• Tag Archives paleontology.
  • Jurassic World Review

    It's here!
    It’s here!

    I figured if I was going to do a Jurassic World-related post on Stegosaurus I might as well follow it up with a review for the film. I grossly underestimated the draw of dinosaurs to the cinema. Despite 22 years of Jurassic Park, Walking with Dinosaurs (BBC version, not the Disney thing), and so on, people never seem to be burnt out on dinosaurs. That’s good news for paleontology (yay!), and also for movies seeing as how Jurassic World just raked in a record-breaking $208.8 million domestic in its opening weekend.

    So what did I think?  In short: I liked it and found it to be a worthy successor to the franchise.

    If you’d like the longer, spoiler-ridden version click on the jump.
    Continue reading  Post ID 1374

  • Land lubbing crocs get their day in the sun. Also, there’s a varanid special on NOVA.

    Dr. Paul Sereno stands with others at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Note the wheelbarrow like retroarticular processes on the "boar croc."
    Dr. Paul Sereno stands with others at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Note the wheelbarrow like retroarticular processes on the "boar croc."

    After spending? a few years collecting and looking at the weirdness that is Gondwanan crocodyliformes, Dr. Paul Sereno has finally started to unveil stuff. With the help of National Geographic comes When Crocs Ate Dinosaurs. It appears to be a special that focuses on the remarkable – and often underrated – diversity seen within this group of animals. The highlight of the program (at least in my opinion) is the focus on all the very un-crocodile like crocodyliformes.

    The National Geographic website has a special section that shows off the various, apparently unnamed, taxa. For now, there are just placeholder names that will likely hurt the eyes and ears of anyone who had to deal with the aftermath of The Land Before Time.

    The artwork is by artist Todd Marshall. I’ve always enjoyed his portrayals of prehistoric reptiles (he tends to get almost too fanciful with dewlaps and spikes though). Sadly the accompanying animations do not do Marshall’s incredible artwork justice.? It will be interesting to see how it all gets integrated into the television show.

    Also airing tonight is a special on NOVA entitled: Lizard Kings. It features the work of Dr. Eric Pianka; a well known and respected lizard ecologist who has focused on monitors for much of his career.? The special looks to be very interesting. Especially given that it appears to have taken years for the film crew to get the footage they needed. As you read this the special has already aired. However, PBS does make their shows avaialable to watch online for free, on their website. The show should also be viewable on Hulu by tomorrow.

    A perentie monitor (_Varanus giganteus_) poses for the camera.
    A perentie monitor (_Varanus giganteus_) poses for the camera.

    I realize that both of these options are only available in the states. To date there seems to be no international options. At best there are some workarounds.

    Still, for those that can get them, both shows should prove to be entertaining.


  • Two new paleo-herps illustrate the problems of a persistent reptile myth.


    Titanoboa picture by the paper’s co-author: Jason Bourque

    I was trying to wait until I could nab the papers for these guys, but since Geology does not feel like updating their site, I’m going to have to move without them.

    Reported on 1st February, John Tarduno of the University of Rochester, and his team have discovered an alleged freshwater turtle fossil in the Canadian Arctic. The animal – given the gorgeous name of Aurorachelys (“Dawn turtle” or “Arctic turtle” as the case may be) – was found in strata dating back to the late Cretaceous. According to the press release (which is all I have to go on at the moment), the presence of the turtle has lead Tarduno and his colleagues to suggest the presence of an immense halocline in the paleo-arctic ocean.? According to Tarduno:

    …the Arctic Ocean was more separated from the rest of the world’s oceans at that time, reducing circulation. Numerous rivers from the adjacent continents would have poured fresh water into the sea. Since fresh water is lighter than saltwater, Tarduno thinks it may have rested on top, allowing a freshwater animal such as the aurora turtle to migrate with relative ease.

    The other major discovery came out today in Nature.? Researcher John Jason Head, and colleagues have discovered the world’s largest snake. The new snake has been dubbed: Titanoboa cerrejonensis, and it has been estimated to grow to a whopping 13 meters in length (43ft) and could have weighed as much as 1,135kg (2,500lbs).? The fact that this immense animal even existed, is amazing enough, but the researchers took their find a little further.

    Since snakes are poikilotherms that, unlike humans, need heat from their environment to power their metabolism, the researchers suggest that at the time the region would have had to be 30 to 34 degrees Celsius for the snake to have survived. Most large snakes alive today live in the South American and southeast Asian tropics, where the high temperatures allow them to grow to impressive sizes.

    This is where I have my problems. First for Aurorachelys; how are the researchers determining that this animal was a freshwater turtle? As I mentioned prior, I have not had a chance to read either of these papers yet, but just off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific osteological trait that can be used to determine whether an animal is capable of salt-excretion (i.e. marine). Edit: See Nick’s comment for a list of papers on osteological correlates to salt excretion. This is what I get for posting something right before bed. 🙂? Are the researchers, instead, using the extant phylogenetic bracketing method (EPB), and figuring that Aurorachelys was a freshwater inhabitant, based of critters it was most closely related to?

    If it’s the latter, then I have reason to pause. Uniformitarianism, or the assumption that present day processes are likely the same now as they were in the past, is a very useful tool.? It’s especially useful in the realm of geology, where rock cycles are unlikely to have changed.? In biology, too, uniformitarianism can be helpful for studying processes like evolution and ecological partitioning. However a uniformitarian view of life is much less sturdy when dealing with more labile things like behaviour, or the evolution of a specific trait. If the researchers are assuming that Aurorachelys was a freshwater animal based off of EPB, then I would have to assume that salt excreting glands must be a hard thing to evolve. But are they? I’m not sure we have an answer there.

    Another issue this raises is, if Aurorachelys was a freshwater turtle that was cast adrift, then what are the chances that it would have been fossilized in the first place. Fossilization is a one in a million process as it is. In general, parsimony tells us that unique individuals / behaviours, are unlikely to be preserved. When we find a giant representative of a species, it probably was not unique, but rather a high end average animal. So too, it would seem, with Aurorachelys.? It is highly unlikely that this turtle was caught out of its element.? This may mean that this large halocline was present and that freshwater turtles were undertaking this migration rather often, or it means that the ability to remove excess salt from the body, was present in this species. Interestingly, a similar situation exists for the giant alligatoroid Deinosuchus. Salt excreting glands appear to be a unique adaptation of crocodyloids,? and not their alligatorish kin. Yet Deinosuchus founds some way to cross the saltwater filled Western Interior Seaway. Again, how hard is it to evolve salt removing glands?

    The case of Titanoboa cerrejonensis is much the same. In this case, it appears to be a clear case of the erroneous belief that reptiles make good ecological thermometers; despite the presence of leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) in the freezing Northern Atlantic, or the small Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) living in a part of China that readily freeze, or even the relatively tiny Andean lizards ((Liolaemus multiformis), who live in parts of the Andes mountain range that experience an average daytime temperature of 10°C (50°F) , all while maintaining body temperatures of 35°C (95°F). Both the Aurorachelys and Titanoboa cerrejonensis papers appear to make assumptions that seem questionable given the evidence.? However I will reserve final judgement until I’ve had a chance to read the respective papers. Hopefully there is some hard evidence to back up the assertions that have been proposed.

    Photo by Ray Carson

    Photo by Ray Carson

    Until then, check out the comparison on the vertebrae of a large Eunectes murinus (green anaconda) and Titanoboa cerrejonensis. This beast was huge.


    Head, J.J.,Bloch, J.I., Hastings, A.K., Bourque, J.R., Cadena, E.A., Herrera, F.A., Polly, D.P., Jaramillo, C.A. 2009.
         Giant Boid Snake from the Palaeocene Neotropics Reveals Hotter Past Equatorial Temperatures. Nature. Vol 457 :715-717
    Vandermark, D., Tarduno, J.A., Brinkman, D.B., Cottrell, R.D., Mason, S. 2009. New Late Cretaceous Macrobaenid Turtle with Asian
        ?Affinities from the High Canadian Arctic: Dispersal via Ice-Free Polar Routes.Stephanie Mason. Geology, Vol 37.

  • Arctic dinosaurs special on NOVA

    Photo from Smithsonianmag.com
    Photo from Smithsonianmag.com

    Given all the recent stink over a certain other documentary, I’m not exactly itching to jump back into dino docs.

    Oh well.

    The Public Broadcasting Service’s long running series NOVA, has a new episode out, entitled Arctic Dinosaurs. The episode is about a particularly exciting find in Alaska, and its implications for our view on dinosaurs. The researchers; namely museum Victoria’s Tom Rich and MNS Dallas’ Anthony Fiorillo, came across a fossil bed along Alaska’s north slope, that revealed the existence of hadrosaurs, ceratopians and coelurosaur theropods, all living in far North Alaska.

    As I had mentioned previously, NOVA tends to get lauded for its well put together documentaries. I would argue that this doc was no different; though there were some missteps that I feel may be a sign of NOVA’s producers trying to fall more in line with the fare seen on Discovery Channel and the A&E networks.

    First, and foremost, I would like to applaud PBS for making this NOVA special available online.

    Secondly, I would like to lambast PBS for what is probably their most egregious error with this, and other NOVA specials. Namely the lack of Firefox love. The only way I am able to watch these NOVA specials is by firing up Internet Explorer. If I use Firefox all that happens is I get a dead loading screen.

    The premise of the series is fine, and as in previous iterations, NOVA has done a good job of letting the scientists talk how scientists really talk (i.e. with lots of caution and caveats).

    I was far less impressed with the writing for the narrator. There were more than a few instances where the narrator resorted to straight up hyperbole. Especially in the beginning when it is revealed that all these dinosaur fossils had been found in this polar state.

    The narrator said:

    The startling discovery that these ancient reptiles, “thunder lizards,” lived and thrived in the arctic has taken scientists by surprise.

    Then a little later:

    According to conventional wisdom, it shouldn’t be here, because this is how dinosaurs are typically pictured: cold-blooded reptiles living in tropical climes, not in cold, arctic environments like this one. And the Hadrosaur is not alone.

    Um, no. We have had discoveries of dinosaurs, and other reptiles from polar and paleo-polar latitudes, for decades now. The real neat thing about this find, was the sheer number of animals discovered. This doc served more as a review of what we have learned so far, rather than a breaking news story.

    There was another writing snafu that occurred a little further in too that I feel needs clarifying:

    Scientists long believed that dinosaur biology resembled that of cold-blooded reptiles like crocodiles, animals that require warmth to survive and cannot withstand prolonged exposure to temperatures below freezing. But not one crocodile fossil has been found along the Colville, which suggests that polar dinosaurs found a way to adapt to an environment that their cold-blooded cousins couldn’t tolerate. But how?

    This statement is misleading. We do have evidence of non-dinosaurian polar reptiles. These include Cretaceous crocodylian and turtle fossils found in Victoria, Australia (which would have been closer to the South Pole) and Axel Heiberg Island in Canada, as well as plesiosaur fossils from Antarctica, and at least the assumption that Meiolaniid turtles (large, ankylosaur like armoured turtles that lived from the late Cretaceous through to the Pleistocene) had once lived in Antarctica.

    Oh, and also Leaellynasaura amicagraphica was a herbivore; not a carnivore as was stated in the show.

    So there were those few writing missteps. The only other thing I can fault the show for was its very lackluster CG work. As NOVA is a mostly public funded series, I can forgive the lower quality CG work, though I still think they could have afforded to make their models at least a tad more realistic (especially since they teased feathers on Dromaeosaurus albertensis before returning to scaly maniraptors (i.e. the Troodon formosus). Plus their Gorgosaurus libratus was just atrocious.

    Regardless, most of these complaints are small. The writing flubs were probably the worst offenders. Short of that, the show was well put together. Though the show still fell a little more in the pro-warm-blooded camp for dino metabolism, it was the first and only time I have ever heard a documentary point out that warm-blooded and cold-blooded are opposite ends of a continuum. In fact one of the better writing moments occurred towards the end when the narrator stated:

    Dinosaurs likely had their own unique solution to the body temperature problem, which allowed them to survive for millions of years in the toughest seasonal conditions their world had to offer.

    It was nice to see a documentary that actually took a more objective stance on the whole thermophysiological debate.

    Finally another big plus for this show was the sheer number of paleontologists that rarely seem to make it in front of the camera, including Hans-Dieter Sues and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan (the latter of whom while being a great scientist, has one of the harder to pronounce names in paleontology).

    Overall, this was another fine piece of work from the folks over at NOVA. Though there was a tendency to stray into the realm of hyperbole with the narration, and the CG work is somewhat painful to watch, the show proved informative and interesting.

    In the end, that’s really all a documentary should strive for.


  • Bloody slow.

    It has been a painfully slow week in terms of herpetology and paleo. I’ve noticed that when I tend to talk about things being slow, there is usually a sudden surge in topics. Here’s hoping that will happen this time too.

    Until then, let’s all congratulate Chrysemys picta bellii for becoming Colorado’s official state reptile.

    More soon (hopefully)


  • The Hummingbird of Pterosaurs.


    Just announced today in the journal PNAS, is the discovery of the world’s smallest pterosaur. Dubbed: Nemicolopterus crypticus, this little guy had a wingspan of only 10 inches (25.4 cm). I haven’t had a chance to read the paper on it yet, but from the abstract, it appears to be a juvenile. I’d like to know how much larger the authours believe N.crypticus got.

    Either way, this is big news for pterosaur researchers. It means that either:

    • A.) Pterosaurs covered a greater size range than previously thought, or…
    • B.) Pterosaur juveniles lived in different niches than adults.

    Given the reptilian status of pterosaurs, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did turn out to be choice B. The large size discrepancy between adults and hatchlings / juveniles, often results in the formation of two size classes per species. This allows the animals to better exploit their given ecosystems.

    Anyway, we’ll just have to wait for the paper, and see what the results suggest.

    Still, it’s a mighty neat find.