Thursday, September 18, 2014

Discovering Dinosaurs, Revealing Teamwork

It's a wonderful feeling when you get to be part of something that celebrates teamwork.
Yesterday was the opening reception for the University of Alberta's new exhibit, Discovering Dinosaurs: The Story of Alberta's Dinosaursas told through U of A Research. The exhibit features the work of almost all of the current people in Phil Currie's lab, as well as many of our alumni and colleagues.

The exhibit focuses in on research projects and new discoveries at the university. You'll see lots of fossils and casts, but you'll also see plenty of panels like this one featuring my work on ankylosaur tail clubs. (To see more of the folks in our lab featured in the exhibit, check out the DinoLab's Facebook album.) I really like this approach, because it shows that science is done by real people, and it shows the specific kinds of questions that we ask in order to tell the bigger stories about dinosaur lives. How DO we find out if ankylosaurs used their tail clubs as weapons? What kinds of techniques do we use? What surprises do we encounter as palaeontologists?

There's so many great stories in the exhibit, and I think the focus on dinosaur parts rather than full skeletons means we get to focus on the subtler bits of anatomy that might be missed in a room full of giant skeletons. (Not that I don't like a good room full of skeletons!). The exhibit is divided into several themed rooms – this one is obviously the theropod shrine, but you'll also get to see ankylosaurs, hadrosaurs, ceratopsians, and birds, and some non-dinosaurs, too!

Even vertebrate microsites get some love in the exhibit.

I think this is particularly fun – take a peek inside our camp kitchen tent in the Mongolian fieldwork room, and see some film footage from the early days of collecting at the university and from more recent work in the PALEO 400 field school at the Danek Bonebed.

Edmonton-based palaeoartist extraordinaire Julius Csotonyi provided much of the art you'll see throughout the exhibit, including life-sized restorations of the species featured in the exhibit. I think this is really effective – the specimens are the data, the research stories are the process, and the art shows how it all comes together in the end to reconstruct these extinct animals.

It's really cool to see some of the specimens I've only known as trays in cabinets come to life as full skeletons. On one level you 'know' how complete a skeleton is, but it's still a bit surprising, even to me, just how good some of our specimens are. We have good fossils, you guys!

This will probably sound corny, but it was somewhat emotionally moving for me to see UALVP 31 all laid out and on display. This was one of the most important ankylosaur specimens for my work on revising the taxonomy of Euoplocephalus, and I did a lot of the prep work on the postcrania in conjunction with my colleagues Mike Burns, Robin Sissons, and Kristina Barclay, and with WISEST summer research students Carmen Chornell and Idel Reimer. (See what I mean about teamwork?). We also added in UALVP 47273 waaayy down at the other end, the tail club that Phil Bell found the year before I joined the lab and which was super important for my work on tail club biomechanics.

I'll finish off here, but know that this is only a tiny sampling of what's in store for you at the exhibit. I hope you'll check it out and learn something new. Discovering Dinosaurs is on display at the Enterprise Square Galleries in downtown Edmonton from now until January 31st, 2015. There's a great series of K-12 education programs associated with the exhibit, as well as a fun program of speakers and events for the general public over the next few weeks (if you want to hear more about ankylosaurs, I'll be speaking on September 27th!). You can also check out our permanent exhibit in the Paleontology Museum in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Building on campus. Not in Edmonton? You can still join the fun with Dino101, our massive open online course that's currently underway at Coursera.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What's new with Dino 101?

The third offering of Dino 101 kicked off again last week, and we're already into our 2nd lesson, on taphonomy and fossilization. Here's a quick update for what's new this time around!
  • A new section about the palaeobiogeography of dinosaurs was filmed, including lots of new scenes at the Royal Tyrrell Museum
  • We get to show off the Edmontosaurus with the "cock's comb"!
  • We added in some more information on non-dinosaurian critters from the Mesozoic throughout the course, including pterosaurs, marine reptiles, and early mammals
  • I made a bunch of new 3D models for our fossil viewer interactive – now you can enjoy the baby chasmosaur's skull in three dimensions of terror and amazement!

These are all in addition to some of the snappy upgrades to version 2, like the section on the baby chasmosaur and the fancier study guides.

So far there's more than 11 000 students registered in Dino 101 v3, which means we've now reached nearly 50 000 students from around the world! The on-campus versions of Dino 101, including the flipped/blended PALEO 201, are also underway, and the PALEO 201 team is making some new activities about dinosaur footprints and trackways. I'm sure they're going to have a great time!

You can join the fun at Dino 101 for free - register now at Coursera! And you can follow the course in its various social media forms, including Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Big screaming hairy dinosaurs.

Kulindadromeus, a little ornithischian from the Jurassic of Siberia, has the palaeosphere abuzz with talk of fluff, feathers, scales, and all kinds of interesting integumentary goodness. Kulindadromeus has scales on its feet, hands, and tail, but the head, body, and upper limbs are covered in three different kinds of filamentous integument. 

Beautiful restoration of Kulindadromeus by Andrey Atuchin, via National Geographic.

Feathers and fluff are extensively known in coelurosaurian theropods (and possibly other theropods as well), but are more controversial in ornithischians. Bristle- or quill-like structures are known in the little ceratopsian Psittacosaurus, and in the 'heterodontosaur' Tianyulong, but since these structures are so different than the filaments and feathers of theropods, there's been some debate about whether or not they evolved independently of true feathers.

A not-so-great photo of a cast of the quilled Psittacosaurus specimen at the Carnegie Museum (look towards the top of the photo for the long, thin filaments), and a life restoration in the museum as well.

In Kulindadromeus, the torso and head are adorned with simple filaments that are thinner than the quill-like bristles in Psittacosaurus and Tianyulong. There are tufted plumes, where multiple filaments converge to a scale-like base, on the upper arm and upper leg. Finally, there are some ribbon-like clusters of filaments on the shins. The tufted plumes still aren't really like anything in the theropods, but the fact that they are branching filaments certainly suggests these are more feather-like than the quills of other ornithischians.

Besides its amazing fluff, Kulindadromeus is pretty neat for a couple of other reasons: 1) we don't really have a lot of dinosaurs from Siberia, so anything new from this region is cool!, and 2) basal things are always interesting, and 3) its non-feathery integument is super interesting! Kulindadromeus is a little more derived than Agilisaurus or Stormbergia, but is still in a relatively basal position in Neornithischia, the clade of ornithischian dinosaurs that includes everything except thyreophorans (ankylosaurs and stegosaurs), 'heterodontosaurs' like Heterodontosaurus, Fruitadens, and Tianyulong, and the most basal ornithischians like Pisanosaurus. The scales on its tail remind me of aetosaur osteoderms, but lack any bone and so aren't osteoderms, but true epidermal structures.

Anyway, I've been thinking about dinosaur skin a lot lately, having written papers on ankylosaur scale pattern diversity and soft-tissue crests in Edmontosaurus. In particular, I'm intrigued by the idea of scaly and fluffy ornithischians. We know that hadrosaurs and ankylosaurs had scaly skin, but does that preclude having fluff too? Well, Kulindadromeus shows you can totally have skin and fluff in different regions of the body. On the other hand, lots of large mammals today lack hair over most of their body, so large dinosaurs may have done the same.

Most of the ankylosaur skin impressions I know of come from Alberta, where the conditions are not ideal for preserving feathers and fluff. However, it's not impossible – feathers have been reported from ornithomimids from Alberta, so maybe we just need to look more carefully in the future. I think the idea of a fluffy ankylosaur probably seems preposterous – how could such an armoured, osteodermy animal have filaments in addition to its tough scales? And it's true – most animals today with osteoderms, like crocodiles, turtles, and lizards, don't have fluff. But there's one group of animals around today that very definitely have osteoderms and fluff:

Via Arkive.

Here's the big hairy armadillo, Chaetophractus villosus. It's one of the fuzziest of the armadillos, with lots of coarse hair on its belly, but also hairs growing off of the individual scutes (if I understand correctly). I'm not going to argue that ankylosaurs definitely had this kind of morphology – armadillos, being mammals, have totally different osteoderms than ankylosaurs that evolved on their own independent evolutionary pathway, and mammal hair/skin and ankylosaur skin are very different. Additionally, we now have evidence for branching filamentous structures as far back as Neornithischia, but ankylosaurs lie outside of that clade (Tianyulong, with its quills, is more basal than ankylosaurs). But being an armoured, osteodermy animal does not always rule out also being a gross hairy thing. Because seriously, look at that guy.

So here, have a big hairy Pseudoplocephalus. He's not so bad, is he?

Or better yet, make it a screaming hairy Pseudoplocephalus, like Chaetophractus vellerosus.

Papers! (And if anyone has any literature on big hairy armadillos, please send it my way!)

Arbour VM, Burns ME, Bell PR, Currie PJ. 2014. Epidermal and dermal integumentary structures of ankylosaurian dinosaurs. Journal of Morphology 275:39-50. [Paywalled! Accessible post here.]

Bell PR, Fanti F, Currie PJ, Arbour VM. 2014. A mummified duck-billed dinosaur with a soft-tissue cock's comb. Current Biology 24:70-75. [Paywalled! Accessible post here.]

Godefroit P, Sinitsa SM, Shouailly D, Bolotsky YL, Sizov AV, McNamara ME, Benton MJ, Spagna P. 2014. A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales. Science 345:451-455. [Paywalled! Accessible post here.]

Mayr G, Peters SD, Plodowski G, Vogel O. 2002. Bristle-like integumentary structures at the tail of the horned dinosaur Psittacosaurus. Naturwissenschaften 89:361-365. [Paywalled! Accessible post here.]

Zelenitsky DK, Therrien F, Erickson GM, DeBuhr CL, Kobayashi Y, Eberth DA, Hadfield F. 2012. Feathered non-avian dinosaurs from North America provide insight into wing origins. Science 338:510-514. [Paywalled! Accessible post here.]

Zheng X-T, You H-L, Xu X, Dong Z-M. 2009. An Early Cretaceous heterodontosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integumentary structures. Nature 458:333-336. [Paywalled! Accessible post here.]

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Did the sauropod Leinkupal survive the End Cretaceous mass extinction?


Discovery News has a short video up discussing a new paper in PLOS ONE, Gallina et al.'s "A diplodocid sauropod survivor from the Early Cretaceous of South America". I think it is really great that they want to showcase this interesting new find! But the DNews report leaves an awful lot to be desired.

The news report is titled "There's a dinosaur that survived mass extinction!", which would lead most people to think that some kind of post-Cretaceous dinosaur has been discovered. At about 25 seconds in, the reporter says this is the first time scientists have found a dinosaur that survived the great extinction, presumably referring to the End Cretaceous mass extinction that happened 66 million years ago. Right away, it seems that there's a huge misunderstanding here – there have been multiple mass extinctions in the history of life, not just the one that killed the non-avian dinosaurs. Additionally, the 'great extinction' should really refer to the End Permian extinction, by all accounts the most devastating mass extinction ever.

Anyway, Gallina et al. have described a new diplodocid sauropod, called Leinkupal, from the Early Cretaceous (probably about 140-130 million years ago) in Patagonia. This is significant because diplodocid sauropods were pretty abundant in Jurassic rocks from North America, Europe and Africa, but seem to have disappeared from the fossil record after the Jurassic. Since diplodocids were present in the Jurassic of Africa, it was also thought that they were probably present in the Jurassic of South America, but no fossils had ever been found. So, Leinkupal confirms one hypothesis (that diplodocids were present in South America), and also rejects another (diplodocid sauropods went extinct at the end of the Jurassic). Good stuff all around! But Leinkupal does not tell us that dinosaurs survived the 'great extinction' (whatever that is), and it certainly did not survive the End Cretaceous extinction, on account of it having been dead for about 70 million years before that happened.

This little video is an amazing microcosm of misconceptions about evolution and palaeontology, and it's really frustrating to see this coming from Discovery News. Here's some other little snippets:

* "The diplodocid sauropod is a family" – I hate to nitpick over grammar (wait, who am I kidding – I love nitpicking over grammar!), but the grammatical failure here I think represents a pretty basic misunderstanding of how taxonomy works. Later on, the reporter says of diplodocids that "the species was thought to be an exclusively North American dinosaur". Diplodocids are a subset of sauropods, in the same way that sauropods are a subset of dinosaurs. Diplodocidae is the formal 'family' name for this group, and Diplodocidae contains many genera and species. Some of these are familiar, like Diplodocus and Apatosaurus, some are less familiar, like Tornieria and some are new, like Leinkupal. We use classification systems to understand how animals are related to each other, and to understand the scale of certain biogeographic patterns. Getting this stuff right is both relatively easy and also important!

The imposing figure of "Seismosaurus" hallorum, a diplodocid from New Mexico on display at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. "Seismosaurus" is thought by some authors to be the same genus as Diplodocus.

*At one point, the reporter says that diplodocids were "assumed to have gone extinct", which is kind of true but also takes a lot of the science out of the story! Palaeontologists didn't just assume diplodocids were extinct, they observed the pattern in the fossil record in which diplodocids were present in some layers and then not in others, and concluded that either 1) diplodocid sauropods went extinct at the end of the Jurassic or 2) we have incomplete data, and sauropods may just not be preserved in the post-Jurassic rocks we've looked at. It turns out that the latter idea was correct!

* The reporter comments that the Patagonian discovery is the earliest record of diplodocids. It's easy to get mixed up with this sometimes, but Leinkupal represents the youngest, and therefore latest record of the group. The earliest record of a group would be the first record, and therefore the oldest record. Since this is the main point of this story, they should really get this right!

* The reporter also states that Leinkupal was found in a place that palaeontologists never expected (South America), when in fact the biogeographic pattern of known diplodocids hinted strongly at the possibility of South American diplodocids. This is so great! We were able to use our knowledge of the fossil record to predict where we might find a kind of dinosaur that we had not found there before.

* Finally, the segment opens with the reporter making a show of how hard it is to pronounce the new dinosaur's name. It's true that Leinkupal doesn't have the familiar Something-saurus structure that lots of dinosaurs have, but it's not overly difficult to pronounce. There are two things that bother me here: 1) Why, Discovery News, are you making your female presenter pretend to be dumber than she surely is? and 2) An unfamiliar foreign word is made out to be this super weird and difficult thing, when they could have taken a moment to point out that this unusual name means "Vanishing family" in Mapudungun. It's a beautiful and evocative word that reflects the significance of the specimen, and highlights a local language that most of us are not familiar with. A moment that could have been used to learn something new was instead used to indicate that new things are weird and learning is hard.

This is really shallow and lazy writing. All of the important points to cover in a video segment of this length can be found in the three-paragraph introduction of the open-access paper. There's no excuse to not get it right. Instead of highlighting how this discovery shows the power of scientific predictions, we got a video that can't get basic facts correct, and pretends that this stuff is really hard rather than working to make it accessible to everyone.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Many animals have skeletons besides dinosaurs.

I was reminded of an old post on this blog today when someone brought up the all too common question of "Is that real?" in museums. In 2011 I had visited the Smithsonian natural history museum for some of my Euoplocephalus research, and spent a day browsing the galleries and shamelessly eavesdropping on people's conversations. I was dismayed by the number of people saying things like "What's that!" and then walking away without finding out, or saying "Look, a T. rex!" to things that were patently not T. rex. In the comments on that post, there was some discussion of the fact that visitors to museums often mistake any skeleton as a dinosaur skeleton.

Anyway, that in turn reminded me of a photo I took in the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History's marine gallery a while ago:

Despite being surrounded by all manner of marine specimens, including a fleshed out model of a sei whale up above, the museum has to explicitly say that a pilot whale is not a dinosaur. In fairness, the museum (sadly!) does not have any dinosaur skeletons, what with Halifax being located on top of the Cambrian-Ordovician Meguma Terrane, and with the Fundy Geological Museum fulfilling the role of the dinosaur-having museum in Nova Scotia.

What lessons can we learn from this?
1. Museum people: put a dinosaur in your museum. There's no excuse not to have one.
2. Everybody else: many animals have skeletons besides dinosaurs.
3. ????

*Bonus! Sable Island is a super neat place that not many people have heard about outside of the maritime provinces - you can read more about it at their National Park page!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Systematic Position of the King of the Monsters

A few weeks ago I was really excited to be contacted by Danielle Venton, a freelance writer working on a piece for Popular Mechanics about the biology of Godzilla! With a new big-screen appearance by Godzilla right around the corner, I thought this was a fun exercise in speculative biology. The piece is out now at Popular Mechanics and I highly recommend checking out "The Impossible Anatomy of Godzilla".

I've always been a fan of B-movies (especially ones that have been MST3K'd) and monster movies, so, in preparation for the new Godzilla film, I've been trying to brush up on my kaiju history. Perhaps unfortunately, my introduction to Godzilla was with 1998's TriStar film, which seems to be uniformly considered not that great an entry into the monster's filmography. In the process of helping out with Venton's piece about Godzilla, I also came across some really fun previous discussions of Godzilla's anatomy. I heartily recommend checking out Darren Naish's "The science of Godzilla, 2010" and "The anatomy of Zilla, the TriStar 'Godzilla'" over at Tetrapod Zoology, and Brian Switek's "What kind of dinosaur is Godzilla?" over at

[Some of what I find is very silly. Godzilla flies using his rocket breath in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster!]

Most discussions of Godzilla's anatomy use dinosaurs (for classic Godzilla) or lizards (for Zilla) as starting points, and it's generally understood that the original Godzilla design was a melding of an Allosaurus, Iguanodon, and Stegosaurus. However, it occurred to me that another group of diapsids might serve as plausible candidates for Godzilla's heritage: the pseudosuchians (or crurotarsans, if you prefer)!

Today's only living pseudosuchians, the crocodilians, have osteoderms in their skin, if somewhat less flamboyant than Godzilla's. The 'scale' pattern on their heads is actually formed through cracking of the skin during development, resulting in a texture similar to what's seen on Godzilla's body, which in turn is apparently supposed to resemble the keloid scars of nuclear explosion survivors.

West African dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis) at the Toronto Zoo.

All living crocodilians are aquatic quadrupeds with powerful tails, and Godzilla seems to be a pretty good swimmer using his tail as a propulsive mechanism. Although many pseudosuchians were quadrupeds, some, like the poposauroids, were bipedal! Pseudosuchians seemed to have typically retained most fingers on the hand, like Godzilla, but unlike most theropod dinosaur lineages.

As far as I know, and I certainly haven't done a thorough literature search on this, there are no known pseudosuchians with nuclear breath....but alligators can produce a mighty bellow during breeding season.

ARKive video - Male American alligators, courtship displays

Could Godzilla represent a long-lost and enigmatic lineage of pseudosuchian? Should there be a Godzillasuchus? Tell me what you think in the comments!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Nitpicking Euoplocephalus

A friend of mine posted this amazing video on Facebook, and I must share it!

I really like how the Geek Group have obviously put a lot of time into researching the anatomy of the dinosaurs they're featuring, and the stylized animations are super cool. I'm obviously biased towards this episode, but I'm looking forward to seeing more!

For those who are interested in learning more about the anatomy of Euoplocephalus, may I offer these blog posts?:

Baron von Nopcsa, Scolosaurus, and the spiky-clubbed ankylosaur.

You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose...and you can definitely pick your ankylosaur's nose.

Who-oplocephalus: Is Euoplocephalus 'real'?
Who-oplocephalus: Heads for tails.
Who-oplocephalus: The Fellowship of the Half Ring
Who-oplocephalus: Everything old is new again.

Scaling up

And for the keeners, you can also check out a lecture I did for the Royal Tyrrell Museum's lecture series via their YouTube page!

Bonus: The Dinosaur Toy Blog also enjoys nitpicking the accuracy of dinosaur toys!