Sunday, March 31, 2013

Come see us for Dinosaur Day at Rutgers Geology Museum on April 3rd!


Take a step back in time and come with us to discover the different types of dinosaurs that inhabited the Earth during the Mesozoic.  Both Jersey Boys Gary and Chris will be there! You should be there too! There will be a few more events similar to this at other Museums in the NJ area in the upcoming months.  Please click HERE and join the event page on facebook!  

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Oviraptor: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

In honor of Easter Sunday I chose to review a dinosaur that has an interesting association with eggs.  Oviraptor is a bird like dinosaur that lived in what is now Mongolia during the Late Cretaceous Period, about 80 million years ago.  It measures a little under five feet long from head to tail.  It was the first discovered member of its family, Oviraptoridae, characterized by having a short, powerful beak similar in a way to modern day parrots (also dinosaurs but not direct descendants of Oviraptorids).  Although there are no teeth in Oviraptor's beak, it and its relatives have small protruding points growing down from the roofs of their mouths.  This, combined with powerful jaw muscles, may have been a useful feeding tool for cracking...something

Oviraptor philoceratops life restoration by Christopher DiPiazza

Oviraptor's diet is somewhat of a mystery.  We know for sure that it at least ate lizards because the bones of one was found in an Oviraptor skeleton's stomach cavity.  It is likely that Oviraptor was eating something else, as well with such a specialized mouth, however.  Maybe it was using its powerful beak like parrots do to crack open nuts and seeds?  Perhaps it could crack open shellfish like clams and muscles?  Or maybe it used its beak to crack open eggs from other dinosaurs? 

Illustration of the first discovered Oviraptor philoceratops skull.  It was badly crushed before being discovered and may have had a larger crest starting at the nose. 

The first Oviraptor bones were discovered in the 1920s nearby a nest of dinosaur eggs.  At the time, the paleontologists were discovering a whole lot of bones from another dinosaur called Protoceratops (a small ceratopsid featured in my sex post back in February) in the same area and assumed the eggs belonged to it and the Oviraptor was stealing them.  Oviraptor was then given its full name, Oviraptor philoceratops, which means "Egg Thief that Loves Cratopsids".  To make the story even more interesting, the Oviraptor's skull had been found crushed.  The scientists imagined that it had been done by the jaws of a parent Protoceratops protecting its nest. 

For decades after that Oviraptor was portrayed as an egg stealer.  Then in the 1990s, a team of paleontologists discovered another nest of eggs almost identical to those presumed to be from Protoceratops back in the 1920s.  This nest had the bones of a kind of Oviraptorid(named Citipati) literally laying on top of it.  Inside the eggs the paleontologists found the bones from unborn babies of this same dinosaur.  Because of this discovery, scientists realized that they were likely wrong about Oviraptor as well.  It wasn't stealing eggs from other dinosaurs.  It was protecting its own! 

That's it for this week!  As always feel free to request a dinosaur or other prehistoric animal on our facebook page or in the comments below and I will definitely review it in an upcoming week!  

References

Osborn, H.F. (1924). "Three new Theropoda, Protoceratops zone, central Mongolia." American Museum Novitates, 144: 12 pp., 8 figs.; (American Museum of Natural History) New York. (11.7.1924).

 Dong and Currie, P. (1996). "On the discovery of an oviraptorid skeleton on a nest of eggs at Bayan Mandahu, Inner Mongolia, People's Republic of China." Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 33: 631-636.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dinosaur Nesting Site in Spain: A Family Tradition

Just in time for Easter, a recent discovery in Spain yields hundreds of dinosaur eggs!  The site, called Coll de Nargo, has revealed dinosaur fossils in the past.  What makes this discovery truly interesting is the fact that the eggs found here belong not to just one, but at least four different species of dinosaur!  It is difficult to determine exactly which species of dinosaur produced these eggs since no bones were found with them.  Because of this, much like with dinosaur tracks, names are assigned to the eggs.  The ones from this discovery have been named Megaloolithus siruguei, Cairanoolithus roussetensis, Megaloolithus aureliensis, and Megaloolithus baghensis.  Judging by the shape of the eggs, they were likely from sauropods, which were the giant, plant-eating, long necked dinosaurs. 

Don't worry, Mr. Easter Bunny!  Its a plant eater and won't shouldn't hurt you. 

Another interesting thing about this site is that not all the eggs are from the same time period.  That means that scientists can actually figure out how old the layers of rock they were found in according how far apart the fossils are from each other.  They estimate the range of time of these eggs to span between 71 and 67 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous.  What I find especially interesting is that not only were different species of dinosaur co-existing close to one another to share nesting space but they were using the same place to lay eggs for millions of years!  Talk about being passed down from generation to generation! 

Photograph of eggs from the Coll de Nargo site.  Sauropod eggs are identifiable by their almost perfectly round shape.  The largest dinosaur egg ever discovered is about the size of a volley ball, relatively small considering the size of the animal it would eventually become!

I'm not done milking this whole Easter time yet, by the way.  This Sunday is Easter Sunday and you better believe I will have an EGGcellent prehistoric animal of the week.  See you then!

References

"Four Dinosaur Egg Species Identified in Lleida, Spain." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 Mar. 2013. Web.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Liliensternus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Liliensternus liliensterni was a meat eating dinosaur that lived during the late Triassic Period, about 205 million years ago, in what is now Germany.  It was the largest predatory dinosaur of its time, measuring almost twenty feet long from nose to tail.  Liliensternus would have shared its habitat with and may have even preyed upon the bulky plant eating dinosaur, Plateosaurus.

Liliensternus liliensterni life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.
  
Liliensternus is known from only two individual skeletons, both of which are fragmentary, but it can be determined that it is closely related to the much better known Coelophysis and Dilophosaurus.  Even though only parts of Liliensternus' skull have actually been unearthed, it is often depicted in paleo-art as having crests.  These crests, however, are just speculation and are inspired by actual crests present on the skulls of other related dinosaurs like Dilophosaurus.  It was a lightly built animal and most of its length is thanks to its neck and tail.

Skeletal mount of Liliensternus at the Museum of Natural Science in Stuttgart, Germany.  A lot of these bones were made based on guesswork. 

Liliensternus is one of the dinosaurs featured in the live play, Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience, based on the hit 1999 BBC series, Walking With Dinosaurs.  It never actually was featured in the original television show, however.

Liliensternus costume featured in the Walking With Dinosaurs live show. 

This week's dinosaur was reviewed thanks to request again!  Like always feel free to request another ancient creature in the comments below or on our facebook page!

References

Ezcurra, M.D, and Cuny, G. (2007). "The coelophysoid Lophostropheus airelensis, gen. nov.: a review of the systematics of "Liliensternus" airelensis from the Triassic-Jurassic boundary outcrops of Normandy (France)." Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 27(1): 73-86.

F. v. Huene, 1934, "Ein neuer Coelurosaurier in der th├╝ringischen Trias", Pal├Ąontologische Zeitschrift 16(3/4): 145-170

Thursday, March 21, 2013

No Feathers for Jurassic Park 4: Extant Birds Take Offense

So today I found out that the director of the up and coming Jurassic Park 4 movie, Colin Trevorrow, has opted for no feathers on any dinosaurs, including Velociraptor.  Then all the paleontology fanboys and girls freaked the heck out.  I read comments online like "Velociraptor is supposed to have feathers he is going against science!" amongst other variations of that message.  Of course I agree.  At this point its totally wrong to portray Velociraptor, as well as many other dinosaurs including even Tyrannosaurus, without feathers.  Its just as wrong as portraying a saber-tooth cat without fur, honestly.  That being said I'm still not surprised that the movie monster Velociraptors will be featherless.

My painting of resting Velociraptors.  Lots of people don't recognize them because they're feathered and aren't attacking anything at that moment in time.

Jurassic Park is a science fiction movie, not an educational documentary.  True, many things about the dinosaurs in this franchise are great but there is also all sorts of wrong going on there too and the movie makers simply don't care.  They cover their butts by saying the Jurassic Park dinosaurs are genetically altered clones spliced with modern animal DNA and therefore they can vary from what science tells us yada-yada sure nice save I get it.  I have accepted this and I'm over it.  When I see a Jurassic Park film I'm not going with the mindset that I will be educated though.  Heck, the programs that are supposed to be educational on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet are often wrong too! The reason for this could be because since nobody has ever witnessed an extinct dinosaur, there is more freedom for mistakes when reconstructing them. 

What bothers me is that the rest of the public who may not have a clue about the real dinosaurs will go on thinking dinosaurs looked or behaved a certain way when facts show that they didn't.  The first Jurassic Park movie was released twenty years ago in 1993.  In it a dinosaur called Dilophosaurus was depicted as having a retractable frill and the ability to spit venom (it could spit venom in the book too which came out first by famous scifi author Michael Crichton).  TO THIS DAY...20 YEARS LATER...many people still think Dilophosaurus could spit venom and had a frill when there is no scientific evidence of it.  Those things were made up for the sake of the story.  Now this brings us to my real problem set in motion by Colin Trevorrow's decision.  I did some internet snooping and read some comments posted by folks after hearing the news.  Some things I read were...

"Thank God too, because can you imagine what T-Rex would look like all covered in plumage and feathers?"

Yes it would probably look like a real T. rex.  Ouch!  Right in the nostalgia!

"I dont do feathered dinosaurs"

Cool story, bro.  They had feathers regardless.  I can see you don't do apostrophes either!

"Who gave that idea anyway??? Feathery dino isn't scary"

The fact that Velociraptor shows direct evidence of having feathers gave that "idea" actually.  This comment ticks me off the most.  Something can't be scary or powerful if it has feathers?  Excuse me a second.....

Haliaeetus leucocephalus  United States of America's national symbol.  Revered for its power and majesty.  Fun Fact: It's covered in feathers.


*ring ring*

Bald Eagle: Hello?

CD: Hey, is this Bald Eagle?

BE: Yes it is.  Speaking?

CD: Hey Bald Eagle, its Christopher DiPiazza.  You got a minute?  I have some upsetting news.

BE: Oh hi Chris!  Great to hear from you!  What seems to be the problem?

CD: Well despite the fact that you are the animal that was chosen to represent the United States of America because of your power and majesty, some people think that any animal with feathers is automatically frail and wimpy.

BE: Oh no not this again.  Let me guess, these same people also don't accept that extinct dinosaurs are my close relatives let alone the fact that many of them had feathers too?

CD: Bingo.  Jurassic Park 4 stuff.

BE: *Sigh*  If I had actual palms one of them would definitely be on my face right now.  Let me spread the bir-er I mean word.  Thanks for the heads up.

Bufo bufo  Talons as long as my fingers but totally not scary at all.  Look at those silly feathers!

*ring ring*

Eurasian Eagle Owl: ughhh...hello?

BE: Hey Eagle Owl.  Its Bald Eagle.  Sorry to bother you at this hour of the day.

EEO: Oh hello Bald Eagle.  It's fine I suppose.  I was actually just about to get up anyway.  There is a family of skunks that just moved into the forest and I would like to eat some of them tonight.

BE:  Skunks?  Won't they spray you?

EEO:  They can try!  I have no sense of smell though.  Also the feathers around my face protect me from the spray itself which irritates the skin on other predators.  I am, after all, the biggest and most powerful owl in the world!

BE:  Ah yes I see...well funny you bring up your feathers, actually.  You see, in response to a decision made regarding the new Jurassic Park movie coming out, some science fiction fanboys on the internet seem to think that dinosaurs-

EEO: You mean other dinosaurs?  We are dinosaurs too don't forget!

BE: Of course of course please don't interrupt me again though I don't like it.  I am the symbol for America after all.  Show some respect!

EEO:  I'm European.  I don't really care.

BE: I'm going to pretend you didn't disrespect me for a second time and continue with my news.  Some science fiction fanboys seem to think that dinosaurs with feathers aren't scary.

EEO: O'rly?

BE: Ya'rly

EEO: Okay.  Let me go.  I'm going to make a call.

Aquila chrysaetos  I would so not be scared by that plumage-covered creature swooping down at me like that.

*ring ring*

Golden Eagle:  Hello?

EEO:  Hello, Golden Eagle, this is Eagle Owl.  How are things?

GE:  Oh hello Eagle Owl!  Good to hear from you.  Things are great!  I just got back from hunting some wolves!   

EEO: Impressive, my friend!  Good to know you are well!  Unfortunately there are a few people on the internet who think that if an animal has feathers it is automatically wimpy.

GE: That's impossible.  I have feathers.

EEO: As do I!  That's the problem.   

GE:  Don't these people know that I kill large prey many times my own size and I have even been known to attack humans?

EEO: Apparently not.  I was just as surprised when I first found out.  It all has to do with the whole feathered Velociraptor concept that was shot down for this new Jurassic Park movie. 

GE: Hmmmm.  Velociraptor eh?  We need some flightless bird help then.  Don't worry.  I know a guy. 

Casuarius casuarius  I don't see any relation to extinct theropod dinosaurs at all!
 *ring ring*

Cassowary: Yello?

GE:  Hey Cassowary, its Golden Eagle.  We have a problem.

C: Can the problem be fixed by slashing through metal car doors while relentlessly attacking people?  Because I can totally do that, you know.

GE: Somewhat.  People on the internet seem to think that dinosaurs like Velociraptor wouldn't be as scary or dangerous-looking with feathers.

C: But...I have feathers.

GE:  I know.

C: ...I look very similar to Velociraptor.  The family resemblance is striking.  A person would have to be an idiot not to realize the connection!

GE:  I know!

C:  ....Did I mention I can wreck a car door with my toenail?

GE:  Yes. Yes you did.

C:  MY TOENAIL.  I SLASHED THROUGH A METAL DOOR WITH MY TOENAIL.  WHAT DO THEY THINK?  ANYTHING WITH FEATHERS IS AUTOMATICALLY A FLUFFY CHICKEN?

Jungle Fowl: Hey, I take offense to that!

GE: Jungle Fowl?  I don't remember inviting you!

JF:  I tapped into the line.  I heard the whole story.  I want in.  I'm a pro at terrorizing people!

C: Don't people eat you?

JF: Only if they get lucky.  I want in!  

Well that certainly ruffled some feathers (HAHA)!  Lets hope those birds don't actually find these poor ignorant people!  Do I think the director made a poor choice in excluding feathers?  Yes, but like I said before, the fact that Jurassic Park 4 isn't going to be up to date scientifically accurate shouldn't be a shock for anyone.

A meme I finally got around to making. 


NOTE: There is no scientific evidence that any of the species of bird included above can operate a telephone.  This is just speculation by the author to comically bring across a point. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Living Fossil: A Tortoise That Cares

Lets face it, there is something just likeable about turtles and tortoises. (called testudines)  People who are generally afraid of other reptiles are totally fine with them.  Maybe it's their roles in fairy tales as the underdog or the old, wise ones?  Maybe it's their later portrayal as ninja-trained, pizza-eating superheroes or the popular water-type starter pokemon?  I'm not sure but it seems to me that everyone has a soft spot for turtles.  I'm totally okay with that.  There needs to be a universally likeable reptile ambassador (poor snakes!).  Today's living fossil is a tortoise that I have had the pleasure of working with at my job and thus, have gotten to know pretty well over the years, the Burmese Mountain Tortoise (Manoria emys)!

Manoria emys

First of all I would like to explain the difference between what is considered a tortoise and a turtle because the two are different.  Tortoises, like the Burmese Mountain, do not swim, have stubby feet with tough nails for walking and digging and eat plants.  Turtles generally spend at least some of their time in the water, have webbed feet or flippers and most species will eat other animals in some form.  There are some exceptions- Green Sea Turtles eat plants BUT they also swim, Box Turtles spend most of their time on land BUT they also eat meat so they are both still true turtles.   Got it?  Okay now are you ready to get confused?  If you live in Australia, a continent with no tortoises(land-living, plant-eaters), the term "tortoise" is used to refer to what we call turtles that live in fresh water and the term "turtle" is used to refer to sea turtles in salt water.  I might have to make a chart for that... If you want to get more specific, you can refer to a turtle that only lives in fresh or brackish water as a terrapin.  

Now that I have gotten that out of the way I can get to the part that explains why I consider the Burmese Mountain Tortoise a living fossil.  The first turtles appear on the fossil record during the Triassic Period about 250 Million years ago (roughly the same time as the first dinosaurs).  They were designed to live in the water much like sea turtles and freshwater turtles today.  These guys must have really relied on the water especially for food because somewhere along the line in evolution, they lost the ability to literally eat outside of the water.  Many aquatic turtles rely on creating an underwater vacuum by quickly opening their beaks to capture prey.  Fish eat in the same fashion.  Other aquatic reptiles like crocodilians, however, don't do this and must consume their food with their heads above or out of the water.



So we know the first testudine was a swimmer.  Land tortoises must have evolved from them some time later.  In order for this to happen they needed to re-evolve the ability to eat on land.  Dang, evolution, why you gotta make everything so tedious!  Burmese Mountain Tortoises show evidence by the physiology of their mouths of evolving from underwater ancestors.  As a personal observation, I also notice that Burmese Mountain Tortoises have a relatively lower shell compared to most other land tortoises which have very high shells (there are some exceptions in the case of some specially adapted tortoises, however).  Lower shells is a trait seen in water turtles that helps their bodies cut drag in the water while swimming.  Is the low shell on the Burmese Mountain Tortoise a derived trait from that?  I'm not exactly sure but it is something that my colleagues and I have noticed. 

Spur-Thigh Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata).  Note the much higher shell which typical of most tortoises. 

Burmese Mountain Tortoises also behave differently from all other testudines in that they build an above-ground nest for their eggs which they guard.  Every other known testudine parent just buries its eggs in a hole and then ditches them to fend for themselves.  All sources on Burmese Mountain Tortoises that I have seen only mention the mother building and guarding the nest but I have personally witnessed the father helping as well.  This may not be the case in the wild, however.

Check out this movie of this totally awesome, smart and handsome guy talking about Manoria emys!



Burmese Mountain Tortoises are highly endangered in the wild in the rainforests of Asia due to habitat loss and over-hunting for meat.  Unfortunately this is the case for a LOT of amazing animals out there.

References

Boulenger, G.A.(1890) Fauna of British India. Reptilia and Batrachia.

Heiss, Egon, Nikolay Natchev, Thomas Schwaha, Dietmar Salaberger, Patrick Lemell, Christian Beisser, and Josef Weisgram. "Oropharyngeal Morphology in the Basal Tortoise Manouria Emys Emys with Comments on Form and Function of the Testudinid Tongue." Journal of Morphology 272.10 (2011): 1217-229. Print.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Megaloceros: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Today, in honor of Saint Patrick's Day, we shall be getting familiar with a prehistoric mammal that once called Ireland home.  Megaloceros giganteus, or as its commonly referred to, the "Irish Elk", was the largest deer to ever walk the earth, measuring almost seven feet tall at the shoulder and having antlers measuring twelve feet wide.  They lived not only in Ireland but across most of Europe and Asia during the Pleistocene era alongside mammoths and early humans.  The youngest known Megaloceros specimen is 7,700 years old.  Despite its common name, Megaloceros is more more closely related to modern deer than to elk.

Life reconstruction of Megaloceros giganteus by Christopher DiPiazza.

There is much debate surrounding why the Irish Elk's antlers were so large.  The most likely answer is probably sex (Honestly, when has sex ever not complicated things?).  Like most species of animals with antlers, it is likely that only male Megaloceros had them  (Only exception is the modern Reindeer where both males and females have them).  Sexual selection probably pressured the males to evolve more impressive antlers over time to attract the females and intimidate rival males.

Megaloceros skeleton at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, Ireland.

Some scientists proposed that the huge antlers may have been the animal's ultimate demise as well.  This was proposed for a few reasons.  The first is that the antlers were believed to be too wide and thus, towards the end of the ice age when there were more trees and foliage growing, made it difficult for male Megaloceros to maneuver in their environments.  Another hypothesis is that the antlers became too expensive to maintain.  Allow me to explain.  Antlers, unlike horns which are part of an animal's skull, are shed off and regrown every year.  In order to grow such large structures within a period of just a few months, the animal must consume more nutrient-rich food.  Modern deer have even been observed and documented killing and eating other animals (yup, predatory deer) to supplement their diets during this rapid growth stage.  Don't believe me?  Check out this video.  Also notice that the deer is in the process of growing a new set of antlers.



So imagine how much nutrient rich food, plant or animal, Megaloceros must have needed to get in order to maintain itself during this time.  Now imagine the dilemma it must have faced when its environment, including its food sources, suddenly changed at the end of the ice age.  Uh oh!  The bigger they are the harder they fall.  The last hypothesis about their extinction is common for most large animals that lived during the end of the Pleistocene; over hunting by humans.  We know that our ancestors must have hunted them sometimes thanks to Megaloceros appearing in cave paintings but there is really no solid evidence that humans were the cause of their extinction.  In fact, nobody still knows for a fact why Megaloceros went extinct.  It may have been none of these theories or it may have been a combination of more than one of them.

Cave painting of Megaloceros.  Must have been by one of Tim Burton's early ancestors. 

Thats all for this week!  Happy Saint Patrick's Day!  As always if you have a request just comment below or on our facebook page!

References

Gould, Stephen J. (1974): Origin and Function of 'Bizarre' Structures - Antler Size and Skull Size in 'Irish Elk', Megaloceros giganteus. Evolution 28(2): 191-220. doi:10.2307/2407322 (First page text)

 Moen, R.A.; Pastor, J. & Cohen, Y. (1999): Antler growth and extinction of Irish Elk. Evolutionary Ecology Research 1: 235–249. HTML abstract

Stuart, A.J.; Kosintsev, P.A.; Higham, T.F.G. & Lister, A.M. (2004): Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth. Nature 431(7009): 684-689. PMID 15470427 doi:10.1038/nature02890 PDF fulltext Supplementary information. Erratum in Nature 434(7031): 413, doi:10.1038/nature03413

 "Scottish Deer Are Culprits in Bird Killings." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Interview with Artist: Emily Willoughby

Emily is a professional illustrator who specializes in dinosaurs (both living and extinct) and loves anything and everything with feathers. Her work has appeared in a variety of places both online and off, including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Chicago Field Museum, Scholastic, Highlights for Children Magazine, the Scientific American network, and the National Geographic society. 
Though an illustrator by trade, she has a bachelor's degree in biology and intends to eventually pursue a master's in ornithology. In addition to illustration, she is involved in wildlife rehabilitation and has also interned for the New Jersey Audubon Society. Most recently she has been involved in an anti-creationism book project with her partner Jonathan Kane, which is nearly ready for publication. She currently lives in Belle Mead, NJ.
A trip to the Alberta badlands and Royal Tyrrell Museum in 2006 was a formative inspiration for Emily's current interest in paleontology.

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

EW: I've been interested in dinosaurs for as long as I can remember, with earliest dinosaur memories coming by the way of Dinotopia and myriad other children's books. I enjoyed drawing them as roaring monsters as much as any other dinosaur-obsessed kid, but it wasn't until the feathered discoveries of the late '90s and early '00s that the passion was rekindled in earnest.
The full color profile of Achiornis huxleyi had just been described when this painting was finished, and had to be partially redone. Oil on canvas, 2010.

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

EW: I consider myself able to work in a wide variety of media, but have begun to prefer digital art programs and a Wacom tablet more and more. There are many reasons: less mess, increased portability, less expense, and all of the typical digital tools that just generally make things easier (you know, the ability to save, undo, use layers, etc). I still enjoy painting traditionally from time to time, and prefer oil paints when I do.
Eosinopteryx, the newly-described basal troodontid, perches curiously on a stump. Photoshop CS4, 2013.

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

EW: Growing up, James Gurney was probably my first exposure to how beautiful dinosaur art could be. As I got older I came across artists like Luis Rey, Greg Paul, and Douglas Henderson, who inspired me with the colorful personality, scientific rigor, and atmospheric nuance - respectively - of their dinosaur art. Nowadays, inspirations are almost too many to name, what with the internet and the wealth of young talent that's out there. A few paleoartists I definitely look up to today include John Conway, Julius Csotonyi, Jason Brougham, and Scott Hartman. But that is hardly a fully-inclusive list!
The dino-bird Jeholornis has been found with plant matter gut contents, and may have eaten cycad berries. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

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

EW: I'm not sure if I ever made the conscious decision to! It just sort of happened, mostly as a result of pushing myself mercilessly to improve and endlessly practicing. The better I got, the more interest and offers my work generated in the professional world, so it was a kind of positive-feedback cycle. I have my partner Jonathan to thank for that in large part, as he has been a huge motivator for improvement and in chasing after opportunities.
Microraptorine and sinornithosaurine dromaeosaurs may have competed for similar food sources in the Jehol biota of early Cretaceous China. Photoshop CS4, 2011.

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?

EW: Oh man… that's a tough one. The cynic in me wants to say "don't make it your day job", because it's true that making a career out of illustration (especially freelance) can be incredibly difficult, taxing, and sometimes impossible. But for someone who's not making it their sole source of income, my advice is to practice endlessly and constantly push yourself to improve. A lot of people will say that diversification is the key to becoming a successful illustrator, but I'll play devil's advocate and say the opposite: finding a "niche" that isn't overpopulated and working to become a key player in that niche can be a viable key to success.
Deinonychus restrains its prey, a miscellaneous psittacosaurid, in the manner described in Fowler 2011. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

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

EW: My favorite dinosaur has been Deinonychus for as long as I remember! Though the version of it I loved growing up and the version today are vastly different, haha.
Despite being represented by not one but two sleeping fossils, the troodontid Mei long surely wasn't sleeping at every hour. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

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?

EW: I'd have to say those two are the biggest ones I can think of, too. Neither movie did a very good job depicting dinosaurs as realistic, natural animals ('90s accuracy notwithstanding) but each of them are pretty important in the cultural perception of dinosaurs. To be honest, though, I've never been all that interested in dinosaur movies in general. The way the media portrays dinosaurs - and the way our culture seems to prefer them - has very little relation to my scientific and artistic interest in paleontology.
Microraptor gui launches from a rock, taking advantage of its four wings. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

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?

EW: I can't speak for everyone else, but the fascination to me comes from the excitement of uncovering more and more about the lives and appearance of these animals as science marches on. Paleontology as a science is like the greatest detective story ever written: each new piece of data allows us to make new inferences and draw new conclusions about these animals, the way they looked and behaved and their relationships to one another and the environment they lived in. And as paleoillustrators, it's our unique job to use this information to reconstruct the most accurate and most interesting depictions of them. In my opinion there's no field in existence to which art is more important than paleontology, and that will always keep me engaged in it.
The purported baby megalosauroid Sciurumimus perches on a rock near the sea. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

Question 9: What is your favorite time period?

EW: I'm sure this is a fairly common sentiment, but I'd have to say that the early Cretaceous holds my greatest interest, mostly for the incredible diversification of feathered dinosaurs that was going on during that time. The unique preservation conditions in the Liaoning region of China make for a much greater sampling of this evolutionary experimentation than could be expected from the fossil record, and seeing the new fossils continuously coming out of that region never gets old for me.
Utahraptor, one of the largest known dromaeosaurids, may have sometimes combed the beach for snacks. Photoshop CS4, 2013.
Question 10: Do you have any other hobbies or interests (paleo or non paleo related)?

EW: The line between professional work and hobby has often been a bit blurry for me, especially regarding illustration, birding and photography. Birding (and bird photography) is probably my biggest hobby outside of illustration and paleontology. Working with the NJ Audubon Society taught me to regard birding in a more scientific manner - such as learning how to do point counts and so on - and a lot of these skills have transferred over into my everyday birding experiences. I also enjoy hiking, camping, and being outside in general, but I'm also fairly into video games, science fiction literature, and occasionally writing.

That's all for this Thursday!  If you are interested in seeing more of Emily's work simply click here.  Join me next Thursday where I think we may be meeting another living fossil!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Liopleurodon: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Liopleurodon was a predatory marine reptile that swam in the oceans that once covered Europe during the Jurassic Period 155 million years ago.

Liopleurodon ferox life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

This prehistoric sea monster became popular by the hit BBC series "Walking with Dinosaurs" in which Liopleurodon played the roll of a total badass, killing and eating pretty much every other animal it coexisted with during the course of just one episode.  In the show it was portrayed as being over 80 feet long when in reality Liopleurodon actually only measured a little over 22 feet. (Much smaller, yes, but still not an animal I would want to meet while swimming!)  Liopleurodon also is a bit of an internet star since it was featured in a viral video on youtube called "Charlie the Unicorn".


During the year 2007 I, too was guilty of saying "Magical Liopleurodon!" in a high-pitched whisper at least once and thought i was funny.  Still do, actually.  Don't judge me.

Liopleurodon belongs to a large order of animals called Plesiosauria.  Plesiosaurs were not actual dinosaurs but marine reptiles characterized by having four paddle-shaped flippers, short, robust bodies, and short tails.  Like all reptiles, they would have had lungs and would have needed to surface for breathing, much like modern sea turtles and whales do.  They existed in the ocean from the early Jurassic and persisted from there until the Late Cretaceous when the sudden mass extinction that also killed most of the dinosaurs occurred.  Some of them had extremely long necks with tiny heads while others, like Liopleurodon had short necks with huge heads complete with powerful jaws filled with interlocking cone-shaped teeth.

Skeletal mount of Liopleurodon ferox from the Tubingen Museum in Germany.

Liopleurodon would have been able to swim quickly at least in short bursts to ambush prey thanks to large muscles attached to he base of each of its flippers.  Also, like all plesiosaurs, the bones on the underside of Lioplurodon's body, called gastralia (belly ribs), as well as its sternum (breast bone), scapulae (shoulder bones) and pelvis (hips) were all wide, flat and almost fused together.  This would have made its body stable and rigid which is important for any animal that uses its limbs to swim.  This same morphology is present in modern turtles.  Liopleurodon had eyes that were fixed looking above it which gives clues as to how it probably hunted.  It may have swam in deeper, darker water, out of sight from its prey swimming above.  At the right moment it would have used its powerful flippers to give it a short-lived, but powerful, burst of speed, ambushing from the black depths below like a giant scaly torpedo with teeth.  Modern Great White Sharks hunt in a similar manner. 

That's it for this week!  Special thanks to paleontologist, Dr. Adam Stuart Smith, who is an expert on plesiosaurs and contributed information to today's post.  He also provided input when I was painting the reconstruction you now see at the top of the post for scientific accuracy. (yay!)  Tune in next week for a special Saint Patrick's Day prehistoric beast! 

References

NOE, LESLIE F.; JEFF LISTON and MARK EVANS (2003). "The first relatively complete exoccipital-opisthotic from the braincase of the Callovian pliosaur, Liopleurodon". Geological Magazine (UK: Cambridge University Press) 140 (4): 479–486. doi:10.1017/S0016756803007829

 Halstead, L. B. (1989). Plesiosaur locomotion. Journal of the Geological Society, London 146, 37-40.

Smith, Adam. "Liopleurodon Sauvage, 1873." The Plesiosaur Directory. N.p., n.d. Web. Mar. 2013.



Saturday, March 2, 2013

Yinlong: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Yinlong is a small ceratipsian dinosaur that lived in what is now China during the late Jurassic period 160 million years ago.  It was discovered fairly recently in mid 2000s and an adult measures about nine feet from head to tail.  The name Yinlong translates to "Hidden Dragon" in Chinese ("long" is like "saurus" for Chinese dinosaur names).  If you were wondering, yes, it is named in reference to the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon because the area in which Yinlong was unearthed, called Xinjiang Province, is also where much of the movie was filmed.  I may need to do a part two to my extreme dinosaur names post. Yinlong is a well studied dinosaur because multiple specimens, including some full skeletons, have been found.

Yinlong downsi hunkering down with its babies.  Reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.
Probably the most interesting thing about Yinlong is the fact that it is the oldest ceratopsian known to science (for now) and is likely the ancestor of more popular ceratopsid dinosaurs like Triceratops, Styracosaurus and Chasmosaurus.   It is also the only ceratopsian known that lived during the Jurassic period.  All others are from the later Cretaceous period.

Yinlong downsi skull.  See the beak?

Unlike its later relatives, Yinlong was not an obligate quadruped, and could walk on its hind legs because its skull wasn't so large in proportion to the rest of its body (later ceratopsids have huge heads).  Like its relatives, however, it still possesses a curved beak on the tip of its mouth called a rostral bone, a feature only found in ceratopsian dinosaurs.

That's all for this week!  As always message in the comments below or comment on our facebook page if you would like to request an animal to be reviewed!

References

Xu, X., Forster, C.A., Clark, J.M., and Mo, J. (2006). "A basal ceratopsian with transitional features from the Late Jurassic of northwestern China." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1598): 2135-2140. doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3566

You H., Xu X. & Wang X. 2003. "A new genus of Psittacosauridae (Dinosauria: Ornithopoda) and the origin and early evolution of marginocephalian dinosaurs." Acta Geologica Sinica (English edition) 77: 15–20

Zhao X., Cheng Z., & Xu X. 1999. "The earliest ceratopsian from the Tuchengzi Formation of Liaoning, China." Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19(4): 681-691.