Archive for January, 2012

An oviraptorosaur

This is a mount that stands on display in the Carnegie and has no name attached to it. The reason is quite simple – the specimen has yet to be formally described. The consensus is that is a new taxon and will be getting a name in due course. However, having not actually seen the original material (well, beyond a few bits) I don’t know how complete this is or which bits of the mount are reconstructed (though I’d guess the skull is all sculpted).

Oddly enough, I saw this (or perhaps a duplicate) in Japan a few years ago as part of a touring exhibit. I’d wondered what it was then as I didn’t know which taxon it belonged to, only of course to later discover it hadn’t been named. It does hinder your ability to diagnose something when it’s not actually in the literature.

Hadrosaur crests

Here we have the tops of two hadrosaur skulls and thus the crested parts of them. Below is Corythosaurus though obviously rather more developed that the individual I showed yesterday. Above that is the famous Parasaurolophus with its long posteriorly directed tube-like crest. Hadrosaur crests have had all manner of function assigned to them (as, would you believe, we discuss in this paper) but there’s little to evidence to support most of the more extreme ideas (like it being a snorkel in Parasaurolophus despite, you know, not having any openings) and in the majority of cases they are best interpreted as being signalling structures.


Having covered a stray Lambeosaurus skull just before the end of last year, it’s time to catch back up with the last of the Carnegie images (and boy have I made these last!). And I do have some more ornithopods to go, or more specifically, hadrosaurs. First off is this rather nice Corythosaurus that’s mounted in a quadrupedal stance. While I’ve not seen that many hadrosaur mounts most have been as bipeds, and those that are down on all fours usually have the head right up, so this is different if nothing else. Nice too to see the ossified tendons being prominent too. Tomorrow, more head crests.

Jane’s pathology

Pathologies have had the odd mention on here before (like here, here and here) and this one is rather minor as they go. It’s on the foot of the Tyrannosaurus specimen known as Jane. It’s pretty small, little more than a swelling and roughened bone on one of the pedal phalanges. Still, it suggests there was a fracture on infection at the site and this animal had clearly suffered some kind of injury in its young life. Hardly uncommon, but neat all the same.

From the grave to the cradle

This is the arm of the Dryosaurus skeleton I put up earlier in the week. You can see here quite clearly that the bones are held in ‘cradles’ that then are bolted onto the main support for the skeleton. This technique for mounting specimens has become popular recently (the remodeled dinosaur gallery in the Humboldt in Berlin uses the same methods) and it’s a welcome change from the old style. The bones used to be bolted directly to the frame meaning that they were often drilled through or had rods and bolts put through the bones themselves.

Obviously this is infinitely preferable to any form of damage or manipulation of the bones. It allows them to be put out on public exhibition, but it *also* allows them to be removed as single units as the cradles can be simply taken off the frame, and the whole thing doesn’t have to be taken apart to get to a single element. As a compromise, it’s relaly pretty good.

A look into the lab

Yep, more Carnegie. This is the ‘open’ part of their dinosaur lab, with preparators working behind glass in a way that visitors can see them and their work. These kinds of displays are becoming ever more common and it’s hard not to like them. It brings a really secretive part of the world of palaeontology out and into the open so people can see the painstaking work that goes into freeing bones from rock and restoring them to their prime (well, prime for something 100 million years old and crushed).

On the other hand though, I can imagine it’s a less than perfect working environment, especially on busy days. As long as the *whole* lab is not open to scrutiny (people need privacy and delicate work needs perfect concentration) I think it’s a great education tool.

Dryosaurus skull

In addition to the mounted skeleton shown yesterday, as usual the Carnegie provided a little extra something. In this case it’s a nearly complete skull of a young Dryosaurus (the label lies in the orbit and it’s facing to the left).

I must confess to knowing little about this ornithischian (also true of many ornithischians I admit) though it helps illustrate one small point. Not that long ago, it was thought that sometime in the Middle to Late Jurassic there was a landbridge from Africa to North America. This was invoked to explain the apparent incredible similarity between the Tendaguru and Morrison faunas. Both had Dryosaurus, and Allosaurus and Brachiosaurus, and both had stegosaurs and diplodocids.

However, better examination of the available material makes the Tendaguru brachiosaur not Brachiosaurus, the allosaur not Allosaurus and the small ornithopod is Dysolotosaurus and not Dryosaurus. In short, there’s no need to invoke a special land-bridge since the two faunas are not identical. Similar sure, with each having representatives of the same families, but that’s hardly surprising – look to the modern world and the two continents feature felids, canids, mustelids, bovids and others and such comparable faunas are quite normal.

Ceratosaurus and Dryosaurus

I’m not quite out of Canegie photos yet, so here are the mounted Ceratosaurus and Dryosaurus. My first of either and while it is cool to see a young Ceratosaurus (I simply didn’t know there were specimens of animals this size) I must confess I had hoped to see an adult Allosaurus-sized individual. Still these are both classic Morrison taxa and added still more to my ‘first time’ list of species that I got from this trip to the U.S.


One of those occasional random little posts when a few pertinent links crop up at the same time and so it’s worth putting them out there.

First off, here’s a superb opinion piece on cranks vs scientists and highlighting the importance of science outreach.

Second, here’s a short piece on the H-index, a measure I don’t like much.

Finally, I’ve just discovered I’ve been missing out on Dan Chure’s ‘Land of the Dead’ blog. Whoops! Well, you can always catch up now and read all the old posts.

Pittsburgh Zoo

This was my first ever trip to an American zoo and I have to say I was impressed. OK, so I’d expect nothing less, but this was nevertheless an excellent day out. The layout was great, the species interesting, and as usual even for a real zoo-phile for me, there were some unique treats.

Just to get the slight bad out of the way first, a couple of turkeys, flamingos, penguins and an ostrich aside there were literally no birds at all in the zoo. I assume the presence of the aviary has a lot to do with it, but it was still a little jarring that there was nothing at all. I wouldn’t call it a negative as such, but it does rather under represent a pretty major group of vertebrates to say the least, and I can’t see how couple of enclosures would really kill them or impact on traffic to the aviary. My other very minor gripe would be (ironically) the lack of local species, or more rather there were setups for porcupine, skunk and American beaver but none of them were on show, which for me was a shame as these are things I’ve not seen before, dull as they may be to most visitors. Such is life and it’s not the major issue, but it piqued me at the time.

So onto the good, and there is so much good. The enclosures were generous and well-planned, there were some great mixed exhibits, and the layout was clever. You revisit most of the enclosures at some point, doubling back and coming across rhino or lions again from a different angle and gaining a new vantage point and an opportunity to see something missed before, and some of the environments were well stacked Hagenback style to increase the look of the thing. ‘Difficult’ animals like polar bear, African elephant and gorillas were all doing well and showing natural behaviours. In the case of the elephants, the bull was clearly unhappy about something and was giving a full on rumble – something I’d not even seen in Kenya. There’s real power in there, would could feel the room vibrate which was no mean feat given the volume of concrete involved. As for the gorillas, something unique: a pair of silverbacks. Apparently the two are twins and get on fine with each other, so the colony has a pair of dominant males.

Onto the superb and brand new aquarium. This has a strong conservation focus with an admirable record for breeding seahorses and keeps numerous corals which is no easy task. There was a colossal marine tank full of the usual sharks and reef fish, a lovely Amazon setup full of the big and bold, a nice penguin tank, a great collection of large rays and best of all (if sadly unphotographable) a pacific giant octopus nursing thousands of her eggs.

Most memorable though was the outside aquarium for sand tiger sharks. A massive enclosure with viewing ports at various levels and a walk through tunnel too, this was simply bare walls and lit by the overhead sun. The effect however, was magical. Huge animals cruising incredibly slowly and gently around the tank, barely moving their tails or fins it was silent and beautiful, not just the sharks themselves, but their shadows too and those against the stark blue walls with the ripples of light from above was worth watching in its own right.

Finally there was an exhibition centre, objectively to bring the animals closer to the public, though in reality not much more than a combined reptile and small-mammal house with numerous snakes, lizards some bats and the like. And finally a new mammal – an American possum, if looking a bit rough around the edges. All in all a great day, a great zoo and great fun.


A link to this went up on Facebook the other day (I can’t remember who it was, sorry about that). Those unable to click will want to know that it goes to the Lego website and their yet-to-be-released line of dinosaur based toys. I’m all for Lego and like most people had plenty of it when I was younger and used it a lot, in fact it seems to be universally popular and that bring me to this post.

Eagle-eyed / nerdy / geeky / pedantic / whatever (delete as appropriate) will spot that they (shock, horror) haven’t italicised the taxonomic names properly. For all my pendantry (it comes with the  bundle pack of cynicism when you start a PhD) I’d normally write this off. After all, it’s all too commonly done even by people who should know better, so a toy company can easily be excused.

However, what I see here is an opportunity. Lego is enjoyed by millions of children, and I can’t see Lego dinosaurs being unpopular this coming year. Kids love learning and generally do spot and retain details. Lego have always struck me a rather ethical company who know full well their responsibilities to children and learning as well as playing. Given that the line has not actually been released yet, I wonder if a polite letter from a concerned group of palaeontologists might get them to change this? Sure, it’s a very minor issue, but for them it’s not exactly a redesign of the packaging or toys, and what it will do is reach a huge and engaged audience.

So I don’t think there’s any harm in at a least asking, but I’d be intrigued to see what others think. If I put something together, would any of you lot be interested in adding your name as a ‘we the undersigned’?


The proliferation of Chinese dinosaur museums

 This link has been doing the rounds for the last few days. It shows a pair of sauropod models that straddle the Chinese-Mongolian border. I think the author is being a bit disingenuous by castigating this as a failed tourist spot. It’s a decorative border post, if a bit naff, though it likely was done to help advertise the nearby dinosaur localities.

However, the central point it makes (“build it and they might not come”) is very pertinent. China is undergoing a massive economic expansion and they are pushing a vast amount of money into science. Coupled with a general pattern of producing large public works and the obvious rich fossil beds it’s perhaps no surprise that new dinosaur and palaeontological museums and parks are springing up around China. What might be a surprise is just how many there are.

I’m not in a position to even guess at the real number, but I have either visited or know about at least a dozen that have started or opened in the last half dozen years and I’ve been to a fair few myself. Huge buildings and collections are appearing in Tinayu, Zhucheng, Shenyang, Zhengzhou, Macau, Lufeng, Xixia and right across Liaoning. I think there are now about a dozen or more in Liaoning alone (and it’s not a big province). While China is a huge country in terms of population and area, I do find it hard to believe that all of these are going to be viable in the long term. Having visited many of these places they are often are in less than perfect condition despite being new and they rarely have many visitors, this at a height of both novelty and public interest in dinosaurs. If nothing else in places there’s one in each town and it’s hard to conceive of each of them drawing in huge crowds with competition in every town within 50 or 100 km. Even with public funding, I’m sceptical that many of these will still be viable in the next dozen years.

All of this is a worry. At the moment there’s a huge ‘gold rush’ to exploit the available fossils and get things into museums. From at least a couple of places I’ve been to I’d suggest that these may not all be being collected in the best manner they could be and that not everything on display should really be there. Nor for that matter is all of it being kept properly and I fear for some specimens. In short the collections are being assembled and curated by people lacking expertise.

Moreover, what might happen to collections that go bust? I’m not used to the concept of museums housing hundreds of specimens going bankrupt. I’m sure it happens on occasion and material has to be moved on or stored for a bit, but what would happen if a major collection suddenly went under? Or will the local authorities step in and fund expensive but failing institutes, draining budgets for science elsewhere to support them?

Perhaps I’m being overly worried, but while I don’t know that much about the economics of museums and catchment areas, and governmental financing, I have seen how many of these places there are and what they are like and how (some) are being run. Some seem to be running out of investment before they have even been built, so it’s not a major leap of imagination to think some will bite the dust and then, well, I don’t know. But I am a bit worried.

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