Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach

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Lying on the waterfront at long beach is the actually rather well hidden Aquarium of the Pacific. Exactly as with the LA Zoo, for me the great thing here was the quality of the exhibits and in particular the combination of rare species I’d not seen before, and those I’d come across at various times but never seen properly, or got good photographs. As a result, the collections here were superb and coupled with a few impressive outdoor tanks (again, the local weather means you can keep tropical species in the open air) made for an interesting collection.


In part I did well here because the lighting seemed to be superb. Even the very dark tanks provided sufficient light I could get decent pictures (and just generally see) the species on display. In most aquariums, even the well-lit tropical tanks can be dark, so this was refreshing, but nothing was too bright, and the animals and plants did seem to be doing well, so it wasn’t any kind of negative on the welfare front.

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As with a couple of other aquariums, it really did need a few places to sit and take a breather which would have helped and later in the day it was rammed with people making it a bit awkward. Indeed this was the one thing that I had an issue with, as with any number of places, there were a couple of large touch-tanks, where small sharks, rays and some other fish roamed in shallow waters and people could interact. There were a host of staff on hand to control these and keep things gentle, but at peak times there were so many people I can’t help think the animals were stressed and at least on shark had some damage to the dorsal fin that I can imagine came from too many people stroking it as it went past.

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This really was my only issue, and at least some animals very obviously enjoyed the experience (one ray made a beeline for people every time anyone appeared at the tank) and in every case there were some out-of-bounds areas the animals could use to get away and none seemed to take advantage. Still, cutting down on the numbers at peak times would probably help a lot here.

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On to the actual exhibits though. Inside there were the usual mix of a few giant tanks with larger species and hosts of small ones and then lots of smaller dedicated selections. There was a superb deep-water area with low lighting with some great novelties – hagfish (my first), giant isopods (only seen once, partially hidden and with no good photos before), lantern fish, tons of interesting crabs, chimera, and various other oddballs and with a great mock-up of a decaying whale for them to clamber over.

1 isopod

The big Pacific tanks were also superb and accessible from multiple angles and again had lots of species that were new to me. Overall there was a nice emphasis in places on invertebrates (and not just crabs) with selections of jellyfish, tunicates, ctenophores (always a highlight for me), giant sponges, various molluscs and others. There were some large animals too (sealions and seals, sea otters, penguins) and one outdoor tank had the largest sawfish and stingrays I’ve ever seen, and by some margin. There were also some more terrestrial species, as well as crested auklets (my first ones, and something I’ve long wanted to see thanks to mentioning them in my sexual selection papers), puffins, and indeed non-marine animals with various birds including in particular the super rare Guam kingfisher.

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The highlights for me were some rarely seen favourites – leafy and weedy seadragons, both present in large numbers in superb settings, and then to top it all off, a krait. Despite having been to some major collections all over the world, this was the kind of thing I never expected to see and so to have one at all (and then I was lucky enough that it sat alongside the glass for a good time) was incredible.

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The place as a whole lacks the raw impressiveness of the giant tanks of somewhere like Osaka, but more than makes up for it with the setting and arrangement of tanks, as well as the variety of species and real rarities and very special animals. It was an instant classic for me, and something I absolutely loved visiting. I could easily have gone back the next day, not because I’d missed anything, but some many species were out and active and behaving naturally, a second visit would not have been anything like a repeat or dull. I can only hope I get another chance to go again in the not too distant future.

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LA Zoo

tapirFollowing a recent trip to LA and the surrounding areas I’ve got a stack of photos and local reviews to get through. In addition to the local Museum of Natural History, I made it to the zoo, aquarium, the La Brea tarpits and across to the Raymond Alf Museum, home of palaeoblogger Andy Farke. Typically for a zoo review, I’ll try to sit back and let the photos do the talking, though there were some more things to comment on here than usual which makes a change.


The most striking thing for me was simply the number of animals that are basically permanently outside. Thanks to the local climate, tropical species that in the UK (or indeed most collections) and would need an indoor area were year-round species. Thus alligators, false gharial, koalas, and a number of others had large outdoor areas and nary a heated room or glass panel was to be seen which was really nice and very refreshing.


Overall the zoo was huge in area and it’s a good long hike around it and especially up the numerous hills. This was compounded by some poor signage and the fact that a number of areas are being redeveloped. It’s annoying enough that quite a few large enclosures were shut and off limits, but still more annoying that it often took me quite a long walk to get to the right are, longer to find it because of the maps, and then fit it was closed was very irritating.


The new reptile house was absolutely superb, one of the best I have ever come across and was enhanced by the careful use of natural light for much of it (again, something that is facilitated by the location, not many places could copy this if they wanted to) and the snake collection in particular was superb. The enclosures generally were very well structured and huge (the elephant paddock is truly colossal) and there was some clever integration of them into the environments, with the aviaries on the hillsides working well.


For me though, the best thing was the huge number of species I had not seen before. Two duikers (my first ever), gerenuk, a number of snakes, less kudu, chaco peccary, both mountain and Barid’s tapirs, and red headed uakaris. On top of that, there were a number of things I had seen before but never got a good look at, or decent photos, including giant otters, harpy eagles, giant salamanders, black and white colobus, Prevost’s squirrel and servals. Generally the zoo was a superb mix of ‘classics’ (giraffe, tiger, gorilla, elephant) and real exotics and rarities, and all superbly curated. The only real frustration was the closed areas and I’d love to go back when it is in its full splendour, but it was a superb visit and ticked a ton of boxes for me, especially on the new species front.


Interview with Jez Gibson-Harris

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To those interested in palaeoart and the world of dinosaur reconstructions, the name Jez Gibson-Harris might not be familiar at all, and yet I can guarantee that almost everyone reading this has seen a number of his models and puppets since he and his crew put together all the live-action animals used in Walking with Dinosaurs and various subsequent sequels (and you’ll also know his work from the Dark Crystal not to mention Star Wars). Jez was kind enough to answer some questions about building model dinosaurs and getting them on screen, and he also handed over a nice pile of photos of various creations for me to share (though as ever, please don’t use these without his permission).


What is your background in model making?

I always made stuff when I was young, kits, sculptures, toys, jewellery then at College in Richmond in the late 1970’s I did a one year Art foundation course: so much fun, so many different techniques to experiment with. I then started a Jewellery and Silver Smithing course which I left after a couple of terms and joined a special effects makeup company that had just finished working on The Empire Strikes Back. I worked on The Dark Crystal and Return of the Jedi, building the famous Jabba the Hutt and later worked on Greystoke the Legend of Tarzan, The Never Ending Story 1 & 2, Willow, Tomorrow Never Dies and many more.

In 1986 I set up Crawley Creatures Ltd. in the Oxfordshire village of Crawley near Witney with a partner, Nigel Trevessey. We worked closely with Oxford Scientific Films working on Natural History films, documentaries and commercials and made models and animatronics for commercials and TV shows all over Europe. Nigel returned to freelancing in 1992 and went on to supervise the fantastic model build of Hogwarts for the Harry Potter films.

Lost World Iguanadon

How did you get into recreating dinosaurs and prehistoric animals?

In 1996 I was approached by a BBC researcher to make a pilot documentary film for ex-Horizon Producer, Tim Haines. The pilot was Walking with Dinosaurs. We built a couple of maquettes a half scale Liopleurodon head and close-up body parts, including a large pair of feet to make footprints.

Tim Haines documentary background and exacting standards ensured that the real, grassless, backgrounds, the animatronics, models and CG all worked together to create a truly believable natural environment. The series was one of the most popular TV programmes at the time and won multiple awards including a Millenium Products Award, an Emmy and Baftas.

The success of this series spawned a genre of programmes over a ten year period depicting early life; Walking with Beasts, Ballard of Big Al, Sea Monsters, Walking with Early Life, The Giant Claw, Walking with Giants and Prehistoric Park. We also worked on the first three series of Primeval and more recently on Prehistoric Autopsy with Dr. Alice Roberts.

We made a T. rex head for a TV pilot of the Lost World, when we worked ay OSF, the series started at Pinewood Studios but was cancelled after six weeks into the build. I think our link with documentaries and OSF and our background of realistic looking work got the attention of the BBC researcher and as is often the case with the TV and Film industries you get pigeon holed, but what a nice area to get pigeon holed into!!

I am fascinated by natural history and paleontology, I have always loved museums, so much so that I have now designed a range of fossil chocolates (I have to admit that I love chocolate just as much as dinosaurs!). So we do a lot of dinosaurs for museums now as CG takes over more of the film and TV work. We have worked for The Natural History Museum London, Oxford University Museum (my favourite), The Eden Project, Gondwana das Prehistorium in Reden, Saarbreuken, Germany and the yet to be opened Dinosauropolis in Athens.

Beasts Smilodon passive

How do you start a new animal?

Usually we will receive a brief from an Art Director and we will do our own research for the latest museum reconstructions, or artists visuals, trips to museums to photograph fossils or skeletal reconstructions. We have a library of books that utilise as well as looking at internet sources.

A production company will usually have a researcher available who will look for the most recent scientific papers and studies and look to key palaeontologists whose field the beast we are reconstructing falls into, to provide us with feed back to images we send as we start to build our creatures.


What are the major techniques that you use?

We will start off with an armature, usually a metal framework, covered in chicken wire, hessian scrim and plaster all coated with shellac. The armature will be smaller than the intended finished surface, allowing for a layer of water based clay or wax based modelling material that will be sculpted to the smooth or wrinkled and textured skin surface that is required.

If we are making a large creature or model, we will usually sculpt a smaller scale maquette, (usually 1/10th scale). The maquette will enable us to create the pose and proportions of the creature quickly and get feedback from our client and any scientific advisers before the full scale figure is tackled.

When making a very large model we have the facility to laser scan the maquette, surface the scanned data in GeoMagic software, which allows us to manipulate the model in CAD. These files can then be sent to a 5 Axis machining company where we can get a full sized armature machined in polystyrene.

When the full sized armature is returned to us we can then begin the clay sculpture. The finished clay surface is then sealed and a GRP (glass reinforced plastic) layer is applied, usually the mould is made in several joining sections and once cured this will for a hard jacket mould that will have all the surface texture from the sculpture embedded into its surface. When the mould has cured the parts are removed and cleaned and the sculpture is destroyed. Casts are taken from the mould in various flexible elastomers such as silicones or polyurethanes.

Stegocerus mid (Large)


What do you have to consider from scientific sources and how do you decide where there in uncertainty such as with colours?

We will always aim for our models to be the best and most up-to-date reconstructions around so we encourage critical feedback especially at the sculpture stage when it is relatively easy to make alterations. We will produce a colour scheme based on discussions and this will be changed until an agreement is made.

Skin texture, colour schemes and feathers etc. on dinosaurs are tricky, there is no information on colour or sounds or behaviour and scant fossil evidence, as far as I am aware, of skin texture and feathering on larger specimens.

Scientists are able to argue the case for their views and understanding as to what the colour, feathering styles etc. may have been but from a filmic or TV point of view a creative decision has to be made to get the visuals on the screen and it is often a ‘best guess’ approach. The ‘best guess’ decision will usually be based on a modern analogy of the creature, our understanding of the environment that the creature may have lived in, whether the creature is a herbivore or carnivore, it’s size, whether the creature is bird, reptile, marine-reptile or crocodile like in its make-up, all this will be factored into the decision.

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What to have to consider from the perspective of filming?

Time is usually very short on a production so after discussions and hopefully a story board from the production company, we know exactly what we need to build and what the camera will need to see. Time and materials are very expensive so ideally we will only build what needs to be seen which is why a storyboard is so important. Sometimes we can build models to a smaller scale if there is no referenced give away in the shot. If we are filming at a studio or on location we have to think ahead about logistics of moving a large model or for freighting and crating and the logistics of moving and operating in the environment on the shoot

How many people would be involved in a typical build?

Because of the nature of the contacts for film, TV and museum work the deadlines are usually very short and labour intensive. So, as well as using our fulltime staff we rely on a network of Freelance Specialists to assist in delivering the models to the screen.

At present we are building a well known, very large, full-sized creature. We have three sculptors, seven mould-makers a mechanical engineer, and a CAD engineer in addition to the two office staff. Shortly we will be hiring two body fabricators. Fabricators really make soft mechanics, using specialist foams and lycra fabrics they will design and make a flexible under-structure that the sculpted skin surface will attach to, but still enable the skin to bend and flex realistically in all the right places, similar to the under-structure of costumes used in programs such as the Telly-Tubbies and their ilk.

Later in the process we will bring in a couple of Art-Finishers to prepare and then paint the assembled finished creature skins.

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What is the creation from your team that you are most proud of?

This is a difficult question for many reasons. One of my first jobs in the industry was working for the Jim Henson Company on the film the Dark Crystal and I was making Mystic characters. The team of people we were working with was so creative and exciting that I will never forget it.

Jabba the Hutt has to be one of my best achievements, working with a small team of six people we made one of the most famous villains in cinema and for such a prestigious film, I still get asked for autographs by Star Wars fans.

Greystoke was my next film and our supervisor Rick Baker won an Oscar for the work we all contributed to. The quality of the ape suits and the performances of the costume wearers was very special.

But those three films were in my freelance days and so the creations I’m most proud of from Crawley Creatures point of view is the work we produced for the BBC/Discovery Channel series of Walking with Dinosaurs. It was a very bold concept at a time when animatronics and CG had not been used a great deal in TV. With a small budget, from a special effects point of view, a very small build crew and production crew we felt very much part of the whole process from start to finish and that involvement was very creatively rewarding. The series was a huge worldwide hit and it got a lot more people very interested in dinosaurs and we won several awards for our work, which was nice!

Celeophysis 1 cu2 (Large)

Protoceratops take shelter – new palaeoart

Although PLOS has many things to recommend it, one thing they don’t do is give you a lot of notice about publication and so actually the production of my recent paper on Protoceratops came shortly before the manuscript went online. As a result, although the paper had been around in various guises for several years, it was a bit too short notice to have everything ready for its publication, including both a press release from me and the following artwork.

protoceratops juvenile-correct1The superb illustrator Andrey Atuchin had very generously got involved in producing an illustration to come out alongside the paper, but his recent illness coupled with the limited notice put everything back. However, I am delighted that he has now completed his new work and allowed me to put it up here.

Above is a simple (but fantastic) vignette of a single Protoceratops. This represents the age class of the block of four young animals that were the feature of the paper, with the reduced size of the frill and the overall proportions of the animal that does differ from what we see in adult animals. Although juvenile dinosaurs are often rare, there is a natural tendency for only full adults to be illustrated, or we see young animals only in the context of their parents or part of a herd and it’s great to be able to focus on a single animal, especially when the adult is already so familiar.

Protoceratops final artwork01

This then makes the whole composition below rather unusual and of course very fitting for the paper. We see the group of juveniles together, devoid of adult supervision or as part of a herd but in their apparently natural aggregation. The environment of course reflects the Mongolian Late Cretaceous with a very sandy region and little real plant life. The overall composition though hints at the wider issues of the paper in a nicely understated way – the group are largely at rest, though remain vigilant and the fact that there are multiple individuals means even those not directly scanning the environment are not that vulnerable and the group as a whole are looking in multiple directions. Staying vigilant is especially important for young and vulnerable dinosaurs lacking the size, experience and defences of adults, and so they must with here a pair of Velociraptor on the horizon.

My thanks of course to Andrey (who retains the copyright on these, please don’t share without permission) for this wonderful rendition of group living in the Cretaceous and nice of him to sneak some theropods in there so I can forget about my fall from grace and pretend that this is not just about ornithischians. It’s a wonderful piece and it really does convey not just the contents of the paper, but the issues at the heart of it, and even if you disagree with the hypotheses, it’s certainly evocative and really does show the concepts magnificently.





The Archosaur Musings 2014 awards

Time for another end-of year summary and roundup, though this year I’ve modified the format a little. With my changing habits and responsibilities, I don’t keep up with and get involved to the same degree with some areas of outreach and research that I used to, so I thought to keep things running I should adjust the setup a bit to better reflect what I’m up to and interested in.

Other than talking about my papers and research generally, I don’t tend to talk much on here about my career, however it’s been both an odd and important year for me. I had a brief secondment back in Bristol for the five months in the middle of the year and then had a big event in being offered a permanent position at Queen Mary. I am well aware of how lucky I am t have had this opportunity when so many other very talented and able colleagues have, and continue to, struggle for employment and there is still a very long way to go (I’ve still got to pass my academic probation for starters) but 10 years after I finished my PhD and after chasing postdocs and short-term contracts round the world, as far as I’m concerned it’s about time.

With all the to-ing and fro-ing between cities and jobs and the new dinosaur course, it’s been a hectic time but my research has rather fallen behind of late. Happily however, several long-term projects are coming to fruition now and so I do hope the next 18 months will see a good increase in submissions and publications. One of the things I’ve been keeping relatively quiet is that I’m writing a book on tyrannosaurs which is provisionally scheduled to come out in the summer of 2015. It will very much be a popular science book and not too technical, though there should be some nice photos and Scott Hartman will be providing skeletals for it, so the illustrations at least should be accurate.

Right enough of the generalist stuff, let’s get onto some specifics.


Most important new archosaur discovery

Although Kulindadromeus is an obvious and very cool candidate here and does bring some new data and ideas to the feather-holomology party, with my pterosaur hat on, the two (yes two!) new bonebeds full of pterosaur material is really big news. Apart from Pteranodon and Rhamphorhynchus (both tending to be too flat) we don’t have major datasets for pterosaurs, so lots of basic things like growth series, dimorphism and intraspecific variation are really hard to look at with much confidence. These discoveries should really chance this and with eggs and young juveniles clearly present at one site too, there’s plenty more scope on both basic biology and also ecology.


Best newly discovered archosaur specimen

It is rather inevitable, but yeah, I’m delighted to see the new Deinocheirus too and unlike some other sail-based theropods, the two specimens here actually have lots of elements and articulated bits so there’s no arguing about the detailed anatomy. It’s big, it’s cool, it’s really, really odd.


Best named new archosaur

No one seemed to like Dreadnaughtus much and while it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the etymology behind it is really neat. Still, I do like the short and snappy and so I’ll plump for Anzu which just sounds neat to me.


Worst named new archosaur

Rhinorex should be a cool name indeed it IS a cool name, but really, that’s not much of a horn or nasal expansion for this to really be the animal with the king nose. It just doesn’t fit right for me.


The ‘Similicaudipteryx’ award for least original archosaur name

This is probably one I’ll drop in future years, as pretty much every year I plump for yet another Placenameraptor or Placenamevenator. Yeah, not every name needs to be super original and clever and yes, having consistent names for various clades does help you remember them, but there are still too many Placenameasaurus things out there.


 Favourite palaeoart piece this year

The standards of palaeoart seem to go up and up with new animals, new techniques and new information getting around more easily online with people sharing ideas and data making a huge difference. It’s also way easier to find new artists and images and so it’s great to see so much appearing online and seeing things develop. Despite the wealth of cool stuff though, I simply have to go for Julius Csotonyi’s amazing sauropods with a fish-eye view. Not only did it win a Lazendorf this year, but it really does combine some nice behaviour, multiple species in a realisitic ecosystem, and superb accuracy but it adds a level of artistic brilliance with an approach I don’t think has ever been taken before and that I know has really caught the imagination of plenty of people. Great job.


The website I’ve been most getting into this year

A new entry but a worthwhile one. These days I do tend to read more of fewer sites, but I occasionally stumble across ones I’d not seen before, or have only ever seen occasionally, and then start reading more heavily and they become a regular part of my browsing. Heavily featuring this year is Why Evolution is True. There’s lots on there that I’m not a huge fan of and tend to skip over, but much I can devour and so do drop in every few days and see what’s been posted.


Best personal achosaur-related moment of 2014

Aside from the obvious delight of having of a job and finally getting a decent website up, there’s been a few highlights this year. First of all, my Protoceratops paper came out which included not only some magnificent specimens but some extended discussions on dinosaur social behaviour. As with my previous big papers on behaviour (bone use in feeding and the mutual sexual selection papers) this went through some torture over various submissions and extended periods of writing so I’m pleased to finally have it out. The best thing however was taking a group of undergrads out to Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta to go prospecting for dinosaurs. A number of friends and colleagues turned out to join in the fun and it was incredibly rewarding and the feedback from the students was superb, and I’ll be doing it all again this year too, and hopefully for many years to come.


Long time no see award

I’d not seen Jonah Choiniere since my later days in China, and then combined with his move to South Africa didn’t think I’d run into him again anytime soon, but happily he was going through London on the way to SVP so we were able to catch up a bit which was very nice.


The ‘about time’ award for slow publication

Well the Hadrosaurs volume is out a full year after all the manuscripts were finalised and proofed, though my copy hasn’t even arrived yet, so I won’t get to see it till 2015 now. I know some of these volumes take forever, but a full year delay from the publishers end after the great work but the editorial team to have it all done to a good deadline was not welcome.


Ridiculous prediction for 2015

Ending as ever on a note of improbability, here’s something I would love to appear next year but probably won’t. At various places online people have discussed the fact that plenty of animals that we would consider dedicated herbivores occasionally consume small animals and it’s fair to assume dinosaurs were no different. So my prediction is for something like a hadrosaur or sauropod to turn up with stomach contents of some nicely chewed bones.


Discovering dinosaurs in the field

I’ve already written a bit about the fieldtrip to Alberta from this Autumn that I led from Queen Mary with a team of colleagues and undergraduates where we had a great time and found some great stuff. My friend and colleague Rob Knell was with us as pseudo-official photographer and he also had video capacity with his cameras so took plenty of footage and has now edited this together to make a brief video to show off what we did. This has been put together in order to  promote the course and show future students what the trip is likely to involve, but it should be of general interest to those who have not seen Dinosaur Provincial Park firsthand and what a better idea about hunting dinosaurs.






Social behaviour in the dinosaurs

So yesterday I looked at the groups of Protoceratops specimens and the inference that at least one population of P. andrewsi tended to form groups throughout ontogeny. I also commented on how this was put in really conservative terms – I carefully avoided using the term ‘social’ and didn’t extrapolate up to other populations, species or genera, let alone entire clades. This is an area I’ve commented on before, but in this paper take a more detailed look at social behaviour and what we can and cannot say about extinct dinosaurs.

The first point to make is about the terms themselves. Look through the literature and discussions of dinosaur behaviour and you will see the term ‘social’ especially thrown around but often without a specific definition or context. Unfortunately this is really unhelpful as, although there is no strict definition out there, it does cover a multitude of different magnitudes of behaviour and seems often to be used to mean little more than ‘in a group’. This really needs cleaning up, and we need to be much more careful and specific – you can find a whole group of grizzly bears together fishing out salmon, but I’d not call them social (if anything they are antisocial the vast majority of the time) and this is a far cry from the social groups formed by say chimps or meerkats which are almost always together and have constant interactions. A group of dinosaurs together does not inherently mean some form of social group with say hierarchies, social bonding, shared responsibilities etc. and could be a simple as asocial animals coming together to breed, migrate, avoid some natural disaster or other effect. Separating out say truly eusocial animals like molerats from bears or some crocs which will tolerate each other under some circumstances is going to be hard given the limitations of the fossil record, and is probably impossible most of the time.

On top of that, individuals can form groups for part of their lives, switch between solitary and group living at different stages (ontogenetic or annual), and can be wildly different between populations of a single species, let alone other members of the genus or family. Groups can be all male, all female, equal ratios, harems, mixed adults and juveniles, or all of single cohorts. The net result of course is that conservatism I mentioned before. Taking a trackway or a mass mortality event or set of nests and saying “hadrosaurs were social” is a terrible idea, and I think most of the time the best we can and should say is “this species has some gregarious tendencies”.

Now I should make clear two things. First off, I don’t think that this means we have no evidence for sociality in dinosaurs or that many were not social, merely that (as with a great many behaviours) the evidence is profoundly limited in the fossil record. Given how diverse dinosaurs were and the sheer number of mass mortality sites etc. many species I am sure were social or at least tended to aggregate into groups, but picking an individual genus and saying “this is the social one” based off one or two mass mortalities that probably span different species, times, places etc. is probably a poor inference. Secondly I also think we can make good inferences for some species – multiple mortalities that are from different seasons, evidence of strong social interactions like display structures or intraspecific combat, inferences from other very close relatives showing similar patterns can probably build up to make a pretty strong pattern, but this would still not rule out some individuals being solitary or complex switches between different systems.

So, if we are at least seeing some degree of gregariousness within some populations (and as before, I think we can make a decent case for Protoceratops) why might this be happening? Another interesting aspect of this is that when we do have mass mortalities of dinosaurs they are very often exclusively of juveniles. Given how rare juvies are generally, it should be a bit odd that a rare event of a mass mortality should trap juveniles. There are adult only groups and mixed groups for various dinosaurs, but there are plenty that are of only subadults, or younger animals, and these may have multiple mixed age groups, while still all being juveniles.

Now both juveniles and adults would come together for some reasons like feeding, migration, natural disasters like drought, or perhaps long-term parental care. We would also expect to see adults come together to breed and nest, but that won’t apply to the little ones, so what effect might drive juveniles together but not adults? One obvious factor is predation. Yes, again this is an area I have heavily trodden before but juveniles of almost all species are much more vulnerable to predators that are mature animals. Adults are better at recognising threats, forage in better areas and for less time, and are typically either faster or better equipped to fend off attacks too.

One thing that can really benefit juveniles however is vigilance. Their long foraging times in poor areas means they are often not spending much time looking out for threats. Hanging around in a group though means that at least someone is generally keeping an eye out, (and as a bonus if you are found, at least the predator may eat the guy next to you, rather than attacking you). Adults may even keep juveniles away from them since as well as competing for food, but actually drawing in predators and so creating danger, so we might expect juvies to bunch up, when the adults may be less fussed. I would expect juvenile ankylosaurs for example to hang around in groups when their armour is little protection against a big tyrannosaur, but the adults might be largely immune and so would not need this effect to help them. Plenty of studies on extant species show that groups form, or increase in size, when there are more predators around and so this would fit the patterns we see here – juveniles are likely to stick together at times when adults may not because they want to avoid being eaten.

So overall we suggest that juveniles of dinosaurs might have formed aggregations, (and in some species where the adults were largely solitary) as a defence against predation (or at least as a major driver of it) but that this does not necessarily imply strong social interactions, merely the formation of groups. We need to separate out much more carefully what we mean by the term ‘social’ and start being much more specific about what that word means and degrees of social interactions, group formation, gregariousness and the like. Conflating multiple different terms (or leaving them so broad and undefined as to cover almost anything) does no one any favours – we can’t compare and contrast different specimens or make meaningful statement about what they might have been doing. We can call migration, group hunting, group formation, nesting together, and parental care social behaviours if we want to, but it’s worth separating them out and we need to do just that if we want to have meaningful discussions about what these animals did and did not do.



A block of baby Protoceratops

C skull IIMy new paper is out today and it describes a wonderful new specimen of four baby Protoceratops together in a single block. Unlike many other groups of exceptionally preserved specimens from the Mongolian Gobi, the animals are effectively stacked on top of one another and all facing in different directions and importantly, their inferred age is different to other Proto specimens.

This specimen was actually collected in the early 1990s, something I hadn’t realised when I saw it in 2011 in the Hayashibara museum in Japan. This was my second trip to the museum after having been in 2009 (that led to the Tarbosaurus bite marks paper) and this was the specimen that really grabbed me and I am obviously most grateful to co-author Mahito Watabe for allowing me to lead the paper on this.

The preservation is superb, and although there’s been some erosion and damage (especially to the uppermost animal) at least one of them is brilliantly exposed and almost immaculate in condition. At this point I must praise the preparator for his incredible work here, this is a huge block (close to a metre cubed), the matrix is exceptionally soft and brittle and the organisation of the specimens must have made the whole process extremely difficult and the result is both beautiful and impressive.

Block view upper front 10cm

There are two major aspects to the paper (which is in PLOS ONE so for all the details and tons of pics so you can read it all there) and I’ll deal with them in separate posts. The first one is the block itself and the implications for Protoceratops generally. There are a number of groups of this dinosaur known already – several sets of adults, a pair of subadults (also briefly covered in the paper – and shown below) and a set of very young animals that were described a few years ago as something close to hatchlings in a nest. In the paper we actually suggest that these were not in a nest, but free living, but the wider point is that we have similar sized animals (that are probably of a similar or the same cohort) together at multiple different life stages, and we don’t seem to see mixed cohorts as with many other dinosaurs.

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The block here slots into this pattern beautifully, the animals are about twice the length of the smallest ones, and about half the size of the subadults. That means we can put together a sequence of specimens at four pretty distinct life stages where we have groups of animals together at different times of their lives. That is something we have not been able to do for any extinct dinosaurs before – we do often have groups together and often of adults or juveniles or the two mixed together, but we are not aware of a so many obviously different cohorts of a single species showing this. Wonderfully, these are not all just Protoceratops, but all P. andrewsi and even better all of these are from a relatively narrow time and space window.

As non-avian dinosaurs go, that’s about as close to a single population as you are really going to be able to find, so collectively we are inferring that this was a pretty normal behaviour for this population. That sounds like a pretty conservative approach (can we not apply it to the genus or species as a whole?), but I think it’s something we really need to do a lot more of in palaeontology. The sheer variety and plasticity of many behaviours, especially when it comes to forming groups, means that is probably dangerous to extrapolate without some good supporting evidence and that sets things up quite nicely for the second post which will follow tomorrow.

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A population of Shantungosaurus, the largest ornithischian

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Sadly I have to report that after many years working on various diapsids and having published plenty of papers on dinosaurs generally and theropods specifically, and yes even sauropods, I’ve gone and published two papers on ornithischians. I hang my head in shame, obviously, and I hope too many readers won’t think too little of me (though I doubt Tom Holtz will ever return my calls now). The first is on the wonderful Protoceratops and delves deep into dinosaur behaviour (and should be out on Wednesday), but this time it’s the monstrous hadrosaur Shantungosaurus, which has not really had anything like enough attention given just how much material is floating around.

The paper is a chapter in the new ‘Hadrosaurs’ volume that has been long in the making (and indeed publishing, since it as basically done a year ago) and if at this point effectively out. Actually I’m not sure quite how available things are, but the volume has appeared on Google Books (with the incorrect date of 2015 on it) and copies are apparently in mail, plus at least some coverage of various chapters is already out. As a result, I don’t think I’m jumping any particular embargo. though I appreciate not everyone may be able to read it in the next few days. Anyway, onto colossal hadrosaurs.

After the initial excavations of the 1960s, not much happened in the quarries where the remains of Shantungosaurus were first found. It was identified as a giant hadrosaur, plenty of isolated remains were collected and distributed to various collections and then, well, not much. The new digs over the last decade or so have seen a raft of new finds, but all the attention has really been on the other things coming out of the quarries, namely the new tyrannosaurs, ceratopsians and other beasties. That’s a shame as there are literally thousands of elements available to study and these are coming out in multiple quarries.

Over several visits, my good friend and longtime collaborator Corwin Sullivan and I went over the largest of the three main sites at Zhucheng, the Kugou Quarry, and took note of every bone that we could find and identify. The quarry maxes out at some 300 by 30 m, so it’s truly giant, and both ends are missing thanks to the erosion of the hill and it’s not clear how deep it might be. We also could not access every part of it safely and thus although we noted some 3000 elements, we estimate there are closer to 5000 exposed, and there could be huge numbers still to find. Out of these, barely a handful belonged to anything other than Shantungosaurus – a tyrannosaur tooth, a couple of tyrannosaur bones, a croc osteoderm and a bit of turtle. (And, oddly the near complete and articulated Zhuchengceratops, though I suspect it is from a different horizon). In short, this entire area and material essentially represents just one genus and probably a single aggregation.

All the material is essentially disarticulated and while basically every part of the skeleton is there, it is horribly jumbled. There’s no evidence of scavenging or trampling, and little sorting either, so this looks like a pretty major event that led to a rapid burial of the remains. We don’t dwell on what might have done this, but bearing in mind the size of these animals and how many there were and this is clearly something big, and also probably quick (this is not a long term accumulation of material).

Already 5000 elements is quite a bit, but the bones are also big. Shantungosaurus is well known as being a really large hadrosaur, but more than that, it’s absolutely colossal. While femur length is not the best size proxy out there, neither is it that bad, and was the only thing we could reliably measure for large numbers of the elements preserved that would give a decent size estimate. The largest femur we could accurately measure was 172 cm long – bigger than the largest specimens of Diplodocus and comparable to many big sauropods like Apatosaurus and Antarctosaurus. While they do have very different builds as animals, don’t forget that hadrosaurs were not pneumatic, so it’s quite reasonable that these animals had similar masses to those huge sauropods. Similarly that also means that  perhaps many sauropods were not as heavy as the largest hadrosaurs which does have implications for how we look at things like the reasons sauropods did get so large. Mass estimates that are available or can be calculated for Shantungosaurs are extremely varied and this is perhaps due to it being so much larger than anything else known when it comes to hadrosaurs or even other ornithischians. Is is basically off the charts (few ornithischians have femora that exceed 1 m in length, and the smallest specimens we measured were bigger than this) and it probably needs to be tackled with a specific rigorous analysis to get a good estimate. Still, I’d be very surprised if the larger individuals were under 10 tons, and it is probably the heaviest ornithischian known and by extension, probably the heaviest terrestrial biped, since I didn’t see anything in the available material to suggest it could not walk bipedally.

Femora were also measured as they are large elements that are relatively easy to identify correctly and were in relatively decent condition, and so go some way to determining a minimum number of animals in the quarry. We counted 110 and so there is a minimum of 55 animals here, and I would be stunned if there were not very considerably more than that in reality (or indeed many more femora in there that are simply not exposed). But any measure then, this is a lot of animal – over 50 individuals, the smallest of which had a femur over 1 m long, and many of which were large sauropod sized. Indeed, the distribution of the femora actually tells us something too.

Hone Fig 4The range of sizes seen is actually really narrow: almost 85% of them fall between 135 and 175 cm and aside from three small ones that were little more than a meter, the rest form an almost perfect normal distribution. In short, this looks like a natural population of adult animals and we can infer they are adult both on the general size and the fact that all the elements of things like sacra in the quarry were fully fused. It has been suggested before that hadrosaurs form separate groups and that adults may have aggregated without juveniles, and with juvies and /or subadults forming separate groups, and that fits well with what we see here (and this also fits with the ideas covered in the forthcoming Protoceratops paper).

Collectively then the remains from this quarry do look something close to a natural aggregation, representing a pretty massive accumulation of biomass (over 50 animals and likely closer to 100, and probably over 10 tons each). It’s hard not to think about just what this means for a Mesozoic landscape, even a big Zhuchengtyrannus would be pretty much outclassed by one of these, let alone dozens together, and they would presumably have been able to strip huge swathes of vegetation clear as they foraged. For me at least it’s a nice evocative image, though perhaps not a long lasting one given that something massive rather dismembered and buried them shortly afterwards. Happily for palaeontologists we have now found this graveyard and there’s a massive amount of material available on these massive dinosaurs, and I hope that there is much more to come now that it is becoming available for study.


Crocodiles of the World


Morelet’s Crocodile

Recently I took a trip up to this unusual establishment in Oxfordshire on something of a whim. I’d been planning to go for quite a while but the opportunity came up and I wanted to make the most of it so headed over (so apologies to various people who I’d been muttering to about arranging a trip up there). I did not actually know what to expect really, but did know that it was a small operation and that they had lots of the smaller, and very much lesser seen, croc species. I’ll enjoy any good zoo, but there are generally only so many Celebes macaques or Asian short-clawed otters you can see, and filling in on a raft of the crocs not yet present in the crocodilian panoply made it a likely hit.


Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman

It is indeed a pretty small outfit, but what there is available, is very well presented (the signs are numerous and excellent) the enclosures are great and spacious, and the animals in great condition and clearly breeding well and behaving naturally. It is not going to be a full day for anyone and even a reptile obsessive is unlikely to be able to spend more than a few hours there, but it is reasonably priced and thanks to numerous and well placed viewing areas, it’s almost impossible not to see every animal pretty well. Best of all, there are numerous small talks and feeding sessions scheduled for every day, so no matter when you go, there’s going to be some extra information and a chance to grill the knowledgeable and engaging staff.


Yacare Caiman

There are a pair of macaws and several large tortoises and a few terrapins knocking around, in addition to some nice lizards (including the biggest varanids that are not Komodo’s I’ve ever seen) and a monstrous python, but obviously we are really here for the crocs. A total of 14 species are on show and most of them are not commonly kept in zoos and are hard to see at the best of times. Sure there’s a couple of American alligators, and Nile crocs and some not uncommon ones in the spectacled and black caiman, and West African dwarf croc and the endangered-but-often-in-zoos Chinese alligator. There were also more unusual ones like both Siam and Cuban crocs and a group of three salties. Then we get into the real rarities – Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, Morelets’ crocodile, blunt-snouted caiman, Scheneider’s dwarf caiman and finally the stunning Yacare caiman.


Schneider’s Dwarf Caiman (or smooth fronted caiman)

Almost all of these were in at least pairs, and generally there were more than that. In the case of the Niles, they were in a huge pool since there were more than 30 of them (though all were only a meter or so long). Obviously most of these are small species even when they max out, but the biggest Siam and big alligator were at the 3 m mark and every big the major carnivore you expect at that scale and were very impressive. Despite the usual level of activity in crocs (especially with winter coming, even in a heated environment) plenty were moving around at least a little, and the feeding times stimulated plenty of activity, and I was able to see crocs high-walking, belly crawling, juveniles calling to their parents, some low-level aggression between individuals, and best of all, some of the Niles rocketing up out of the water to take food.


Broad Snouted Camian

I do think people going expecting a full on zoo, or anything like a normal reptile house might be, if not disappointed, then at least surprised. This really is 90% croc, but that’s in no way a criticism, and the excellent set ups and the animals were a real joy. As someone who does like to target species I’ve not seen before, it was a real revelation, a good half dozen that were new to me, and plenty more I’d seen only occasionally (I’d not seen a Cuban croc before this year, only seen a Siam once before). Moreover with the good signs and all the animals in one place, it was really easy to compare them to one another and get a real feel for some of the differences and how they line up to one another. If reptiles are in any way your thing, this really is something that should be on a to-do list and it’s a great addition to the UK collections.


Black Caiman

London Aquarium

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Alongside my trip to London Zoo at the start of summer, I also took a day at the London Aquarium on the South Bank. The last time I had been was not too long after it opened, probably around 1996 and I remember being fairly unimpressed. There were three giant tanks with the same inevitable fauna in them and not that much else. For various reasons I’d simply never been back and this trip was largely to see what had changed in the intervening years, not least given a recent revamp that had apparently added a fair bit in terms of additional enclosures.

Turning up, my the first impressions were worrying – originally an independent creation, it is now owned by the SeaLife Centre chain. I’m not a big fan of these, not because they do a poor job keeping and exhibiting animals, but having visited a number of them I found them to be almost carbon copies of each other. It probably works as a business model, but I used to be excited at the prospect of seeing any new collection in the UK, but these were so similar when I visited at the back end of the 1990s that it virtually was ‘one you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’ and I rapidly lost interest and had not been to one since.

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Happily, the aquarium confounded both my fears and my memories. The former perhaps offset by the existing set-up that was used to good effect, the latter because things had changed a fair bit compared at least to how I (possibly incorrectly) remembered them. This is very much a modern aquarium with a nice balance between classic things like big sharks in big tanks and tropic reef fish, local fauna (there’s an excellent section on fish from the Thames), popular exhibits like penguins and piranha, and some oddities like spider crabs and morays.

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The major new addition since my first visit is a rainforest section that has a mixture of the inevitable (tetras, terrapins) and the less usual (a Cuban croc, the first I have ever seen), though all of it well laid out and with some excellent set-ups. The place as a whole has lots of viewing spaces and some very large windows into the bigger aquaria, and actually despite being in the very heart of London, it’s not a cramped space, though with hordes of visitors and it not being the size of even a small city zoo, it was a bit of a squeeze at peak times or for the more popular spots.

My only real complaint was that there was almost no where to sit anywhere at all – in addition to simply wanting to kick back and watch the animals (especially in the big tanks where it takes time for some of the animals to come around), I’m sure there are plenty of people who are aging, infirm or with kids who just want to take a break for 5 minutes and that’s all but impossible. It’s probably a combination of the space (limiting areas for seating) and a desire to keep crowds moving, but I’m sure with a bit of thought they could generate two or three spaces for a bench or even a couple of chairs and they’d be most welcome to plenty of visitors without disrupting the flow.

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Overall this is hardly on the scale of some of the larger aquaria, but this is certainly one of the best in the UK and well worth a visit. If I had only one day, I’d still take London Zoo as my sole trip and by a wide margin, but this is not something to be overlooked and, compared to the aquaria in Europe that I have been to, is very much at the top end and will satisfy most enthusiasts.

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Dinosaur Provincial Park 2014

The Musings has been quiet again in part because I have changed jobs / cities yet again, but also with a general wind-up towards the start of teaching. This is now my third year at Queen Mary, but more importantly for me, I’m finally teaching on a course I have specifically created with a colleague and so can really get to grips with an area that interest me in particular. And so a new course on taxonomy and systematics has come into being and a core part of this is actually a fun hands-on practical, namely hunting down, and then identifying, remains in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. Yep, for some reason the university trusted me to take a team of undergraduates out into the wilds of Canada and the Tyrrell even sent along a couple of people to help collect what we found (we had an explore, but not collection, permit).

Naturally much of the discovered material was very fragmentary and unsuitable for collection (not least by the Tyrrell’s exacting standards since they are buried in teeth and partial skeletons and don’t care too much about isolated verts or longbones), but this didn’t mean it could not be identified. Picking up key skills in identifying characters that can be used to unite things into groups, or split them off as different is a fundamental basis of taxonomy and key to identifying possible characters for systematic analysis, so it’s an excellent introduction into some practical skills on that side as well as the more obvious aspects fundamental to palaeontology and indeed good science (data collection, archiving data and specimens, access to material etc.).

Even so, there were some great finds. We were supposed to have four days in the field but bad weather restricted this to little more than two (though knowing the weather was coming, we pushed hard with long days to maximise the good ones, so we didn’t loose too much time over all), but we still put a dozen specimens into the Tyrrell collections (both research and teaching) including teeth of dromaeosaurs and troodontids, some ornithomimosaur elements, and best of all a hadrosaur skull. The latter was found eroding out of a cliff and while the lower jaws were going and most of the teeth were out, the rest seems to be in the hillside (with probably a decent bit of postcranium)  and this has been flagged for collection next fieldseason.

As this is the first time we have run this, there were inevitably some teething issues, but I’m delighted to say the feedback from the students has been incredibly positive and they really enjoyed both the fieldwork, the Tyrrell itself and interacting with the academics present on the trip (Musings collaborator Mike Habib also made the trip up and joined us). This is hopefully the first of many future trips as this should be an annual component of the course, so hopefully for me, I’ll have a nice source of material for future posts every year. Meantime, here’s some views, the hadro skull, some tyrannosaur teeth and turtle plastron.

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My thanks to all on both sides of the student / staff divide for all their efforts in making this such a great trip for all concerned and I’m really looking forwards to the future of this course.

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