Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ankylosaurus through the Ages

I saw a post up at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs today – did you know Ankylosaurus could fly? The original Sinclair World’s Fair Ankylosaurus was being lifted by crane from the Houston Museum of Natural History as the museum undergoes expansion and renovations.

This got me thinking about a talk I gave for the Alberta Palaeontological Society annual meeting last March: “My ankylosaur is a big dumb tank! Ankylosaur reconstructions in the scientific literature and popular media.” I talked about why ankylosaurs are reconstructed in certain ways, both accurate and inaccurate. Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology has been talking about memes in palaeontological illustration, and how certain wacky reconstructions and poses pop up again and again. I think this is perhaps especially well illustrated by several ankylosaur taxa and today I’d like to talk about Ankylosaurus.

Brown 1908. The Ankylosauridae, a new family of armored dinosaurs from the upper Cretaceous. AMNH Bulletin 24:187-201.

Oh, Ankylosaurus. The namesake of the Ankylosauria and Ankylosauridae. One of the most popular ankylosaurs. And yet Ankylosaurus is not particularly well known in terms of skeletal material – some skulls, a tail club, and miscellaneous postcranial bits. Barnum Brown’s 1908 description included the pictured reconstruction of the armour. At the time Brown did not know that Ankylosaurus had a tail club, so he reconstructed it with a more Stegosaurus-like tail. The armour is shown as pretty uniform across the body, mostly because Brown didn’t have a lot to work with and little to compare Ankylosaurus to.

Enter the World’s Fair dinosaurs by Sinclair, including Ankylosaurus. We have a replica (cast? Model? Does anyone know?) at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton (along with a Sinclair Corythosaurus), which I think is pretty rad. Note the strange, pustulated tail club back there, dragging on the ground. Boo. There’s really no reason for the tail club to be portrayed as a lumpy, gross thing – the only known tail club of Ankylosaurus actually has a very smooth texture! The World’s Fair Ankylosaurus (along with the Zallinger mural at the Peabody Museum) would define how Ankylosaurus is drawn and modeled for a very long time – I have a pink Ankylosaurus eraser from an elementary school book fair that is clearly modeled on this fellow, for example.

Walking with Dinosaurs included an Ankylosaurus in the final episode, Death of a Dyanasty, back in 1999. There’s that lumpy tail club again! Again, we see the influences of Brown and the Sinclair World’s Fair Ankylosaurus. A couple of Ankylosaurus make an appearance in Jurassic Park 3 (briefly, as they float down the river after escaping the Pteranodon aviary), and holy smokes are they ever strange.

(From the delightfully thorough Dinosaur Toy Blog.)

In 2004, Ken Carpenter published a wonderful, long, detailed revision of Ankylosaurus in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, and offered a new armour reconstruction. If you’ve got the Carnegie series Ankylosaurus toy, you’ll be familiar with this new interpretation – they clearly drew much of their inspiration and information from Carpenter’s new reconstruction. There are a few minor points I could quibble about, but overall it’s a good reconstruction of the armour, and a big change from the uniform spiky Ankylosaurus. And the tail club isn’t horrible!

The most recent TV Ankylosaurus I know of was in Clash of the Dinosaurs. Say what you will about the show, but I thought the ankylosaur segment was pretty good. I had the opportunity to do a bit of advising for that segment, and it was a lot of fun to work with the producers to try to get Ankylosaurus just right. They did a great job on the head, and the body is almost like a little bit of a mix between the Brown/World’s Fair Ankylosaurus and the Carpenter Ankylosaurus. And the tail club was not gross! Hooray and success!

It is a less well-known fact that Ankylosaurus looked quite dapper in a hat.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ice to Meet You

Several weeks ago, I talked about the Antarctic dinosaur Cryolophosaurus. As Phil and Eva’s Antarctic adventure winds down, I thought it was high time to write a little bit about another Antarctic dinosaur, Glacialisaurus.

This is not Glacialisaurus, but it is still awesome. Ice sculpture competitions like Ice on Whyte are one of the winter benefits of living in the frozen tundra of Edmonton. And this year, there were several teams from China participating!

Glacialisaurus, a basal sauropodomorph (“prosauropod”), is known only from a femur and feet. Thus far it is the only sauropodomorph material known from Antarctica (don’t be fooled by the sauropod genus Antarctosaurus, which is known from South America, not Antarctica). It appears to be closely related to Lufengosaurus from China and Massospondylus from South Africa. Basal sauropodomorphs in the Early Jurassic had a nearly global distribution (and one day I will talk more about the prosauropods of my neck of the woods) although Glacialisaurus is one of the most high-latitude species known.

I don’t have photos of Glacialisaurus but I DO have Lufengosaurus! And so I present you with the derriere of Lufengosaurus as displayed at the IVPP in Beijing.

It sounds like the folks down in Antarctica have been having a very successful field season despite the challenges of working in such a harsh environment. It’s definitely worth checking out the Field Museum Expeditions website for photos and videos, as well as updates from the field.

You can download the Glacialisaurus description for free because Acta Palaeontologica Polonica is awesome like that:
Smith ND, Pol D. 2007. Anatomy of a basal sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Early Jurassic Hanson Formation of Antarctica. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 52:657–674.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On the Presence of Female Palaeontologists in the Popular Media

Last week I did a bunch of interviews with many different media outlets about Gwawinapterus. One of the most interesting was a conversation I had with CBC Radio Edmonton’s show Radio Active, which aired on Friday evening. You can listen to it here.

I was asked not just about the pterosaur, but about what it is like to be a female palaeontologist and how the media exposure may affect the career of a scientist just starting out. What I thought was interesting was that the interviewers both before and during the Radio Active show noted that most people don’t really associate palaeontology with women, and that dinosaurs seem to be more for boys. I found this a bit surprising because whenever I go out and do activities with younger kids, ALL kids love dinosaurs, regardless of gender. But it got me thinking again about women in palaeontology, and in particular, where are the female palaeontologists in the popular media?

There is a lot of text coming. I am sorry. Here is a screenshot of the first page of Google Images when you search 'female paleontologist'. I find most of the results baffling.

I can think of precious few female palaeontologists that have featured in dino documentaries as talking heads, or that I sort of regularly see in the media reporting on their papers. Karen Chin (in When Dinosaurs Roamed America) and Mary Schweitzer (who works on dinosaur soft tissues and DNA) come to mind immediately. I am sure there are others, but I think we may be swamped by the men in the field if I were to crunch numbers. I don’t think that this is just representative of an age difference either, ie. that its the well-established palaeontologists, who happen to be male right now, that get featured. Dinos Alive! 3D (an Imax film) featured Sterling Nesbitt while he was still a graduate student. And although I know lots of female grad students, I’m not sure I see their work in the media very often. So this raises some questions for me:

1. Are female palaeontologists less likely to be approached by the media? If so, why?
2. Are female palaeontologists less likely to approach the media? If so, why?
3. Are female palaeontologists trying to get their work out there, but are being blocked by the media? If so, why?

I am pretty sure #3 is not the answer. But I bet you #1 and #2 both play a role. Although I am certainly no expert on science communication, here are some things I have learned while working with the media that will maybe help you get started.

1. For the most part, the media will not approach you for a story. They have no idea your paper exists. It is totally, 100% ok for you to contact your university or museum’s media office and say “I wrote a paper and I want to do a press release. Will you help me do this?” The only instance I have ever been approached without a press release was for my PLoS One paper on the math of tail-clubbing in ankylosaurs, and I am pretty sure that is because PLoS One is an open access journal that science reporters regularly check.

2. GIVE TALKS AT SVP. Did you know that only about 10% of the presenters talking about dinosaurs at the Pittsburgh SVP were female? It’s true, I counted! Also, I was one of them. Isn’t that weird? I am pretty sure there are more than 10% female dinosaur people. Giving talks at SVP has let people know that I am out there and working on interesting stuff. As such, when someone was contacted by the team working on what would become Clash of the Dinosaurs, that person knew I was working on tail club biomechanics and recommended they contact me. (Mystery person, who are you? I owe you a thank-you.) I don’t think that would have happened if I had not given a talk at the Cleveland SVP. I have absolutely nothing against poster presentations and I like doing them very much, but I think that talks make you visible to a larger audience and we shouldn’t be afraid to get up there.

3. Go to ‘talking to the media’ workshops. I went to one at SVP a few years back and learned a lot. They are worthwhile.

4. And don’t be afraid to just in general go out and talk about your research. Museum or university or local nonprofit (I’m thinking of the Dinosaur Research Institute from my experience) doing a fundraiser and need a speaker? Local school or library or amateur palaeontology group looking for a workshop or presentation? Yes, of course you would love to!

I won’t get into the merits or drawbacks of talking to the media, but I think overall it is a good thing, and it is also fun! Will it benefit my career in the long run? I don’t know. I think ultimately I just need to keep doing the best science I can, and scientists will hear about my work through journals and meetings regardless of whether or not I publicize my research. But I hope that by putting myself out there as a (reasonably?) normal person who is also female and ALSO a scientist I will show folks that it is normal to have female palaeontologists and scientists. The more women there are visibly doing science, the less the stereotype that science isn’t for girls makes any sense.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reconstructing Gwawinapterus

Yesterday I talked about both how I came to work on what would become Gwawinapterus, and what’s actually interesting about that scrappy little jaw. Today I wanted to talk a little bit about something a little less technical – the ‘reconstruction’ of Gwawinapterus that I created for the media release.

I put reconstruction in quotation marks because I’m working with just the front of the snout – the tip of the iceberg, really – and recreating a whole animal, so there’s going to be an awful lot of guessing involved. However, there may be a bit less guesswork than you might expect.

So far, istiodactylids seem to me to be a fairly morphologically conservative group, and by that I mean that most of the species look fairly similar to each other. None are particularly large or small, and their cranial and postcranial anatomy is pretty consistent. So, the overall shape of Gwawinapterus is probably not too far off – it probably had a long, low skull and may not have had any sort of crest or ornamentation like a lot of other pterosaurs. Like other pterodactyloid pterosaurs, it would have had a short tail, long neck, and long metacarpals, and may have walked with an erect, parasaggital gait. One somewhat notable difference between Gwawinapterus and other istiodactylids is that Gwawinapterus would have had a comparatively deeper snout, and it may turn out it had a less elongate skull compared to other istiodactylids as well. Pterosaurs had a fuzzy covering somewhat like mammalian hair (they’re called pycnofibres!) and I’ve given Gwawinapterus a slightly shaggy neck reminiscent of ravens.

(Thanks yet again, Wikipedia.)

Based on comments on some of the news articles that came out yesterday, people seem to either love or hate the colour pattern I chose. That’s ok. The pattern I chose was inspired by the art of the Kwakwaka’wakw, who live on the northern end of Vancouver Island. The name Gwawinapterus is partly derived from the Kwakwala word for Raven, Gwa’wina, because the skull of many istiodactylids remind me of Raven masks.

(This one's from me this time, from a visit to the MOA at UBC.)

If you’ve visited Vancouver’s Stanley Park and seen the totem poles or visited the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (which you must if you are in the area!), you’ll have seen a lot of the Kwakwaka’wakw style of art. (There are many first nations tribes in British Columbia and each have their own distinct language and artistic style, so I think it’s important not to lump them all into ‘northwest coast art’.) This art is highly stylized and so by default the reconstruction of Gwawinapterus is quite stylized. Although I’m not so bad at drawing in a sort of sparse, graphic-designy style, I don’t have the skill or time to do full shaded renderings – I’ve got nothing on artists John Conway or Mark Witton or my friend and colleague Lida Xing. But stylized I can do, so stylized pterosaur you get!

Despite the stylized nature of my Gwawinapterus drawing, there are certainly some elements of the reconstruction that are somewhat grounded in real life. Lots of animals have black and white counter-shading and we’ve seen earlier this year that a reddish-brown pigment was found in at least some feathered dinosaurs. Black markings around the eyes are found in lots of mammals (badgers, raccoons, and cheetahs come to mind) and birds (Atlantic puffin). The ‘salmon egg’ ovals down the back and legs might be a bit off, but lots of animals certainly have spots and splotches.


And now, before this post gets too long, I shall direct you to further reading if you’re interested in some of the less pterosaury points touched on in this post:

The UBC Museum of Anthropology: You could literally spend hours browsing their entire collection – you can narrow your search by choosing People --> North America, and then Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingit, or Tsimshian, to name just a few.

The Raven Steals the Light: Raven is perhaps the most popular recurring character in many northwest coast stories. This book, by Robert Bringhurst and noted artist Bill Reid, introduces several Haida stories featuring Raven and other colourful characters.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Raven Wing

Thanks to Dave Hone for hosting a guest post about my recent paper over on his blog Archosaur Musings. I talked a bit about how I came to work on this specimen there, but here I’d like to talk about the specimen itself and what it means for pterosaur palaeontology.

Gwawinapterus is neat for a bunch of reasons. In Canada, we’ve got pterosaur material from Dinosaur Provincial Park that probably belongs to Quetzalcoatlus (including an amazing wing bone with embedded velociraptorine tooth!), but Gwawinapterus is the first pterosaur that is only known from Canada. It’s also, as far as I know, the first cranial material of a pterosaur from Canada (which may not be saying a lot, but there you go).

Victoria, you always pick the prettiest specimens to work on.

Gwawinapterus is also an istiodactylid pterosaur, which is interesting by its own right simply because there aren’t a lot of istiodactylids known in the fossil record, period. Howse, Milner, and Martill showed in 2001 that “Ornithodesmuslatidens from the Isle of Wight actually represented a distinct genus of pterosaur, Istiodactylus, and thus the Istiodactylidae was born. Since then, there have been some more istiodactylid teeth identified in Europe, but most other species of istiodactylids come from China. These include Istiodactylus sinensis, Nurhachius, and a host of others. All istiodactylids have been named in just the last ten years.

Prior to finding Gwawinapterus, there was no indication that istiodactylids were found in North America...with a pretty big and potentially interesting exception. Bakker (1998) noted the presence of some pterosaur teeth in the Morrison Formation that bear a striking resemblance to istiodactylid teeth. Is it possible that istiodactylid pterosaurs were present in North America since the Jurassic? Only more discoveries will help us to sort out the biogeography of the group.

And finally, all other istiodactylids are found in much older rocks from the Early Cretaceous, whereas Gwawinapterus is of Late Cretaceous age. No other pterosaurs of this age have teeth! Why do we find a toothed pterosaur so late in the game? What were the functional advantages to retaining or losing teeth in pterosaurs? Many folks in the media have asked me what kind of things Gwawinapterus was eating. It’s a fair question, although I can’t really give a very satisfactory answer – I suspect it would have been just fine at taking down small prey, and may also have been a good scavenger. The small, tightly packed teeth are somewhat reminiscent of piranha teeth, although I am leery that by saying this people will picture swarms of Gwawinapterus surrounding some big dinosaur and nibbling it to bits within minutes. Even though that would be awesome. (Incidentally, this behaviour is probably not natural for piranhas, either.)

Grr! (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

With its long snout and sharp little teeth, maybe Gwawinapterus was good at sticking its nose into carcasses and nipping bits of meat off the bones. This is not an original idea – Howse et al. proposed it back in 2001 for Istiodactylus latidens. Whatever it was doing, Gwawinapterus was probably doing it differently from other pterosaurs at the time, and I think that’s interesting.


Andres B, Ji Q. 2006. A new species of Istiodactylus (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea) from the Lower Cretaceous of Liaoning, China. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26:70–78.

Arbour VM, Currie PJ. 2011. An istiodactylid pterosaur from the Upper Cretaceous Nanaimo Group, Hornby Island, British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 48:63-69.

Bakker RT. 1998. Dinosaur mid-life crisis: the Jurassic–Cretaceous transition in Wyoming and Colorado. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 14: 67–77.

Currie PJ, Jacobsen AR. 1995. An azhdarchid pterosaur eaten by a velociraptorine theropod. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 32:922-925.

Howse SCB, Milner AR, Martill DM. 2001. Pterosaurs. In: Martill DM, Naish D (eds.) Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. The Palaeontological Association, London, UK., pp. 324–335.

Sazima I, Machado FA. 1990. Underwater observations of piranhas in western Brazil. Environmental Biology of Fishes 28:17-31.

Wang X, Kellner AWA, Zhou Z, Campos DA. 2005. Pterosaur diversity and faunal turnover in Cretaceous terrestrial ecosystems in China. Nature 437: 875–879. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


This Christmas break my family decided to trek down to Pompeii to visit the ruins and Mount Vesuvius, something that I have wanted to do for a long time. If you’ve ever taken an introductory geology class, then you’ve probably heard the story of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, as it is used to illustrate several concepts about volcanic eruptions. The 79 AD eruption began with a Plinian eruption, where a large column of ash extends high into the air, as far as the stratosphere. The term “Plinian eruption” is derived directly from the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption – Pliny the Younger was one of the first people to describe a volcanic eruption in detail. There are many examples of Plinian eruptions from the last few decades – Mount Pinatubo in 1991, Mount St. Helens in 1980, and most recently, Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. After a day of Plinian-style eruption, several pyroclastic flows covered the cities of Pompeii, and, in particular, Herculaneum. Like many other volcanos, Mount Vesuvius is found at the intersection of two plate boundaries. The African Plate is subducting (diving down) beneath the Eurasian Plate, and as this occurs, melted rock moves up towards the surface and eventually erupts from the volcano.

The volcano was steaming away when we climbed it last week – a good reminder that Vesuvius is just snoozing, not dead.

Wikipedia directed me to this very interesting article about the danger Vesuvius poses today to an ever-growing population along its flanks. A future eruption by Vesuvius could seriously affect at least 600 000 people who live in the ‘red zone’, and up to 3 million people in the surrounding areas. There are emergency plans in place to evacuate these people, but there is concern that they may not be adequate. During our walk up the volcano, I did spot a lot of interesting looking monitoring stations, and you can see what Vesuvius is up to at this website.

On a somewhat lighter note, you can get Pizze Plinio in Pompei! (It has bufala and parmesan cheese, prosciutto crudo, tomatoes, and rocket lettuce...which I suppose is like a volcano...a delicious, delicious volcano...).