!


Dr. Ehret entertaining the idea of growing antlers like the famous "Elk-Moose" on display at the New Jersey State Museum.

Thank you Dr. Ehret!  If you are ever in New Jersey, make a trip to Trenton and you might see Dr. Ehret in the fossil labs.  Farewell until next time!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Asfaltovenator: Beast of the Week

This week we'll be checking out a newly described meat-eater.  Make way for Asfaltovenator vialidadi!

Watercolor reconstruction of Asfaltovenator vialidadi by Christopher DiPiazza

Asfaltovenator was a meat-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Argentina during the middle Jurassic period, between 174 and 170 million years ago.  It measured about twenty five feet long from snout to tail.  The genus name translates to "Asfalto Hunter" after the Asfalto rock formation in Chubut Province, Argentina, where its bones were discovered.

Asfaltovenator's skull.  Image from 2019 paper by Rauhut and Pol.

Asfaltovenator is known from almost the entire front half of its body, including the skull, ribs, arms, claws, and parts of the legs and pelvis.  Its skull was narrow laterally, but very deep, with two small bony ridges before the eyes.  The eye sockets were narrow, suggesting it had proportionally small eyes, and relatively large nasal holes where the nostrils would be.  The teeth were long and blade-like, ideal for slicing chunks of meat off bones.  A unique characteristic that wouldn't be seen in life, is two of the vertebra just behind the skull had neural arches that were pointed and angled backwards, like little shark fins.  The arms were powerful and were each armed with three claws.  The first digit on each hand had the longest claw, which were curved like massive hooks.

Neck vertebrae from Asfaltovenator.  Note the neural arches on top that resemble little shark fins.  Image from 2019 paper by Rauhut and Pol.

Where exactly Asfaltovenator fits on the dinosaur family tree is interesting since it has a mixture of basal and derived theropod dinosaur traits.  As of now, however, it appears that it was a very early member of the allosauroid group, which includes Metriacanthosaurusthe more famous Allosaurus, and the larger Acrocanthosaurus, to name a few examples.  It also shares some characteristics with megaosaurids, like Megalosaurus, though.

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

References

Rauhut, Oliver W. M.; Pol, Diego (2019-12-11). "Probable basal allosauroid from the early Middle Jurassic Cañadón Asfalto Formation of Argentina highlights phylogenetic uncertainty in tetanuran theropod dinosaursScientific Reports9 (1): 18826.

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.