It’s getting harder and harder for me to write these sadly, with my ever increasing teaching loads, and broader than ever outreach commitments, I don’t have much time to read as many blog pieces and media coverage as I used to, and a look though a few end-of-year reviews suggests there’s a few discoveries and papers I’d missed which is rather annoying. Still, it is good to at least try and look back over the last year and give a bit of a personal perspective and try and have a bit of fun.
Posts Tagged 'Dinosaurs'
Tags: Dinosaurs, palaeontology, Pterosaurs
Tags: art, Dinosaurs, illustration, palaeoart
Today’s palaeoart interview is with Andrey Atuchin. He has rather stormed onto the scene recently with a string of beautiful artworks, especially with some of the recent new discoveries coming out of Utah. As forever, the works here are his and used with permission so please to do not reuse them or take them without his express permission.
How long have you been an artist?
Translated foreign books about dinosaurs began to pass in our country, probably on a wave of popularity of dinosaurs after the movie. As I said, I loved the encyclopedias but Russian books about dinosaurs were a rarity, especially in provincial regions and in my town, I did not even know that there is such a wonderful book with pictures of Zdenek Burian somewhere. One day in the book-store I saw an amazing and terrific book – an illustrated encyclopedia of dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon. I had never seen such book: many different dinosaurs with their Latin names, colorful images, description, and most importantly – the figures of a skeletons and skulls. This book has been read so much by me that it is falling apart. So you could understand my feelings when someday I have received the offer to illustrate Dougal Dixon’s new illustrated encyclopedia of dinosaurs in 2004 . I didn’t believe it … such amazing coincidence.
Tags: birds, Dinosaurs, evolution, feathers, ornithischian
By now most people with even a passing interest will be aware of the fact that there are now a number of specimens (and indeed species) of ornithischian dinosaurs that are preserved with some form of filament-type structure which, superficially at least, bear some resemblance to primitive feathers. However when the first candidate was announced, this specimen of Psittacosaurus housed in Frankfurt, it inevitably causes something of a furore with many suspicious of the data and suggestions that the filaments were simply coincidentally preserved plant stems or something similar.
The discovery of multiple specimens of Tianyulong inevitably make this rather more plausible as a real find, though of course a few more filamented Psittacosaurus would be nice. A third taxon is apparently now know but sadly illness led to a no-show at SVP so few have seen anything of this new find. Still, the original find is an impressive specimen, but doesn’t seem to have really been thoroughly described or illustrated too well and as I’m in a position to at least partially rectify that, here’s some photos I took of the specimen on my recent trip.
I have actually seen this before years ago but extremely briefly, and have also seen a superb cast of it in the Carnegie (my photo of which actually popped up in a dinosaur text book recently, [with permission I should add] such was the quality of the copy). However, I’d never really *looked* at it properly and actually spending a few minutes (even through a glass case) reveals some lovely details.
First off, it’s big. The biggest specimen I’ve seen by far for this genus, though the head is not that large compared to the rest of the body. Then there is skin pretty much everywhere – this does turn up in Liaoning not too infrequently, but rarely to this extent or quality. It covers large chunks of the animal and even completely covers large chunks of the bones in places (just look at the femur) and it looks like there’s a pile of gastroliths in the gut that are also covered.
While I’d be very cautious about interpreting the extent of the skin as being directly linked to other soft tissues, the extensive ‘flap’ behind the hindlimb would correspond with what you might expect from large retractor muscles there and so might well be genuine. Not only that, but there’s quite a bit of texture to the skin and in a couple of places it appears to have a different surface texture to others (see the underside of the base of the tail, and the area around the toes), which could also be genuine. On top of that, both the individual scales are clear in some places, and are even coloured differently (the larger ones are black) implying at least the possibility of this representing a pattern on the animal, and this changes along the body (look a the concentration in the tail, compared to the legs) though again:caution. It does look rather like this little patch that I featured years ago which is rather neat. Finally, this pattern also extend onto bones that are not obviously covered with skin (see the distal forelimb for example) with apparently the stains or some other taphonomic artefact of the scales left on the bones themselves.
And yes, then there are the filaments. Sprouting up off the base of the tail and extending most of the way along its (incomplete) length. They are rather thick and clearly somewhat stiff, but also flexible enough to bend under their own weight. While not a common reference, they look a lot to me in terms of their apparent properties like the tail hairs of giraffe (though much, thicker). It’s a real shame they are at least in part cut off the edge of the slab, but certainly appear to have stopped appearing well short of the end of the tail, so their full extent does appear to have been preserved.
I think that’s everything I can reasonably (or even unreasonably) speculate about this specimen without, yknow, actually going back and reading the original paper and associated commentary. However, the really key thing is of course that here’s some nice pictures of this and it gives a welcome opportunity to revisit this important and interest specimen.
Last week I took a very brief trip to Germany to do a round of several museums and collect some data for various projects I am working on. As well as catching up with some old friends (human and fossil) I got to see some new ones (human and fossil). I’ve been filling in the pterosaurs over on Pterosaur.net (including this guy which is an absolute must-see) but here I thought it would be best to bring back Sciurumimus. This little theropod did make an appearance on here when first described, but now I have a couple of pictures of my own (the specimen is currently on display in the Solnhofen Museum) it seemed time to bring it back. So here’s a couple of additional images of this outstanding little theropod.
Tags: books, Dinosaurs
I don’t think the Golden books were ever quite as big in the UK as they were in the U.S., but we certainly had them over here and I do recall coming across the now classic Golden Book of Dinosaurs as a child. As with many such books it was well illustrated with many pictures and relatively little text, and it certainly had appeal – almost everyone I know who has mentioned it has warm memories of the book.
It is then a tough act to follow, even in the modern age where there are huge numbers of competing titles and this is the route taken by Bob Bakker and Luis Rey. To pay tribute to the old, but make it modern and contemporary, and also keep it ‘competitive’ is no easy task, but I think they have done admirably. The text is crisp and simple and easy to read and is written in a manner that I am absolutely sure will appeal to a great many children with some evocative ideas and explanations. What is also nice is that it doesn’t shay away in places from a little technical language or complex ideas (like fenestra in skulls to separate mammals from reptiles) that help go beyond the mere basics.
There are some annoyances though. Yes, excitement and interesting hypotheses can help draw people in and especially when aimed at a young audience it can be difficult to make things clear and simple but also keep them accurate, but there are places where the text leans on minority or untested hypotheses (sauropods battling with their necks and whip-cracking tails) and some irritating and unnecessary terminology (Bakker’s awful predilection for calling pterosaurs “dactyls”).
The art however is very Luis Rey. I know not everyone likes his style, and if not, well this won’t be for you. But for those who do, it’s a typically wonderful mix of the dramatic, bold and bright with good anatomical details and getting in plenty of feathers and the like in all the right places. There are updated versions of older pictures (like the brooding oviraptorosaur) and plenty of new ones, not least the cover set to mimic the original book.
Overall though this book is aimed at children and needs to be judged with that in mind. With that forefront the book is great – I’m sure young children will devour it and it will generate both interest and understanding of dinosaurs. As a way to excite those who are already keen or draw in those who have yet to experience dinosaurs I am sure this will do a great job and that’s exactly something I can’t say for too many kids books on dinosaurs. Great job guys.
Tags: art, Darwin, Dinosaurs, palaeoart
Well it’s been quite a while but this was never forgotten, so I’m delighted to get the palaeoart interviews rumbling to life again by bringing you a one on one with Scott Hartman, most famous for his dinosaur skeletals but also well into the more ‘traditional’ branches of life reconstructions. There’s plenty on his website and DeviantArt pages, but Scott has also been good enough to share some new and upcoming stuff too. As ever, everything is copyright to Scott so play nice and no sharing without asking him first, it’s his work not mine.
How long have you been an artist?
I’m afraid I don’t have a straightforward answer to that – while I drew a bit growing up I never really kept up with it. For a long time I approached technical illustration as a tool rather than art; even my life reconstructions were originally little more than a way to show off anatomy for quite a while. I guess the transition probably occurred when I started to do artwork regularly to help supply the Wyoming Dinosaur Center with imagery for displays; since I was doing “arty” things on a regular basis I started to learn new techniques, began to think more about composition, lighting, etc. So in terms of when I felt I had personally become an artist then it’s been a decade or so.
How long have you been producing palaeoart?
Based on my previous answer I have to say that it’s been for longer than I’ve been an artist! The first paleoart pieces I produced that were shown in art shows was back in 1995, but they were…well, let’s just say I still had much to learn. The first skeletal reconstructions I produced that I would consider sufficiently professional so as to stand on their own was 1997, while the first life reconstructions that I would still want to take responsibility for probably date to around 2001-2002.
What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?
I have always been interested in dinosaurs – some of my earliest memories include having the Little Golden Book of Dinosaurs read to me (often several times a day). I guess from there I never really grew up. Art, on the other hand, was really just a re-occuring fancy until my work with dinosaurs demanded I take it more seriously, and from there it has grown into its own interest rather later than I imagine occurs from other artists. I expect this put me at something of a disadvantage compared to the many talented young artists I see out there that dedicate far more time to honing their craft, but luckily I’ve play a bit of catch-up later in life.
What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?
I guess it would be Dawn Fisher (above), which depicts Unenlagia fishing in the early morning hours. It’s not really a complicated painting, but it’s one of the few pieces where I truly approached it as a compositional piece rather than a technical reconstruction, and lo and behold it turned out with the tone and feel that I had originally envisioned. I have a few others pieces that I’ve also been working on from an “art-first” perspective, but alas they are also more complex and I haven’t had time to finish them (so far!).
Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?
There are just so many ways to take (and answer) who my favorite paleoartist is – my favorite as a person? My favorite in terms of technique? In terms of accuracy? I’ve done this long enough to have several paleoartists that I am lucky enough to enjoy as friends, while the internet has also allowed for an even larger influx of new talent to be seen that perhaps would have been missed in previous decades. All of which sounds like I’m wussing out really. I guess if I had to pick one name it would be David Krentz, as I’ve always found his artwork delightful and he’s been a fantastic coworker on a myriad of different projects, from education to film and TV. My favorite piece of paleoart requires no such beating around the bush; it’s Mike Trcic’s Daspletosaurus sculpture that he did back when he was working on the original Jurassic Park dinosaurs. I’m sure a lot of it was timing (I originally laid eyes on it at my first SVP way back in Seattle), that it was one of the first paleo sculptures I’d seen in person, and the way it encapsulated much of the paleoart revolution up until then, but no other piece has made such a strong visceral impression on me. I’m just sad I didn’t have the means to pick one up back when they were available.
What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?
I always have a soft-spot for the animals I’ve spent time working with, including Archaeopteryx, Supersaurus, Camarasaurus, and Medusaceratops. I’m also pretty darn fascinated with all things archosaurian in the Triassic (and even the synapsids, but this clearly is neither the time nor place to talk about those one-window wannabees).
Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?
All of them? I really love coming up with new visions of prehistoric life, but there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to get it done. And I’m about to have a lot less free time this fall.
What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?
Obviously good technique is important, but I feel that what makes paleoart fascinating is that it’s always in a state of tension between what constrains an artist (data and plausibility) and the freedom to follow his or her imagination. Being able to navigate that tension to produce something that is simultaneously data-driven yet fresh and imaginative is the intangible “it” that the best paleoart has in my view.
Tags: Dinosaurs, ourtreach, Science Communication
So once more I’ve been doing outreachy stuff that’s not just the Musings and so want to spread the word on the off-chance that some of my readers will want still more Hone-generated ramblings.
First off, The Lost Worlds over at the Guardian still keeps on going and I’m still posting material there regularly. However, they have just updated their name and so any old links may no longer work and so you’ll be wanting to use this link now and update any you have on your own blogs etc.
Second, I recently did an interview for the Jersey Boys Hunts Dinosaurs site, talking about my research and the advice for students and young researchers hoping to break into palaeo.
Finally, I recently sat down the people from Faculti Media. This is an interesting new concept where they create short videos of researchers talking about their work to provide a platform for outreach. It was great fun to do (but tricky, although edited, it was close to being live with only a couple of takes at the thing) and I think it offers a new approach with nice little bite-sized chunks of science explained by the researchers. In my case, it was on sexual selection and socio-sexual signaling in dinosaurs and it’s come out quite well, (though clearly the camera was focused on the background, not me, whoops!).
Tags: Dinosaurs, fossils, outreach, Science Communication
As part of my travel to Canada for the Project Daspletosaurus work, I attended the Fossil Collections and Preparation Symposium hosted at the Tyrrell. Obviously I’m not much of a preparator, but after getting through the mammoth Gorgosaurus prep stuff with Darren Tanke, there was obvious scope to talk about sci comms in general and what we’d done with the field of preparation specifically and how me might go about improving that. All of the talks were recorded and have now gone up on line. There’s some cool stuff like removing old consolidants or microvertebrate screening, so hunt around on the Tyrrell’s YouTube channel, so it’s well worth having a look around, there were a ton of talks.
Tags: Dinosaurs, evolution, palaeontology, sexual selection
Those with an interest in dinosaur cranial crests and exaggerated structures (which should really be everyone since they turn up in pretty much every major lineage one way or the other) will probably be aware of the exchanges going on in the literature over these features. Although myself and colleagues have been advocating that sexual selection (and or socio-sexual signaling: the two can be hard to separate) is a likely strong candidate as the prime driver for many of these features, others have been advocating that this is not the case and instead the answer lies in species recognition. The latest to delve into this area is a paper I’ve done with Darren Naish and is the first time we’ve addressed this issue directly. While we have written or contributed to a number of efforts looking at support for sexual selection in dinosaurs, this is the first time we have tackled the other side of the problem.
The paper originally started as a long section that was included in our paper on mutual sexual selection with Innes Cuthill, but as we were later forced to cut down the length of the submission, this was a section that was relatively easy to prune as tangential to the main issue. However, we felt it needed saying and with new data coming out and the discussion ramping up, we revived and revised the work and it is now out. (Well, it has been in press and available for a while but is now properly out).
This is an important area for discussion – after all, the horns, crests, frills, plates, bosses and the rest (not least feathers) are key features and adaptations in various dinosaur lineages and trying to work out how they might have been used and what this means for evolutionary drivers and patterns is going to be a major issue. It’s hard to really understand stegosaurs or ceratopsians say if you can’t say that much with confidence about their ‘bonus’ features. While obviously each clade, or even each genus / species probably needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis when it comes to detailed analyses, some gross patterns can be seen or at least discussed. In the case of species recognition, is it even an actual ‘thing’ when it comes to exaggerated structures, and if it is, how is it supposed to work. The hypothesis has enjoyed some support in the literature for some unusual dinosaur features so it’s well worth examining.
Species recognition (in the context of exaggerated structures) for those who don’t know, is the idea that individuals of a species use these features to help them recognise cospecifics with to ensure they mate with the right species, or to maintain herd coherence. In short, carry round a key feature and you should be able to make it easier to stay in touch with the right animals and avoid the wrong ones. Various lines have been put forward to support this idea (in general and specifically towards dinosaurs) but we feel that none of them actually stack up and some have some serious problems.
First off is a pretty big issue – to our knowledge there is no evidence of any living species using some form of crest or exaggerated structure for species recognition. Individuals of species do recognise each other (not a big shock) but actually things like antlers or casques don’t seem to form part of the pattern that conspsecifics recognise. This may not be a big shock, after all, you can recognise a species by the overall appearance (size, shape, colour), their smell or specific sounds they make, behaviour, and other features. On top of this, some species are very varied in appearance for the big features (antlers of deer look very different as they grow, and are different between males and females and between juveniles and adults etc.) so relying on one feature is a bad idea at best, and a plastic one an especially bad call.
Plus of course, you often get closely related taxa that are sympatric. Is some big set of horns going to help you correctly identify conspecifics if there are half a dozen similarly-looking species also in the area? Look at things like African antelope and gazelle, or more extreme examples like tyrant flycatchers. We have trouble telling them apart sometimes based on their morphology, yet they seem to have no trouble. If this is so critical to dinosaurs, why to the iguanodonts seem relatively free of crests, but the hadrosaurs go nuts with them? And why are they all so similar in general form between species when they are supposed to help separate them out? Surely they should be divergent, not all similar in appearance. And why do we see things like Wuerhosaurus or Spinosaurus running around with all this weight to make sure they don’t mate with the wrong species when there are no other members of their clade to get confused with?
In some cases we see both issues coming together. If we look at the various small protoceratopsians of China / Mongolia, we see disagreement between researchers as to how many species (or genera) there may be. What is notable however, is that the characters being used to separate them out don’t typically involve the frill or bosses of the skull, and where they do, may be things that are not externally visible (e.g. the width of the media bar in the frill). In short – if there are multiple species here, the frills are apparently similar enough that we can’t separate them and so are unlikely to be part of the identity concept of the animals. If however, there is only one species present, then we are back to the paradox of a large frill being carried around but with no other species that could confound any signals.
On top of that, is it really worth it? After all, while you do want to stay in touch and make sure you mate with the right species, bolting on a good few kilos of bone to your head, and then the extra muscle to support it, and then lugging that around for your entire life is a lot of effort. When you can probably already identify conspecifics by their colour, patterns, scent and calls (of simply because nothing else like them at all is on the same continent) surely these would experience strong negative selective pressures if they didn’t have any other support.
Furthermore, how would such features ever evolve? If the populations / species were allopatric then we return to the situation of them not having another group to get confused with and crests are unnecessary for recognition. If they were sympatric though, how would this work? Pretty much the definition of a natural biological population is one that is breeding within itself, but here we’d have to have a population diverging because some don’t recognise each other as conspecifics even though we would expect, pretty much by definition, there not to be too much difference in structure shape between them (e.g. a tiny crest vs no crest). Now some animals might prefer each other, but that’s mate choice, not recognition, and there would have to be enough individuals for this to work – one mutant with a crest when no one else has one is not going to start forming a new species, and if there were a bunch of the with the new crest they’d also have to identify each other as different and avoid mating or hanging around with the others. So how would a large feature that’s for correct recognition allow a population to split in this way? To us at least it appears most unlikely to occur at all, let alone repeatedly.
In addition to this, there is rampant hybridization of closely related species in the natural world (and indeed in captivity). Even extravagantly ornamented species like pheasants with numerous adornments and bright colours and patterns hybridise regularly – clearly no matter how extreme the cue, at least some animals regularly have problems with them or are indiscriminate, but either way they are not that effective.
While some data like the apparent rapid growth of structures late in ontogeny has been used to support the idea that they are characteristics involved in socio-sexual signaling, it’s also a problem for the herd coherency part of the model. After all, lots of juvenile dinosaurs are known from aggregations suggesting they spent a lot of time together, even when the adults did not appear to. If these features were key, we’d expect juveniles to have them, and adult perhaps to shun them when they were no longer needed, but instead the opposite is true. In general the herd coherency argument is a bit odd anyway, again you have lots of ways of identifying and keeping in touch with conspecifics and some are clearly better than visual aids. Scent can have a temporal component, and vocalizations can be interactive beyond line of sight (especially useful in forests, or when things are behind you, or you are foraging and looking down etc.). No matter how big they are, visual structures are not always going to be that useful, even if they are unique.
In the increasingly infamous issue of Torosaurus and Triceratops, if these animals are truly conspecific then for a start we are back to the issue of ‘lone’ taxa (I don’t think Leptoceratops is going to be much of an issue here) and the pointlessness of crests where none are needed. On the other hand, this is also potentially a problem for the mate recognition idea. We know that at least some dinosaurs were sexually mature before they were osteologically mature and this could be the case for these animals too. If so, then the alleged transformation between one morph and the other would create confusion – both the Triceratops morph and the Torosaurus morph (or indeed anything in between) would be viable mates.
In short, we really have no clear evidence for species recognition in any living species, and that alone should make it unlikely to have been a key player across dinosaurs for the whole Mesozoic. Such structures would be costly, and yet not necessarily do the job it is supposed to with other signals being cheaper and just as effective, or more effective in many circumstances. It’s not clear why it should be so important for some clades and not other similar forms (iguanodotids vs hadrosaurs for example) and is clearly either redundant for some taxa, or would not actually reduce confusion. Nor is it clear quite how this would evolve in the first place, or why it would be sustained, and hybridization suggests that crests alone would not even prevent incorrect matings. Put this all together and we feel that there really is no good support for the idea of crests and other structures being primarily used in species recognition. They did of course likely have an effect – it would be odd if Stegosaurus or Corythosaurus didn’t use their respective features as part of how they identified one another. But that does not make them the prime, or only, driving force of all these different features in all these different lineages.
There was a fashion in dinosaur palaeo to write off any odd structure as simply sexual selection and leave it there. This was rightly railed against, but what was often criticised was the fact that sexual selection seemed undiagnosable in the fossil record and so the problem was that it was untestable rather than the fact that such throwaway remarks devoid of context or explanation do little for the subject. Now we are in the odd position where rarely you see very similar comments (in terms of their style) about species recognition popping up in the literature about exaggerated structures despite the lack of support for it, and the now (well, we think), strong cases made for sexual selection, or at least it’s assessment. Although previously the case for sexual selection was pretty weak, it is at least an extremely common phenomenon in living taxa and with obvious powerful effects on anatomy and behaviour. Species recognition has not yet even been shown (in relation to exaggerated structures) in any living clade, and while offhand one-line explanations are not the way to go, it seems odd that one has been replaced with the other.
Tags: Dinosaurs, museum, tyrannosaurs
This is the famous Gorgosaurus specimen at the Tyrrell that is pretty much perfection when it comes to tyrannosaurs. It’s as complete a skeleton as you are every likely to see, in wonderful condition, articulated pretty much perfectly and in an iconic posture. I loved simply looking at it, and it’s a hell of a thing.
I did not however love taking a photo of it, the position it has been put it, combined with the lighting in the hall makes it extremely hard to photograph. Now while museums can’t cater to the requirements or demands of every single visitor (some want it light, some dark, some want things high up, others low down, some want chairs, some want spaces etc.) it is frustrating that what is possibly their best specimen on display is annoyingly hard to photograph and hence this single decent shot which really doesn’t show off the feet properly, or indeed the complete (yes, actually really complete) tail.
Even so, it’s a magnificent specimen and I think the photo does it a decent amount of justice and at least lets you see the real quality of the preservation and indeed the preparation to get it out like this. Enjoy.
Tags: Alberta, Canada, ceratopsian, Dinosaurs
I’ve already mentioned that my time in Canada involved a short trip to Dinosaur Provincial Park with Darren Tanke, but we were also out with Mark Graham, a preparator at the Natural History Museum in London. Mark has kindly written up a guest post on the trip and the hunt for the lost Spinops quarry.
The recent Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium (FPCS) hosted by the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, provided a great opportunity for me to give a talk about the recent conservation and mounting of a large skull of the ichthyosaur Temnodontosaurus platyodon and also to team up with Darren Tanke for some fieldwork in Dinosaur Provincial Park to try and find the location of a lost quarry.
The quarry we sought had contained, in 1916, a bonebed of material which the legendary Sternbergs had collected for the then Geological Museum in London (now the NHM). Among the specimens collected was the partial skull and parietal elements of a horned dinosaur – a centrosaurine ceratopsian – which I had the privilege of preparing in 2008. It was a new species named Spinops sternbergorum and it was through this work that I got to know Darren (we were co-authors on the descriptive paper). He suggested that I take along a sample of the Spinops matrix so that we could use it to try and match the distinctive ironstone to exposures in an area “3 miles upriver from Steveville”, which the Sternbergs had recorded as the location of the find in their field notes. Locating abandoned quarries in the badlands from clues left in old photographs, fieldnotes, quarry markers and litter is something of a speciality of Darren’s and so I tagged on three days holiday at the end of the symposium to do some sleuthing with him.
Dave Hone was also at the Tyrrell, undertaking research with Darren into bite marks on fossil bones and he also attended the symposium and gave a very insightful presentation titled ‘Scientific Communication of Fossil Preparation in the Digital Realm’ [Dave adds: this should go online at some point]. This discussed how his blog had been used to communicate Darren’s prepwork on the tyrannosaurine Gorgosaurus to a wide audience of professionals and amateurs. Following the symposium, Dave joined in the expedition in search of the Spinops quarry.
First, we hired a small room in a ‘Hotel and BBQ Pit’ in a little place called Patricia, a few miles outside Dinosaur Provincial Park. It is an old haunt of Canadian palaeontologists and the accommodation could best be described as offering ‘substantial scope for improvement’. I experienced for the first time in many many years the joys of an upper bunk bed! But it all added to the fun and, as the name suggested, in the evening guests get to cook their own steaks, burgers and chicken on a big indoor barbeque.
We were all up early the following morning and after a hot breakfast we set off for the field with pack lunches and plenty of water as the weather, which had been cold with snow flurries, had turned quite warm and windy. Darren had arranged access with a land owner and we drove across the prairie in search of a padlocked fence that we had been given the combination to. The terrain was incredibly flat and featureless but thanks to Darren’s knowledge and a bit of help from the GPS, we found our way. En-route we saw some great wildfowl and white tailed deer which gave Dave an opportunity to get busy with his telephoto lens.
Soon enough we reached a point where the prairie fell suddenly away into coulees and down into the Red Deer River Valley with the great bluffs of the Upper Cretaceous rising all around. This landscape was formed after glaciers scraped away great swathes of land during the last ice age 13,000 years ago and has been steadily eroding ever since, creating some wonderful capped pinnacles called hoodoos, where ironstone rich layers weather out atop columns of softer sandstone rocks, like giant mushrooms. The scene looked exactly like the old photos from the golden age of fossil hunting and we began working our way down the steep sides of the bluffs, stopping on platforms as we descended and jumping across the occasional water eroded crevice onto the next slope. Many of the surfaces were very slippery with weathered Bentonite clay shale, which mercifully was fairly dry. When wet the shale is treacherous and impossible to get a firm footing on.
Darren had warned us against nasty little cactuses which grew a few centimetres high and that left lots of needles in the hand if touched. It didn’t take me long to reach up for support climbing over a ledge and put my hand onto one, which resulted in some choice language. My right hand resembled a pin cushion and it took a while to remove the spines. Some of the broken ones stayed put and are still working their way out weeks later.
But we soon all started finding material – dinosaur, champsosaur and turtle was everywhere we looked, weathering out of the rocks all around us. Hadrosaur and ceratopsian bones are commonplace and during our prospecting our finds included a row of articulated hadrosaur vertebrae, complete limb elements, a virtually intact ceratopsian vertebrae hanging off the edge of a slope, a perfect ankylosaur tooth and two large tyrannosaur teeth. We also found part of a hadrosaur limb with fantastic serration scars from predation. One area which demanded our attention was a steep slope at the bottom of which we were finding fragments of tyrannosaur bone and all three of us turned up several broken fragments across an area of a few feet, suggesting that a specimen was – or had been – weathering out.
Under the provisions of the Alberta Historical Resources Act of 1978 all palaeotological, prehistoric and historic resources are protected on both crown and private lands. The DPP is a world heritage site and the law protecting its fossils is unambiguous – nothing may be removed. Darren used a GPS to pinpoint our more significant finds and, because he represents the Royal Tyrrell, we were able to carefully remove, tag and bag the tyrannosaur teeth (which could be used in the museum’s excellent educational programme) and the predated specimen, which had an immediate research application. This material and the accompanying data were logged back at the museum. It was very satisfying for Dave and I to record our names on the specimen find tags alongside Darren, knowing that these would be associated with the specimens in the museum collections.
While no professional palaeontologist would argue against the need to protect fossils and guard against illegal collecting, it seemed very alien to leave behind really well preserved specimens to deteriorate in – and ultimately be lost to - the elements. I couldn’t help thinking that, surely fossils like the perfect little ankylosaur tooth, the intact limb bones and phalanxes and unguals and the string of vertebrae could be loaned to schools and colleges in the province and beyond to inspire students to study palaeontology; serving an important purpose and protecting the material for future generations?. While the scientific value of much of the isolated elements is limited, it could nevertheless spark passion in budding palaeontologists and who can argue that that is not in itself of scientific value?
We scoured a long stretch of the coulees – up and down each one – parallel to the river in the vicinity Darren had identified from the Sternberg field notes, paying particular attention to the boundary of the Dinosaur Park and Oldman formations. Dave found some rock closely matching the matrix sample but there was no sign of quarrying at that spot. On the second day, Darren found a metal quarry marker which he recorded on the GPS for further investigation, but he didn’t think it related to the missing quarry and he is now turning his attention (following some further intriguing clues)to the possibility that it might be located on the opposite side of the riverbank.
My visit to the Royal Tyrrell collections, the symposium and the field trip were fantastic and I’d like to record my thanks to the organisers who did a fabulous job. In particular I know that Dave will join me in marking our appreciation to Darren, who spent a great deal of time with us even though he had other pressing demands, including his father’s hospitalization and a house purchase to deal with while we were with him.
Elaphrosaurus last got a mention here way back in 2009 when Limusaurus came out. In the phylogeny accompanying that paper, the two were recovered as sister taxa which hinted at the possibility that Elaphrosaurus was also herbivorous. Given that there’s no known skull, that’s not as outrageous as it sounds alongside this image – the head was reconstructed before Limusaurus was known. Whichever way it cuts though, this is a great specimen in great condition and a lovely mount that shows off the material. You can also spot a really quite hefty theropod femur in the case behind it as well – this might be the only vaguely-complete theropod from Tendaguru, but it’s far from the only theropod known.