Sunday, October 31, 2010

A visit to the Jurassic Forest.

The University of Alberta has a pretty active Palaeontological Society with undergrad, grad student, and faculty members, and when we can we try to organize palaeo-themed field trips. Lucky for us, this summer Edmonton had a very cool new dinosaur attraction open called the Jurassic Forest, so of course we had to check it out.

I should probably point out that winter arrives early in Edmonton...we had our first snowfall earlier this week.

One of the nicest things about the Jurassic Forest is that the animatronic dinosaurs are presented in what is probably close to their ‘natural’ habitat. Many of them are partially obscured by the trees and the effect can be quite convincing as you come up on these little vignettes. Here an Albertosaurus charges a herd of Styracosaurus, who wave their frills and roar.

One of the favourites was the pair of Edmontosaurus. I think it was the combination of the position in the forest, the lighting, and the fairly anatomically correct animatronics – all the details added up to really transport you back in time. Plus, Edmontosaurus may even have seen the occasional weather like this...

Another favourite was the duelling Pachycephalosaurus!

Most of the animatronics were pretty good, and Scott and I are pretty sure they are done by the same company that did the ones we saw at Dino Dino Dream Park back in Beijing this summer. The only ones I was really disappointed with were the Pteranodon, which were standing on their back legs, leaning forward, wings spread and ‘flapping’. Why won’t people show quadrupedal pterosaurs? They would still look cool!

I was also pleased to see two ankylosaurs make an appearance! Although both were labelled “Ankylosaurus”, they were clearly modeled off the British Museum’s Euoplocephalus specimen, but that’s ok. They were trying.

Tyrannosaurus closes the show at the end of the trails, of course. Somewhat bizarrely, he is roaring while eating a baby Corythosaurus and stepping on another somewhat indeterminate hadrosaur.

The Jurassic Forest also has a playground and sand pit for digging up fossils, and a multi-purpose educational room. I hear that their first summer of operation went pretty well, and I’m glad – the experience is pretty fun, and although Alberta has a lot of dinosaur attractions, we didn’t really have anything near Edmonton besides a small display at the Royal Alberta Museum. Some of the models are a little off, and there isn’t a whole lot of coherency to what dinosaurs appear in which order. But the placement of the dinosaurs in the forest is really great, there’s lots of signage about the science of palaeontology, and I think that with a tour guide for a school group this would be an excellent educational resource. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to go back in the spring or summer when it’s a bit greener!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More Albertosaurus Bonebed Coverage

The CBC did a nice interview with Phil about the Albertosaurus Bonebed on the radio show Quirks and Quarks. You can download an mp3 of the episode here.

Previous post about the Albertosaurus Bonebed CJES volume here!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Gobi Desert Diaries: Life in Camp

In the Gobi we tended to spend most of the day (from about 8:30 am to 7pm, with a break for lunch) out prospecting in the desert. It was nice to come home to such swanky digs each evening at Camp Bugin Tsav! Because we had so many people (almost 30 crew members at one point), we had a fairly elaborate kitchen, supply, and dining tent setup, in addition to the two big supply trucks and numerous vans.

We each then had our own individual tents spaced out around the general vicinity of the big tents. Mine is the yellow tent just behind the blue one! Home sweet home! I feel like we should be getting sponsored by Mountain Equipment Co-op, since the Canadian crew uses so much of their stuff – I had a MEC tent, sleeping bag, towel, wash bag, vest, and several nice sport shirts that were a lifesaver for a salty dog like myself.

Home sweet sandy home! I took this picture after the very first night in Bugin Tsav. I was hoping to try to reduce the amount of sand that entered my tent, but was completely and utterly thwarted by a gigantic wind storm the first evening that blew sand right through the closed zippers. The storm was so strong that I had a little dune piled up on the windward side of the tent, the guidelines on the tent ripped, and I was being forcibly lifted off the ground several times that night. Several tents blew right down, and Premji’s lifted off the ground and sailed several metres with her in it! The next morning the wind was still going strong and it was quite painful to have any bare skin exposed to the sand.

On a few ferociously hot days, we spent the midday out of the sun in the big tent sorting through specimens and getting things organized.

And each evening, someone would proudly open the very exclusive Flamingo Bar for drinks and socializing! Closing time is whenever everyone goes to bed. (Yes, those are inflatable pink flamingo tent peg covers. They are very good.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Phil Currie receives Alberta Order of Excellence

Earlier this week my supervisor Phil Currie received the Alberta Order of Excellence, the province's highest order for public service. Hooray Phil!

News covereage of the event, and interviews with Phil can be found via the Edmonton Journal, The Gateway, and CBC News. (Excellent photo of Phil in The Gateway's article.)

The picture above shows Phil this summer in Mongolia, marking the location of a particularly nice sauropod footprint.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gobi Desert Diaries: All creatures great and small, part 4.

Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from this picture, the Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianusis is the two-humped camel found in the deserts and steppes of Mongolia. When I was growing up, the way to remember which camel was which was to turn the B of Bactrian and D of Dromedary on their sides – Bactrians have two humps, Dromedaries have one. Last winter was very harsh in Mongolia, and millions of livestock died – I wonder if this is the reason that so many camels had flopped-over humps this year.

Camel bones are some of the most common recent bones to find while out prospecting, and there was even one day where I became increasingly frustrated at the sheer volume of recent bone compared to fossil bone. This skeleton is also where I encountered my very first camel tick! They are horrible and persistant!

One of my favourite dead camel finds was a pair of feet with the foot pads still in place. That skin must be incredibly tough. The texture on the bottom of the pad was quite interesting, as well. The runner-up for dead camel finds was the Tremendous Dead Camel, which I deeply regret not photographing. It was obviously recently dead, and all of the wool and sloughed off while leaving the skin intact. I was surprised that it had not been scavenged at all.

The Natural History Museum in Ulaanbaatar has a little room dedicated to the Bactrian Camel and has this great skeleton. Much has been written about camel necks in the blogosphere lately – see SV-POW’s The Cambridge Camel is Just Plain Wrong, Maybe All the Camels are Wrong, The Oxford Camel is Just Plain Cheating, and The Paris Camel is Just Plain Dumb. I wonder what the Ulaanbaatar Camel would be?

Male Bactrians have FANGS! My guess is that these are probably used during rutting season, but I certainly would not like to be nipped by an angry camel. And camels seem to be angry, or at least somewhat irritated, most of the time.

This I do not totally understand, but I enjoy greatly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Gobi Desert Diaries: All creatures great and small, part 3.

In addition to dead and fossilized animals, I came across the remains of many recently dead animals while prospecting (including one tremendously large and dead camel with the skin still intact). Skulls and skull caps with horns of Altai Argali (Ovis ammon ammon), Siberian Ibex (Capra sibirica), and Goitered Gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) were common sights, and many skulls were affixed to the fronts of our camp trucks. On one occassion we did see several Goitered Gazelles fleeing from our approaching vehicles – they are incredibly fast.

The traditional Mongolian lifestyle includes herding sheep (especially the fat-tailed kind), goats (for meat, milk, and the wool from the Kashmere goats), camels, horses, the occasional cow, and the very occasional yak (Bos grunniens). I had not seen any yaks during my 2007 expedition, but came across them twice this year. Yaks are not native to Mongolia, but were brought in by the Tibetans. I was especially excited to see these two butting heads and flanks – the grey one in the back was larger, and therefore winning.

On my final day in Mongolia I visited Hustai National Park with fellow summer traveler Scott and my previous Gobi traveling companion Federico, who just happened to be in Ulaanbaatar at the same time working on a paper. Hustai is most famous for being home to the first reintroduced population of Takhi (Przewalski’s Horse, Equus przewalskii). Although I have seen Takhis in zoos, it was a real treat to be able to see them in their natural habitat. The photo above shows Federico in front of the first family group we encountered – there are strict rules about keeping your distance from the horses even though there are no fences.

Takhis became extinct in the wild in 1969, and only two zoos had viable populations in captivity. In perhaps one of the most amazing conservation stories I know of, a breeding program was established based on 13 founder animals, and 16 takhis were released into what would eventually become Hustai National Park in 1992. There are now more than 500 horses in the park. Takhis are not feral domesticated horses like mustangs, but true wild horses that have never been domesticated. They are stockier than domesticated horses and have short manes.

Next up...camels!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Gobi Desert Diaries: All creatures great and small, part 2.

Perhaps the most charismatic of the Mongolian predators is the Snow Leopard, Uncia uncia, seen here at the Natural History Museum in Ulaanbaatar. Sadly I did not get to see one of these great cats, as they are fairly rare and highly reclusive.

This is the closest I got to a hedgehog during my stay in Mongolia, although previous KID expeditions have met hedgehogs up close. This pelt likely belonged to a Long-Eared Hedgehog, Hemiechinus auritus, although a second species, the Daurian Hedgehog Mesechinus dauuricus is found in northern Mongolia. Pelts like these were traditionally placed near the entrance of a ger to ward off bad spirits. I think it is quite interesting the way that the pelt has kept the shape of a curled hedgehog even though all of the bones and innards are gone.

Another important animal on the Mongolian steppe is the wolf, Canis lupus. I’m about halfway through an excellent book called Wolf Totem, a semi-autobiographical book about a young Han Chinese who left Beijing to work in Inner Mongolia with sheep, horse, and goat herders during the Cultural Revolution. There’s a lot of interesting anecdotes about the relationship between humans, sheep, wolf, and grassland. If you’re interested in a unique perspective on the traditional Mongolian lifestyle, I can only recommend this book. You can find the English translation through Chapters.

Koreanosaurus, a new basal ornithopod from Korea

After spending two months in Korea this summer I can't miss mentioning the following paper:

HUH, M., LEE, D.-G., KIM, J.-K., LIM, J.-D. & GODEFROIT, P. (2010): A new basal ornithopod dinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous of South Korea. – N. Jb. Geol. Paläont. Abh., DOI: 10.1127/0077-7749/2010/0102; Stuttgart.

Abstract: The Seonso Conglomerate (?Santonian – Campanian, Late Cretacous) of Boseong site 5 (southern coast of Korean Peninsula) has yielded well-preserved postcranial material belonging to a new taxon of ornithischian dinosaur, Koreanosaurus boseongensis nov. gen., nov. sp. This dinosaur is characterized by elongated neck vertebrae, very long and massive scapulocoracoid and humerus, proportionally short hindlimbs with a low hindlimb ratio for tibia/femur, and anteroposteriorly-elongated femoral head forming an obtuse 135° angle with the femoral shaft. Koreanosaurus displays a series of neornithischian synapomorphies. Amongst Neornithischia, most features of the postcranial skeleton suggest affinities with basal ornithopods and, amongst them, particularly with a small clade formed by three genera from the Cretaceous of Montana: Zephyrosaurus schaffi, Orodromeus makelai, and Oryctodromeus cubicularis. According to the morphological, phylogenetic, sedimentological, and taphonomic data at hand, it is tentatively postulated that Koreanosaurus was a burrowing dinosaur, like Oryctodromeus.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gobi Desert Diaries: All creatures great and small, part 1.

In addition to extinct animals, I did get to encounter a variety of extant fauna during my trip to Mongolia. In this post I'll show some of the reptiles and birds we encountered.

This is the highly venomous Siberian Pit Viper, Gloydius halys. We kept a respectful distance.

I think this guy is called the Tuva Toad-Head Agama, Phrynocephalus versicolor. In the Gobi, I call them armpit lizards because of their brightly colored armpits. The rest of them blend into the desert amazingly well, and you often can't see them until they start running away from you. Also, the little buggers bite!

Sadly I have been unable to figure out who this handsome fellow is. He is not a shrike or a wagtail. Any ideas?
Update! John Acorn has suggested the Desert Wheatear, Oenanthe deserti. Looks like a good match!

Our camp also had a resident raven who kindly woke us up each morning, several small wagtails, and on one day just outside camp we saw a whole bunch of large raptors (perhaps 7 or 8 black kites) hanging out on a bunch of scrub bushes.

I was totally blown away by the size of the Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus at the Natural History Museum in Ulaanbaatar – look at that wingspan! I have since found out via Wikipedia that it is one of the largest birds of prey, and possibly the heaviest bird of prey. This is the dominant scavenger at a carcass and is strong enough to rip through hides. I’m pretty sure I saw some of these on the road out of Ulaanbaatar.

And I had to include a photo from my previous expedition in 2007, a Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos. They are quite heavy. This guy’s wingtip clipped my head as I was holding him, and it was incredibly strong – I cannot imagine being hit with a full flap.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Albertosaurus Bonebed Special Volume

And so it is back to ?serious business on the blog. Today I wanted to bring some attention to a major project in the Currie Lab for the last few years, a special volume of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences all about Albertosaurus. The whole glorious volume can be downloaded for free here if you’re coming from a Canadian IP address. Otherwise, your local library may provide access or you can email the very nice authors for a PDF.

The volume largely deals with data from the Albertosaurus bonebed at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park a few hours south of Edmonton, Alberta, or a few hours north of Calgary, Alberta, depending on which way the world is oriented for you. The bonebed was originally discovered in 1910 by Barnum Brown during the AMNH expedition down the Red Deer River. It was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in 1997 by Phil Currie, then of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. Excavations were conducted by the Tyrrell from 1998 to 2005, and by the University of Alberta from 2006-2010. Many volunteers and students have helped out at the site over the years and many, many Albertosaurus bones have been recovered.

A few previous papers have dealt with the Albertosaurus bonebed, including a review of evidence for gregarious behaviour in this taxon, tyrannosaur life tables, and the description of the new alvarezsaurid Albertonykus. However, this is the first collection of papers on this scientifically important locality, and includes papers on microvertebrates from the site, Albertosaurus tooth biomechanics, palaeopathologies, and more. A particularly fun paper is the rather juicy history of Albertosaurus discoveries by Darren Tanke.

So go check out this great special CJES volume! And congratulations to my fellow Currie Lab members Derek, Miriam, Phil, and Lisa for getting these papers finished.

Here’s the complete listing of papers you can find at the CJES website:

Currie and Koppelhus. Introduction to Albertosaurus special issue (and in French, too!)

Eberth and Currie. Stratigraphy, sedimentology, and taphonomy of the Albertosaurus bonebed (upper Horseshoe Canyon Formation; Maastrichtian), southern Alberta, Canada.

Koppelhus and Braman. Upper Cretaceous palynostratigraphy of the Dry Island area.

Larson, Brinkman and Bell. Faunal assemblages from the upper Horseshoe Canyon Formation, and early Maastrichtian cool-climate assemblage from Alberta, with special reference to the Albertosaurus sarcophagus bonebed.

Newbrey, Murray, Brinkman, Wilson, and Neuman. A new articulated freshwater fish (Clupeomorpha, Ellimmichthyiformes) from the Horseshoe Canyon Formation, Maastrichtian, of Alberta, Canada.

Tanke and Currie. A history of Albertosaurus discoveries in Alberta, Canada.

Carr. A taxonomic assessment of the type series of Albertosaurus sarcophagus and the identity of Tyrannosauridae (Dinosauria, Coelurosauria) in the Albertosaurus bonebed from the Horseshoe Canyon Formation (Campanian-Maastrichtian, Late Cretaceous).

Buckley, Larson, Reichel, and Samman. Quantifying tooth variation within a single population of Albertosaurus sarcophagus (Theropoda: Tyrannosauridae) and implications for identifying isolated teeth of tyrannosaurids.

Reichel. The heterodonty of Albertosaurus sarcophagus and Tyrannosaurus rex: biomechanical implications inferred through 3-D models.

Bell. Palaeopathological changes in a population of Albertosaurus sarcophagus from the Upper Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon Formation of Alberta, Canada.

Erickson, Currie, Inouye, and Winn. A revised life table and survivorship curve for Albertosaurus sarcophagus based on the Dry Island mass death assemblage.

Currie and Eberth. On gregarious behaviour in Albertosaurus.

All work and no play....

Here's a short video showing just how long the tail of the Carnegie Apatosaurus is. It just keeps going and going and going...

Each year the SVP hosts a benefit auction to support society activities. And each year the auction committee has a fun theme that they dress up to - previous years have included Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, James Bond, and Monty Python. This year we got Star Trek! So an already nerdy bunch of nerds got even nerdier. I was rather excited by the presence of tribbles.

Tribbles are dangerous and should be avoided by people who like to collect stuff.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Greetings from Pittsburgh!

The trematopid amphibian Fedexia, the mascot for this year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, greeted us at the welcome reception at the Carnegie.

The Carnegie recently renovated their dinosaur hall, now called “Dinosaurs in Their Time”. It features exhibits of Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous terrestrial faunas, and a small marine exhibit. My favourite was the Jurassic Hall featuring both an Apatosaurus (in the back) and Diplodocus (in the front) having a staring contest. The Jurassic Hall also has a Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Camptosaurus, and some great small specimens like the little crocodilian Hoplosuchus and the skull of the enigmatic theropod Marshosaurus.

The Cretaceous Hall was also quite impressive, with not one but TWO Tyrannosaurus squabbling over a poor dead hadrosaur. There were also exhibits on early mammals and feathered dinosaurs.

The Welcome Reception is always one of the highlights of the SVP meeting, and I think everyone had a great time. I'll post up some pictures of the Auction and After-Party later this week.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

SVP Pseudo-Live Blogging

SVP talk accomplished! Now I can relax!

I will hopefully post some photos of the excellent welcome reception at the Carnegie Museum later this week once I have some time and sanity.

Also, I am now the proud owner of a patriotic Uncle Sam Stegosaurus. Thank you, Carnegie Museum.

Also also, why weren't there any ankylosaurs in the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit? *sad*

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Gobi Desert Diaries: Bugin Tsav

Most of my time in Mongolia this year was spent at Camp Bugin Tsav, to the west of Nemegt and Altan Ula. The landscape is lower here, which makes for slightly easier prospecting – there’s no ridge-hopping when you find yourself in the next canyon over from where you need to be.

The weather was a little bit finicky for a few days, but rains off in the distance meant we got a great rainbow near the old Russian camp. (Sadly, it was not a
double rainbow.)

To give you a sense of scale and distance involved when prospecting, here’s Premji for scale. Can’t see her? Look closely in the middle of the photo.

This particular day marked a relatively dry stretch of prospecting for me – I had not found anything particularly interesting in two or three days. As such, to amuse myself and appease the prospecting gods, I created a song to the tune of “Somebody to Love.” I am not the best prospecting partner if you do not like music.

“Each morning I wake up in Bugin Tsav,
Can’t hardly wait to go out!
I put on my boots and my hat,
And then I give a great shout,
But lately I can’t find a single thing,
I just can’t hardly believe -
OOOOOHHHHH (<-- this is Premji’s favourite part) Somebody, oh somebody, Can anybody find me A fossil to dig?” *with apologies to Freddie Mercury.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Gobi Desert Diaries: Altan Ula

After spending a few days in the Nemegt Basin, we headed to Altan Ula, which has a similar overall feel to the canyonlands of Nemegt.

One of the most spectacular sites is the Dragon’s Tomb where many skeletons of the hadrosaur Saurolophus angustirostris were collected by the Russians in the late 1940s. The skeletons are articulated and many feature beautiful skin impressions. Unfortunately, the bonebed has been heavily poached – fossil poachers in the Gobi collect teeth and claws, but typically destroy whole skeletons in the process. Teeth and claws are the easiest items to sell. It is illegal to export dinosaur fossils for sale from Mongolia, but they seem to keep turning up on eBay and at rock and mineral shows around the world. Our team did not collect anything here (as this site is being worked on by David Evans, Michael Ryan, and the crew of Nomadic Expeditions – see their take on the site
here), but it was great to visit such an amazing locality.

Here’s a nice example of skin impressions at the Dragon’s Tomb.

During our time at Altan Ula we found a pretty cool Tarbosaurus specimen that actually had non-poached teeth! Unfortunately, the specimen was too heavily weathered to collect, with the teeth just being way too fragile. Tarbosaurus is the Mongolian cousin of the North American Tyrannosaurus. They’re about the same size, but Tarbosaurus has proportionately smaller arms – and Tyrannosaurus arms are pretty small!