Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Who Really Cares About Dinosaurs Anyway?

When doing events for museums and such one of the common questions I get from the adults is “Why do you study dinosaurs?”  The simple answer to that question plain and simple is because I think dinosaurs are cool.  If you ask a paleontologist I wouldn’t be surprised if he or she would give a similar answer to mine.  It is a valid question though.  After all what do dinosaurs have to do with us anyway?  They all died out millions of years ago and have no effect on how we live our lives today right?  Well not exactly.  I can think of two big ways dinosaurs affect us almost every day off the top of my head.  I’m not just talking about scientists who study them either.  I’m talking about most people all over the world. 

Who likes fruit?  Go ahead let me see a show of hands.  Let’s be honest, fruit is awesome.  It tastes great and its 0 points on weightwatchers!  (Sorry.  My parents are going nuts with this weightwatchers thing.  They aren’t even overweight either.).  Seriously though, you can pretty much gorge yourself on berries, apples and bananas all day if you wanted and it’s totally healthy!  (I think?  I’m not a nutritionist.)  Well either way we have dinosaurs to thank for fruit.  “What the heck do dinosaurs have to do with fruit?” you may be asking yourself.  Well I’ll tell you.   Way back in the Cretaceous period when dinosaurs were still around, the first flowering plants evolved.  Previous to this there were only plants like evergreens and ferns to name some…but no flowers.  Only flowering plants produce fruit.  What is fruit exactly besides delicious?  Well fruit is a flowering plant’s way of spreading its seeds around.  You see, many fruits are actually meant to be eaten.  The tree wants an animal to come along and eat its fruit in order to produce more of its kind.  This is because all naturally occurring fruit bears seeds.  The animal eats the fruit (and the seeds along with it) walks away and then later on the seeds come out.  How do they come out you ask?  Well how do you think they come out?  The animal poops them out.  Teehee!  Poop.  The seed is then in its own little pile of fertilizer and may grow into a brand new plant itself!  It’s a nice little symbiotic relationship that fruit-bearing plants have with certain animals.  (For those of you who don’t know, a symbiotic relationship is where two different plants, animals or other organisms help each other out).  The animal gets a meal and the plant gets a chance to spread its seeds around.  

I put a lot of love and detail into this sketch right down to the tiniest "plop".

Today, the animals that carry out this duty (Teehee!  Poop.) can be anything that eats fruit like monkeys, birds, bats and even some lizards.  But the first animals to do it were probably dinosaurs.  Think about it, who else were the only animals big enough back in the Cretaceous when fruit first appeared to do this?  Thank you, dinosaurs!  

I am aware Titanosaurs didn't coexist with monkeys and apples.  Just go with it for now.

The Second way dinosaurs all affect us today is simply because many dinosaurs never went extinct in the first place.  In fact, one of the most important animals alive today that people rely heavily on for food is actually a dinosaur.  Birds are dinosaurs, no ifs, ands or buts about it.  There is so much information to prove this fact I could easily spend several blog posts writing about it.  Instead I’m just going to show you pictuers of of two dinosaur skeletons (one modern and one prehistoric) and you can check out the family resemblance for yourself.   

Modern Dinosaur

Prehistoric Dinosaur

That being said, animals that we use for food like turkeys, ducks and most importantly, chickens, are all actually kinds of dinosaurs.  Who likes to eat eggs?  How about chicken nuggets?  Any fans of  Thanksgiving out there?  Thank you dinosaurs!  

Mr. Turkey decided to invite HIS family for Thanksgiving that year.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Elk-Moose: Prehistoric Mammalian New Jersey Native

Howdy folks!  For today's post I decided to stray away a bit from the dinosaur scene but still remain within the paleontology field.  That's right I'm going to be talking about prehistoric mammals.  Did you know that in addition to our beloved dinosaurs, New Jersey was also home to a bunch of other prehistoric animals as well?  Many famous mammal fossils have been discovered in the garden state including the well known Mastodon, Giant Ground Sloth, ancient beavers and even a prehistoric walrus!  At the State Museum in Trenton, there is the skeleton of another prehistoric NJ native commonly dubbed the "elk-moose".  Is it an elk or a moose?  It seems to have features of both.   

My quick life restoration  Cervalces americanus

My friend and former Rutgers classmate, Amanda Giesler, is now a graduate student of paleontology focusing on deer and their relatives (called cervids).  She asked me if I knew anything about the mysterious elk-moose skeleton's whereabouts and luckily for her I did!  It wasn't long before I met her at the museum to help her obtain some data for her studies.  I have to admit I'm not much of an expert myself on cervids...but she is!  Take it away, Amanda!

"About me: I am currently completing my M.S. degree in geosciences at East Tennessee State University. I am a NJ native, and completed my B.S. degree in Ecology and Natural Resources at Rutgers University in 2010. In the future, I would like to continue research in the field of Pleistocene paleoecology, work on a PhD, and eventually become a professor. I am getting married in June and have an awesome dachshund named Roo Roo.
 On March 5th, 2011, I had the pleasure of visiting the NJ State Museum for the first time. New Jersey is well known for Dryptosaurus and Hadrosaurus fossils, but I was interested in the state’s mammalian claim to fame: Cervalces americanus, the extinct elk moose. Only two skeletons in the entire world of this Pleistocene giant are known, both derived from bogs in our home state.  The specimen at the NJSM was actually the first Cervalcesmaterial ever found, formally described by W.B. Scott in 1885. Only a few bones are missing, and the antlers are exquisitely preserved, which are the best element for identification of Cervalcesmaterial. 

Amanda and the very handsome Cervalces americanus.  (Amanda is the shorter bipedal one one on the right.)

 The elk moose is aptly named; some features of its skeleton are like that of the moose (Alces alces), while some features are more elk-like (Cervus elaphus). This becomes a problem with identification of Pleistocene fossil material because Ice Age faunas were extremely rich, and many times contained multiple cervid (deer) taxa. It is currently believed that the elk moose did not exist contemporaneously with the living moose or elk, but that is not known with certainty. Radiocarbon dates could help determine when the living and fossil taxa occurred, but these dates cannot be obtained when identification the material is difficult or impossible. Of course, paleontologists want to know whether they have discovered an extinct taxon or a living form, but the unique features of Cervalces could cause it to be easily confused with moose or elk fossil material.
Amanda measures the teeth.  Being a paltontologist can be tedious at times.  I was holding the camera like a boss. 

 All this being said, I am studying the cervids (deer) from a late Pleistocene aged cave in northeast Tennessee for my M.S. thesis work. Based on dental remains, multiple taxa are present, so I needed to study white-tailed deer, caribou, elk, moose, and elk-moose because all of these taxa could have been present at that time. This is what brought me to the New Jersey State Museum; other known fossils ofCervalces teeth may or may not belong to the extinct elk-moose. At this point in time, antlers are needed to truly distinguish Cervalces from other large deer. The NJSM specimen is special because the skull is complete with antlers and mildly worn adult dentition, so I could be certain that those teeth did in fact belong to Cervalces. I am currently working on morphological characters of the teeth which may help separate Cervalcesfrom other large deer, and using photos of the NJSM specimen to help me identify fossils from my cave."

I made Amanda promise me she would keep me posted on her project.  I am also looking forward to attending her wedding in June.  Maybe I'll wear my sweet Tyrannosaurus necktie...

Works Cited 

Churcher, C.S., and J.D. Pinsof. 1987. Variation in the antlers of North American Cervalces (Mammalia: Cervidae): Review of new and previously recorded specimens. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 7(4):373-397.
Geist, V. 1998. Deer of the world: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburgh, PA, 432 pp.
Graham, R.W., and E.L. Lundelius, Jr. 2010. FAUNMAP II: New data for North America with a temporal extension for the Blancan, Irvingtonian and early Rancholabrean. FAUNMAP II Database, version 1.0 <http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/faunmap>
Guthrie, 1990. New dates on Alaskan Quaternary moose, Cervalces-Alces: archaeological, evolutionary, and ecological implications. Current Research in the Pleistocene 7:111-112.
Kurtén, B. and E. Anderson (eds.). 1980. Pleistocene mammals of North America. Columbia Univeristy Press, New York, 442 pp.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dino Day 2012: The Kids Know Their Dinosaurs

Wow what a weekend!  Gary and I (Chris) had the pleasure of working not one but two separate dinosaur events over the past few days at the Morrison Museum and then the Newark Museum in New Jersey.  I love doing these events because it gives me a chance to check out exhibits from different museums as well as meet and connect with loads of people with the same interests as myself.

Serious Educators

 My absolute favorite part about doing these events, however, has to be talking to the countless kids that come over to our table eager to learn more about dinosaurs.  Its funny because they all remind me of myself when I was that age and their parents remind me of my parents.  Even though my mother and father are not dinosaur obsessed like I was, they ended up being well versed in the subject simply by reading me my favorite dinosaur books and playing dinosaur games with me when I was a little whipper-snapper myself. 

Me at three years old.  People used to mistake me for an Asian girl. 

Its amazing how much kids can learn if they are actually interested in a subject.  When I was little I couldn't read very well nor could I do math for my life but you better believe I could identify the differences between a Triceratops and a Chasmosaurus no problem!  This past weekend I met dozens of Children who could rattle off names like Quetzalcoatlus and Stygimoloch right off the tops of their heads.

I think a big part of kids knowing so much is thanks to great educational television shows that are popular now like Dinosaur Train and Dino Dan.  Many kids looked at my picture of Troodon and excitedly referred to it as "Mr. Conductor" for instance (If you have ever seen these shows you'll know what that means haha).