Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Sinoceratops: Beast of the Week

This week we'll be checking out a large ceratopsian that truly stands out from its relatives.  Enter Sinoceratops zhuchengensis!

Sinoceratops was a ceratopsian dinosaur that lived in what is now China during the late Cretaceous, between 72 and 66 million years ago.  From beak to tail tip it measured just under twenty feet long and like all its relatives, it would have eaten plants when alive.  The genus name translates to "Chinese Horned Face" and the species name is in reference to Zhucheng, the city its remains were discovered in.

Sinoceratops reconstruction in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza

There were lots of ceratopsian dinosaurs that flourished throughout the Cretaceous.  Sinoceratops is particularly special because it is so far the only known ceratopsid, the family that includes the large kinds of ceratopsians with prominent horns and frill ornamentation, that lived in what is now Asia.  All other known ceratopsids lived in North America.  There are lots of small ceratopsian species known from China from the early Cretaceous, and even the early Jurassic.  It is possible most ceratopsians migrated into North America via a land bridge that existed at the time, called Beringia, and a few stayed back to give rise to Sinoceratops. However, it is also possible, given Sinoceratops' similarities to North American taxa, that some large ceratopsids could have migrated back to China, reslutling in Sinoceratops.

Within ceratopsids there are two major varieties.  The chasmosaurines, are the ones with long frills, and generally have long brow horns and short nose horns. (although exceptions exist).  Triceratops, Chasmosaurus, and Pentaceratops are all examples of chasmosaurines.  Sinoceratops belongs to the other group, the centrosaurines.  Centrosaurines had proportionally taller snouts and generally had large nose horns and small brow horns.  Styracosaurus and Pachyrhinosaurus are both examples from this group.  That being said some older forms of this group had long brow horns and short nosehorns, like Nasutoceratops and Machairoceratops, suggesting that long brow horns were ancestral to ceratopsids before chasmosaurines and centrosaurines split. Sinoceratops is more similar to the later centrosaurines, with a long nose horn and short brow horns, supporting the idea that it shared a more recent common ancestor with the later forms, and therefore was more likely a result of migration back to Asia from North America, instead of being from a lineage that just stayed in Asia the whole time.

Very rough info-graph I put together showing how Sinoceratops ended up in China from North American centrosaurine ancestors.

Sinoceratops is known from a few skulls that show us really interesting horn ornamentation.  The long nose horn and small, basically nonexistent, brow horns are not unheard of in this kind of dinosaur.  However, Sinoceratops had what appears to be knobby structures above its nostrils just in front of the nose horn on either side.  Unfortunately the fossilized skull that has these isn't that well preserved and as far as I know, the texture of the fossil doesn't tell us if these were smaller horn structures, or just the shape of the underlying skull.  This leads to some variation in reconstructions by paleoartists.

Section of Sinoceratops' snout, showing the unusual bony knob just infront of the nose horn.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Andy Farke.

The frill sported a series of narrow horns at its top that grew forwards and curved downwards at the tips.  In addition, the frill, itself, had a series of bumpy knobs along the top and down its center which may have had a layer of keratin, forming shallow horns, in life.     

Close up of the top of Sinoceratops' frill.  In addition to the forward facing horns on the top, you can also see the raised areas on the frame of the frill that may have been shallow horns in life.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Andy Farke.

As usual, the exact purpose of these horns is unknown, but it is possible they were for display within the species, maybe for attracting mates and/or intimidating rivals.  The nose horn could have been a stabbing weapon against predators and the frill horns could possibly have helped by deterring hungry jaws away from the neck. That being said, if defense was the primary purpose for ceratopsid horns, we'd see more uniformity over the millions of years that this branch of dinosaurs evolved.  Display adaptations, however, evolve and change more rapidly.

Portion of Sinoceratops' skull, featuring the eye socket, nose horn, and the little bony knobs over the nostrils.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Andy Farke.

Sinoceratops is featured in the newest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom.  In the movie it is depicted with two holes in its frill.  Let it be known this isn't backed up by any evidence and almost certainly wasn't the case for the  real animal.  While there were two holes in the skull, like there are in most ceratopsians, they were almost certainly covered up by skin in life.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on the  facebook page.  Special thank you to Dr. Andy Farke for kindly providing the amazing photographs of Sinoceratops' fossil material used in this post.


Xu, X., Wang, K., Zhao, X. & Li, D. (2010). "First ceratopsid dinosaur from China and its biogeographical implications". Chinese Science Bulletin55 (16): 1631–1635. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Beast of the Week Reviews Jurassic World Alive

Jurassic World has jumped on the wave caused by the mobile game sensation started by Pokemon Go.  "Jurassic World Alive" uses your phone's GPS to generate a map of your neighborhood (or wherever else you are at the time) with dinosaurs and other  prehistoric animals hanging out in various places.  You walk around until you are close enough to one to collect its DNA (which involves a target-shooting mini game) and then you use that DNA to generate your own specimen of that creature.  You can collect as many of these beasts as you like, make them stronger with more DNA, and even battle them, turn-based style, against other players.  (Although I'm not entirely sure you're really fighting other players.  The last Jurassic World game had a battle system they advertised as player vs player that turned out to be really against a computer once it was noticed how predictable everyone's opponent was.)

I've always seen dinosaurs walking around my neighborhood.  Good to confirm it wasn't just all in my head.  For a second there I thought I might be crazy!

Of course it also wouldn't be a Jurassic World game without freaky hybrids.  In this game you can use the DNA of two creatures to make monstrous hybrids.  Unlike in the last game where you sacrificed your two original creatures to make a hybrid, now you don't lose your original parent creatures when you create a hybrid.  (This is nice since I became rather attached to my Einiosaurus.)  Sometimes you can even combine hybrids you already made to create even weirder hybrids that are a combination of three creatures, instead of two.  To be fair, Indominous rex, from Jurassic World, was a combination of a Tyrannsoaurus, Velociraptor, Majungasaurus, cuddlefish, and a frog.  So think of that before you start whining about triple hybrids in this game.  Science Fiction!

Here's what comes out when you combine a ceratopsian with a pseudosuchian.  That's a thing you know now!

That's all well and good, but what about something for the pure of heart paleontology lovers?  Is this a game for them, too, or just casual Jurassic World fans?  Well I downloaded the game, have been playing it for a bit over a week now, and kept this question in mind the whole time.  Let's dive in!

First thing I want to bring up right off the bat that is that all the prehistoric animals in this game are referred to as a whole as "creatures" in this game, and not "dinosaurs".  This is appreciated since there are more than just dinosaurs to collect in this game, including plenty of pseudosuchians, synapsids, and amphibians.  It's a subtle detail, but it's also one that makes an impact on me.  Countless times I have seen games, toys, shows, movies, and any other kind of entertainment about dinosaurs and other prehistoric life refer to to the whole pool of subjects as "dinosaurs".  This is because the term, "dinosaur" is more charismatic and fun than "prehistoric animals".  I suppose Jurassic World has enough popularity going for it that it can afford to tell it like it is in this regard and not lose any downloads.  Good on them.

So how about the accuracy of the creatures?  The Jurassic Park/World franchise is notorious for making mistakes on accuracy, and sometime straight up actively choosing less accurate designs for the sake of what hey think is better entertainment.  With that in mind I will say up front that any creature that has been featured in any of the films appears in this game true to the way it did on the big screen, accurate or not.  So Dilophosaurus has a frill and spits poison, Velociraptor is featherless, Apatosaurus' neck is too thin...all the same inaccuracies in the movies that paleontology nerds, like myself, have been pointing out at nausea for the past twenty five years, are also in this game.  They do attempt to acknowledge the fact the Velociraptors are over-sized in the flavor text...that's something!  Right?

This fixes everything.  All you nerds can stop whining now.

THAT BEING SAID....when it comes to animals that are not featured in the films, and therefore don't need to uphold any sort of image for recognition sake...some (not all) are actually pretty darn good!  I said something similar in my review of the last mobile game about Jurassic World, two years ago.  This game has actually improved further, having significantly more passable models in this newest game.

Let's start with the most popular instigator of accuracy debates, feathers.  Almost every theropod, specifically coelurosaurians, that we know almost certainly had feathers in life, have feathers in this game.  I'm not talking about the lazy half-attempt few feathers on the head or arms either.  We're talking fully feathered dinosaurs here.  Creatures like Deinocheirus, Proceratosaurus, Utahraptor, and even some of the tyrannosaurids (on which feathers are debatable even scientifically speaking), like Lythronax, sport full coats of plumage.

Plenty of dinosaurs in this game have feathers. 

Frustratingly enough, like I said above, Velociraptor, which has possibly the strongest evidence for feathers in life, is portrayed just like it is in the films in all its naked glory.  I find this particularly amusing when you look at it next to other dromaeosaurids in the game that are portrayed fully feathered.

(top) Utahraptor is appropriately feathered (with a few minor detail mistakes) but sacred Velociraptor (bottom) is the same old naked it's been since the 1993.  Sigh.

In general their large theropods have improved.  Dinosaurs like Suchumimus (which is based on paleoartist, Julius Cstonyi's artwork for the Jurassic World website over two years ago), Megalosaurus, Majungasaurus, and Gorgosaurus are almost totally safe from criticism from me.   The only really glaring problem is that all their wrists are still wrong, with their palms facing down, instead of inwards.  But the the models of these large meat-eaters, especially when compared to those of the same taxa in the last Jurassic World game, are much more accurate.

(top) The pretty terrible excuse for a Megalosaurus from the Jurassic World mobile game, released in 2015, which looks like a warped Tyrannosaurus model.  Compare it to (bottom) the significantly better Megalosaurus in the new Jurassic World Alive game, which is much more accurate.  This is just one example.  Many of the large theropods are much more accurate compared to the last game.

Some of the ornithopod dinosaurs are also really well done.  The one that I was impressed the most by was Edmontosaurus.  I love how the beak actually angles down beyond where the skull's beak would end, which is consistent which what we now know based on a nicely preserved specimen of this dinosaur, now on display in Los Angeles, that shows the keratin beak on top of the bone, proving that it didn't have simply a flat "duck bill".  This is something lots of portrayals of this animal (even scientific ones) get wrong. The Edmontosaurus in this game also has the row of raised scallop-pattern scales running down the back which is also consistent with known hadrosaur fossils.  Nice!

That's a decent hadrosaur!

Of course there are still some models that are just as bad as they were in the last game...or just bad on their own.  The amphibians, like Diplocaulus and Koolasuchus, or some of the pseudosuchians, like Nundasuchus and Postosuchus, come to mind.  The sauropods, ceratopsians, and thyreophorans, while not flat out horrible, all suffer from somewhat subtle inaccuracies in their general anatomies.

At the end of the day, despite how frustrating it is, Jurassic World isn't trying to be scientifically accurate, especially if it gets in the way of what they think will get them better ratings and more money.  That being said, after looking at this game, it is evident that at least some people on creative design team definitely did their homework about these animals and applied what they learned where they could.  This attention to detail is a refreshing oasis of fleeting scientific accuracy in a desert of ignorance.  This game isn't going to fix everything, but it has its positive aspects that the latest movies don't.  Just like with Pokemon Go, it encourages people to go outside and interact with their surroundings, plus it can also help some newer paleontology fans of all ages learn the names of some creatures they may not have known about before. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dilophosaurus: Beast of the Week

This week we will check out a dinosaur that is unfortunately, despite its popularity, is very poorly understood by the general public.  Make way for Dilophosaurus wetherilli!

Dilophosaurus was a meat-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Arizona, in western North America, during the early Jurassic Period, 193 million years ago.  Trace fossils, like footprints and even a belly imprint of a dinosaur sitting down from the east coast of the United States have also been associated with Dilophosaurus. (or a dinosaur very similar to Dilophosaurus from what we can tell)  The largest specimen measures about twenty three feet long from snout to tail.  The genus name translates to "Two Crested Lizard/Reptile" in reference to the fact that this dinosaur had two, parallel, half-disc-shaped crests on the top of its snout.  The species name is in honor of John Wetherill, a Navajo councilor from near where Dilophosaurus' bones were first found.

Dilophosaurus wetherilli temporarily being startled by a Protosuchus.  The inner monologue here is something like "GAH!...OH, YUM!"

Dilophosaurus was the largest known member of the coelophysoid family of theropod dinosaurs.  Coelophysoids were meat-eating dinosaurs that were highly successful during the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods.  They all were relatively lightly built, had low, narrow snouts, long necks, tails, and legs, hollow bones, and three clawed fingers and one vestigial finger on each hand.  Other examples of coelophysoids are Coelophysis and Liliensternus.

Dilophosaurus' skull is striking.  The first thing you notice are those two crests that grew from the top of the snout.  These crests were made of very thin bone, and probably were too delicate to be used as any sort of weaponry in life.  That being said, they were most likely a kind of display adaptation within the species.  Unfortunately we don't have a large enough pool of complete Dilophosurus skulls to say if they were present in both sexes or not, but they are present in all the complete adult Dilophosaurus skulls on the fossil record so far.

Partially reconstructed Dilophosaurus skull mount on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Dilophosaurus had a long, slender snout with long, curved teeth that were compressed laterally.  They appear to have been great at slashing and puncturing, but not ideal for crushing or taking any sort of hard impact.  This doesn't seem to have been too much of an issue for Dilophosaurus when you think about its known environment, however.  It was the largest known predator in its environment.  All its prey consisted of much smaller animals, including small, early crocodilians, amphibians, mammals, and sauropodomorph dinosaurs that were about half Dilophosaurus' size.  So Dilophosaurus wouldn't have needed to have had bone-crushing jaws to tackle large prey, because everything it would have been hunting that we know of could have been overpowered with relatively little effort once caught.  In fact, the shape of Dilophosaurus' upper jaw has a deep notch just before the nostril.  This jaw has convergent evolved in other dinosaurs, like spinosaurs, which we know were eating fish in life.  There is a strong possibility that Dilophosaurus was a fisher as well.

Dilophosaurus holotype specimen.  Photo by of Eduard Sola.

One specimen of Dilophosaurus shows multiple injuries that had healed in life.  These include fractures, bony tumors, and even a deformed finger on the right hand.   All of these injuries were concentrated on the arms, hands, and shoulders.  This supports the idea that Dilophosaurus may have used its arms and front claws the most for fighting or subduing prey.  Or maybe it just took a nasty fall or ran into a tree?  Regardless, the point is Dilophosaurus was capable of taking a beating and shaking it off to survive years later!

Oh, and one more thing.  Dilophosaurus was one of the main dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park.  Its being featured in this movie was sort of a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, an obscure dinosaur, that not many people were familiar with outside the paleontology community, suddenly became insanely popular amongst the general public, and is still highly regarded to this day.  On the other hand, it was portrayed horribly inaccurately, sporting a retractable frill, similar to that of a modern Frilled Lizard, and had the ability to spit venom.  Neither of these features are supported by any fossil evidence whatsoever and were completely made up in the name of showbiz.


Milner, A. R. C.; Harris, J. D.; Lockley, M. G.; Kirkland, J. I.; Matthews, N. A.; Harpending, H. (2009). "Bird-like anatomy, posture, and behavior revealed by an Early Jurassic theropod dinosaur resting trace". PLOS One. 4 (3): e4591.

Rothschild, B.; Tanke, D. H.; Ford, T. L. (2001). "Theropod stress fractures and tendon avulsions as a clue to activity". In Tanke, D. H.; Carpenter, K. Mesozoic Vertebrate Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 331–336.

Senter, P.; Juengst, S. L.; Heymann, D. (2016). "Record-breaking pain: the largest number and variety of forelimb bone maladies in a theropod dinosaur". PLOS One.

Welles, S. P. (1984). "Dilophosaurus wetherilli (Dinosauria, Theropoda), osteology and comparisons". Palaeontographica Abteilung A. 185: 85–180.

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. 

Dilophosaurus wtherilli

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!