Archive for July, 2009

Fake fossils in China again – a demonstration

In my much read post on faked fossils in China I made mention of some of the more obvious fakes knocking around in China and the lack of a need to worry about people identifying them. Here is one of the worst examples I was able to track down while in Liaoning and I thought it worth bringing some attention to it as a demonstration of what we are dealing with (at least in some cases).IMGP3543

While we can ignore the dodgy matrix for now (which is very different to that these animals are normally found in for starters) two things are pretty clear: 1) The bones are quite simply carved out of the matrix and fairly obviously at that and 2) some do not even have that ‘privilege’ have been simply painted onto the rock. You can if you like criticise the various anatomical issues with this (and there are plenty, like the fact that the vertebrae appear to lie in pairs!) but why bother then it’s so obviously a fake?

Taking a tour of the various fossil shops that abound in the area (and selling things that are not of scientific importance like the ubiquitous small lycopteran fish is legal) I was able to find plenty of similarly judiciously ‘improved’ specimens with the use of paints (see the photo below) and some that were *only* paint on a slab. They were not hard to spot oddly enough, though I doubt this stops people buying them and hence the repetition of the idea that people *want* the ‘best’ specimens when of course researchers want the ‘original’ specimens and hence the ongoing problems.


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Sinofossa tours

I have not really had any cause to mention anything commercial on here before but since this involves dinosaurs, science education and China I can hardly avoid it. Regular Musings commenter Jerry Harris asked that I mention his SinoFossa tours at some point and here it is. Jerry, Matt Lammana and Andrew Milner (not that one, you know, the other one) among other run semi-regular tours to China where you are taken around various museums, collections, quarries and the like and get to see a whole ton of Chinese dinosaur (and other) fossils and of course have all your questions answered by the on hand experts. It’s something of a rarity and great opportunity so if you are interested take a look at the site linked to above.

While I am on the subject Jerry recently put together a large gallery of images form the most recent tour that passed through the IVPP this summer. To take a gander at all these excellent pictures and to see some familiar faces (human and reptile) go here.

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What does this mean?

adino256I have been very good as a blogger and avoided putting out any of these teaser posts with nothing to back them up with any details or information. However I have a big paper (in terms of length, and, I hope, importance) coming out soon (Monday I hope, online at least) and so I’ll put this up as a hint. The photo comes courtesy of Luis Rey from Tom Holtz’s recent dinosaur book (it’s very good by the way) and contains an aspect that I hope will become an important aspect of dinosaurian ecology / behaviour in the future. Feel free to guess below (if you *don’t know the answer, I know some of my readers already know the details), but don’t expect any hints from me.

More to come on Liaoning soon!

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Back from Liaoning – lots to see and showing off a feathered theropod

IMGP3379Well I have returned from my very brief soujourn to Lianoning, home of the magnificent and very importnat Jehol biota (famous for its exceptionally preserved fossils like the amphibian shown above)  and I have been to three new museums (well new to me, though one is in itself very new) had a dig in part of the Yixian Formation and seen loads of new and exciting things that I’ll be covering here in the next week or so. There is, understandably, lots to talk about and report on and pictures to show off and it’ll come through with time so stay tuned. I will be covering pterosaurs, birds, soem theropods and too many psittacosaurs as well as some notes on the formation itself and the museums.

In the meantime, I did see one thing I want to include here right now: an exceptional theropod. It has all its various feathers in a perfect natural arrangement including both primaries and secondaries on the wings, as well as skin on the legs and keratinous claws etc. I suspect the original internal organs might still be present but one simply can’t see becuase of all the surface integumentary stuff that is present. Careful removal of some of this or imaging with x-rays / CT scans might show it up with luck. Sadly the other speciemns were not as good as this one, but I’ll be showing some of them in due course, so do come back for more. Enjoy!

Continue reading ‘Back from Liaoning – lots to see and showing off a feathered theropod’

What a b*stard!


OK, so that’s a shocking title, sorry but what else could I do? For those who don’t know, this is a Great Bustard (Otis tarda) which, depending on quite which source you cite, is the heaviest flying bird. Most people concentrate on Andean condors or wandering albatrosses when it comes to the size of flying animals, but if anything getting into the air with more weight as opposed to bigger wings is more of an achievement. Between the three we can potentially learn a lot about locomotion in heavy flying animals (which of course has direct relevance to pterosaurs) yet while it’s understandable that little has been done on the others given the difficulty of keeping them in captivity, it’s odd that so little has been done on the bustard. This one was snapped in the Beijing Zoo and thus was very accommodating, though now they have been successfully reintroduced to the UK I hope to see them wild in my homeland one day.

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Away *again*

Right I’m off once again, though only for a few days. I’m delighted as I’m going to Liaoning to see some of the fantastic and important fossil there. I’m not sure what pictures I may be able to post on my return but hopefully there will be a few.

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Dinosaur skin

Obviously I have covered feathers on dinosaurs here several times, so it’s about time we looked at non-feather integuments, or to be less jargon-y, skin. This picture is of a rather nicely preserved piece of dinosaur skin on display at the Geological Museum of China. Sadly they don’t list which taxon or fossil site it is from and I keep forgetting to ask them. However, based on its size (the small scales are only a couple of millimeters across), similarity of form to others in the clade and frequency of the specimens in the formation from which most of the museum’s specimens come, I suspect it’s a ceratopsian of some kind, quite probably Psittacosaurus.


I’m no expert on skin so I could be wrong, but the important point here is that a) it looks nice, b) it therefore shows off just how good evidence we have for what some dinosaur skin looked like, c) how good the fossil preservation is and d) what the actual pattern of the skin was like. Here at least you can draw a great deal of information on skin and scale pattern and structure. What you can’t do however is say exactly what animal it came from, or from what part of the body.

This piece is in isolation – it’s just a piece of skin on a rock. As such despite it resembling ceratopsians (to my eye at least, or even if we had a pretty much exact match to another known taxon) we really can’t say for sure what it came from. Nor do we know where on the body it would have gone – we can probably rule out the soles of the feet and the head but after that it could be leg, tail, back, even belly. This is important as of course there are significant variations in skin patterns not just in modern reptiles but birds too and also in dinosaurs. As such, it’s good, but hardly great, though still worth enjoying.

Obviously I have covered feathers on dinosaurs here several times, so it’s about time we looked at non-feather integuments, or to be less jargon-y, skin. This picture is of a rather nicely preserved piece of dinosaur skin on display at the Geological Museum of China. Sadly they don’t list which taxon or fossil site it is from and I keep forgetting to ask them. However, based on its size (the small scales are only a couple of millimeters across), similarity of form to others in the clade and frequency of the specimens in the formation from which most of the museum’s specimens come, I suspect it’s a ceratopsian of some kind, quite probably Psittacosaurus.

The silent majority in science

The subject of this post could really apply I think to any ‘silent majority’ though as a science blog I really have to focus it on a specific aspect so science it is. I could be more specific and target something like BAD-BAND, or tyrannosaur culinary habits or if I really wanted to stir things up (which I don’t) the culture wars and creationism. I guess the real question is what keeps the silent majority silent? Continue reading ‘The silent majority in science’

Not-wing-assisted no-incline not-running

A reference only for those well too up on the various hypotheses for the origin of bird flight, but one which directly references this critter, the chukar partridge:

IMGP3090Although it might look like it, it’s not actually running but was standing statically in this odd pose when I took the photo. See at the Beijing Zoo, but for a wild example try here. Sorry, I’m very busy again and off at the weekend to check out a mystery museum and dig site, more proper posts to come soon. Honest.

Giant hadrosaurs – Shantungosaurus

Another short post I’m afraid, more coming, honetly! This time out we have the absolutely giant hadrosaur Shantungosaurus.Here we have a life reconstruction that stands outside the Geological Museum of China in Beijing with me acting as a scale. As you can see, it’s massive and yet as far as I can tell quite a bit smaller than the supposed 17 m in length that this genus could reach.


Although known from only incomplete skeletons, there is enough of Shantungosaurus from the various specimens known to accuraely reconstruct its anatomy pretty accurately and as hadrosaurs are pretty conservative (head crests aside) one would expect to be able to scale them pretty accurately to judge the size of even a very incomplete specimen. Nevertheless, that figure of 17 m is probably a bit of an exaggeration though perhaps not much of one – the musuem also holds part of a sacrum and that is enormous in its own right. Perhaps understandably we are rather fixated on sauropods or theropods when it comes to giants, but it is well worth remembering the enormous sizes of some of the ornithischians. Even if we clipped off a fem meters in length this would porbably remain one of the longest and heaviest ornithischians – it’s not all spinosaurs and diplodocoids.

What is wrong with these hatchling Protoceratops?

Well I’ve got past my internet problems but a crash wiped out the new posts I had been preparing so while this will end the drought, expect only a few short ones for the next few days while I catch up. On that note, I would reiterate that I’m still looking for donated archosaur pictures for future posts.

IMG_2548So in the meantime enjoy this simple and unexciting quiz. This statue stands outside the IVPP and I walk past it several times a day going to and from the building and yet it was only after a year that a comment from Dave Unwin made me realise that there is a rather obvious mistake in the model. I’m not talking about minor anatomical tweaks like leg position or nostril size, so for any budding palaeontolgoists or developmental biologists what’s wrong here?

Continue reading ‘What is wrong with these hatchling Protoceratops?’

Birds of a (leg) feather

I’ve commented on the Musings before about the presence of feathers on the legs of Archaeopteryx an important aspect of their anatomy that had gone largely overlooked (or at least unremaked upon) for far too long and of course is more interesting in the light of fossils like the ‘four-winged’ Microraptor. While the idea that flight might have evolved from a four-winged stage (via elongate leg feathers to provide the extra wings) is interesting, one wonders why before Microraptor it had garnered so little attention. I’m referring really to birds like this vulture:
The elongate feathers on the leg are really pretty obvious here and indeed to anyone who ahs ever watched them fly, or other big birds of prey like eagles and buzzards the same thing is clear (especially when striking or coming in to land) – some birds have very Archaeopteryx like feathers on their legs. The question I would pose is just why were feathered legs on Archaeopteryx such a surprise, or for that matter those of Microraptor or Anchiornis? Anyone looking at a decent range of birds would see a clade that had very similar feathers clearly using them in an aerodynamically useful way (if largely to steer or break rather than to generate lift). It’s not hard to see that maybe an early bird or proto-bird still struggling to generate sufficient lift or power (or for that matter steering) might have benefited from an additional source of control and breaking. People have blindspots and before anyone asks, no I have not dug through the last 150 years of flight research to check how often four winged dinosaurs / leg feathers / control during the origin of flight were mentioned or expounded upon, but I would argue that: a) most people were surprised by the appearance of Microraptor / Archaeopteryx legs feathers (including a large number of specialists) and b) they really should not have been given that plenty of birds have and use them. As echoed recently in the SV-POW posts on necks, why do palaeontologists insist on working only on fossils when we have living animals to compare them to?

Note: I know the feathers themselves are quite different between living and extinct taxa are different and may not have been used in even vaguely similar ways, my point is that we can see birds do things with leg feathers now, so why was the possibility of leg feathers in the early evolution of birds ignored?

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