Sunday, September 29, 2013

Triceratops: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

It is the end of September and it is time to finally review my favorite animal of all time!  For Prehistoric Animal of the Week some very popular and well known animals have been reviewed.  I try to more often than not do the lesser known animals and sprinkle the popular ones in every once in a while (like today).  Today, however, it's time to take a look at the mighty Triceratops!

Triceratops horridus by Christopher DiPiazza

Triceratops was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now North America during the late Cretaceous period about 68 to 66 million years ago and could grow to thirty feet long.  There are currently two species of Triceratops known, Triceratops horridus (larger of the two) and Triceratops prorsus (smaller but had a longer nose horn).  It was the largest and most well known member of the Ceratopsid family with many good specimens on the fossil record.  When alive, Triceratops would have coexisted with other well known dinosaurs like Ankylosaurus, Edmontosaurus/Anatotitan, Pachycephalosaurus, Dracorex and of course, Tyrannosaurus rex.  

Triceratops skeletal mount at the National Museum in Washington D.C.  Notice how the front limbs are slightly splayed out.  This is the posture we believe all large ceratopsians had.

The name, Triceratops, translates to "Three Horn Face" which makes sense considering this animal indeed had three horns...on its face; one short one between the nostrils and a long one above each eye.  Triceratops also had a round frill that was made of solid bone.  This is unique to this genus since all other ceratopsians known have holes, or what are known as fenestrae, in their frills to make them lighter.  The exact reason why Triceratops had a solid frill is the subject of some debate.  One such explanation could be for stronger defense against predators.  While the horns and frills of ceratopsians were probably for display purposes, I'm sure they were effective weapons against predators if need be as well.  That being said consider the fact that Triceratops lived alongside Tyrannosaurus.  This may be a result of an evolutionary arms race where the predator and prey keep evolving more advanced weapons and defenses to deal with one another.

In addition to the horns and frill, Triceratops is also known for its curved beak, which it could have used for clipping vegetation.  Beyond the beak, farther into the mouth were batteries of many small teeth perfect for mushing the tough plant material.  

Triceratops specimens baby to adult.

Like I stated above, Triceratops is a well studied animal thanks to a huge amount of fossils that have been found from it over the years.  Amongst these fossils we have massive adults all the way down to a baby with horns no larger than my thumb.  We also have what are believed to be juveniles with upturned brow horns which would grow more forward later in life.

Triceratops with baby by Christopher DiPiazza

Some scientists believe that the animal we call Triceratops was actually only a sub-adult form of a more mature form, which is currently considered a different genus, TorosaurusTorosaurus had a much longer frill that is much thinner than that of Triceratops and possessed two finestrae (holes).  Despite the fact that this hypothesis has been getting a lot of press lately (because Triceratops is such a popular animal) a lot of other paleontologists still don't agree with it.

Triceratops (left) and Torosaurus (right) painting by Christopher DiPiazza

Within the past few years there was even some preserved scaly skin discovered from a Triceratops.  The scales believed to be from the animal's back are all either heptagon, hexagon or pentagon shaped and placed much like mosaic tiles.  They vary in size with larger ones surrounded by smaller ones forming an almost rosette-type pattern.  The larger scales also come up to a shallow point like a Hershey kiss...or a nipple. The scales from the ventral(belly) side of the animal are supposedly rectangular shaped like the belly scales from a crocodile.

Chunk of fossilized Triceratops skin.  Check out those nipple scales.

I suppose we shall stop here.  Hope you enjoyed my birthday as much as I have!  As always you are welcome to comment below or on our facebook page!  Farewell until next time.


Dodson, P.; Forster, C.A.; and Sampson, S.D. (2004) Ceratopsidae. In: Weishampel, D. B.; Dodson, P.; and Osmólska, H. (eds.), The Dinosauria (second edition). University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 494–513. ISBN 0-520-24209-2.

Lehman T.M. (1987). "Late Maastrichtian paleoenvironments and dinosaur biogeography in the Western Interior of North America". Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology and Palaeoecology 60 (3): 290. doi:10.1016/0031-0182(87)90032-0.

Longrich NR, Field DJ (2012) Torosaurus Is Not Triceratops: Ontogeny in Chasmosaurine Ceratopsids as a Case Study in Dinosaur Taxonomy. PLoS ONE 7(2): e32623. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032623

Ostrom, J. H. (1966). "Functional morphology and evolution of the ceratopsian dinosaurs". Evolution 20 (3): 290–308. doi:10.2307/2406631. JSTOR 2406631.

Rega, E.; Holmes, R.; and Tirabasso, A. (2010). "Habitual locomotor behavior inferred from manual pathology in two Late Cretaceous chasmosaurine ceratopsid dinosaurs, Chasmosaurus irvinensis (CMN 41357) and Chasmosaurus belli (ROM 843)". In Ryan, Michael J.; Chinnery-Allgeier, Brenda J.; and Eberth, David A. (editors.). New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs: The Royal Tyrrell Museum Ceratopsian Symposium. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. pp. 340–354. ISBN 978-0-253-35358-0.

Scannella, J.; and Horner, J.R. (2010). "Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30 (4): 1157–1168. doi:10.1080/02724634.2010.483632.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nathan Van Vranken Lecture in Texas!

Howdy folks!  I consider the Jersey Boys team family.  With that being said, my brother Nathan has been very busy, so I wanted to take a moment and announce his lecture coming up.  If you are in the area, be sure to catch his talk.  Highly recommend.


Hello Folks,

I will be giving a talk on my thesis research at the ESRI-STEM science fair at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch located near Dallas, Texas. My lecture will be on Saturday, at 12pm on the weekend of October 19th. My talk will be titled “The Ecology and Life History of The Captain: A New Occurrence of Tylosaurus kansasensis”.

Address to the location will be:
Brookhaven College
3939 Valley View Lane
Building “H”
Farmer’s Branch, Texas

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

All Your Yesterdays: Check out that last page!

Earlier this year a dinosaur book was published called All Yesterdays that to an extent changed the way anyone who read it thought about extinct animals.  In a nutshell it demonstrates how little we still know about ancient life by showing illustrations of non-avian dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals in unique ways that have no evidence supporting them but could still be possible.  I highly recommend just buying the book to truly see what I mean.  Even folks not totally obsessed with paleontology can enjoy reading it.

Shortly after a contest was held by the publishing company asking for art of dinosaurs doing unusual things that haven't been thought of before.  Everyone who submitted art, including myself, thought it was just going to be a simple contest and that the winner would be on the website or something like that.  Well as it turns out so many awesome pieces were submitted to this company that a simple few winners wasn't enough.  The publisher, Irregular Books, had a downloadable ebook made featuring many of the submissions instead.  Even stranger, none of the artists who were chosen had any idea this was happening until the book was actually made public and available for download.  Don't worry, nobody was cheated since all credit was given where due and the book itself is absolutely free to download (unless you want to donate, of course).

Some artists who have been interviewed on Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs were featured including Emily Willoughby and Vladimir Nikolov.  One of my paintings was also featured on the very last page. 

My painting that was included in All Your Yesterdays labelled "Cheeky" Psittacosaurus.

The idea behind my painting is that the skull of a Psittacosaurus is somewhat similar to the structure of a rodent's skull.  It has a tough beak in the front instead of incisors and chewing teeth in the back.  I figured it would be neat to give it big cheeks to store food in like a chipmunk.  Am I saying this is what I wholeheartedly believe Psittacosaurus was like?  Absolutely not.  But that isn't the point of this book.  Its purpose is to get the reader to think "Wow that's a crazy idea but hey, we really don't know all that much about these animals, now do we?". 

Unfortunately this book is only available to download right now because after all, they aren't demanding any money for it.  What you can do, however, is download a copy and have it printed as a paperback at any printing company.  Download your copy here!  Also please donate if you can!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Gryphoceratops: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Guess what?  Still totally my birthday month so here is another dinosaur that is dear to my heart.  Check out Gryphoceratops morrisoniGryphoceratops was a small ceratopsian dinosaur that lived in what is now Canada during the Late Cretaceous about 83 million years ago.  It was only about two feet long from head to tail and would have eaten mostly plants when alive.  The name, Gryphoceratops, translates to "griffin horned face".  A griffin is a mythical creature possessing the head, wings, and front talons of an eagle with the hindquarters of a lion and is common in the art of many ancient cultures.  The griffin creature very well could have been one of the first life reconstructions of a dinosaur since ancient artwork depicting the mythical beast occur around the same areas that are known to harbor smaller ceratopsian fossils, like Protoceratops, in parts of Asia. 

Life restoration of Gryohoceratops by Christopher DiPiazza.

This dinosaur is one of my favorites for three special, inarguable reasons.

1) It's named after my favorite mythical creature.

2) It's a ceratopsian which is my favorite kind of dinosaur

3) It was about the same size as my dog.  

My Yorkie, Zeus, and I.  Yeah, I had a professional photo done of us.  Our combined bad-assery was so incredibly hard core we needed to do something cheesy to restore balance.  You're welcome.

Gryphoceratops is actually only known from a chunk of lower jaw bone which includes some teeth.  Luckily, this chunk gives scientists enough information to deduct that Gryphoceratops was some sort of small ceratopsian and probably was an adult despite its tiny size.  We are not entirely sure what sort of horns or frill it may or may not have had.  

Jaw fragment from Gryphoceratops.  This thing was only a few inches long.

Gryphoceratops is an important find in that it was the smallest ceratopsid found in North America.  Even more interesting is the fact that it was from the Late Cretaceous, when many other much larger ceratopsids were roaming around.  Most small ceratopsians, like Psittacosaurus or Yinlong (both of which were still larger than Gryphoceratops), were from a much earlier time.  This means that Gryphoceratops was exploiting a much different niche from its larger, horned cousins and that getting bigger wasn't the only evolutionary option for members of the ceratopsian group as time went on.  

Statue of a griffin in an ancient Greek style.

That's all for this week!  As always I welcome you to comment below and like our facebook page!  Next weekend is my actual birthday weekend so we shall be visiting my favorite dinosaur of all.  I have actually received many requests to do it for a while now but I purposefully held off on reviewing it until my birthday because I am a selfish jerk.  Can you guess what it is?

Works Cited

Michael J. Ryan, David C. Evans, Philip J. Currie, Caleb M. Brown and Don Brinkman (2012). "New leptoceratopsids from the Upper Cretaceous of Alberta, Canada". Cretaceous Research 35: 69–80. doi:10.1016/j.cretres.2011.11.01

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dinner and Dinosaur Art: Jersey Boys Outing

A few weeks ago Gary, myself and our good friend, and fellow paleo-artist Larry Felder went out with some of our friends for dinner.  The place was known for its lobster and other seafood but most of what I could only notice was the unnatural amount of dead animals stuffed all over the place.


I'm not against hunting as long as its legal.  I'm friends with many hunters.  Many hunters are actually very knowledgeable conservationists.  However, I wouldn't find any enjoyment in hunting, myself.  I think the animals are more impressive when alive (okay turning the hippie switch off now). 

Anyway, Larry has been a friend of ours for a while now and we had a great time swapping paleo-art stories over beers and dinner.  Then he reached into his bag and pulled out a package containing three original oil paintings that he did several years ago for an exhibit in the Boston Museum of Science.  Then he told Gary and I that we could each keep one.

Gary chose Compsognathus.  (typical theropod lover)

I naturally grabbed the Pachycephalosaurus (I'm  sucker for things with thick noggins for some reason).

How cool is that?  Here is the display at the museum where these two paintings were used!

Lucky us!  Thanks again to Larry Felder for being so generous.  We are huge fans of your work!

Group shot from that night.  Man-folk from left to right: Gary Vecchiarelli, Me (Christopher DiPiazza) and Larry Felder.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dracorex: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

My birthday is later this month so until then we will be reviewing my favorite creatures.  Yes, as the author AND illustrator of these things I totally have that power (MWAHAHAHA).  So today we are looking at a member of one of my favorite dinosaur families, the pachycephalosaurids, with quite possibly the coolest name in dinosaur history, Dracorex hogwartsia!

Dracorex's full name translates to "Dragon King from Hogwarts".  Yes, Hogwarts, as in the school of witchcraft and wizardry from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.  This is because its skull, which is adorned with many horns and spikes, resembles that of a mythical dragon's which could have existed in the Harry Potter universe.  Dracorex lived in what is now South Dakota in the United States about 67 to 66 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period.  It was about ten feet long and would have mostly eaten plants when alive.

Dracorex hogwartsia life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza

There is actually quite a bit of paleontologist drama surrounding this little dinosaur.  Not long after it was discovered and described, a few paleontologists decided that Dracorex was in fact not deserving of being a species of dinosaur.  They didn't deny it existed, of course.  They believe that Dracorex was actually a juvenile of another already discovered dinosaur, Pachycephalosaurus, which would have co-existed with it.  Comparing the two animals in question, you will notice that Pachycephalosaurus has an extremely thick dome-shaped helmet for a skull surrounded by small horns while Dracorex has a flat head covered in proportionally longer horns.  The idea is that as the Dracorex(or juvenile Pachycephalosaurus?) got older, its skull drastically changed shape to eventually become a thick dome for fighting rival adults.  This theory doesn't sound impossible (nature is freaking weird) but there is far from enough real evidence to prove it officially.  Also, dramatic change in skull shape like horns being absorbed into the skull to form a dome is unheard of in large vertebrates.  Most of the time when dramatic changes take place during an animal's development it happens with soft tissue bits, not bone.

Dracorex skeletal mount.

Some folks who argue that Dracorex and Pachycephalosaurus were the same species because they think that two pachycephalosaurids in the same environment would fill the same niche and therefore couldn't coexist unless they were the same.  Coming from the field of modern animal study, this is a completely weak argument, in my opinion.  One must only look at literally any ecosystem today to see that many related animals, sometimes within the same genus, co-exist.  The difference between two niches doesn't need to be something as drastic as skull shape.  It can be something as simple as a difference in mating season, odor, vocalizations or color (none of which can be preserved in the fossils we have).  I'm not saying this hypothesis is definitely false.  I'm saying we need more evidence to be sure, especially when dealing with just a few fossils from animals nobody has ever seen alive.

Regardless of what side you take, one must admit that Dracorex is a cool-looking dinosaur with a very cool name!

As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!  Also don't hesitate to request a prehistoric animal you would like to see me review and paint.  Just know that unless it's what I already have planned for the next two weeks (because it's my birthday month woot!) I won't review it least two Sundays from now.


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. 

Sanders, Robert (30 October 2009). "New analyses of dinosaur growth may wipe out one-third of species". University of California at Berkeley. Retrieved 25 March 2010.

Erik Stokstad,"SOCIETY OF VERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGY MEETING: Did Horny Young Dinosaurs Cause Illusion of Separate Species?", Science Vol. 18, 23 Nov. 2007, p. 1236;^ a b Horner J.R. and Goodwin, M.B. (2009). "Extreme cranial ontogeny in the Upper Cretaceous Dinosaur Pachycephalosaurus." PLoS ONE, 4(10): e7626.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Teratophoneus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Not long ago in 2011 the discovery of a new kind of tyrannosaurid was made public.  Check out Teratophoneus currieiTeratophoneus translates to "Monstrous Murderer".  The name is a bit intense don't you think?  I mean sure, being a meat-eater and all, this dinosaur no doubt killed some stuff in its day but probably no more than a lot of other predators right?  Teratophoneus lived in what is now Utah, USA, about 75 million years ago and measured twenty feet long from snout to tail.

Teratophoneus curriei life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza

Teratophoneus belongs to the same family that also includes the most famous dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus rex.  These tyrannosaurids, as we call them, are characterized by having relatively short arms and two fingers on each hand.  Their skulls also tend to have longer, more curved teeth than what one would see in other meat-eating dinosaurs.  Tyrannosaurids flourished all across the northern hemisphere during the late cretaceous period at the very end of what we consider the "Age of the Dinosaurs".  In fact, there were very few other kinds of large, meat-eating dinosaurs that ever coexisted with the tyrannosaurids that anyone knows of.  (Dryptosaurus could technically be considered an example of one of these few being just a tyrannosaurOID and not a tyrannosaurID.  Just missed the cut-off but still VERY closely related to the family...not really a strong exception in my book.)

Cast of Teratophoneus' skull from Big Bend National Park.

Teratophoneus is an important find because it was one of the first tyrannosaurids to be discovered in the South-western United States.  Physically, Teratophoneus has a few unique characteristics even within the tyrannosaurid family.  Most prominent was its snout, which was shorter and deeper than those of its relatives like Tyrannosaurus or Tarbosaurus.  It also had proportionally long legs.  There is a strong chance that the specimen of Teratophoneus that was found was a juvenile which would explain the leggy proportions, however.  We know, thanks to a wide fossil record of other, better studied, tyrannosaurids that these kinds of dinosaurs were lankier and probably faster as juveniles and would later bulk up upon reaching adulthood. 

That's all for this week!  As always I welcome you to leave a comment below or on our facebook page!


Thomas D. Carr, Thomas E. Williamson, Brooks B. Britt and Ken Stadtman (2011). "Evidence for high taxonomic and morphologic tyrannosauroid diversity in the Late Cretaceous (Late Campanian) of the American Southwest and a new short-skulled tyrannosaurid from the Kaiparowits formation of Utah". Naturwissenschaften 98 (3): 241–246. doi:10.1007/s00114-011-0762-7. PMID 21253683.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Argentavis: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

It is International Vulture Awareness Day this week!  In honor of this I shall be going over a prehistoric vulture (probably) of epic proportions!  Check out Argentavis magnificensArgentavis was the largest flying bird of all time.  It is only known from fragmentary remains including part of the beak and the wing but the humerus (upper arm bone) alone from the wing is almost the length of an entire adult human arm!  It lived during the Miocene era about 6 million years ago in what is now South America and its name translates to "Magnificent Argentina Bird".

Argentavis life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

To put into perspective how massive this bird really was lets look at the largest flying birds of today.  There is the Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exolans) with a wingspan of twelve feet but this is mostly wings.  The bird itself isn't really that large.  Then there is the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) which is quite large with a wingspan of about ten feet and a body length of about four feet from beak to tail.  There are two of these guys at the zoo I work at and they are quite intimidating when being viewed up close.  It looks like a child wearing a scary bird costume... but it's a real bird.  Argentavis would have dwarfed both of these birds.  Judging by the arm bones found, Argentavis is estimated to have had a wingspan of over twenty feet and its body would have been the size of a man's at about six feet tall!  That is a HUGE bird.

Andean Condor

Judging by the parts of the skull found it is believed by many that Argentavis was some sort of a vulture but it is possible it could have been something more similar to a huge eagle as well.  Then again there are some birds today that sort of blur those lines anyway like the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) or Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus).  They both have "vulture" in their names but they are somewhat genetically separated from the the birds that we typically consider "vultures", hovering (or should I say soaring?  BAM) somewhere between vulture and eagle/hawk on the family tree.

Argenativis skeleton mount reconstruction.

So how did a bird this big fly?  Its wings must have been vast enough to make the wing to weight ratio steep enough combined with special adaptations that all flying birds possess like air sacs, hollow bones and rigid feathers (the first two not originally intended for flight we know thanks to their presence in non-avian dinosaurs).  Also keep in mind that Argentavis was only the largest flying bird of all time.  Some pterosaurs had wingspans about the same as small airplanes and were the size of giraffes when standing on the ground!

It is likely that Argentavis would have done very little flapping with its wings while in the air.  Just take a look at the largest flying birds today and you will find that all of them soar and glide, relying on thermals to gain altitude.  The bigger a bird's wings are, the more work it is to flap them.  This being said it is also difficult for a large flying bird to take off.  This is why many of them, like condors, prefer to perch and nest on the sides of cliffs and canyons so all they need to do in order to get airborne is jump off!  Taking off from flat ground can be a daunting task that requires a lot of running space to finally get in the air (think how long it takes for an airplane to get in the air from the runway).  Now imagine a bird the size of Argentavis trying to get off the ground!  It must have been quite a site!

Thats all for this week!  Go to your local zoos and check out some of the modern vultures for yourself!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!  


Campbell, Kenneth E. Jr. & Tonni, E.P. (1983). "Size and locomotion in teratorns". Auk 100 (2): 390–403.

Chatterjee, S.; Templin, R. J.; Campbell, K. E. (2007-07-24). "The aerodynamics of Argentavis, the world's largest flying bird from the Miocene of Argentina". PNAS 104 (30): 12398–12403. doi:10.1073/pnas.0702040104. PMC 1906724. PMID 17609382