Answering Questions from Teachers

Advising Schools about Dinosaurs

Another day and another challenge for the team members at Everything Dinosaur.  Lots of primary schools are using dinosaurs as a teaching topic for their Summer term.  We seem to be getting more than our usual number of enquiries from teachers and teaching assistants who are busy preparing schemes of work in readiness for the start of next term.  It seems quite a popular subject area at the moment, teaching about dinosaurs and fossils in schools.

Our staff always try to help where they can.  Many of them have teaching qualifications of their own and they remember having to work Sundays to prepare the class lesson plans for the following week.  As far as the dinosaur information requested in the last few days, it has been eclectic to say the least.  We have helped with the provision of lesson plans involving how fossils form, pictures of different types and sizes of dinosaur bone, supplied details of dinosaur and other prehistoric animal teeth, as well as giving instructions on how to build a timeline from the beginning of the Mesozoic to the present day.  All good fun, but my particular favourite had nothing to do with the Dinosauria at all.  We received a request to provide some further information on the Cambrian explosion – Trilobites and all.  These members of the Arthropoda have a special place in the hearts of many a palaeontologist, sure they don’t quite have the impact of a Tyrannosaurus rex, but they are an extremely important group in terms of the fossil record that they left behind.

An Illustration of a Trilobite

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

For the uninitiated, Trilobites are an extinct group of Palaeozoic, entirely marine Arthropods with a distinct threefold longitudinal division of their body and hard, armoured exoskeleton.  These exoskeletons had to be moulted for the animals to grow and they have resulted in a rich and abundant fossil record from the early Cambrian to the end of the Permian geological period.  So diverse were the Trilobites that we think at last count they constituted nine distinct Orders, represented by something like 15,000 species.

Great fun providing advice, guidance and information to teachers, we can sleep easy tonight as we have helped give some teachers and teaching assistants their Sundays back.

“Small Thief or Plunderer” – Microraptor

Microraptor gui – A Dromaeosauridae with Attitude

The dinosaur known as Microraptor (Microraptor gui) is one of the smallest dinosaurs known in the fossil record, with some specimens having a body length less than ten centimetres.  Known from the finely grained Cretaceous sediments of the Liaoning province of northern China.  The short, stiff body was covered in primitive feathers and this tiny dinosaur had asymmetrical flight feathers on both its relatively long arms and legs.  These fossils provide important evolutionary evidence between the dinosaurs and birds (Aves).

An Illustration of Microraptor (Microraptor gui)

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

In the picture, two Microraptors are displaying to each other, their bright, colours make them very visible in the dark understorey of the Cretaceous forest.  Analysis of the claws on the toes and hands show that they were sharp and highly curved.  These claws would have made very effective grappling hooks to help this little creature scale the trunks of trees.  How much time it spent in the trees is very much open to debate and extremely difficult to prove given the fossil data available.  However, it was very well adapted to an arboreal existence and with a number of terrestrial predators lurking in the forest, the branches of trees might have been a very safe place to be.

A recent study using computer modelling revealed that as well as being an effective glider, anatomically Microraptor was probably capable of short-bursts of powered flight.  This four-winged wonder could have safely “perched” on the branches of trees, picking off insects from the leaves whilst being safe from attack from the larger dinosaurs that roamed the forest floor – it was a Dromaeosaur with attitude.

Dinosaur Drawing in Utah – Creationists say it is Proof

Creationists Still Say “Sauropod” Drawing is Proof

A drawing on the sandstone face of a rock in Utah has excited Creationists since its discovery, as it seems to show a long-necked dinosaur, a Sauropod.  Many Creationists have claimed that this drawing was evidence that our ancestors lived alongside dinosaurs.  The area of Utah where the “dinosaur drawing” was found a few years ago has many such sites.  Native Indians using the rock formations and cave walls to depict scenes from their environment, including pictures of wild animals that shared their world, animals like deer and bears.

If they had drawn a picture of a dinosaur, then, as many Creationists would believe, this was evidence that people really did exist alongside the dinosaurs.  This is not the only case of such “dinosaur drawings”, we have seen pictures of temples in the Far East that seem to show a Stegosaurus cut out in relief on the temple’s stone wall.  Even back in Utah there are other sites of native Indian drawings that show strange creatures, including, as some observers claim, a drawing of a horned dinosaur – possibly a Triceratops.

Certainly, native Americans were aware of strange objects that could be found in certain places, the state of Utah has many fossil rich sites, and many vertebrate fossils including dinosaurs are eroding out of the strata and can be found on the ground, these objects were most certainly seen and examined by people.  Native Americans thought that the fossilised bones of what we know as Triceratops were the remains of a giant, long dead type of buffalo that had roamed across their lands.

For Phil Senter, an associate professor of biology at Fayetteville State University (part of North Caroline State), having seen the image himself and noting the resemblance to a Sauropod, he decided that it needed further investigation.

The Utah Rock Drawing – A Sauropod Dinosaur?

Creationists Claim Proof

Picture Credit: Senter

The image is not very distinct, in order to help readers see the controversial picture we have added a border around part so that the shape of the “dinosaur” can be made out more clearly.

The associate professor contacted archaeologist Sally Cole, an authority on cave drawings and other imagery and she examined the drawing and concluded that it was actually a composite of two separate drawings.  The first drawing is a snake, this explains the long “Sauropod-like” neck that can be seen to the right of the picture.  The supposed “legs” of the dinosaur are just stains from minerals or mud.

The results of this study has been published in the journal “Palaeontologia Electronica”.  The scientists state that this is an example of a paraeidolia, the psychological phenomenon of perceiving significance from random or vague stimuli.  Examples would be “seeing” a human face in an item of food or animals in cloud shapes and formations.

On a sunny day, a while ago, one of our team member took a picture of an instance of paraeidolia – they thought they could see the shape of the Loch Ness monster (a hump-backed Nessie) in a cloud.

To read this article and to view the picture: Hunting Nessie in the Clouds

Leading Creationists have denounced the study, claiming that the image was not examined up close, citing that it would be difficult to come to any firm conclusions if the image was studied at a distance through binoculars.  It is unlikely that this new study will persuade any of the parties to change their views.  The Creationist versus Evolutionist debate will run and run.

The Big Boys From Brazil – New Spinosaurid Described

New Spinosaurus from South America Described – A Rival to T. rex

A team of scientists have just published a scientific description of a new genus of giant Spinosaurid dinosaur, perhaps one that rivalled Tyrannosaurus rex in terms of its size.  The palaeontologists have provided a fascinating insight into the ancient Cretaceous ecosystem of Brazil, one that may have been dominated by this giant predator.

The Spinosaurids have only really come to the attention of the wider public, thanks to the appearance of a giant Spinosaurus in the film – Jurassic Park III, a movie which required a new angle on the Tyrannosaurus rex being the big baddie, as T. rex had been the main dinosaur star in the first two films in the J.P. franchise.  Known from the early 20th Century, thanks to Stromer’s expeditions to north Africa, the Spinosaurids represent an unusual off-shoot of the Theropoda clade.  Carnivores, perhaps specialist piscivores (fish-eaters), these bipedal dinosaurs had long, narrow snouts, superficially similar to the jaws of crocodiles.  The teeth were straight and sharp, lacking the curvature of a Tyrannosaurid, Dromaeosaurid or Allosaurid tooth.  The teeth on the lower jaw were numerous and relatively small, the tip of the upper jaw (premaxilla) held a separate rosette of of much larger teeth, the upper jaw had a distinctive “kink” and the nostrils were positioned well back from the tip of the snout.  These may have been adaptations to permit these predators to catch fish. The narrow snouts would have entered the water, the small teeth could catch a slippery fish, and the nostrils would still be held clear of the water.

However, many members of the Spinosaur family, including this new genus described in the scientific journal “The Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences”, were also most probably apex predators hunting and killing other dinosaurs as well as crocodiles and other creatures that shared their watery world.

This new Spinosaurus has been named Oxalaia quilombensis.  It becomes the newest member of the bizarre Spinosaurus family and with scientists estimating that it could have reached lengths in excess of 14 metres and weighed as much as 7 tonnes, it rivals the more famous T. rex in terms of size.

An Illustration of O. quilombensis

Picture Credit: Brazilian National Museum

The artist has depicted this new Spinosaur with a sail-like structure running along the back, a feature found in other members of this dinosaur family.  There is no fossil evidence to suggest that this particular Spinosaur had a sail.

The fragmentary fossils including the tip of the upper jaw, so characteristic of other known Spinosaur material were found in the Alcantara Formation on Cajual island which is part of northeastern Brazil’s Maranhao state.  The fossils have been dated to around 98 to 95 million years ago (Cenemanian faunal stage) and the scientists who have been studying this new dinosaur have stated that this new discovery is important as it helps to establish the ancestral line of this geographically dispersed group of Theropods.

Alexander Kellner, a Brazilian palaeontologist and one of the researchers who has studied the fossils, stated that this new dinosaur from Brazil, although known from only fragmentary material seems to have a closer affinity to African Spinosaurs than to other Spinosaurids known from South America.  This similarity suggests that the ancestors of the African and Brazilian genera came from the same area before the African and South American continents split as part of the Atlantic ridge formation, sometime between 130 and 110 million years ago.

The Characteristic Snout Tip of a Spinosaur – Oxalaia quilombensis

Evidence of Giant Spinosaur?

Picture Credit: Kellner et al

The picture shows the tip of the upper jaw of Oxalaia quilombensis, this the view from underneath (ventral view), the holes along the sides are sockets for teeth.  The end of the jaw is to the right of the picture.

The Brazilian scientists hope to be able to find more fossil material from the site, but they have been hampered by the problem of fossil material being rapidly eroded and destroyed once it is exposed.  The fossils found so far, are being stored at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum.

It seems that this particular Theropod had two rows of extra teeth on both sides of its mouth, suggesting that it could replace worn or broken teeth.  Just like in many other Theropods and sharks, as one tooth was lost another was waiting to erupt through the gumline as a replacement.  This ensured that these dinosaurs always had a toothy grin, just what is needed when you are an active hunter.

Unfortunately, no limb bones have been found, so this new specimen is unable to add to the debate over whether these large predators were entirely bipedal or faculatative quadrupeds (able to walk on all fours if the need arose).  The limb proportions of some Spinosaurs indicate that their arms were much longer than other large Theropods, much larger than Tyrannosaurs, Allosaurs and Abelisaurids.  This has led to some interesting and very different interpretations of Spinosaurs from model makers – from the graceful and delicate features of the Safari Carnegie Spinosaurus model to the more robust models made by Schleich and Collecta.

To view Everything Dinosaur’s dinosaur model range: dinosaur toys for boys and girls, dinosaur models

How big was Eotyrannus?

Eotyrannus – The English Tyrannosaur

At Everything Dinosaur we get lots of letters, drawings, emails and other correspondence from young dinosaur fans.  On Friday, we received an email asking the question just how big was Eotyrannus?  We replied to this email yesterday, here is our answer.

Eotyrannus is known from only one fossilised skeleton which was found by amateur fossil collector Gavin Leng in 1996.  The fossil material, represents less than half of the entire animal skeleton, so it is difficult to estimate the size of this meat-eating dinosaur when studying such few bones.  The fossil material consists of parts of the skull, jaws, teeth, parts of the backbone and elements of the limbs including bones from the hands and feet.  This dinosaur has been assigned to the Tyrannosaur family and represents one of the earliest Tyrannosaurs known to science.  It was formally named and described by a team of British palaeontologists in 2001.

A Scale Drawing of Eotyrannus (Drawing based on the Collecta Dinosaurs Model)

Eotyrannus Illustrated

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The fossils date from the early Cretaceous, they were found in a plant debris bed of the Wessex Formation on the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight (off southern England).  Comparisons between the Eotyrannus material and other meat-eating dinosaurs (Coelurosaurs) suggest that the individual that the fossil material represents was about 4 metres long.  However, some of the bones indicate that they belong to a sub-adult animal.  Based on the assumption that this animal was not fully grown, palaeontologists have estimated that this animal may have reached a length of approximately 6 metres.

Unlike the more famous, Tyrannosaurus rex the forelimbs and fingers of Eotyrannus were long and most probably were used to grasp prey.  A model of this meat-eating dinosaur is available from Everything Dinosaur, it can be found in the Collecta model series, to view this model and other members of the Tyrannosaur family, see the link:

Dinosaur Models including the Collecta Eotyrannus dinosaur model: Dinosaur Toys for Girls + Boys – Dinosaur Models

Happy Birthday to Richard Dawkins

Professor Richard Dawkins is Seventy Today

Professor Dawkins, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature, a recipient of numerous other awards and accolades is seventy today.  Many happy returns Professor.  In 2008, Channel Four (United Kingdom), broadcast a three-part television documentary entitled “The Genius of Charles Darwin”, a series that examined the legacy and work of that great scientist and thinker.  These programmes were very well made and highly informative.

Professor Dawkins has written many books, most of them bestsellers in support of the theory of evolution, natural selection and Darwinism.  At the moment, one of the team members at Everything Dinosaur is reading “The Greatest Show on Earth”, a book which was first published in 2009, the commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the “Origin of Species” being first put into print.  This book outlines the evidence in support of evolution, it is a most educational and entertaining read.  Professor Dawkins puts across his point of view and explains scientific principles with tremendous enthusiasm.  He has a rare gift of being able to explain complex issues in such a way as to make the subject eminently understandable.

And the Frogs have Left the Pond

Frogs Leave Record Amount of Spawn in Office Pond

This morning, we noticed that all the frogs had left the office pond.  One large individual, was found close to the pond on the paving slabs adjacent to the water’s edge.  It was very lethargic and we did not stop to examine whether it was a male or female Common Frog.  The males develop a fleshy pad (called a nuptial pad) on their first digit.  They use this pad to secure themselves to a female during breeding, so during the mating season at least it is relatively easy to distinguish between males and females.

The frog was quite dry, so we suspected that it had been out of the water for sometime.  Concerned for its well being, especially with the prospect of a sunny day threatening to de-hydrate it and bring out the neighbourhood’s cats to investigate, we decided to move the frog to a safer place.

Carefully a colleague picked up the animal and transported it to an area of overgrown, shady scrub and made sure the frog was well hidden.  We suspect that since this creature showed no outward signs of any harm, it may simply have been exhausted after the exertions of the last few days.  By placing it a quiet, sheltered spot, we are confident that this frog will recover and perhaps return again next year to our office pond to breed.

The frogs have certainly been busy over the last week or so, we have a record amount of frog spawn in the pond, perhaps as many as eight females have laid eggs.

Sabre-Toothed Vegetarian from the Late Permian

Dagger-Toothed Vegetarian Reptile from the Late Permian of Brazil

Researchers reporting in the scientific journal “Live Science” have announced the discovery of a bizarre vegetarian reptile, with large upper canine teeth making it look a little like a miniature Sabre-toothed cat.  The animal formally named as Tiarajudens eccentricus was about the size of an Alsatian, it was a plant-eater, as other teeth in the fossilised jaws are clearly adapted for crushing plant matter, but the large, prominent canines represent a palaeontological puzzle for scientists.

A number of animals in the fossil record show large sabre-like teeth, the Sabre-Tooth Cats (Smilodon) are perhaps the best known but other groups such as the Gorgonopsids evolved oversized, dagger-like teeth.  Most of these creatures were entirely carnivorous, however, herbivores with enlarged teeth are known.  For example, the two- metre-long Dicynodont Dinodontosaurus had an enlarged upper tooth either side of its top jaw.  These teeth would not have been very useful in feeding, perhaps the teeth, which resemble tusks had a display function.

An Illustration of the Bizarre Vegetarian (T. eccentricus)

Picture Credit: Associated Press

The upper teeth each measure over 14 centimetres in length, research leader Juan Carlos Cisneros of the University of Piaui in north-eastern Brazil, stated these animals may have used their teeth to intimidate rivals or to attract a mate.  The teeth could also be used in threat gestures to scare of any potential predators.

This new genus has been compared to the extant Musk Deer (genus Moschus), which also has a pair of large, tusk-like teeth but is entirely herbivorous.

Dr. Juan Carlos Cisneros, a specialist on Permian and Triassic Tetrapods stated that when discovering animals like this:

“Shows us how nature is extremely creative in providing solutions for several life tasks.”

The Skull Material of the T. eccentricus Specimen

Sabre-Toothed Vegetarian

Picture Credit: Associated Press

In the picture showing a ventral view of the left side of the skull, a long, dagger-like tooth can be clearly seen, along with peg-like teeth from the premaxilla.  The large orbit, (eye socket) indicates that vision was a very important sense for this small member of the Anomodontia.

The research team state that the palate of the mouth was studded with teeth, allowing for rapid replacement of lost teeth an adaptation to a diet of tough, fibrous leaves.

Dr. Juan Carlos Cisnero went onto add:

“It looks like a combination of different animals and it takes some time to believe it when you this animal in front of you.  It has the incisors of a horse, which are very good for cutting and pulling plants, the big molars of a capybara [large rodent] for grinding and the canines of a sabre-toothed cat.”

Rare Ankylosaur Fossil Turns up in Alberta’s Oil Sands

Oil Worker Digs up Armoured Dinosaur

An oil worker using a mechanical excavator to clear debris in preparation for more crude oil extraction in the vast oil sands field of Alberta (Canada), has unearthed a partial fossil of an Ankylosaur.  A surprising find, as the sediments that the fossil was found in were laid down in a marine environment.  Occasionally, fossils of ammonites and shellfish are found, but to discover a dinosaur fossil, is extremely unusual.

Scientists have speculated that the carcase of the Ankylosaurus was probably washed out to sea by a flood event.  The heavy armour on the back would have acted as “keel” for the corpse and the body would have floated for some time, buoyed up by gas contained in the stomach and other internal organs.  Eventually the body would have ruptured, the gas would have escaped and the remains of this armoured dinosaur would have sunk to the bottom of the sea.  Over time, the body would have been covered with sediments and 110 million years later the fossilised Ankylosaurus was dug up by the surprised oil worker.

The Albertan oil sands, are a huge area of tar and sand which is mined for its crude oil deposits. The sediments were laid down in the Cretaceous and represent a marine environment.  Around ten years ago, the fossil of an Ichthyosaur (marine reptile), was found in this strata, but to discover a dinosaur in these sediments is most unusual but not completely unknown.  For example, in the marine Jurassic strata of Dorset, the fossils of an earlier armoured dinosaur have been discovered- Scelidosaurus.

The Albertan fossil, may represent a new genus of Ankylosaur, commenting on the discovery Donald Henderson, the curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Alberta) stated:

“We’ve never found a dinosaur in this location.  Because the area was once sea, most finds are invertebrates such as clams and ammonites.”

Researchers have estimated that this dinosaur would have measured in excess of five metres and would have been at least 2 metres wide.

Part of the Ankylosaurus Fossil showing Dermal Armour

Picture Credit: Reuters/Alberta Culture and Community

The picture shows some of the preserved scutes (body armour), the pen provides a scale for the photograph.

Dr. Henderson added:

“It is pretty amazing that it survived in such good condition.  It is also the earliest partially complete dinosaur that we have from this province [Alberta].”

The fossil is very well preserved and is almost three-dimensional, not having suffered too much compression as the layers of sediments built up on top of the remains.

The Ankylosaurus was found by a Suncor Energy excavator operator, who ironically had visited the Royal Tyrrell Museum just the week before.

Dr. Henderson suggested that the worker had been thinking about dinosaurs and was therefore able to spot the unusual rock that was dug out of the ground:

“Maybe his mind was subconsciously prepared.”

The energy company has suspended excavation work to permit scientists to fully explore the site so that other fossil elements can be safely removed and shipped to the Royal Tyrrell for preparation.

Age of Dinosaurs Animatronic Dinos arrive at the London Natural History Museum

Tarbosaurus, Camarasaurus and Gallimimus the Star Attractions

With a substantial part of the permanent dinosaur galleries at the London Natural History Museum being closed for refurbishment this summer, dinosaur fans can have their insatiable thirst for all things Dinosauria quenched with a trip to a new exhibition which is due to open at the museum next  month.

The exhibition entitled “Age of the Dinosaur” combines specimens from the museum’s extensive fossil collection with video, computer generated images as well as live-size, animatronic dinosaurs such as Tarbosaurus, the giant long-neck Camarasaurus and the speedy Gallimimus.

Staff at the museum are busy settling the animatronic models into their new home, in readiness for the exhibition opening on April 22nd.  Visitors will be transported back to realistic Jurassic and Cretaceous settings to experience sounds, smells and sights from the Mesozoic.  The lifelike dinosaurs have been supplied by the Japanese animatronic manufacturer Kokoro based in Tokyo.  Plans to ship some of the models had been interrupted as a result of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the north of Japan.

The Tarbosaurus, a close relative of Tyrannosaurus rex is one of the highlights of the tour, and this particular Theropod will be on display along with models of smaller meat-eaters such as Oviraptor and Velociraptor.

Interpretation Developer at the Natural History Museum, Georgina Bishop commented as the large exhibits were carefully wheeled into place:

“Everyone loves dinosaurs, don’t they? Complete with sounds, scenery and scientific specimens, Age of the Dinosaur gives visitors the chance to really experience the land of these giants – a must for any budding dinosaur experts.”

Tarbosaurus Arrives Under Wraps at the Museum

Picture Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The exhibition runs until September 4th.

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