Fabulous Ferns – Part of a Dinosaur’s Diet

Ferns – Hangers on from the Age of Reptiles

There are an estimated 12,000 different species of ferns in the world, although ferns can be found in most gardens and some types of fern are a common sight, they are representatives of a very ancient and important group of plants.  They pre-date the evolution of humans, mammals, reptiles and birds, their origins can be traced to the late Devonian period, approximately 360 million years ago.

The study of ferns is called Pteridology (pronounced ter-ree-doh-ol-low-gee), from the Greek word for ferns.  There are a number of ways in which plants can be classified as ferns but they are usually identified by their large, divided, frond-like leaves that carry the reproductive spore producing organs called sporangia.

Although it is difficult to trace the origin and evolution of ferns (there is a lack of fossil evidence to help scientists), we do know from the different types of fossil ferns discovered, that there were many more types of ferns in the past.  As a group they flourished, forming a substantial part of the diet of many ancient plant-eating creatures from mammal-like reptiles such as the sail-backed herbivore Edaphosaurus to the huge herbivorous dinosaurs that were to come later in the history of life on Earth.  Ferns thrived as the Age of Reptiles began, forming the dominant herbaceous, ground-layer plants.

Fossils of ferns from the time of the dinosaurs have been found all over the world, from the island of Spitsbergen in the north to Antarctica in the south.  They would have helped to feed of many of the best known and most famous plant-eating dinosaurs of all, Stegosaurus and Diplodocus in the Jurassic, and Ankylosaurus and Triceratops in the later Cretaceous for example.

Ferns as Living Fossils

Picture Credit: S J Moore

The ferns in the foreground of the photograph belong to the family Matoniaceae, ferns like these dominated the understorey of forests during the Age of Reptiles and would have been eaten by a range of prehistoric animals including dinosaurs.

So abundant and diverse were ferns before the rise of flowering plants, that is has been estimated that for every species of fern living today, there are nine fossil species.  Indeed, palaeobotanists (those scientists who specialise in studying ancient plant life), have written ten times more scientific papers on extinct ferns than on the species around today.  In fact many of the ferns to be found in the more remote parts of the world, such as the jungles of Indonesia and Malaysia have yet to be studied in detail.

Now thanks to the scientists at Tomorrow Garden and their clever plant propagation technology, dinosaur fans have the chance to grow their own exotic ferns.  Tomorrow Garden sells a range of fascinating plants, with each kit being supplied with everything required to help preserve rare plants from around world, giving growers the chance to help protect endangered species.

In addition, to celebrate the launch of Tomorrow Garden, the company has organised a FREE PRIZE DRAW, recognising the role ferns played as dinosaur food, there are lots of dinosaur themed prizes including a top prize of an all-expenses trip to the Natural History museum, as well as hundreds of runners up prizes of dinosaur models supplied by Everything Dinosaur.

So if you or your school wants to have a go at growing some fern species that represent the type of food that the likes of Stegosaurus munched upon 145 million years ago, now’s your chance.

This competition is now closed.

Bullyland Ancient Horse Model

A Rare Model – Bullyland Ancient Horse Model

The extremely rare Bullyland Prehistoric World range, a set of 1:24 scale models made by Bullyland of Germany have been in the news streams of a number of model collector forums recently.  This range, largely retired this year, is going to be increasingly difficult to acquire and as a result model prices have rocketed.  However, we at Everything Dinosaur don’t believe in exploiting the rarity of a model or replica by demanding high buying prices for such figures, we would rather help genuine model collectors complete their collections.

Take for example, the prehistoric model horse (58360 – Anchitherium).  This model is quite small it measures a fraction under ten centimetres in length. We have come across models on auction sites being offered for sale at very over inflated prices, this is not the way that we at Everything Dinosaur like to do business, so our prices for such models even the most rare will always be reasonable and fair.

The Bullyland Prehistoric Horse Model

Bullyland 1:24 scale approx prehistoric horse model

Bullyland 1:24 scale approx prehistoric horse model

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the range of Bullyland models stocked by Everything Dinosaur: Bullyland Dinosaurs and Prehistoric World Models

Thank you Letters Received After Visit to School

Young Dinosaur Fans Say Thanks to Everything Dinosaur

Following a trip to Staffordshire to visit a primary school to work with Year 1 and Year 2 children as they studied dinosaurs, our fossil expert set the children a challenge.  Could they produce for her a thank you letter which began with a capital letter, had connectives and used punctuation correctly.

A couple of weeks letter our mail bag was extra full as the post office delivered around forty letters.  Encouraged by their teachers the children had written some lovely thank you letters to Everything Dinosaur.

For example, Taijah wrote:

“Dear Everything Dinosaur,

Thank you for teaching us about dinosaur fossils.  My favourite part was when you showed me the dinosaur bones.”

Milly added:

“Thank you for teaching us about dinosaurs.”

Dinosaurs as a term topic or even as part of a special science week in primary schools can really help young children get to grips with some fundamentals of science such as observation, investigation and experimentation.  Teaching about dinosaurs in school lends itself to all sort of other extension activities such as independent learning, creative writing and even numeracy exercises.

Young Taylor-Joe summed out the benefits of a school visit from Everything Dinosaur when she wrote in her letter:

“I loved learning about dinosaurs and thank you for letting me help with the fossils that you showed the class.  I had a great time.”

To read more about Everything Dinosaur’s work in schools: Dinosaur Workshops in Schools

Runway Extension reveals Evidence of Stone Age People on the Isle of Man

Prehistoric Human Skull found on the Isle of Man

The Isle of Man lies approximately 60 miles off the Lancashire coast in the middle of the Irish sea between England and Ireland.  This island, renowned for its pleasant scenery, easy going pace of life and annual motorcycle races has been inhabited by people for many thousands of years.  Now evidence of some of the earliest settlers have been uncovered during work to extend the island’s runway.

The island’s, airport is based at Ronaldsway, in the southern part of the Isle of Man, work to develop the runway has uncovered evidence of Neolithic settlement, including a Stone Age rubbish dump, stone cairns erected over the top of commemoration pyres, flint tools, ancient pottery and of course the human remains.  The finds have been dated to about 3,000 B.C.  The Neolithic, sometimes referred to as the “New Stone Age” marks the period in human history when sedentary farming became established along with the domestication of a number of animals.  This stage in human development began around 10,000  years ago and ended when stone tools began to be replaced by the first metal tools (bronze).  There is evidence of older settlements on the Isle of Man (Mesolithic) but archaeologists working on the site have described the finds as being of national and possibly European significance.

A Team of Archaeologists at the Ronaldsway Site

Picture Credit: IOM

The Isle of Man has been settled by many different peoples over its long history, this new site was discovered within a 60 metre stretch of land being developed to provide more taxiways for the busy airport.  A spokesperson for Ronaldsway airport commented that the archaeologist’s excavations would not delay the improvement work to the airport and that the development work was still on schedule for completion in the winter of 2009.

There are a number of important Stone Age sites within the United Kingdom, indeed there is also evidence of Neanderthal and Homo heidelbergensis  settlement and activity in this country.  The oldest hominid habitation has been found in southern England (W. Sussex) and this dates to around 500,000 years ago.

To read more about ancient hunters in the United Kingdom, potentially Neanderthals: Evidence of Neanderthals discovered near Pulborough

Megalosaurus makes its Mark

Megalosaurus Footprints being Prepared for Display

Fossilised tracks made by a fierce Jurassic carnivore when Oxfordshire was part of a sub-tropical paradise have made a perilous journey to their new home, where they will go in display in the Autumn.

The fossil footprints, measuring 50 cm across have been transported from the temporary storage site to the Oxfordshire Museum, where they will feature in a permanent exhibit dedicated to the dinosaur that is believed to have made these prints – a Megalosaurus.

The short trip to the museum marks the end of 10 years of excavation and planning after the trackway was first uncovered at a landfill site in Ardley, close to Bicester.  The twenty-five mile trip from the storage site, where the fragile prints were prepared for their perilous journey, to the museum took five hours.  Project Manager, Tom Freshwater, who works at the Oxfordshire Museum, commented:

“The prints weigh three tons each so the main challenge has been getting them into the garden, where they will be displayed.  They had to be lifted very gently and smoothly because the rock is quite fragile and there are already cracks within the stone so we had to make sure that did not get worse.”

The fossil dinosaur footprints had been excavated in sections, of approximately 1 cubed metre, they were encased in plastic sheeting to protect them and set on steel plates to support the weight of the stone as the rocks made their journey.  Having arrived safely at the Museum, each block was carefully winched over the Museum boundary fence into a specially prepared garden area.  A great deal of care had to be taken as each block was lifted off the lorry, swung over the fence and placed in position.  Despite their weight, the blocks are delicate and every precaution was taken to prevent any damage to the fossils.

The Museum plans to create a replica of the Jurassic environment and display the prints alongside a life-size model of a Megalosaurus.  About 30 to 40 prints were originally discovered at Ardley Landfill and Recycling Centre, run by Viridor Waste Management, and those not been transferred have been preserved in situ.  The prints are very important as meat-eating dinosaur tracks are exceptionally rare and these particular prints, believed to have been made by a Megalosaur provide evidence of a change of speed of the animal.  The spacing between the prints gets longer, indicating a bigger stride length and an increase in speed of the animal.

The exhibit is likely to be opened in October.

An Illustration of a Megalosaurus Footprint

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Megalosaurus was the first dinosaur to be named and scientifically described, although the original specimen (known as the holotype), consists of a partial lower jaw, some teeth and a few scraps of fossil bone, it appears that this dinosaur was a fierce, general carnivore, perhaps the top predator around at the time.  Although, scientists have improved their knowledge of European carnivorous dinosaurs (thanks to a number of new finds that have come to light over the last twenty years or so), the Megalosaurus genus has gained a bit of a reputation as a dumping ground for Theropod miscellany.  A number of carnivorous dinosaur fossils have been assigned to Megalosaurus, approximately 50 different genera have found themselves classified as Megalosaurus at one time or another.  The exact taxonomic relationship between these various carnivorous dinosaurs remains uncertain but at least attempts have been made to re-define the characteristics of Megalosaurus and establish other genera for meat-eating dinosaur fossils.

Megalosaurus has been referred to as a “waste basket genus”, to read an article on this: Megalosaurus – a Dinosaur Waste Basket

Megalosaurus fossils are known from Europe and Africa, it is believed that they were capable of growing up to 9 metres in length, although the fossil trackway was made by a dinosaur estimated to be 7 metres long.  Although it is impossible to precisely identify the exact species of dinosaur that made the prints, the tracks may have been made by a sub-adult animal.  Estimates of the weight of Megalosaurs vary, but the not fully grown animal that left its prints in the soft Jurassic mud all those millions of years ago, would have weighed more than 1,000 kilogrammes.

The Natural History museum created a scale model of Megalosaurus when they launched their dinosaur model collection a few years ago.  They coloured this model in orange and grey stripes, although purely speculation these markings would have helped break up this fierce hunter’s outline keeping it hidden and help it ambush prey.

To view the scale model of Megalosaurus: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

Speedy Dromaeosaurs – trotting along at over 17 kmh

The Speedy Dromaeosaurs – Data on Dinosaur Movement

There are two main types of fossil - trace fossils and body fossils.  Body fossils, as the name suggests preserve something of the bodily remains of organisms.  Typical body fossils consist of bones, shells, eggs, leaves and such like, or their impressions in the encasing sediment.  Trace fossils are distinct from body fossils as they preserve evidence of the activity of the organism.  Typical trace fossils are borings, burrows, trails and of course foot prints.  An individual dinosaur footprint can provide a considerable amount of information to an ichnologist (a scientist specialising in the study of footprints and tracks), however, much more data can be obtained if a set of prints, a trackway of an animal is preserved.  Although it can be difficult to associate a particular genus or even a family to a set of prints (unless of course the maker of the prints is found preserved as a fossil at the end of the tracks), scientists can tell a lot about the movement of the animal, even an estimate of the speed of travel can be made.

An example of the work of icnologists and their contribution to our knowledge of dinosaurs has just been published in the scientific journal “Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology”.  A team of American scientists have been studying the fossil trackway left by a small Theropod dinosaur, in South Korea, they have concluded that this little animal was trotting along at approximately 18 kmh, about as fast as a professional footballer can run.

The trackway studied consists of a series of prints made by a two-toed dinosaur.  This type of print is characteristic of a Dromaeosaur, a small group of bipedal, active meat-eating dinosaurs such as Velociraptor and Deinonychus.  This little carnivore, estimated to be around 65cm high at the hips, was moving in a straight line, parallel to a lake.  Although the genus cannot be identified, scientists are confident that this is a Dromaeosaur as the big-toe on the three-toed hind foot, would be held off the ground to protect its sickle claw as the animal ran.  It is apt that the trackway was made by a Dromaeosaur, as this word derived from the Greek means “running dinosaurs”.

More information on Korean dinosaur footprints can be found here: Two-toed Dinosaur Footprint found in Korea – Dromaeosaurs in Korea

The trackway has been found in the Haman Formation in South Korea, the tracks consist of 14cm prints, two toes per print with each digit have four concentric pads terminating in a sharp, prominent claw.

“This strongly curved and sharp claw was held off the ground surface in normal locomotory situations in order to prevent the ungual (the claw bone, the distal-most phalanx of a digit) from becoming dull with repeated contact against an abrasive substrate, strongly suggesting that it had an offensive function, such as attacking prey”, commented one of the research team members.

Using a mathematical formula developed in the 1970s scientists are able to speculate that the height of the animal at the hips would be approximately 5 times the footprint length.  With this formula (developed by Alexander (1976)), the speed of the animal can be determined by measuring the hip height and the length of the stride.  The American team who have published the paper on the footprints, estimate that this little dinosaur was moving at around 18 kmh.  Other studies, based on comparative studies with extant animals (animals living today) and computer models indicate that these Dromaeosaurs were capable of running at much faster speeds.

A team of scientists from Manchester University used modelling techniques to compare the maximum running speeds of several types of dinosaurs with emus, ostriches and other extant animals and birds.  In their report, Velociraptor (a typical Dromaeosaur) was estimated to have a top speed of nearly 40 kmh.  Perhaps the footprints in Korea represent one of these dinosaurs trotting along.

To read more about the Manchester team’s work: So Tyrannosaurus rex could run down David Beckham

Titanosaur Fossil Discovered in New Zealand

More evidence of Dinosaurs in New Zealand

The fossil record for dinosaurs in New Zealand is particularly poor.  Dinosaur remains are few and far between in this country, although a number of marine reptile fossils have been discovered in recent years.  Some fossils of marine reptiles, are much more complete and have enabled scientists to classify them as a separate and distinct genus unique to New Zealand, to date a Mosasaur and a Plesiosaur have been named and described.

Animals that die in a marine environment have a higher chance of fossil preservation, the conditions permit fossilisation to take place (presence of conditions to allow the rapid deposition of sediments and such like).  With New Zealand’s dinosaurs, what fossils that have been found are usually isolated bones, often in a poor state of preservation, so at best only classification to a Family level can be made.  For much of New Zealand’s history it was attached to the continent of Australia, which itself formed part of a much larger southern super-continent called Gondwanaland.  Dinosaurs were theoretically able to roam from the western coast of south America right across to the east coast of New Zealand.  Some fragmentary fossils of dinosaurs (dating from the Cretaceous), have been found, scientists are confident that there were Carnosaurs (meat-eaters), probably members of the Allosauridae, as well as plant-eaters such as Ankylosaurs and Hypsilophodontids.  The presence of coal seams, formed in the Mesozoic in New Zealand indicate that the country was relatively tropical for much of the Age of Reptiles, even though the land mass that was to become New Zealand was much closer to the South Pole at this time in the Earth’s history.

Thanks to the devotion and dedication of a fossil hunter, a new type of dinosaur can be added to the fauna of New Zealand, evidence of giant Titanosaurs roaming the region has been unearthed.  Dr Joan Wiffen, a scientist and fossil collector has been studying the dinosaurs of this particular part of the world for many years.  Now into her eighties, she shows no signs of slowing down and has not lost any of her enthusiasm for the subject.  With her colleagues, Dr Wiffen has been responsible for identifying six different kinds of dinosaurs indigenous to New Zealand.

The Titanosaur fossil (believed to be part of the caudal vertebrae) consists of a single, heavily eroded bone that was found in a stream bed in the Hawke’s Bay region in 1999.  Hawke’s Bay is situated on the eastern coast of the North Island, the paper on this particular fossil has only just been published after a period of research and peer review, but this is the first evidence of Titanosaurs inhabiting the country.

Titanosaurs, were a branch of the Sauropods, the large, long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs.  Although the Ornithopods dominated eco-systems in the northern hemisphere and Sauropods became increasingly rare in the Cretaceous, in the southern latitudes the Sauropods, in the form of Titanosaurs continued to flourish.  Titanosaurs were the last Sauropods to evolve, appearing some time in the late Jurassic and surviving right until the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago. Some Titanosaurs can stake a claim to being the largest creatures ever to walk on land, Argentinosaurus (from Argentina), is estimated to have been 30 metres in length and weighed 100 tonnes.  Not only are these animals famous for their sheer size, but they are the only group of Sauropods known for definite to have dermal body armour.  The body armour consisted of hard plates (called scutes) that in many species was scattered over their backs and hind-quarters.

Saltasaurus (from the Salta Province in Argentina) is typical of the Titanosaurs, with its dermal armour and typical Titanosaur body shape of a long-neck and long-tail.  At 12 metres and weighing perhaps as much as 8 tonnes this was no small dinosaur, but it would have been small in comparison to the giant Titanosaurs such as Argentinosaurus, Alamosaurus, Andesaurus and Paralititan, all of which could have exceeded 30 metres in length.

A Picture of a Typical Titanosaur – Saltasaurus

Saltasaurus Illustrated

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view a model of Saltasaurus: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaurs

There is not much more that can be deduced from the fossil, other than to confirm that it is from a Titanosaur, scientists cannot be certain how big this dinosaur was as the bone could have come from a juvenile.

Dr Wiffen stated:   “I saw a partly exposed concretion (sedimentary rock) about the size of a rugby ball in the stream bank. I dug it out and asked a colleague to break it open with a hammer.  I immediately saw a bone structure inside that looked different from the bone of a marine reptile.  To be honest it’s a fairly non-descript and incomplete bone. It is heavily eroded and that’s because it must have been transported in a riverbed for some time before it was buried”.

With fossil carefully wrapped, Dr Wiffen took it home and began to work on it in her garage which also serves as a fossil preparation laboratory.  Using fine chisels and small picks she carefully removed the surrounding stone to expose the fossil.  She even used dilute acetic acid to help dissolve away the rock to allow more of the fossil to come to light.  Once prepared she took the bone to the Queensland Museum in Australia for examination by Dr Ralph Molnar, an authority on dinosaurs from Gondwanaland.  It was Dr Molnar who confirmed that this fossil was of a tail bone from a Titanosaurid.

Archaeological Site near Pulborough provides evidence of Neanderthals

Neanderthals on the South Downs

An archaeological site located close to the small town of Pulborough on the South Downs may help provide evidence of how Neanderthals coped with conditions in England thirty-eight thousand years ago.

The extensive excavations are being carried out by researchers from the University College of London, digging trenches and cuttings to reveal tools used by hominids to hunt game such as Mammoths, Rhino and wild horses.  The site is located at Beedings Castle, a large country house.   When it was being built over 100 years ago, workers discovered 2,300 flint tools, at first they were thought to be fakes and the vast majority were discarded with only about 200 being put into museum collections.  Now an English Heritage funded project has enabled archaeologists to undertake a thorough examination of the site, using modern archaeological techniques.  This is the first formal investigation since the site was discovered in 1900.

The Beedings excavations are important as they will provide further information to assist with the long-running study of the occupation of Britain by hominids (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project).  The finds in the West Sussex landscape also have international significance, the leaf-shaped cutting tools and other worked flints resemble similar tools find in other parts of Northern Europe.  By comparing the different tools and the dates of the sites, researchers hope to gain an understanding of the development of stone use and flint cutting technology.

An Example of a Flint Tool from the Beedings Location

Picture Credit: Pope/UCL

The piece of flint in picture shows distinctive working with a number of facets exposed, evidence that this stone has been worked by a skilled hand, creating an effective blade.  Many of the flints have distinctive leaf point assemblages.  These are characteristic of a particular type of stone tool, believed to date from around 38,000 to 40,000 years ago (Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician).  It was during this period that Neanderthals and modern humans co-existed in Europe, there seems to be a shift in Neanderthal tool making techniques as they adopted some of the methods used by modern humans.  Traces of Neanderthal art such as shell necklaces and other adornments have also been found in some European excavations.  Cultural items such as non-functional items of jewellery are not known from older Neanderthal sites and some scientists have speculated that modern humans began to influence the Neanderthals in a number of ways, such as tool making and the use of adornments.

The absence of any skeleton remains prevents the research team from being able to state with any certainty whether or not this site is associated with Neanderthals or modern humans H. sapiens.  However, Dr Matthew Pope, one of the leaders of the expedition commented:

“It’s exciting to think that there’s a real possibility these were left by some of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy northern Europe.”   The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology – not a people on the edge of extinction”.

The Neanderthals began to decline in number with the migration of modern people into northern Europe.  It has been estimated that within 10,000 of the arrival of modern humans the Neanderthals were all but extinct, with just small isolated populations left on the edge of the continent in Portugal.  Neanderthals are believed to have died out just 28,000 years ago, a mere “blink” in geological time.

When the flints were first uncovered over a Century ago, many were thought to be fakes and a large number were discarded, now scientists are beginning to realise the significance of this location.  The elevation of the site would have made it an ideal vantage point to spot game, a notion not lost on the early hunters who worked tools on this strategic point in the local landscape.  The site was probably visited and occupied for many generations, an important location on what would have been one of the most northern sites of Neanderthal habitation, if indeed the site is proved to be associated with this particular hominid.

The flints and other materials worked upon by these ancient hunters seem to have been sourced from local sandstone, this may provide the research team with clues of where to look for similar signs of Stone Age activity – strategic land points with stones for tool making accessible nearby.

Barney Sloane, the Head of Historic Environment Commissions at English Heritage said such sites were a precious archaeological resource.

“Their remains sit at a key watershed in the evolutionary history of northern Europe. The tools at Beedings could equally be the signature of pioneer populations of modern humans, or traces of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy the region.  This study offers a rare chance to answer some crucial questions about just how technologically advanced Neanderthals were, and how they compare with our own species”.

The Beedings dig site is a very important Early Upper Palaeolithic location, the large amount of flint work dating from the Palaeolithic but with some material from the more recent Mesolithic will provide the scientists with valuable information on the occupation of the United Kingdom by hominids.

West Sussex in England has proved to be a rich source of evidence regarding the evolution of hominids in Europe.  A few miles to the south-west of Pulborough, close to the historic city of Chichester lies the small village of Boxgrove.  It was here in a gravel quarry that evidence of an even earlier hominid was found – Homo heidelbergensis.  A single massive tibia (shin-bone) dating from 500,000 years ago is the oldest record of a hominid in Britain, although recently found footprints in East Anglia (2014) have challenged this.

The Debate between Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan

Should Brachiosaurus be called Giraffatitan?

Brachiosaurus is one of the most popular dinosaurs with young dinosaur fans.  It normally rates quite highly in the annual Everything Dinosaur most popular prehistoric animals survey.  Brachiosaurus has not quite made the top ten yet, but it tends to be placed in the top twenty of children’s favourites.

To read more about our annual survey: Top Ten most popular Prehistoric Animals 2007/8

However, researchers studying an ancient dinosaur skull found nearly 100 years ago, could challenge much of what we know about Brachiosaurus and their work may even result in a name change for some fossils of this dinosaur.

Brachiosaurs were Sauropods (large, long-necked dinosaurs) that lived during the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous.  The name Brachiosaur (pronounced brak-ee-oh-saw-us), means “arm lizard”, Brachiosaurs had front legs that were longer than their back legs.  The back sloped downwards towards (by Sauropod standards), a relatively short tail.  Brachiosaurs were the “giraffes” of the Mesozoic, their long stiff necks enabled them to reach high into the tops of trees to browse.  This gave them access to a food supply that was out of reach of most other dinosaurs.  Other Sauropods could have fed on the tops of conifers and such like too, but they could only have reached the uppermost branches by rearing up or simply bulldozing the trees to the ground with their massive bulk.

A Typical Illustration of Brachiosaurus

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Estimates of the maximum size of these huge creatures vary; with weights of between 15 and 78 tonnes being put forward by scientific authors.  There is some consensus that the very largest specimens may have weighed between 50-70 tonnes, even at the lower end of the scale this is getting on for ten times the weight of an adult African elephant.

Despite this animal’s great size, its fossils are relatively rare.  Such big bones would have been difficult for scavengers to damage and remove from the rest of the carcase.  Large bones such as the limb bones and vertebrae could have withstood considerable abrasion before finally getting the chance to be fossilised.  A large Brachiosaurus, perhaps drowned in a flood event could float (large amount of gas in the digestive tract), and be transported many miles before finally coming to rest.  With luck the body could become covered with sediments and the slow process of fossilisation could start.  Of course this is just speculation, the fossil record for Brachiosaurus is particularly poor.  Even the extremely fossil rich Morrison Formation of the western USA has provided only one or two fossils of Brachiosaurus.  Perhaps these animals were less common than other Sauropods such as the Diplodocids, or perhaps they inhabited parts of the eco-system where the chance of fossilisation was much less.  The result is that scientists have very little fossil material of Brachiosaurs to work on, despite these animals being one of the largest dinosaurs of all.

Brachiosaurus was named and described in 1903, by the palaeontologist Elmer Riggs, following study of two partial skeletons discovered in the Grand River Valley of Colorado, USA.  Although far from complete, these fossils indicated that this was a new type of dinosaur and so the Brachiosaurus genus came into being.

For a number of years, scientists claimed that such large and heavy creatures could not possibly have been able to move around on land.  This led to the Sauropods being depicted as semi-aquatic animals, spending much of their time in lakes and swamps where the water could help support their huge weight.  This theory has now largely been dismissed and Sauropods are depicted as entirely terrestrial animals.  The relatively high nostrils had convinced many scientists that these animals lived like giant hippopotami, peacefully feeding on soft, lush water plants away from predators.

To read more about the problems with Sauropod nostrils: Where on Diplodocus was its nose?

An Underwater Brachiosaurus

Picture Credit: Lindahall.org

The illustration above is typical of those found in dinosaur text books of the 1950′s-1980s with Brachiosaurs and other Sauropods being depicted as water dwellers.  One of the reasons for this assumption can be traced back to studies of Sauropod trackways.  Many of the fossil footprints had been made in soft mud, indicating that these animals were walking over wet ground, perhaps indicating that they were in a watery environment.  Soft mud is an ideal medium for preservation of prints, the fact that these animals walked over dry land as well could not be proved as there were no footprints fossilised to show this.  Bizarre logic, as prints are only preserved under exceptional conditions and are most unlikely to be preserved in dry conditions.  The absence of any tail marks in the mud where these animals walked was also noticed.  This added credence to the theory of the water living dinosaurs, as this was interpreted as the heavy tails being lifted clear of the ground and being buoyed up by the supporting water.  The prints were thus interpreted as showing these heavy animals walking along the bottom of lakes and rivers.

The best preserved and most complete fossils of Barchiosaurids have been found in Africa.  Between 1909 and 1912 a German led expedition to the Tendaguru beds in what was to become Tanzania, uncovered a number of Brachiosaurid fossils.  More than 30 individual Brachiosaurs were found and excavated over this period.  Most of the fossils were shipped back to Germany and although some were destroyed in the Second World War, Brachiosaur fossils from these expeditions are still on display today.

The huge, mounted skeleton of a Brachiosaur in the Humboldt Museum in Berlin is a composite reconstruction using fossils found during the Tendagura expeditions.  This is one of the largest mounted dinosaur skeletons in the world.  It is in fact made up from the remains of a least five individuals and has recently undergone something of a makeover as our knowledge of Brachiosaur anatomy has improved.

The Brachiosaur Skeleton in the Humboldt Museum

Picture Credit: Spiegel online

To read more about the work undertaken to reconstruct the mounted skeleton of a Brachiosaur in the Humboldt museum: Humboldt Brachiosaur gets a Face Lift

In 1988, palaeontologist and highly talented illustrator compared the anatomies of the African Brachiosaurs (Tendaguru remains) with those found in the western USA.  He noted that there were a number of anatomical differences between the two fossil groups, although they supposedly represented the same species Brachiosaurus brancai.

The African form seemed more gracile in appearance, it looked more lightly built than its American contemporaries.  Another difference was noted in the size and proportion of some of the vertebrae.  Paul reinterpreted the fossil evidence and suggested that the African Brachiosaur was sufficiently different from the American fossils to merit being put into its own sub-genus.  During the late Jurassic, Africa and the Americas were joined together into a super-continent, the Atlantic ocean that separates these areas of land today had only just begun to form.  It was possible to walk from what was to become Antarctica right up to the north of Canada.  It had been thought that the genus Brachiosaurus covered both the American and African forms, but Paul’s work was supported by another palaeontologist George Olshevsky and slowly the idea of a separate Brachiosaurid genus for the African type began to take hold amongst some scientists.  The African Brachiosaur was tentatively called Giraffatitan (the name is pronounced ji-raf-ah-ti-tan), it means “Titan Giraffe” very apt as the Brachiosaur was regarded as filling a similar environmental niche as modern Giraffes.

The recent find of new American Brachiosaur material may help scientists to determine whether or not Giraffatitan is a valid genus, at the moment the classification of Brachiosaurid remains as Giraffatitan is still controversial, Giraffatitan is regarded as a synonym for Brachiosaurus by the majority of palaeontologists.  In classification terms a synonym is simply another name for the same organism.  There are senior and junior synonyms, in this case the name Brachiosaurus would be the senior synonym (first used in 1903) and Giraffatitan the junior synonym.

The recent discovery of a new dinosaur bone bed in the Morrison Formation may provide more data on the American Brachiosaurs to aid comparison between the African and American animals.  This discovery, announced earlier this week is a fossil “log jam” a series of dinosaur fossils trapped together with a whole host of other fossil remains after a flood, or series of flood events.

To read more about this discovery: New Dinosaur “Log jam” discovered in the Morrison Formation

It is believed that there are Brachiosaur fossils amongst the new finds, this may help provide more information and help to resolve this issue amongst palaeontologists.  Ideally, more skull material would be found, this would enable further differences between the two species to be established and perhaps lead to many of the fossil specimens labelled Brachiosaurus in museum collections being relabelled as Giraffatitan.

Other skull material is currently being studied, a partial North American Brachiosaurid skull found nearly 100 years ago has been studied by a number of researchers.  This skull is more box-like and lacks the distinctive high-crested appearance of the B. brancai holotype.  Skull material can prove to be very diagnostic and help determine differences between species.  If this skull is confirmed as being from a Brachiosaur such as the North American B. altithorax this would aid weight to the argument for permitting the establishment of Giraffatitan as a separate and distinct genus.

More Brachiosaur remains will be found in the future, both in the USA and Africa, so hopefully the taxonomy of these huge reptiles will one day be a little clearer.

New Dinosaur Named and Described – in the “Garden of the Gods”

American National Park gets its very own Dinosaur

A Dinosaur skull discovered in the American National Park called the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, has been re-examined and declared a new species previously unknown to science.  A partial skull was discovered in the late 19th Century within the park boundaries, it had originally been labelled as a Camptosaurus, but like a lot of Camptosaur material it has been reclassified.   Much of what scientists thought of as Camptosaur fossils have been reassessed and identified as Iguanodontid.

The Colorado Springs fossil has been named Theiophytalia kerri, the name loosely translated means “belonging to the Garden of the Gods”.  The species name has been taken in honour of James Hutchinson Kerr, a professor of geology who was credited with the fossil discovery.

The Garden of the Gods is a 1,300 acre national park, famous for its fantastic sandstone and limestone formations that between them cover something like 300 million years of Earth’s history.  This new dinosaur has been named by vertebrate palaeontologist Ken Carpenter, of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  From skull bones a lot of information can be obtained, skull bones are very diagnostic of dinosaur genera.  The Garden of the God’s skull indicates an Ornithopod like Camptosaurus but it is sufficiently different to merit being classified as a different dinosaur genus.  It has been estimated that the animal was approximately 8-9 metres long and probably an adult (fused skull bones indicate a mature animal).

“I think it’s fun that Garden of the Gods has its very own dinosaur,” commented Bonnie Frum, the Director of the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Centre, where a replica of the skull is on display.

It is not clear from which part of the park the skull was found, records of fossil excavations in the late 19th Century, were at best sparse, some sites were not recorded at all.  James Hutchinson Kerr’s hand-written account is the only note of the fossil find and unfortunately the actual location was not recorded.

The notes, which can be viewed at the National Park’s Visitor Centre, provide only a limited amount of information:

“In 1878, I discovered in one of the ridges, east of the red rocks forming the east boundary of the Garden of the Gods, portions of 21 different sea monsters that had been caught as in a basin in one of Earth’s early paroxysms”.

The sediments to the east of the Park represent marine environments, fossil shells can still be found in the mesas in this area.  Perhaps, this dinosaur was washed out to sea and became preserved as a fossil in marine strata.  Other dinosaur fossils have been found in marine sediments, most famously Scelidosaurus, which is known from the early Jurassic strata of Lyme Regis.

To read more about Scelidosaurus: Britain’s most complete Dinosaur Fossil Discovered to Date ready for Display

It is thought that Theiophytalia kerri lived during the early Cretaceous, approximately 125 million years ago.  A herbivore, it would probably have lived in herds close to a large sea that covered much of the southern USA and the Gulf of Mexico.  This sea was part of the Tethys ocean soon to become part of the newly formed Atlantic.

The Garden of the Gods was named in 1859, surveyors from Denver looking to locate a new town in the state, came across the strange red sandstone rock formations and declared it being a place fit for Gods to assemble.  The name stuck and the area has been called the Garden of the Gods ever since.

The Garden of the Gods Park is a registered National Natural Landmark in Colorado Springs.  It  is open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. in the summer and 5 a.m. to 9 p.m during the winter months.  It is famous for its beautiful and strange-looking geological formations made up of ancient sedimentary beds of red and white sandstones and limestone.  The layers of rock have been raised into vertical columns by faulting and are subject to substantial erosion, so more fossils may be found in the future.

Some of the Spectacular Red Sandstone Formations of the Park

Picture Credit: website of the Garden of the Gods

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