The Times Cheltenham Science Festival

Dinosaurs, DeLoreans, Deep Space and Debate

The Times Cheltenham Science Festival (June 2nd to June 7th 2015) returns with a line up bigger and better than ever, with over 165 different events scheduled, including talks from Professor Alice Roberts, Professor Brian Cox and Lord Robert Winston.  Joining a very eminent line up will be a number of leading scientists from the field of palaeontology, plus a seven metre long specimen of the fearsome tyrannosaurid Gorgosaurus.

Over the six days of the festival, visitors will be able to explore, engage with and be entertained by some of the greatest thinkers of our time, with everything from ground-breaking research to debates on the big science conundrums facing our species.  Cheltenham’s pop-up tented Science Village in the Imperial Gardens will be dominated by the Festival’s brand new “DinoZone”.  University of Manchester in a collaboration with the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research (South Dakota) will be highlighting their research on the Gorgosaurus specimen that they have been working on.  Distantly related to Tyrannosaurus rex, Gorgosaurus was a fearsome carnivore more than capable of feasting upon the remains of other tyrannosaurids that shared its Late Cretaceous habitat.

Recently, Everything Dinosaur team members wrote a short article which covered the research carried out on the fossilised skull and jaws of another Tyrannosaur (Daspletosaurus), by Dr. David Hone (School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, University of London) and Darren Tanke, an expert in vertebrate fossil preparation at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Drumheller, Alberta, Canada).  The carcase of the Daspletosaurus was scavenged, the tell-tale postmortem feeding marks on the bones and teeth could have been a case of cannibalism, but it could also have been as a result of a hungry Gorgosaurus feasting.  The 7.4 metre long specimen of Gorgosaurus on display in the tented Science Village would have been more than capable of making a meal of the Daspletosaurus.

To read more about a potential case of a Gorgosaurus feeding on a tyrannosaurid: Tyrannosaurid Bite Marks on the Remains of Daspletosaurus

Phil Manning and Victoria Egerton (University of Manchester) will be on hand to discuss some of the latest research and they will be presenting a one hour lecture on Friday 5th June all about their various dinosaur activities and adventures.

Professor Phil Manning Next to the Beautiful Gorgosaurus Dinosaur Display

Gorgosaurus making a guest appearance.

Gorgosaurus making a guest appearance.

Picture Credit: University of Manchester

Everything Dinosaur team members had the pleasure of meeting up with Professor Manning and the University of Manchester team at the Royal Society (London) last summer.  The exhibit is extremely informative and the Dinosauria is one of the main themes of the Festival, where you can learn about mass extinctions, discover what dinosaurs really looked like (expect a few feathers to fly) and stare into the eye sockets of a Triceratops.

The other major themes include “Life”, “the Universe” and “Time Travel”, a DeLorean is even flying in to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the first of the “Back to the Future” films and the question “why don’t we have flying cars today?” will be explored.

To read more about The Times Cheltenham Science Festival: The Times Cheltenham Science Festival

The extremely talented Pete Larson, will also be attending.  ”Paleo Pete”, one of the world’s leading authorities on Tyrannosaurs, will be speaking at the EDF Energy arena on June 2nd (6.30pm to 7.30pm), his subject, “T. rex Appeal”, the story of “Sue” perhaps one of the most famous fossils ever found.

A Fantastic Communicator – Pete Larson

A fantastic and generous communicator.

A fantastic and generous communicator.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

American Pete Larson has had a most colourful career, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of vertebrate fossils and is a wonderful communicator, always patient and prepared to answer questions from dinosaur fans, young and old.

Joining Professor Alice Roberts to explore what dinosaurs may have actually looked like, will be palaeontologist Professor Mike Benton (Bristol University) and the gifted palaeoartist Bob Nicholls,  whose job is to illustrate dinosaurs once the fossil evidence has been interpreted.  Historian Joe Cain will be on hand to guide the audience through nearly two hundred years of dinosaur research.

By the time The Festival comes around, the world premier of the eagerly awaited film “Jurassic World”, will be just ten days away.  As well as being an advisor on the entire “Jurassic Park” movie franchise, dinosaur expert Jack Horner, on whom the film character Dr. Alan Grant was partly based, will be talking about his own dinosaur discoveries as well as giving audiences a behind-the-scenes look at “Jurassic World”.

Guest Director, BAFTA award winning Steve Backshall, one of television’s most respected wildlife presenters commented:

“I’m really excited to be Guest Director; it’s a brilliant opportunity for me to share my passion for wildlife and explore everything from giant telescopes to dinosaurs.”

The full Festival line-up is at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival.

Tickets go on sale to Members on Wednesday, April 15 and to the general public on Wednesday, April 22 available at The Festival website or at 0844 880 8094.

The Sensory Capabilities of Terror Birds

New Study Suggests Phorusrhacids had Deep Voices

A ninety percent complete fossil specimen of a Terror Bird (phorusrhacid) excavated from cliffs south of the Argentinean city of Mar del Plata (Buenos Aires Province), has provided palaeontologists with new information regarding the sensory capabilities of these predators.  The superbly preserved skull permitted the researchers to re-construct this flightless bird’s inner ear and the team were able to deduce that this particular phorusrhacid had a greater sensitivity to low frequency sounds than many modern Aves.  From this, it is has been suggested that these large birds vocalised by producing low frequency sounds.

The Phorusrhacidae are an extinct family of birds that belong to the Order Cariamiformes.  The ancestors of these large, flightless birds probably evolved sometime in the Late Cretaceous and it was after the demise of the dinosaurs that many new forms evolved, taking over the role of apex predators on the isolated continent of South America. Typically, phorusrhacids had long, powerful legs, a narrow pelvis, very reduced, stubby wings and large skulls, endowed with a long, strong hooked bill.

A Typical South American “Terror Bird” (Kelenken guillermoi)

The Kelenken in all its Glory

The Kelenken in all its Glory

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture shows a colourful interpretation of Kelenken, a large phorusrhacid of the Middle Miocene of South America.  This new “Terror Bird” has been classified as a member of the sub-family of the Phorusrhacidae, the Mesembriornithinae and the fossil material excavated from sandstone which forms part of the cliffs at La Estafeta Beach, to the south of the popular tourist destination of Mar del Plata, has been dated to older than 3.3 million years (Middle Pliocene).  The bird has been named Llallawavis scagliai.  The genus is from the Latin for bird “Avis” and the word Llallawa from the local Quechua language for “magnificent”, in reference to the amazing fossil preservation and the nearly complete skeleton found.  The species name honours Galileo Juan Scaglia (1915–1989), naturalist, director  and one of the founders of the nearby Museo Municipal de Ciencias Naturales Lorenzo Scaglia, where the specimen is on display.  Grandson Fernando Scaglia, now himself a highly regarded member of the Museum’s staff, was one of the authors of the scientific paper that has just been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology.

 The Skeleton on Display and an Illustration of Llallawavis scagliai

The most complete "Terror Bird" fossil found to date.

The most complete “Terror Bird” fossil found to date.

Picture Credit: Skeleton courtesy of M. Taglioretti and F. Scaglia/Illustration Degrange et al

The wonderful skeleton allows the scientists to learn more about these birds anatomy and as it is very nearly complete, it permits researchers to learn more about how different types of “Terror Bird” were related to each other.

Standing at about 1.2 metres tall and weighing about 18 kilogrammes, L. scagliai was about as big as today’s largest South American bird, the Greater Rhea (Rhea americana).  Dr. Degrange, one of the research paper’s authors commented that this bird probably ate small mammals, other birds and lizards.  The exquisite skull gave the researchers the opportunity to take some precise CAT scans and to reconstruct the inner ear.  Based on subsequent measurements and comparative studies of both extinct and extant Aves, the team concluded that this bird was capable of rapid head movements, a behaviour indicating that this predator, did indeed, hunt small prey.  In addition, with a preserved trachea and a map of the inner ear, the scientists could postulate about vocalisation and the sort of sounds that Llallawavis could hear.  The researchers state that their estimations of hearing sensitivity in Cariamiformes, places Llallawavis below the average for a living species.  As the vocalisation range of most birds falls within the lower half of their hearing sensitivity range, Llallawavis scagliai may have produced low frequency sounds.

Dr. Degrange explained:

“Based on our comparisons with living species, these measurements suggested that the ears of terror birds like Llallawavis were most sensitive to low-pitched sounds.  We are able to say that Terror Birds had low frequency sensitivity – so it seems reasonable to suggest that they also produced low-frequency sounds.”

 The Beautifully Preserved Skull of Llallawavis scagliai

Llallawavis fossil skull.

Llallawavis fossil skull.

Picture Credit: Degrange et al

Not all the so-called “Terror Birds” were predators.  Back in 2013, Everything Dinosaur reported on some new research on Gastornis (also referred to as Diatryma), which suggested that this  early “Terror Bird” was a vegetarian.  Contrary to popular belief, Gastornis was not closely related to the phorusrhacids.

Read more about this study: Isotope Study Suggests “Terror Bird” Gastornis was a Herbivore

Calling Calamosaurus!

Isle of Wight Fossil Find – British Compsognathidae?

It may not look like much, it is a dinosaur fossil but highly eroded and with a great deal of the original bone material missing but this could just be one of the most important fossil finds on the Isle of Wight for a decade.  Amateur fossil collector  Dave Badman found the 4 cm long dinosaur bone at Chilton Chine.  It has been identified as a neck bone (cervical vertebrae) from a small meat-eating dinosaur, that roamed the area that was to become the Isle of Wight around 130 million years ago.  This is the first fossil find associated with this species for nearly 140 years.

Calling Calamosaurus – Significant Fossil Find

A rare fossil find indeed - the first of its kind for nearly 140 years.

A rare fossil find indeed – the first of its kind for nearly 140 years.

Picture Credit: Isle of Wight Council

 The photograph above shows the fossil being held in David’s hand, this provides a “handy” scale, like we stated earlier, it may not look like much but this fossil discovery could prove to be very significant.

What’s All the Fuss?

Whizz back in time to 1882 or thereabouts, two articulated cervical vertebrae were purchased by the then British Museum (now the Natural History Museum, London).  These bones were part of a collection being sold by the estate of the Reverend William Fox (1813-1881) who had been an avid collector of vertebrate fossils on the Isle of Wight, whilst the curate of Brighstone Church.  These two bones were stored with fossils of turtles but the “Keeper of the Fossils” at the British Museum, Richard Lydekker, noticed how similar these bones were to that of a dinosaur – Coelurus, a small Theropod.  Lydekker erected the genus Calamospondylus in 1889, however, this had to be changed two years later to Calamosaurus as the name Calamospondylus had already been used back in 1866 to name another Theropod dinosaur from the Isle of Wight.  The way these neck bones fitted together suggested that the dinosaur had a curved neck, their size indicated that the dinosaur was relatively small, no more than three metres in length.  It was postulated that this was further evidence that compsognathids roamed what was to become the British Isles.

Dinosaurs of the Family Compsognathidae are small, some of the smallest dinosaurs known.  They were fast-running, long-necked hunters with light bodies, small heads, graceful legs and lengthy tails.

An Illustration of a Typical Compsognathid Dinosaur

Small, agile dinosaur.

Small, agile dinosaur.

No other fossils related to this genus had been found since, that was until sharp-eyed Dave spotted one on a beach at Chilton Chine.

Mr Badman’s discovery helps to reaffirm the belief that the original two fossils were from the Wealden Group Beds exposed at the coast just a few miles from the village of Brighstone, where the Reverend Fox lived.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“The Reverend Fox was an amateur fossil collector so it is very appropriate for another amateur fossil collector to find the next material to be associated with this elusive dinosaur.  Although, very little is known about Calamosaurus (C. foxii), there were probably a number of small Theropods, scurrying around the undergrowth in this part of the world during the Early Cretaceous.  Perhaps more fossil material will come to light, hopefully we won’t have to wait another 14o years or so before it does.”

The fossil has been donated to the Dinosaur Isle Museum.

Councillor Shirley Smart, (Executive Member for Economy and Tourism) on the island stated:

 ”This find has once again shown the Isle of Wight is one of the world’s best sites for dinosaur fossil discoveries and there is a real community spirit.  I want to thank Dave for bringing the specimen to the museum and allowing it to go on display so that it can be enjoyed by visitors for years to come.”

Dastardly Daspletosaurus a Cannibal?

Tyrannosaurid Bite Marks on the Remains of Daspletosaurus

Palaeontologists have been aware for some time of a growing body of evidence to suggest that a number of different types of Theropod dinosaur engaged in intraspecific combat, that is, one member of a species fights with another member of the same species.  Pathology preserved on skull and jaw bones has been found in a number of different types of meat-eating dinosaur to suggest that activities such as facial biting could have been common place.  These face bites could have been part of some form of ritual combat, perhaps over pack status or perhaps the bites resulted due to competition over mates (or they may have even been inflicted during mating).  A research paper published in the on line academic journal PeerJ, provides further evidence of facial injury, this time the evidence suggests that some of the wounds were premortem, they occurred whilst this dinosaur lived, the other wounds indicate that a large meat-eating dinosaur scavenged the carcase.

The fossils of a Daspletosaurus recovered from the Dinosaur Provincial Park (Alberta, Canada) reveal a rather gruesome story.  This dinosaur suffered from a serious of facial bites whilst it was alive, when it was dead its body was fed upon by another dinosaur. Could this be evidence of cannibalism in the Dinosauria?

Daspletosaurus was a large tyrannosaurid, whose fossils have been found in Alberta and the western United States.  It lived several million years before its more famous relative Tyrannosaurus rex.  Established as a distinct genus in 1970, this stocky, robust carnivore, may have reached lengths in excess of nine metres and weighed as much as an Indian elephant.

A Model of the Fearsome Predator – Daspletosaurus

The fearsome tyrannosaurid Daspletosaurus.

The fearsome tyrannosaurid Daspletosaurus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A number of specimens of Daspletosaurus have been associated with facial injuries.  This particular specimen that consists of a mostly complete but disarticulated skull, vertebrae, ribs including gastralia (belly ribs) and some wonderfully well-preserved tail bones, was discovered in 1994.  The corpse seems to have been transported in a slow moving river system (low energy environment).  Other parts of the skeleton may have originally been present but these probably were eroded away prior to excavation.  A partial femur was also recovered but this has been crushed and distorted.  The authors of the scientific paper Dr. David Hone (School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, University of London) and Darren Tanke, an expert in vertebrate fossil preparation at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Drumheller, Alberta, Canada), consider the thigh bone to have been crushed not long after the animal died, i.e. the damage occurred in the Late Cretaceous.  They conclude this as much more delicate and thinner skull bones show no damage at all.

An Illustration of Face Biting Amongst Two Daspletosaurs

The skull and mandible of the dinosaur shows facial injuries.

The skull and mandible of the dinosaur shows facial injuries.

Picture Credit: Luis Rey

Note the illustrator, the very talented Luis Rey, has chosen to represent Daspletosaurus as a feathered dinosaur.

Based on an analysis of other Daspletosaurus material, the researchers estimate that this dinosaur was not fully grown when it died.  It was probably around ten years of age, measured 5.8 metres and weighed more than half a tonne.  This dinosaur suffered a number of injuries, one dorsal rib shows evidence of a fracture but this was well healed by the time the animal died.  It is the skull and the jaws that show most signs of pathology.   Not all the injuries to the skull came from bites, but there is plenty of evidence preserved on the bones to indicate that this dinosaur lived a tough life and that it had its face bitten on numerous occasions.  Many of the bite marks do match the tell-tale shape of puncture wounds from Tyrannosaur teeth, including one particularly savage bite that left a considerable tooth-shaped hole in the back of the skull.

Pathology on the Skull and Upper Jaw Bones of the Daspletosaurus Specimen

Evidence of premortem injury.

Evidence of premortem injury (left lateral view).

Picture Credit: PeerJ

The picture above shows a digital image of the premaxilla, maxilla and other skull bones with the arrows indicating different injuries that were sustained.

A. = A bite to the tip of the snout leaving a sub-circular depression with a diameter of 13 mm and a depth of 6 mm.

B. = A lesion in the bone that resembles a tyrannosaurid bite and drag mark.  Lesion is 22 mm long and at its widest 8 mm, maximum depth 1.5 mm.

C. = Comma shaped potential bite and drag mark on the maxilla which is 22.5 mm long and about 6.5 mm wide at its maximum width.

E. = A puncture wound on the left nasal bone approximately 9 mm radius and 2 mm deep.  Most likely caused by a bite.

All these lesions show signs of healing so they are regarded as premortem.

2. = The base of the  left maxilla is broken and these breaks can be aligned with the left lacrimal bone.  This damage could have been caused either when this animal was alive or as a result of feeding postmortem, or perhaps by trampling or transport by water to the final resting place of the carcase.  This damage is treated conservatively by the authors and regarded as indeterminate, not being classed either as premortem or postmortem damage.

The right surangular bone (rear most portion of the jaw that abuts the dentary and sits above the angular bone), also shows signs of premortem damage.  There are a number of lesions and patches of osteomyeltic bone (bone which shows signs of infection).  This pathology also supports the hypothesis that the Daspletosaurus suffered a series of facial injuries when the animal was alive.

A Close up of the Right Surangular Bone Showing Evidence of Lesion

Scale bar = 20 mm

Scale bar = 20 mm

Picture Credit: PeerJ

The red arrow in the picture shows the roughened bone area that indicates a lesion.  Below this lesion a lighter (light grey) area can be seen, this is almost circular in shape.  This is damage to the fossil that was probably caused by the excavation process.

The scientists also point out evidence of postmortem damage to the specimen.  This damage is defined based on the lack of any indications of healing (swelling, reactive bone).  There are a series of tooth marks with one set of bite-marks found on the medial side of the right dentary (inside of the bone facing the tongue).  A number of other elements have been noted that show possible signs of biting which indicate feeding on the carcase.  The spaces between the tooth marks suggest that a large Theropod made these marks, probably scavenging on the carcase prior to its burial.

Evidence of Postmortem Damage – Tyrannosaur Feeding

Evidence of scavenging on the carcase.

Evidence of scavenging on the carcase.

Picture Credit: Peer J

The picture above shows the rear part of the dentary, the medial side of the lower jaw bone (side facing the inside of the mouth).   The white arrow indicates a near vertical break in the bone, whilst the black arrows highlight damage to the surface of the bone caused by teeth from a large dinosaur.  Other predators were present in the Dinosaur Provincial Park ecosystem, indeed alongside the Daspletosaurus remains, the scientists uncovered a couple of bones (tibia and phalanx) from a small Theropod, along with teeth from crocodilians and a tooth from Champsosaur (long-snouted, reptile that probably ate fish).  The tooth marks are quite widely spaced up to two centimetres apart.  This spacing rules out a crocodile scavenging on the carcase as the crocodilian fauna associated with the Dinosaur Park Formation are all relatively small.  The research team conclude that only a large Tyrannosaur could have left such trace fossils in the specimen.

Daspletosaurus Cannibalism?

Commenting on the animal’s injuries, Dr. David Hone stated:

“This animal clearly had a tough life, suffering numerous injuries across the head including some that must have been quite nasty.  The most likely candidate to have done this is another member of the same species, suggesting some serious fights between these animals during their lives.”

But does the evidence of feeding on the carcase indicate a case of cannibalism?  The authors are careful to state that this probably is not a case of one large Tyrannosaur hunting and killing a smaller Tyrannosaur – a predator/prey relationship.  Instead, the term “late stage carcase consumption” is used.  It is unusual for feeding evidence to be found on the skull and jaws, these areas would not have had a lot of flesh on them.  It can be speculated that much of the carcase had already been buried when a carnivore found the skull and jaw bones and fed upon them.  This unfortunate sub-adult Daspletosaurus could have been scavenged by a member of its own species.  However, another potential scavenger also co-existed with the Daspletosaurs.  A second type of Tyrannosaur, Gorgosaurus, lived at the same as Daspletosaurus and as this predator reached lengths of around nine metres or so, it would have been more than capable of chomping the bones of the fallen Daspletosaurus.

It is not possible to determine whether a passing Gorgosaurus fed on the corpse or whether this is a case of Daspletosaurus cannibalism.

There have been a number of papers published on the face biting phenomenon in Theropod dinosaurs.  Everything Dinosaur team members recently reviewed data published on Monolophosaurus from the Middle Jurassic of China, a Megalosaur, which also shows evidence of intraspecific combat (face biting).

To read the article on evidence of facial biting found on the fossilised remains of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rexEvidence of Facial Biting in tyrannosaurids

CollectA have made a super Daspletosaurus dinosaur model, no evidence of face biting, but none the less a fantastic dinosaur replica.

To see the CollectA range of not to scale prehistoric animal models: CollectA Prehistoric Animal Models

The Return of Brontosaurus?

Is Brontosaurus Back?

There have been lots of comments about the paper published yesterday in the academic, on line, open access portal PeerJ as the resurrection of the genus Brontosaurus has been proposed.  Could “thunder lizard” be back?  We thought it would be a good idea to summarise the research and provide a brief explanation as to what the paper actually means.  So with apologies to the three authors Dr. Emanuel Tschopp​, Professor Octávio Mateus, (both associated with the Museu da Lourinhã, Portugal),  Dr. Roger Benson (Oxford University) and to their academic editor Dr. Andrew Farke (Raymond M. Alf, Museum of Palaeontology, Claremont, California, USA) here are our thoughts on the research.

Brontosaurus Resurrected

Brontosaurus Resurrected

The Problem with Brontosaurus 

Let’s start at the very beginning, why was the dinosaur name Brontosaurus dropped in the first place?

It was the famous American palaeontologist O. C. Marsh who described and named the genus Apatosaurus back in 1877.  He placed two species in this genus Apatosaurus ajax and Apatosaurus grandis.  Both these two dinosaurs come from the famous Morrison Formation (more about this later), A. ajax from Gunnison County, Colorado and A. grandis from Albany County, Como Bluff (Wyoming).  Two years later, more bones of a large, long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur were found by an expedition led by Marsh, close to the Albany County quarry where the fossils of Apatosaurus grandis had come from.  Marsh named this new dinosaur Brontosaurus (Brontosaurus excelsus), the name translates as “Noble Thunder Lizard”.

So we have Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus….

But, during the late 1870′s and the 1880′s Marsh was in competition to find dinosaur bones in the western United States with his great rival Edward Drinker Cope.  The personal feud between these two men has become known as the “Bone Wars”.  A consequence of their rivalry was a need to outdo each other when it came to publishing details of new dinosaur discoveries.  As a result, a number of new species of long-necked dinosaurs from the Morrison Formation came to be erected, some within the Apatosaurus genus, some within Brontosaurus, plus several others as well.  In essence, a number of questionable genera were established.

By the beginning of the 20th Century both Marsh and Cope had passed away and a new generation of palaeontologists were continuing to explore the strata of the Morrison Formation in the quest for dinosaur fossils.  One such scientist was Elmer Samuel Riggs. Riggs discovered an Apatosaurus specimen in 1900 near the town of Fruita, Mesa County, (Colorado).  He went on to review and examine the then known, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus material and concluded that B. excelsus was so similar to ascribed Apatosaurus fossil material  that it should be considered part of the Apatosaurus genus.  Thus in 1903, in a paper entitled  “Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs, part I” (part II dealt with his newly discovered Brachiosaurus), Riggs successfully argued that the genus Brontosaurus should be dropped in favour of the genus Apatosaurus.  Brontosaurus was no more, instead it was regarded as a junior synonym of Apatosaurus.  Time to erase Brontosaurus out of the literature….

Synonyms and More Synonyms

What on Earth does the term “Brontosaurus is now a junior synonym of Apatosaurus” mean?

Taxonomy is the science of classifying organisms.  In scientific classification there are certain rules.  Most of these rules were laid out by the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in his publication classifying flowers in 1735.  It was Linnaeus who first set out the ground rules for defining genera and species as part of a hierarchy or ranking system that is termed Linnaean classification.  A synonym is simply another name used for an object.  One of the rules in taxonomy, is that the earlier a name is used the more senior it is to other names used for the same organism.  Apatosaurus was named in 1877, Brontosaurus in 1879, therefore when Riggs proposed that Brontosaurus was so similar to known Apatosaurus fossil material, the Apatosaurus name, which had been used first, took precedence and Brontosaurus became a junior synonym of Apatosaurus.

An Illustration of Brontosaurus

Old fashioned illustration but the name is correct after all.

Old fashioned illustration but the name is correct after all.

Picture Credit: Leutscher and Cox (1971)

Over the last hundred years or so, there have been several reassessments of the dinosaurs included in the Diplodocidae Family.  We are not aware of anyone disputing that both Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus should be included in this family of long-necked dinosaurs.  Indeed, the fossil specimens referred to as Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus are placed in the same sub-group of diplodocids, the Apatosaurinae (as opposed to the other sub-group in this family which includes the likes Barosaurus and Diplodocus).  This new research has gone further, it undertook a comprehensive revision of the diplodocids not at a genus level, or indeed by looking at the combined characteristics of several specimens that represent a single species, but by looking at individual specimens – lots and lots and lots of individual specimens.  The researchers conducted the most complete review of the fossil material that has ever been done.  It has taken five years and we think it is the largest scale study of this kind ever carried out.

So Why do this Research?

The scientists did not set out to establish the dinosaur name Brontosaurus once again.  They are not (as far as we know), part of some secret, shadowy organisation devoted to supporting all those lazy movie makers, and toy manufacturers who churned out films, models, dinosaur toys and other merchandise associated with the Brontosaurus moniker.   The resurrection of Brontosaurus as a valid genus is just one consequence of an amazingly detailed analysis which set out to review how the Diplodocus Family of dinosaurs was classified from a taxonomic perspective.  Something like fifty-five percent of all the diplodocid species known were named and described in the 19th or early part of the 20th Century, often from fragmentary specimens, from dig sites that had been poorly mapped.  Approximately, three-quarters of the all the diplodocid genera named to date come from the Morrison Formation of the western United States (see, we said we would mention the Morrison again), and no one had yet gone through all the available fossil material with a fine-toothed comb at the individual specimen level and tried to work out how closely related each type of diplodocid was to the other Diplodocidae.

How do you Decide a Species?

When it comes to extinct animals it’s a lot more complicated.  There is not a lot of Diplodocidae DNA knocking about for a start.  Palaeontologists look at the bones that they have, try to find bones from the same part of the body, cranial material (skull) or vertebrae for example, can be particularly helpful when assessing the long-necked dinosaurs, these are then compared to find similarities and differences.   It helps if mature, fully grown individuals can be compared, for example, we think that the first Apatosaurus species named A. ajax back in 1877 might be made up of the bones from several individual dinosaurs and some of them probably represent sub-adults.  This form of analysis relies on the concept that all the Diplodocidae shared a common ancestor and evolutionary relationships can be established by looking at all the anatomical features and seeing which species share the same derived characteristics.  The more derived characteristics in common between two species the closer they are on the family tree, in other words, these two species are closely related and would sit close together on a diagram showing the Diplodocidae family tree.

In total, the scientists identified 477 different characteristics with which to classify this part of the Sauropoda.  They built up a massive data set and then used computer algorithms to examine it all and work out the best “pattern of fit” for the information, what evolutionary tree diagram best matched.  When this was done, the statistical analysis revealed that those specimens assigned to Apatosaurus excelsus, were so different morphologically to other specimens assigned to the Apatosaurus genus that they belonged outside Apatosaurus in a distinct genus.  Time to resurrect Brontosaurus then and to bring back B. excelsus.

A Model of Apatosaurus (Wild Safari Dinos Series)

Apatosaurus with an identity crisis perhaps?

Apatosaurus with an identity crisis perhaps?

Picture Credit: Safari Ltd/Everything Dinosaur

Three Species of Brontosaurus

What’s more, this extremely detailed study has thrown up a number of other important points.  The Apatosaurinae deck of cards has been well and truly shuffled!  A species of long-necked dinosaur that had been named Apatosaurus yahnahpin  in 1994 was re-named by Bob Bakker, after a revision in 1998, as Eobrontosaurus.  Eobrontosaurus means “dawn thunder lizard”, because it was thought to be more primitive than Apatosaurus.  When the eminent Dr. Bakker erected the genus Eobrontosaurus , it permitted the name Brontosaurus, at least in part, to be associated once again with a super-sized, Late Jurassic herbivore from the Morrison Formation.  However, under this new more complete interpretation of the Diplodocidae, Eobrontosaurus has gone, along with A. yahnahpin.  It turns out that this particular dinosaur shares more derived characteristics with Brontosaurus and as a result, it has been resigned to the Brontosaurus genus and has adopted the name B. yahnahpin to comply with binomial classification rules.

Then there is the case of Elosaurus (E. parvus).  This Sauropod dinosaur was named and described in 1902 (before the Riggs revision).  The specimen was excavated from Albany County (Wyoming), not too far from where the first fossils of Apatosaurus grandis (1877) and Brontosaurus excelsus had been discovered.  It was formerly believed not to be too closely related to either Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus, but under this new research, Elosaurus has been “nested” inside the Brontosaurus genus.  The fossils ascribed once upon a time to Elosaurus are now Brontosaurus parvus.

So we have three species of Brontosaurus in the Brontosaurus genus:

  1. Brontosaurus excelsus (1879)
  2. Brontosaurus parvus (1902)
  3. Brontosaurus yahnahpin (1994)

It really is a case of “Bully for Brontosaurus”!

This comprehensive study, a truly Sauropod-sized undertaking has provided a fresh perspective.  We applaud the efforts of the scientists behind this research.  To trawl through the thousands of specimens, to cope with a fragmentary fossil record, as well as one that has been, in part, poorly recorded and mapped – this is an astonishing academic feat.  To be able to determine morphological characteristics for the analysis, whilst contending with ontogenic considerations as well as issues related to distortion, crushing and inappropriate curating of specimens, this is amazing.

Some of the conclusions made will no doubt, lead to further debate, other revisions have been made by the team behind this research to the Diplodocidae and more will follow as further fossil finds add to the database.  But perhaps the most important lesson here has nothing to do with Brontosaurus at all.  This research has demonstrated how individual specimen-based analysis can be used to help evaluate the Sauropoda.  This approach can be applied to other parts of the Dinosauria and indeed to other sections of the fossil record, potentially revealing fresh, new evolutionary relationships in our study of taxa.

Scientists Set Out to Explore Chicxulub Impact Crater

Impact Crater from Dinosaur Extinction Event to be Explored

Plans are in place for a team of international researchers to drill into the seabed off the Yucatan peninsula (Mexico), so that they can explore the composition and structure of the Chicxulub impact crater, the site where around 66 million years ago, a huge rock from space crashed into our planet.  The impact was so immense that the devastation and climate change events that this collision caused may well have resulted in (or at least assisted with), the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The scientists intend to drill into the crater, which is buried under sediments over fifteen hundred metres thick and study the elevated sections called the “peak ring”.  These rocks were forced up by the impact and form the boundary of the impact site, these topographically elevated rings are present in nearly all extraterrestrial impacts and the scientists hope to learn more about the Chicxulub impact itself as well as gaining a better understanding of such impact events and their effect on our our rocky planet.

An International Research Team Plan to Explore the Chicxulub Impact Crater

The end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

The end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

The Cretaceous mass extinction event is one of the most researched areas of science.  Improving our knowledge of how the climate change affected life in the past is helping to shape current policies as our planet experiences a period of exceptional warming.  Whether or not the extraterrestrial impact was the cause of the extinction of about 70% of terrestrial life, marking the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, is still debated.  Recent research from Glasgow University dates the impact at approximately 66,038,000 years ago +/- 11,000 years (margin of error).  This date according to many scientists is about 300,000 years before the Dinosauria extinction.  Whether the impact is the single cause, or whether it contributed to the mass extinction which occurred as a result of a number of factors remains when one of the hottest topics in palaeontology.

It was father and son team Luis and Walter Alvarez, who in 1980, publicised the discovery of a layer of clay with high levels of the rare Earth element iridium which mark the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary (the K-T boundary).  They argued that the iridium was deposited as a result of an impact event where a meteorite or some other rocky body crashed into our planet.  The discovery of the Chicxulub crater that dated from the end of the Cretaceous provided “the smoking gun” evidence that just such an event had occurred.

The scientists involved in this new research project gathered in the city of Merida (Mexico) last week.  Merida, is within the 125 mile wide impact site that marks the Chicxulub event.  Scientists have estimated that the extraterrestrial object, perhaps an asteroid or even a comet, was at least six miles wide and it was travelling about eight times faster than a bullet when it hit the Earth.  About £6 million GBP has been set aside for funding, approved by the European Consortium of Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD).  Sean Gulick, who holds many academic posts including Associate Professor at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, is part of the research team and has spent many years studying the geology of the Yucatan peninsula.  He hopes to acquire samples from the crater in a bid to learn more about the impact and its consequences.

Explaining the purpose behind the planned expedition, which is due to start next year, Sean stated:

“What are the peaks made of?  What can they tell us about the fundamental processes of these impacts, which is this dominant planetary resurfacing phenomena?”

The Associate Professor and long-time co-worker, Professor Joanna Morgan (Imperial College, London) have collaborated on a number of research projects exploring the Chicxulub impact crater, to read more about their research and earlier explorations of the geology of the Yucatan peninsula, click the link below:

To read more about this earlier research by the University of Texas: Getting to the Bottom of the Chicxulub Crater

A Geophysical Map Outlining the Impact Crater and the Crater Peaks

A geophysical map of the impact crater.

A geophysical map of the impact crater.

Picture Credit: NASA

The picture above shows a colour coded geophysical gravity map of the Yucatan peninsula.  The white dots represent “Cenotes”, these are sink holes which were formed as a result of the impact event.

The international research team are keen to explore the traces of microscopic life that may have lived inside the peak rocks of the crater.  The geophysical maps of the region indicate that these rocks are porous and they may have acted as miniature environments for types of extremophiles to thrive in the hot, chemically enriched area surrounding the crater.  In addition, core samples should provide evidence of the earliest recovery of marine life after the extraterrestrial impact, providing scientists with an idea about how life on Earth bounces back from such cataclysmic events.

Commenting on the search for evidence of life, Associate Professor Gulick stated:

“The sediments that filled in the crater should have the record for organisms living on the sea floor and in the water that were there for the first after the mass extinction event.  The hope is, we can watch life come back.”

Working from an offshore platform, the expedition is likely to last eight weeks and the cores taken will be the first to be extracted from the impact site.  The first papers on the analysis of these core samples are expected at the end of next year, we at Everything Dinosaur, look forward to this analysis of the “Alvarez smoking gun”.

Answering Questions from Young Dinosaur Fans

Questions from Young Dinosaur Fans

Time to catch up on our mailbag and in particular to tackle some of those tricky questions posed by young dinosaur fans.  Everything Dinosaur gets sent emails, letters drawings, pictures and photographs of school displays – all about prehistoric animals and life in the past.  We do our best to respond to all that we receive and to reply to those that require a reply.  For example, we were sent in a lovely photograph from a school near Bath, (south-west England) of the Year Six work on the Stone Age.  Charcoal drawings recreated cave paintings and the children used bone shapes to write facts about life in the past (they enjoyed seeing our Woolly Mammoth fossils too).

Stone Age Studies (Year 6)

Charcoal was used to create  cave paintings.

Charcoal was used to create cave paintings.

Picture Credit: Combe Down Primary/Everything Dinosaur

Our thanks to the school for showing us their wonderful classroom display.

Was Eustreptospondylus a strong predator?

Eustreptospondylus oxoniensis is one of our favourite dinosaurs.  The name means “Oxford’s well curved vertebrae”, as the single, partial specimen assigned to this genus was found at the bottom of a clay pit in Wolvercote, Oxfordshire (England).  Eustreptospondylus was a member of the Megaloasauridae family (most likely), and although the fossils represent a juvenile it has been estimated that this meat-eating dinosaur grew to lengths in excess of six metres and it weighed more than half a tonne.  It would have been one of the most dangerous dinosaurs around during the Middle Jurassic, so yes it was a formidable and strong predator.

The Mounted Specimen of Eustreptospondylus (Wolvercote Specimen)

The fossil specimen on display.

The fossil specimen on display.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Siri Scientific Press

Who was bigger Suchomimus or Ichthyovenator?

These two dinosaurs are members of the Spinosauridae family.  They lived at roughly the same time (120-112 million years ago), but in very different places.  The one specimen of Ichthyovenator found to date comes from Laos in south-east Asia, whilst Suchomimus lived in Niger (Africa).  Based on the fossils found it seems that Suchomimus was larger and heavier.  Suchomimus has been estimated to have been around 11 metres in length and approximately 3 tonnes, whereas Ichthyovenator may have reached lengths in excess of nine metres and probably weighed about half as much as a fully grown Suchomimus.

Who was bigger Ichthyovenator or Neovenator?

A supplementary question with a request for information about Neovenator salerii.  Known from just one specimen discovered in 1978 at Brighstone Bay (Isle of Wight), Neovenator provided the first direct evidence that Allosaurs similar to those that roamed the western United States also lived in Europe.  It was around 10 metres long and it weighed as much as 1.5-2 tonnes.  It would have been an apex predator, hunting and killing other dinosaurs.  Intriguingly, the Neovenator fossils show that this dinosaur had a very tough existence.  Its bones display signs of healed wounds (pathology).  Some of the ribs had been broken, vertebrae cracked and this particular dinosaur has suffered a nasty injury to its chest.  As these wounds had healed, the dinosaur had survived these injuries, as to their cause, they probably came about from fights with other dinosaurs.

Where have fossils of Hypsilophodon been Found?

The small Ornithopod called Hypsilophodon was one of the first dinosaurs to be named and described, it being studied prior to the great fossil hunting expeditions that took place in America during the 1870s.  Fossils of this small dinosaur are associated with the Isle of Wight (England) and Spain.

What is Everything Dinosaur’s Favourite Dinosaur Model Series?

We are very lucky to have worked with lots of very clever and enthusiastic model making companies.  We don’t really have a particular favourite.

Who was bigger Bahariasaurus or Edmarka?

Bahariasaurus  (B. ingens) is known from a substantial shoulder girdle and several other bones that were unfortunately, all destroyed in the Second World War.  It was a large, predator perhaps reaching lengths of 11 metres or more.  It is believed to have lived during the Late Cretaceous, but an exact date for the fossil material assigned to this specimen cannot be given.  Bahariasaurus’s taxonomic relationship with other Theropods (where it sits on the Theropod family tree), is disputed.  It may have been related to Carcharodontosaurus or perhaps it was an abelisaurid.  It lived in a coastal swamp and the long leg bones indicate that it was a speedy runner.  Bahariasaurus could be a specimen of Deltadromeus (D. agilis), another meat-eating dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of North Africa, if this is the case then Bahariasaurus was actually more closely related to the Ceratosaurs.

Edmarka too, is having a bit of an identity crisis.  It is known from at least three partial specimens, one of which represents a very young animal.  Fossils of parts of the skull, ribs and a scapula (shoulder bone) have been found in Morrison Formation exposures located in Wyoming.  The name Edmarka rex was erected in 1992, (Bakker, Krails, Siegworth and Filla), but the fossils might represent Torvosaurus tanneri which was named in 1979.  If this is the case then Edmarka becomes a junior synonym of Torvosaurus.  The species name “rex” was in recognition that this dinosaur was probably the largest and heaviest predator around the western United States at the time.  It was around 11 metres long, making it roughly the same size of Bahariasaurus.  More fossils are required before palaeontologists can present further information related to these two Theropods.

“Savage” The Ceratosaurus Countdown – Two Weeks!

Rebor Ceratosaurus “Savage” Available Around Mid April

The next edition in the highly acclaimed Rebor replica series will be arriving at Everything Dinosaur shortly.  A spokesperson for the company stated that the shipment of 1:35 scale Ceratosaurus replicas could be at the company’s warehouse as early as the middle of April.  The Ceratosaurus is the fourth replica in the Rebor Collection to be introduced, it is also the fourth Theropod dinosaur ( it joins Yutyrannus, Tyrannosaurus rex and Utahraptor).   Unlike the other meat-eating dinosaurs in this very collectible series, the genus Ceratosaurus actually consists of a number of species.  At least six different species have been assigned although a number are regarded as nomen dubium, this contrasts with the other carnivorous dinosaurs so far depicted by Rebor which only have one species within their genus.  It could be argued that there is a second species within Tyrannosaurus (T. bataar), but at Everything Dinosaur we tend to support the hypothesis that although North American tyrannosaurids are descended from Asian Tyrannosaurs, the distinct genus for Tarbosaurus remains valid.

New Rebor Replica on the Block –  1:35 Scale Ceratosaurus

Available from Everything Dinosaur from Mid April.

Available from Everything Dinosaur from Mid April.

Picture Credit: Rebor/Everything Dinosaur

The Ceratosaurus has been nick-named “Savage” and it is a representation of one of the largest of the Ceratosaurus species named so far (C. dentisulcatus).  This species was erected in 2000 A.D. after a re-assessment of a particularly large specimen found in the famous Cleveland-Lloyd quarry in Utah (Morrison Formation).  Although believed to represent a single dinosaur, the bones that were used to establish this new, larger species of Ceratosaurus were found over a period of many years and from a number of locations (but within the same horizon), within the dig site.  It has been estimated that Ceratosaurus dentisulcatus could have reached a length around 8.5 metres, one third longer than the first species of Ceratosaurus named by Othniel Charles Marsh back in the mid 1880′s.  Like all the Ceratosaurs, it had a relatively long tail compared to the rest of its body.  Marsh commented on the resemblance of the tail to a crocodile’s when he studied the bones that would be assigned to C. nasicornis, the first species to be named.  He suggested that this dinosaur would have been very much at home in the swampy regions of the Morrison and the tail would have helped this dinosaur to swim very effectively across the many large rivers and lakes that existed in this part of the United States back in the Late Jurassic.

The Skilfully Constructed Base Reflects the Swampy Home of Ceratosaurus

Skilfully hand-painted base

Skilfully hand-painted base

Picture Credit: Rebor/Ceratosaurus

The hand-painted base boasts realistic plants, logs, mud effect and even a puddle that’s made of transparent resin to create the impression of real water.  Although, Ceratosaurus dentisulcatus is known from a collection of bones thought to represent a single animal, all the material ascribed to this species come from the Brushy Basin Member of the Morrison Formation.  This is the youngest member of the Morrison, with strata dating from around 148 million years ago.  At this time, this part of the world was more humid and wetter than previously, desert areas had given way to lush, verdant habitats.  It seems likely that Ceratosaurus dentisulcatus was a dinosaur that lived in a wetland environment.  The details on the replica’s base reflect this and Rebor must be credited for the care and attention they have lavished on the development of an accurate base for their replica.

Intriguingly, although some cranial material has been ascribed to C. dentisulcatus, it is not known for sure whether this dinosaur actually possessed that signature nasal horn that gives this genus its name.  These bones have not been found, as far as we at Everything Dinosaur are aware.

Why Ceratosaurus dentisulcatus?

We asked our chums at Rebor why this particular species rather than the better known Ceratosaurus nasicornis?  C. nasicornis is the species that we at Everything Dinosaur based our own Ceratosaurus fact sheet upon and the first species to be identified within the genus.

A spokesperson for Rebor stated that there were several reasons behind their choice.  Firstly, C. dentisulcatus was a more massive and robust animal when compared to what is known about C. nasicornis.  The tibia (shinbones) for example are six centimetres longer and other direct comparisons indicate that Ceratosaurus dentisulcatus was a bigger and more formidable carnivore.  Rebor are aware that the fossil material first used to describe Ceratosaurus nasicornis very probably represents a sub-adult and that C. nasicornis could well have been much bigger and heavier than stated.  However, when you take into account those more recurved and substantially bigger teeth associated with C. dentisulcatus when compared to other Ceratosaurus species, you can understand the appeal of this particular Ceratosaurus species to a model manufacturer.  Incidentally, it is the larger and strongly recurved teeth in the premaxilla (upper jaw) and the front three teeth of the dentary (lower jaw) with their very visible parallel grooves running down their medial surface (inside facing) that give this species its name.  We speculate that these grooves helped inflict maximum damage with bites and that the grooves could have helped blood flow from wounds thus hastening the demise of victims – very nasty, the Dinosauria equivalent of “dum-dum” bullets!

A Comparison of Ceratosaurus magnicornis skull material with Ceratosaurus dentisulcatus

Although not to same scale the more strongly recurved teeth of C. dentisulcatus can be seen.

Although not to same scale the more strongly recurved teeth of C. dentisulcatus can be seen.

Picture Credit: Utah Geological Survey/Everything Dinosaur

In the diagram above, the left lateral views of skull material from C. magnicornis and C. dentisulcatus are compared.  Although the skull of C. magnicornis is more compressed and these diagrams are not to scale, the proportionately bigger and more curved teeth of Ceratosaurus dentisulcatus can be made out.  Ceratosaurus magnicornis, which is known from the lower part of the Brushy Basin Member of the Morrison Formation, but this time from exposures located in Colorado (Fruita, Colorado), was very probably larger than Ceratosaurus nasicornis, but perhaps not as big as C. dentisulcatus.  Direct size comparisons are difficult, as the holotype material associated with C.  magnicornis, just like C. nasicornis may represent a not fully grown animal.  What is interesting is that the nose horn on C. magnicornis is bigger, so it has been concluded that if Ceratosaurus dentisulcatus is larger still, then its nose horn was probably big too.  A large nose horn can be clearly seen on the Rebor replica.

A Dorsal View of the Rebor Ceratosaurus Model

The characteristic bony armour (ossicles and osteoderms) can be clearly made out.

The characteristic bony armour (ossicles and osteoderms) can be clearly made out.

Picture Credit: Rebor/Everything Dinosaur

“Savage”, the 1:35 scale Rebor Ceratosaurus replica is going to be available from Everything Dinosaur around mid April.  Could Ceratosaurus finally be stepping out into the limelight and join Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus in being regarded as an apex predator?

To view Everything Dinosaur’s Rebor range of models: Rebor Prehistoric Animal Replicas

The Last of the Carnegie Collection Acrocanthosaurus

Carnegie Collection Acrocanthosaurus (Model Number 403901)

First produced in 2001, the Carnegie Collection Acrocanthosaurus was a mainstay of this highly popular model series up until its retirement back in 2010.  The model was rarely found in ordinary toy shops with their plethora of T. rex, Stegosaurus and Triceratops replicas and genuine dinosaur model collectors had to seek this one out more often than not.  Acrocanthosaurus (A. atokensis) was one of the largest meat-eating dinosaurs of North America during the Early Cretaceous.  It has been estimated to have reached lengths in excess of twelve metres and footprints found in Texas (USA), might be those of this huge Theropod dinosaur and, if so, they indicate that this dinosaur may have hunted in packs.

Model Number 403901 Carnegie Collection Acrocanthosaurus

Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur model - Carnegie Collection

Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur model – Carnegie Collection

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

So why the interest in this dinosaur model, one that was officially retired five years ago?  With the demise of the entire Carnegie Collection model series, team members at Everything Dinosaur know that many collectors and dinosaur model fans are eager to get their hands on this replica so that they can complete their Carnegie collections.  Everything Dinosaur has been able to acquire a number of these dinosaur models and we are selling them at the same price they were back in 2010 just £4.99 plus postage.  After all, why should we exploit a situation just because a dinosaur model is getting rarer and rarer.

To view the range of Safari Ltd dinosaur models available from Everything Dinosaur: Safari Ltd Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals

So for all those dinosaur fans and model collectors, he is one last opportunity to acquire what is becoming an increasingly rare dinosaur – the Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur model – Carnegie Collection.

Shaking Those Tail Feathers – How to Distinguish Boy Dinosaurs from Girl Dinosaurs

Evidence to Support an Oviraptoridae Hypothesis – A Tale of Dinosaur Tails

Being able to tell the girl dinosaurs from the boys is one of the challenges facing palaeontology today.  The fossilised bones of long extinct creatures rarely provide clues as to whether an individual was male or female.  However, a team of scientists at the University of Alberta have published a paper in the academic journal “Scientific Reports” that provides evidence of sexual dimorphism in the tails of two oviraptorids.

Oviraptorids (Family Oviraptoridae), are a group of very bird-like Theropod dinosaurs, whose fossils are known from Late Cretaceous strata of the northern hemisphere, most notably Asia.  In many ways, these dinosaurs were anatomically very similar to modern Aves (birds) and it is very likely that these light, agile dinosaurs were covered in a down of insulating feathers.

A Typical Member of the Oviraptoridae (Caudipteryx zoui)

Was the tail plume combined with a short tail used for display?

Was the tail plume combined with a short tail used for display?

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

 Other kinds of feathers are associated with these types of dinosaurs.  For example, long, symmetrical feathers on the forearms and on the end of the tail.  In an earlier paper reported upon by Everything Dinosaur in 2013, one of the University of Alberta scientists, proposed that fossils from a type of oviraptorid known as Khaan mckennai might show evidence of fused tail bones, a sort of dinosaur equivalent of a bird’s pygostyle (five fused caudal vertebrae at the very end of the tail).  The scientist who conducted this study, Scott Persons, hypothesised that these types of dinosaurs may have had plumes and tufts (as depicted in the Caudipteryx picture above), these appendages could have formed a display function, just like the fan of feathers found in extant peacocks for example.

To read more about this research: Shaking their Tails and Strutting Their Stuff

In addition, the young researcher, who conducted this study for his Masters thesis, postulated that one day dinosaur fossils might be found that show different types of tail structure and this might help palaeontologists to work out which fossils represent males and which ones females.  Funny he might have thought that…

That’s exactly the conclusion reached by the research team, having examined the near complete fossilised remains of two oviraptorids found fossilised together.  The fossils represent two specimens of Khaan mckennai, one of which is the holotype for this species. The remains of these two dinosaurs were found within twenty centimetres of each other, they both represent adult animals and as a result they were nicknamed “Romeo and Juliet”, the star-crossed lovers from Shakespeare.   They were also named “Sid and Nancy” after the punk rock singer and his girlfriend.   These two little dinosaurs died together when a sand dune, destabilised by heavy rain collapsed and buried them both.  The fossils came from the Djadokhta Formation of the Gobi desert (Mongolia) and although one specimen is missing elements from the middle and posterior part of the tail, the Canadian based researchers have identified differences in the shape, size and structure of chevron bones associated with the end of the tail.  One specimen has longer tail bone chevrons and these end in a broad tip.

The Fossilised Tail Bones of the Oviraptorids Compared

Differences in the shape, size and structure of the tail bones could provide a clue.

Differences in the shape, size and structure of the tail bones could provide a clue.

Picture Credit: University of Alberta/Scientific Reports

Commenting on the research Scott Persons stated:

“We discovered that, although both Oviraptors were roughly the same size [femur lengths of 19.5cm and 19cm respectively], the same age and otherwise identical in all anatomical regards “Romeo” had larger and specially shaped tail bones.  This indicates that it had a greater capacity for courtship displays and was likely a male.  By comparison the second specimen “Juliet” had shorter and simpler tail bones, suggesting a lesser capacity for peacocking, and has been interpreted as a female.”

Far be it for scientists to speculate, but this could be the preserved remains of a mated pair, a couple of dinosaurs who lived together and died together some seventy-five million years ago.  The fossils are part of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences palaeontological collection, fossil reference MPC-D 100/1127 is the holotype material for Khaan mckennai and believed to be a female by the University of Alberta scientists.  Whilst, fossil specimen MPC-D 100/1002 with its larger and differently shaped tail chevrons is regarded as a male.

Diagrams Showing the Morphology of the Two Specimens and Comparisons with Other Oviraptorids

Comparing the caudal vertebrae and chevrons of oviraptorids.

Comparing the caudal vertebrae and chevrons of oviraptorids.

Picture Credit: University of Alberta/Scientific Reports

The differences in the tail bones can’t be explained by individual variation between animals of the same species and it is not thought the differences are due to trauma such as an injury, the dissimilarity could be due to sexual dimorphism and therefore if the tail bones of oviraptorids are present, this could be a method whereby scientists can distinguish between males and females, certainly amongst the Oviraptoridae anyway.  Further analysis of the known fossil record for this large family of dinosaurs along with more fossil discoveries will be needed to help support this hypothesis.

Scientists Might Be Able to Distinguish between Male and Female Gigantoraptors

Feathers used for display and courtship.

Feathers used for display and courtship.

Picture Credit: BBC (Planet Dinosaur Television Series)

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