Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dinosaur Names: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

One thing dinosaurs don't have are common names.  I mentioned in an earlier post how for some reason prehistoric animals tend to only be referred to by their scientific names.  While this makes it less confusing when talking about them in a scientific setting, it can be frustrating as well since some of these names can be quite long or obscure.  The names of dinosaurs can mean different things.  Some can be a physical description of the animal.  Triceratops, for example translates to "three horned face".  Others, however, aren't always as straightforward.  Today I want to share with you my list of dinosaur (and other prehistoric animal) names that I find the coolest, the stupidest and just downright scariest.  I just want to clarify that the names i am about to tell you about are the official names given to real animals.  I did not make these up. 

"Dragon King of Hogwarts" - Dracorex hogwartsia

Dracorex skull
Translates to "Dragon King of Hogwarts".  Yes, Hogwarts as in the wizard school from the Harry Potter franchise.  This dinosaur was found in what is now South Dakota, USA.  It is named because of the horns on its head give it the appearance of what mythical dragons tend to look like...which exist in the Harry Potter universe (Maybe they should have named it Norbert?).  Its related to the larger Pachycephalosaurus. In fact, one paleontologist is convinced Dracorex is merely a juvenile of Pacycephalosaurus.  Of this I myself am unsure of but either way, Dracorex looks cool and has a cool name.

Dracorex hogwartsia life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza

"Medusa-Horned Face Loki" - Medusaceratops lokii

Medusaceratops skeletal mount
Translates to "Medusa Horned Face Loki".  This relative of Styracosaurus was discovered in what is now Montana, USA and has a horn arrangement that is curvy and somewhat twisty looking, thus reminding us of Medusa from Greek Mythology, who had snakes for hair.  The species name, "lokii" is in reference to the the Norse god of trickery, because this dinosaur's bones were so difficult to identify at first.  Coincidentally, the MARVEL supervillain, Loki (based on the Norse god) happens to have long, curved horns on his helmet! 

Loki from the Avengers movieCheck out the helmet.

"Devil-Horned Face" - Diabloceratops eatoni

Diabloceratops skull
Translates to "Devil Horned Face Eaton".  This relative of Styracosaurus lived in what is now Utah, USA.  Its called "devil horn" because of its two, upwards curved horns over each eye.  It also had two curved horns on its frill.  Its species name is in honor of paleontologist, Jeffery Eaton. 

Hellboy.  I can see the inspiration. 

"Kosmos-Horned Face" - Kosmoceratops richardsoni

Kosmoceratops skull
Translates to "Kosmos Horned Face Richardson".  This another ceratopsid dinosaur from Utah.  Its named because its horn arrangement is crazy...crazy enough to look like its from space!  The species name is in honor of Scott Richardson, the man who found the first specimen of this animal.


"Mojo-Horned Face with Pride" Mojoceratops perifania

Mojoceratops skull
Translates to "Magic Horned Face with Pride".  This dinosaur is closely related to Chasmosaurus.  So much so that the two were actually believed to be the same animal until 2010 and thus,  the name Mojoceratops was thought up.  The term "mojo" is in reference to the animal's heart-shaped frill which may have been used for sexual display when the animal was alive (much like a male peacock's tail or iguana's dewlap).  An actual mojo is a sort of charm or talisman that is believed to give the holder the ability to attract the opposite sex (in the early 1900s mostly).  The species name, "perifania" is Greek for "pride" furthering the point that this animal may have flaunted what its mama gave it (the frill) when it was alive.

From left: Medusaceratops, Diabloceratops, Kosmoceratops and Mojoceratops.  Life restoration by Christopher DiPiazza.

"Irritating Challenge" - Irritator challengeri

Back part of Irritator skull
Translates"Irritating Challenger".  (Don't you just love how they put a vowel at the end of an English word to make it flow better?)  This dinosaur is known from a skull that was found by fossil poachers and then sold illegally.  When in their possession they stupidly messed with it, trying to alter its appearance by attaching other pieces of rock to it to make it look cooler and more valuable in order to get more money out of it before it was luckily eventually taken away and given to real scientists to study.  Well the scientists (being professionals and all) immediately knew the specimen had be tampered with and had to undergo the long irritating process of undoing the mess before even beginning to prep the actual fossil itself.  Thus the name.  Ironic part is, it turned out to be a new species and was more valuable without the artificial addition.  The dinosaur lived in what is now Brazil and is related to the more famous, Spinosaurus

"Human Scrotum" - Scrotum humanum
Must admit it does look like a scrotum.

Translates to...yup, you guessed it!  "Human Scrotum".  In the seventeen hundreds a single bone fragment was discovered in England.  Just imagine being the scientist who's job it was to name it.  "Wow!  look at this bone!  Its from a dinosaur!  I can name it whatever I want!  Ha, when I squint it sort of resembles guy's ball sack.  Bingo!"  Luckily this bone piece was later found to belong to a dinosaur that had already been discovered, Megalosaurus, and the scrotum name was thrown out.  Sorry perverts!


"American Breast Tooth" - Mastodon americanum

This one most people are familiar with.  Mastodon isn't a dinosaur but rather a kind of extinct elephant that actually lived right here in New Jersey amongst other places not that long ago (roughly 11 thousand years ago during the late Pleistocene).  Well, have you ever wondered what Mastodon really means?  Breast tooth.  That's what.

American Mastodon watercolor by Christopher DiPiazza.

 Again, I wonder what the scientists were thinking when they uncovered this amazing beast and ultimately settled on naming it what they did because the teeth sort of look like a pair of boobs.  I don't know what the women looked like back in the seventeen hundreds but those teeth sure don't look like breasts to me.
Sorry I just don't see it. 

After learning this information I can never nostalgically watch the first season of Power Rangers the same way ever again.

Morphin time!  BOOB TOOTH!

Works Cited

 Agusti, Jordi and Mauricio Anton (2002). Mammoths, Sabretooths, and Hominids. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 106. ISBN 0-231-11640-3.

 Bakker, R. T., Sullivan, R. M., Porter, V., Larson, P. and Saulsbury, S.J. (2006). "Dracorex hogwartsia, n. gen., n. sp., a spiked, flat-headed pachycephalosaurid dinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota." in Lucas, S. G. and Sullivan, R. M., eds., Late Cretaceous vertebrates from the Western Interior. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 35, pp. 331–345.

 Halstead, L.B. (1970). "Scrotum humanum Brookes 1763 - the first named dinosaur." Journal of Insignificant Research, 5: 14–15.

 Kirkland, J.I. and DeBlieux, D.D. (2010). "New basal centrosaurine ceratopsian skulls from the Wahweap Formation (Middle Campanian), Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, southern Utah", In: Ryan, M.J., Chinnery-Allgeier, B.J., and Eberth, D.A. (eds.) New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs: The Royal Tyrrell Museum Ceratopsian Symposium. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, pp. 117–140

 Martill, D. M.; Cruickshank, A. R. I.; Frey, E.; Small, P. G.; Clarke, M. (1996). "A new crested maniraptoran dinosaur from the Santana Formation (Lower Cretaceous) of Brazil". Journal of the Geological Society 153: 5. doi:10.1144/gsjgs.153.1.0005

"Mojoceratops: New Dinosaur Species Named for Flamboyant Frill." Yale News. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.

 Nicholas R. Longrich (2010). "Mojoceratops perifania, A New Chasmosaurine Ceratopsid from the Late Campanian of Western Canada". Journal of Paleontology 84 (4): 681–694. doi:10.1666/09-114.1

 Scott D. Sampson, Mark A. Loewen, Andrew A. Farke, Eric M. Roberts, Catherine A. Forster, Joshua A. Smith, Alan L. Titus (2010). Stepanova, Anna. ed. "New Horned Dinosaurs from Utah Provide Evidence for Intracontinental Dinosaur Endemism". PLoS ONE 5 (9): e12292. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012292. PMC 2929175. PMID 20877459

 Ryan, Michael J.; Russell, Anthony P., and Hartman, Scott. (2010). "A New Chasmosaurine Ceratopsid from the Judith River Formation, Montana", In: Michael J. Ryan, Brenda J. Chinnery-Allgeier, and David A. Eberth (eds), New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs: The Royal Tyrrell Museum Ceratopsian Symposium, Indiana University Press, 656 pp. ISBN 0-253-35358-0

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Eosinopteryx: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week is a newly described (2013) dinosaur, Eosinopteryx,  This dinosaur was small, amongst the smallest non-avian dinosaurs ever to be discovered measuring only about a foot long from head to tail.  Only one specimen was discovered but it consists of a whole skeleton complete with some preserved feathers which is more than a paleontologist could ever hope for when it comes to dinosaur remains.  Thanks to this, much is known about how this little creature would have looked when it was alive.

Eosinopteryx brevipenna life restoration by Christopher DiPiazza

Eosinopteryx lived during the late Jurassic in what is now China about 160 million years ago.  It would have coexisted with its close relative, Anchiornis (a dinosaur I briefly mentioned in an earlier post about feather color).  The two dinosaurs are very similar in appearance except for a few bold differences.  Anchiornis had long primary feathers all down its legs to its feet and on its tail.  This is not the case with this new specimen, EosinopteryxEosinopteryx had no feathers on its tarsels (foot bones) and had fuzzy, down-like feathers on its tail which was unusually short for a non-avian theropod dinosaur.  This suggests the former (Anchiornis) was more adapted to spending time in the trees while the latter (Eosinopteryx) may have been more comfortable on the ground.  Its an interesting possible demonstration of adaptive radiation (which is a diversity of related animals within a habitat through evolution) in long extinct animals.   Another odd thing about Eosinopteryx is the fact that its second toe didn't have an over-sized killer claw like all of its closest relatives did. 

Nearly complete fossil skeleton of Eosinopteryx including a few feathers!

Join us next week for another prehistoric animal!  As new dinosaurs are discovered I will do my best to review them as soon as possible on here.  Also as always if you have a particular animal in mind that you would like to see reviewed feel free to request it on our facebook or leave a comment below!

Works Cited

Godefroit, P.; Demuynck, H.; Dyke, G.; Hu, D.; Escuillié, F. O.; Claeys, P. (2013). "Reduced plumage and flight ability of a new Jurassic paravian theropod from China". Nature Communications 4: 1394. doi:10.1038/ncomms2389. PMID 23340434

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Interview with Artist: Niroot Puttapipat

Today we have an interview with illustrator (and friend of mine) Niroot Puttapipat.  From his bio on his facebook site-

 "As a child in his native Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, Niroot shared his time between drawing, devouring books, and playing out stories, leading to a lifelong interest in art, literature, history and the natural world. He studied Illustration at Kingston University. Whilst there, his illustrations for the Russian fairytale, The Firebird, were exhibited at Kingston Museum. He is passionately fond of the 'Golden Age' illustrators, Oriental art, and silhouettes. Niroot has illustrated several books for Walker Books and The Folio Society. Several of his illustrations for Folio's 150th anniversary edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám were exhibited at the British Library in late 2009/early 2010. He was also awarded the bronze prize in the Books category of the Association of Illustrators Images awards in 2010. He now lives in London."

What I love about Niroot's art is that it has such a whimsical and elegant style that isn't seen that much anymore in illustration.  Professionally, most of his work is actually not dinosaur-based but when he does decide to do paleo-art in his free time the work is never short of beautiful.  I'm not just saying that because I know him either!  I had the pleasure of finally meeting up with Niroot and fellow blogger Marc Vincent who writes for Love in the Time of Chasmosaurus when I visited London in 2011 after knowing each of them via the interwebz for a few years.  Okay enough mushy stuff, on to the interview!

From left to right: Niroot Puttaptipat, Myself a Camararasaurus leg (misidentified by me as a small brachiosaur at first I must admit) and Marc Vincent during my trip to the Museum of Natural History in London.  I promise Marc was in fact having a good time.

Question 1: At what age did you become interested in dinosaurs?  Were they always a subject of your art?

NP: I can't quite recall exactly, but I think I first became interested in dinosaurs when I was about six or seven. They certainly formed one aspect of my artwork ever since in varying degrees. Predictably enough, they took centre stage in the wake of Jurassic Park, but became almost entirely dormant for a number of years before my interest in them was awoken again in earnest a little over two years ago.

Ouranosaurus; Coloured pencils, markers, sepia ink and gouache on recycled paper; 28.5 x 18cm.

Question 2: What medium do you most prefer to use for your art?  Any particular reason why?

NP: For paintings, my favourite medium is watercolour. I love its transparency and just enjoy working with its rich, watery flow. So many of my favourite historic art traditions and artists have employed watercolour, so I'm sure that has a strong bearing on my preference too. For drawing; ink, pencils (graphite, carbon, and coloured), tinted charcoals, markers and Conté are what I frequently use, whether individually or, more often, in combination. I have a penchant for using sepia and earth tones and these materials lend themselves very well to that approach. 

'Crown Dragon', Guanlong wucaii; Watercolour, 11.5 x 8.5cm.

Question 3: Is there any particular artist who particularly inspired you growing up?  How about today?

NP: In terms of palaeo art, I think the artists who inspired me earlier on remain largely the same ones today: John Sibbick, Doug Henderson, Ely Kish, and Mark Hallett, just to name a very few. In recent years, Julius Csotonyi, Angie Rodrigues and Paul Heaston are among my favourites; as well as a host of others that we probably won't have time to list! My own interests and work outside of  palaeo art also mean that I have been strongly influenced by artists and disciplines from those other areas. One may not necessarily imagine the Renaissance, the Fin de siècle, 'Golden Age' illustration, or Oriental art as having much to do with dinosaurs, for instance, but they certainly influence my palaeo art just as much as anything else I do.  

Citipati; Watercolour, 24.5 x 17cm.

Question 4: When did you decide to pursue a career in illustration?  

NP: I think I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in art in some form, but hadn't been sure which at first. Perhaps illustration dawned on me when I was about eleven or twelve. I have always loved reading and enjoyed storytelling, and all these things seem to come together so perfectly in narrative illustration, which is the main focus of my work now. Natural history is just one of a myriad of aspects in which I get to dabble too in the process. I would of course love to have a stronger body of palaeontological illustration, if for no other reason than my own personal satisfaction, and that's something I'm working on; but if I don't, I still love the work I presently do.

Olorotitan Studies; Graphite, coloured pencils, and sepia ink; 29.7 x 21cm.

Question 5: Art and illustration is such a diverse field.  It has also changed dramatically within the past decade or so.  What advice would you have to give an aspiring artist today?

NP: I am probably one of the last people anyone should seek advice from! Certainly those dramatic changes you mention are things I myself need to adapt to, too, particularly with regard to the Digital Age and the change not only in the creative process itself, but how the end results are consumed. I do know that being able to make a living from palaeo art alone is a rare success. I can't yet judge how well I may do with mine since I have only recently returned to it; few people know this aspect of my work and I haven't yet been formally commissioned for that. However, as I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, I think I'm quite lucky in that I still have a fairly robust background in my other illustrative work. Having a relatively broad range of interests which will reflect in your work is certainly no bad thing. It isn't being a Jack-of-all-trades as such, but having a sincere love for a small number of things to which you can devote yourself. And the more you can give in that respect, the better you become in time. Do what you love and eventually there will be someone who will care for it too. 

Allosaurus; Watercolour, 11.5 x 8.5cm.

Question 6: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  How about today?

NP: My very first favourite dinosaur was everyone's favourite generic sauropod: Apatosaurus. With perhaps Parasaurolophus in second place. I'd always been especially fond of sauropods and hadrosaurs. These days, I appear to have shifted my affection, sauropod-wise, to Diplodocus (if I were a dinosaur, that's what I would be); with Olorotitan as my current hadrosaurian obsession.

'Gibran', Olorotitan infant; Watercolour, 11.5 x 8.5cm.

Question 7: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

NP: The Land Before Time was the first film to fuel my dinosaur passion too. I had always loved animals and dinosaurs were simply a natural progression for me. My father had a series of general encyclopedias at the time, and I remember frequently taking out the 'D' volume to look at the dinosaur entries. Seeing the film and falling in love with it probably sealed it altogether, as it were. As for Jurassic Park, I don't think there is a dinosaur enthusiast alive for whom the film didn't make an impact in some way. We are aware of its many flaws now, of course; but nothing like it had been seen before, and in terms of reach and reawakening of interest among the general public, I don't think there has been another dinosaur film that has had the same kind of influence since. It's why so many people continue to cling to the appearance of the dinosaurs in the film as the 'definitive' one even now, twenty years later, in spite of the inaccuracies. 

Niroot likes to create portraits of people as their favorite dinosaurs.  Here is me as a Triceratops.  He also included my beloved dog, Zeus and some of the birds from my work!  I have a print of this over my desk at home.

Question 8: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

NP: For me personally, that's quite simple: dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals carry a beguilingly mythical aspect, but they were entirely real. Learning about them is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. We may never truly know what they looked like for absolute certain, but trying to restore them makes for a beautiful union of science and art; fact and imagination.

'Thesis', Thecodontosaurus; Sepia ink, 28 x 15cm.

Question 9: What is your favorite time period?

NP: I'm surmising you mean a period of prehistory in this instance (haha; you are after all speaking to a history enthusiast too). A few years ago, I would probably have answered the Jurassic period without delay; but now I'm less certain. The Jurassic because it saw the emergence of the wonderful sauropods. However, the Cretaceous did have all those hadrosaurs! Besides such an abundance of dinosaur 'superstars', not least among which is that most famous tyrant reptile of all, but who cares about that overrated beast, eh? ;) May I leave this one unanswered? 

'The Mighty Handful', Albertosaurus and Ornithomimus; Coloured pencils, sepia ink, marker and gouache on recycled paper; 28.5 x 21.5cm.

Question 10: Do you have any other hobbies?

NP: Some of my other creative attempts include sculpting, origami and papercraft. I collect a rather disparate range of things which include: netsuke, small wood carvings, Chinese painting materials (such as inkstones, carved paperweights and chop seals; works of art in their own right), prints and other reproductions of historical paintings and illustrations, first or early editions of illustrated books, especially those of 'Golden Age' illustration, and a small number of fossils. I also have a significant collection of animal toys and models, with horses and dinosaurs numbering the most among these. Occasionally, I find time to customise and paint some of them, but not so often as I would like.  

 Well there you have it.  If you are interested in seeing more of Niroot's work you can check out his Deviant Art page right hereWould you like to own prints of any of his work?  Well don't be a jerk and steal it off the internet (seriously don't).  You can easily purchase prints on here or here.  so long until next time!

A rather humorous group portrait of Niroot (Diplodocus), Marc (Deinonychus) and myself's (Triceratops) day together at the Museum's cafe. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Living Fossil: It Stings, Pinches and Glows!

Since one of my other living fossil posts was so popular I have decided to do quite a few more for you.  The first one for the new year is an animal that is almost as old as its relative the horseshoe crab, the scorpion!

Scorpions are considered arachnids which means they have eight jointed legs.  They also breathe with organs called book lungs which are believed to have evolved from gills (more on that in a bit).  Examples of other arachnids are spiders, ticks, mites, harvestmen (commonly misidentified as "daddy long legs") and solifugae (Also referred to as camel spiders.  Look it up on youtube if you dare!) .    Two of the pieces of a scorpion's mouth have been modified by evolution to be weapons in the form of pincers similar to those on a crab.  At the end of the abdomen, there is a long tail that ends in a stinger.  All scorpions possess venom in this stinger.  Few species possess venom dangerous enough to really harm a person, however.

A reference to further learn your scorpion parts.

So what makes scorpions living fossils?  Well the oldest scorpion on the fossil record comes from the Silurian period 430 million years ago!  That's not quite as old as the oldest horseshoe crab (450 million years) but still very very old regardless, much older than the first dinosaurs at least.  Whats interesting is that the animals that these fossils belonged to and many others from around that time period actually lived under the ocean and would have breathed with gills much like those on modern horseshoe crabs most likely.  These ancient marine scorpions could get big too.  Real big.  One species named Brontoscorpio or "Thunder scorpion"  (Good name for a metal band anyone?) grew to be over three feet in length.

Prehistoric scorpion fossil. 

As you can see from the photo above.  Scorpions have changed very little of their anatomy over the past few hundred million years.  Much like the crocodilians, they go by the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" evolutionary strategy.  Who's to argue?  They have dangerous pincers in the front, venomous stinger in the back and a tough outer shell.  What else do they need?

Oh, memebase, they aren't really nightmares!  You just need to get to know them a bit more.  For instance did you know that scorpions are actually caring mothers?  Most species of scorpion mothers will have around ten babies at a time (although some can have up to one hundred!) which are born alive unlike many other invertebrates which hatch from eggs.  The babies then all climb onto their mother's back where she can protect them from predators, make sure they don't dry out and feed them by mushing up prey items with her pincers until the food is soft enough for them to eat.  Cute, right?

Emperor Scorpion (Pendinus emperator) with young.  Photo taken by me several years ago at my job.

Oh yeah one more thing I should mention.  Scorpions glow under black light.  They can do this thanks to fluorescent properties in their exoskeletons.  Scientists are still unsure as to the exact evolutionary reasons for this though.  People who hike or camp in areas where scorpions live carry black lights to check their sleeping bags at night to make sure they don't share close quarters with one of these venomous arachnids. 

WHO WANTS TO RAVE? *cue techno music*

Like I stated under that one photograph, I do work with scorpions at my job.  Here is a quick little video I filmed for you all with a little more information and also so you can see one of these fascinating animals in action.

Hope you liked learning about scorpions!  I have several more living fossils to post about in the future and lots more videos too!  As always if you have any questions you are more than welcome to message me on our facebook page

Works Cited

Andrew Jeram (June 16, 1990). "When scorpions ruled the world". New Scientist.

 Lourenco, W. R. (2000). "Reproduction in scorpions, with special reference to parthenogenesis". European Arachnology: 71–85.

Stachel, Shawn J; Scott A Stockwell and David L Van Vranken (August 1999). "The fluorescence of scorpions and cataractogenesis". Chemistry & Biology (Cell Press) 6 (8): 531–539. doi:10.1016/S1074-5521(99)80085-4. PMID 10421760

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Prehistoric Animal of the Week: Plateosaurus

This week we're off to the Late Triassic to pump our fists in welcome for Plateosaurus!

Plateosaurus (sp.)
Plateosaurus, name meaning “broad lizard” is a prosauropod dinosaur that is related to other dinosaurs such as Barosaurus. Plateosaurus was from the Triassic period between 214 and 204 million years ago. Only two species are recognized for Plateosaurus, P engelhardti and P. gracilis. P. gracilis is from slightly older rocks. Plateosaurus was discovered in 1834 by Johann Friedrich Engelhardt and described, three years later, by Hermann von Meyer. Plateosaurus has the distinct honor of being the fifth dinosaur named after Richard Owen coined them term. It was unfortunately, due to scrappy remains, not considered to be within the group when it was first named. Plateosaurus is now actually one of the best known dinosaurs to science thanks to the fact that over a hundred skeletons have been found. Most of these finds have helped paint the picture for this animal.

Plateosaurus life restoration by Christopher DiPiazza

A bipedal herbivore, Plateosaurus had a small skull with a long mobile neck. It had teeth designed for crushing plants, powerful hind limbs, short and muscular arms, and hands that were good for grasping. The hands had large claws on three fingers. Plateosaurus could walk either as bipedal (on two legs) or quadrupedal (on all four's). It would have spend most of the time as a biped. Fully grown individuals ranged in sizes between 4.8 and 10 meters (16 and 33ft long) and weighed between 600 and 4,000 kilograms (1,300 and 8,800 lbs). Expected lifespan was between 12 to 20 years, but the maximum life span is still relatively unknown.

Dixon, Dougal. The World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures. London: Lorenz Books/Anness Publishing. 2010. Print.
Palmer, Dr. Douglas, et. al. Prehistoric Life. New York: DK Publishing. 2009. Print.
Paul, Gregory S. Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2010. Print.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Interview with Paleontologist: Dr. Heinrich Mallison

Hello again!  Sorry for the delay.  Speaking for myself there has been a lot of stuff going on with the holidays.  That's over now though so how about we kick off the new year with meeting another great paleontologist?

Dr. Heinrich Mallison is a vertebrate paleontologist and research assistant at the Museum
r Naturkunde- Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.  He mainly works with computer aided design and engineering modeling of dinosaurs.  In other words he studies the range of motion, posture, center of mass positions, and locomotion of dinosaurs with the help of modern technology.  I think we should hear what he has to say though.  On to the biography!

HM: Even as a small child I wanted to study „old stuff“. Archaeology, palaeontology – as long as there was a story to discover I was fascinated. And there had to be something to see, to touch, and not just a machine that goes „bing“ or some old texts to read – although I am an avid reader. Thus, my interests lie with experimental archaeology rather than book-history, palaeontology rather than microbiology or genetics. Additionally, animals and plants fascinate me – shapes and how they change through ontogeny (growth of an individual) and phylogeny (evolution through time). A short while I considered a career in ethology (the study of animal behaviour), but found the treatment of animals by humans too depressing. Thus, it was only logical to study either archaeology, palaeontology, or some aspect of biology.
When it was time for me to decide which subject to study at university, two things came together that decided matters for me: German reunification had triggered a new vogue, the excavation of medieval garbage dumps in the towns of the East, where practically no deep digging during construction had taken place and thus had left the garbage undisturbed. That’s not what I wanted to dig. And my parents sent me on a dinosaur dig, in the hope it would deter me from an unprofitable profession. That plan backfired spectacularly! I love being in the field, even if it meant the summer heat of Montana, I loved crawling around hillsides with my nose centimetres from the ground, looking for tiny fossils, and I even loved the repetitive and taxing task of sorting through screenwashed material to find tiny bones, teeth, eggshell fragments and so on. And I became even more fascinated with dinosaurs than before: our understanding of them had been revolutionised over the previous two decades, but continued to change rapidly. Thus, the remaining choice was between zoology and geology, as both subjects lead to vertebrate palaeontology.
However, my career was not straightforward at all. My diploma thesis dealt with fossil conifer cones, beautifully preserved in barite concretions from the Mainz Basin. Then, I worked on a doctorate project looking at the differences in skeletal proportions of psittacosaurs from China, and on the taphonomy (how did they become fossilized?), a project that fell apart when it became clear that most fossils in China were “improved” or “embellished”, if not outright fakes. Only after this did I turn to biomechanics and sauropodomorph dinosaurs, as a PhD student in the German Science Foundation’s Research Unit 533 ‘Sauropod Biology’. Led by Professor Martin Sander of Bonn University, this interdisciplinary group of researchers set out to investigate why sauropod dinosaurs were so huge – ten times larger than all other terrestrial animals. I have stayed a member of, and later associated with, the research group ever since, even while I am now pursuing only distantly related research subjects.

Question 1: Who did you admire growing up?

HM: Oh my, I have no memory at all! Certainly not any geeky science types, but in fact I was never really a fan of any one specific person. Never had any singer or football player poster up on my wall either.

determining air exchange volume. Top: dorsal vertebrae with axes of rotation of ribs indicated by green cylinders. note change of angle from front to back.

Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

HM: Hm, dunno – 3? 4? I always joke that there are two types of little boys. When they learn to stand and walk, half will point up and yell “Airpane! Airpane!” The other half bends down to pick up a nice pebble…. I just never got around to growing up, I guess.
Seriously, I do remember getting a present from my Dad at the shop of the Stuttgart zoo when I was barely old enough to read. Six years old I’d guess. A book on dinosaurs – no idea why I picked dinosaurs from the assorted books at a zoo shop, but there you go! I must have been tremendously interested back then already.

Question 3: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  What dinosaur is your favorite now?

HM: Brachiosaurus (rather, Giraffatitan as it should now be called), later Deinonychus. Today, I am still mostly a Saurischia fan, simply because most ornithischians are half-mammal in my eyes (no pneumatic foramina, can you believe it?), but any erect-limbed archosaur is fine by me. Oh, and then there is my personal, absolutely favorite guinea pig: Plateosaurus engelhardti von Meyer, 1837 from the Feuerletten of Bavaria and the Knollenmergel of Trossingen and… you get the drift I guess.

Plateosaurus life restoration by Christopher DiPiazza.  It was Dr. Mallison reviewed and approved for accuracy too!  (with a few small tweaks). 

Question 4: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines.  What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

HM: Don’t! At least don’t if you ever want to have a family. The competition for funding and jobs is so fierce and the outlook is so dire that you can never hope to provide a stable income.
If that doesn’t scare you away, the best advice is to make sure you get around. Nothing is as helpful as seeing things with your own eyes, touching them with your own hands.
Also, study geosciences, not biology, but make sure you can attend a shedload of biological courses, preferentially anatomy. Check out engineering, check out chemistry, check out physics! Yeah, physics – don’t get me started on how only 20% of people doing palaeo-biomechanics understand Newton.
Lastly, don’t set your eyes on one group of organisms and ignore everything else. The scarcity of jobs means that you may end up in paleobotany or whatever, and all paleontology is a captivating field. Similarly, don’t narrow the methods you use down to something that can leave you stranded. Broad knowledge and the ability to work in many fields – better, between them! – will be the best qualities you can bring.

Question 5: Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a daunting task.  Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make it to the finish line.  The rewards are great, but what would you say to someone pursuing professional studies after college?
See above!

HM: Do get those stupid letters after (US, UK) or in front of (EU) your name! Many funding agencies make life very, very hard for someone who can’t call her- or himself  “Doctor”.

motion range analysis of the left forelimb.

Question 6: What was or is your favorite research project?  What are some of your current projects?

HM: Favorite – tough question. Doing the range of motion analysis of Plateosaurus, I guess. See my papers in APP and PE (links below). I am currently working on musculoskeletal computer models of sauropod limbs, comparing them to mammals. That’s pretty high up on my scale.

Question 7: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs.  What was your most memorable movie, book or TV program that inspired you with regards to paleontology?

HM: As I mentioned, there was this children’s book on dinosaurs. Aside from that I guess GEO magazine played a big role, as it was on GEO’s pages that I first encountered the Dinosaur Revolution. Jurassic Park was, surprisingly, a no-show for me. I didn’t see it in a theater, I saw it years later on the TV. In fact, my parents owned the last b&w TV in all of Germany, I guess, and it certainly didn’t see much use in the Mallison household. Dinosaurs on TV? Nah……..

SMNS F 33 from Trossingen, excllently preserved articulated skeleton of Plateosaurus. unusually, the anterior body is not rotated to the side, but crushed dorsoventrally.

Question 8: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist.  Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met?  Were you a nervous wreck? 

HM: <draws a total blank> I guess the first time I consciously met a paleontologist was my first lecture on exogene dynamics. Prof. Luterbacher managed to make me fall asleep in about 15 seconds (which, I guess, was his aim; he hated lecturing to first semesters. Today I agree with him).

Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures.  Why do you feel they continue to fascinate us?

HM: I can’t really speak for the vast majority of lay people. For me, they are into dinosaurs for all the wrong reasons. To me, what’s really cool is that dinosaurs paralleled so much of the evolution of mammals – but most of the way they were ahead in time and in performance. An avian lung beats the living hell out of a mammalian one, for example.

Plateosaurus mounts in the Tübingen Institute for Geoscinces. Left is "GPIT skeleton 2", right is GPIT/RE/7288, my guinea pig, both from Trossingen

Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

HM: Next week – the current development in digital methods makes paleontology so much more fun that I can barely wait for next week (this is true every week).

Thank you Dr. Mallison!  Interested in asking him your own question(s)?  Well as a matter of fact you are in great luck!  Dr. Mallison is one of the many friendly scientists ready to answer inquiries from the public on one of my favorite websites, Ask a Biologist or just comment at his blog.