The Chinese Pompeii – Dinosaur Fossils Can be Confusing

Death of Dinosaurs in the Early Cretaceous of China (Lujiatun Unit of the Yixian Formation)

At Everything Dinosaur we define science as the “search for truth” and one of the fundamental principles of scientific working is the examination and assessment of evidence which leads to conclusions being drawn and theories put forward.  However, different scientists can examine the similar evidence and come to contrasting conclusions.  Let’s illustrate this point by looking at two scientific papers published recently that both seek to explain the remarkable degree of fossil preservation seen in a sequence of Lower Cretaceous strata laid down in north-eastern China.  Let’s explore the mystery of the “Chinese Dinosaur Pompeii”.

Last year, a team of international researchers led by Associate Professor of Palaeontology and Stratigraphy at Nanjing University, Baoyu Jiang published a paper that concluded the remarkably well-preserved dinosaur, bird and mammal fossils that form part of the Jehol Biota were created “Pompeii-style” by pyroclastic flows.  A pyroclastic flow is an immense, fast-moving cloud of extremely hot gas and dust that can occur with some types of volcanic eruption.  It would have swept everything before it and killing instantly any unfortunate animal or plant that was in the way.   The research team cited evidence such as criss-crossed cracks on the edges of fossilised bones, evidence of heat stress, microscopic debris showing plant remains that had been blackened by being exposed to very high temperatures prior to fossilisation and hollow bones filled with fine quartz grains, tell-tale signs of a pyroclastic flow.  Although the fossils are some 120 million years old, the same evidence can be found in the bodies of citizens of Pompeii who perished when this Roman town was engulfed by a pyroclastic flow which erupted from Vesuvius back in 79 AD.

Evidence of Sudden and Dramatic Death – Caught in Pyroclastic Flows

Evidence for pyroclastic flows from the Jehol Biota.

Evidence for pyroclastic flows from the Jehol Biota.

Picture Credit: Baoyu Jiang

The picture above shows photomicrographs (photographs of images produced under a microscope), showing thin sections of fossilised bone of two relatively common vertebrate fossils from the strata that was investigated.  The pictures show a dinosaur, Psittacosaurus and a thin section of the bone fossil from an ancient bird, Confuciusornis (top Psittacosaurus spp. and bottom Confuciusornis spp.).  The white arrows indicate missing bone material and cracks can be seen at both the dorsal and ventral edges of the bone.  This evidence supports the idea that the bones were subjected to intense heat, such as that found in volcanic pyroclastic flows.

Victims of a Pyroclastic Flow?

a).

a = Psittacosaurus, b and c = Confuciusornis fossil material

Picture Credit: Baoyu Jiang

Note the position of the limbs in the photographs of the fossils (above), particularly those fossils representing the bird Confuciusornis.  The pose is like that of a boxer.  This pose results from the shortening of muscles and tendons that occurs postmortem and this boxer-like box has been cited as further evidence to support the idea of mass mortality as a result of a pyroclastic event.

Conflicting Views as to How these Fossils were Formed

Associate Professor Baoyu Jiang and his colleagues have studied the flora and fauna preserved in the Lower Cretaceous deposits for many years.  It had been known for some time that volcanoes were active in the area at around this time in the Cretaceous, testament to the frequent eruptions were the many layers of fine, volcanic ash that could be identified in the rock layers.  The paper citing pyroclastic flows as the reason for the remarkable, often three-dimensional preservation of vertebrates led to considerable debate amongst scientists at the time of its publication.  Now another paper has been written, which argues that the fossils of the Lujiatun Member of this Formation do not owe their existence to violent clouds of hot ash, rocks and dust travelling at hurricane speeds, but are the result of slightly more gentle, (but equally dramatic), deposition forces.

A team of scientists from Bristol University in association with the IVPP (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology – Beijing) and University College, Dublin have reassessed the “Chinese Pompeii” deposits and their fieldwork suggests that the fossils were transported in water which was choked with volcanic ash, rather than have the fossils forming as a result of sudden airborne ash fall.

A New Study Suggests Vertebrates such as Psittacosaurus were Buried by Ash that was Deposited by Water

Overcome by ash carried in water flows not pyroclastic flows.

Overcome by ash carried in water flows not pyroclastic flows.

Picture Credit: Bristol University Press Release

The fossils of the Jehol Biota come from the Lower Cretaceous Yixian and Jiufotang Formations.  Both freshwater and terrestrial creatures are found in the same horizons and some scientists have interpreted these deposits as evidence for mass mortality events.  The research group that included the Bristol-based team, set out to explore the events and mechanisms that led to the exceptional preservation.  By analysing in microscopic detail the sediments and residual fossils from the Lujiatun Member (the vicinity of Lujiatun village) and comparing the strata to fossils in the collections of Chinese museums, the scientists concluded that the beautifully preserved specimens of the Lujiatun Unit are not the result of one single, massive catastrophe caused by a volcanic eruption.  Their study suggests that the fossil-bearing sediments were remobilised and deposited by water.  If this is the case, the Psittacosaurs, other dinosaurs, primitive mammals and birds for example, were not wiped out by one huge, airborne delivery of volcanic ash, but in multiple flood events which carried very high loads of ash and other debris from volcanoes sweeping all before them and burying the unfortunate animals and plants.

One of the problems that occurs when trying to conduct a study such as this, is that many of the fossils in museum collections have been found by local farmers who then sell on the fossil material.  Not very accurate excavation records are kept and therefore it is often extremely difficult to match up a museum specimen with the actual horizon from which it originated.

Commenting on the research, lead author of the scientific paper that has just been published in the journal of “Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology”, PhD student Chris Rogers of Bristol University said:

“Without stratigraphic information of the fossils in the field, it was impossible to accurately establish a mode of death for these animals.  Once we established proper placement of these fossils in the sedimentary sequence it became clear that these animals had been buried by sediments that were deposited by water and not by volcaniclastic flows.”

It is likely that the debate over the nature of the Jehol Biota will rumble on (just like a pyroclastic flow), this is an example of groups of scientists building on each other’s work to better understand how certain fossils are formed.  However, they were formed, the Jehol Biota provides palaeontologists with a unique insight into the flora and fauna of this part of the world back in the Early Cretaceous, a time when the Aves were rapidly diversifying and there were important revisions undergoing in both the Mammalia and Reptilia.

Crocodiles Just Want to Have Fun

Play Behaviour Reported in Crocodilians

Ask someone to name an animal that plays and they are very unlikely to suggest an alligator, however, in a new study conducted by a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, its seems that crocodiles indulge in play behaviours and they quite enjoy it too. In the first study of its kind, Vladimir Dinets, a research assistant professor at the University’s Department of Psychology, has published a paper in the quarterly academic journal “Animal Behavior and Cognition”, the paper examines the evidence for play behaviour that has been observed in Crocodilians (alligators, crocodiles, caimans and the gharials), not creatures that most people would associate with the word “fun”.

According to the Vladimir, over the ten years or so he has spent studying these reptiles, he has observed lots of play behaviour, including playing in water jets, toying with objects, surfing waves and riding on the backs of other crocodilians.  This type of research is important as it helps to shed light on how animals develop and provides an insight into the evolution of intelligence, after all, play and social interactions as a result of play behaviours are more commonly associated with mammals such as primates.  To generate more data, Vladimir conducted an informal survey of crocodile and alligator-themed groups on social media and raised the case for fun loving crocodiles at various conferences.

Crocodiles – Not Normally Associated with the Words Playful and Fun-loving

An American crocodile.  Long-snouted crocodile that prefers brackish, salty water.

An American crocodile.  A long-snouted crocodile that prefers brackish, salty water.

Picture Credit: Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times

His results show that play behaviour in crocodilians is not uncommon, but it remains very poorly understood and there has been virtually no formal research conducted in this field.  Behaviour specialists have identified three basic types of play related to animals and all three types have been observed in various species of these toothy creatures with fearsome reputations.  Ironically, the amount of play indulged in by Crocodilians may be under reported, reasons for this are that many crocodiles are most active at night when observation is difficult, some observers doubt their own observations, thinking that what they have seen may have a more credible explanation, whilst some witnesses may believe that their claims will not be taken seriously.

Main Types of Play Behaviour

  • Locomotor play – defined as intense or sustained movements, often without any apparent reason or stimulus.  For example captive, young American alligators repeatedly sliding down chutes into water, a hatchling caiman deliberately propelling itself across a pool using a jet of water flowing from the bottom of its concrete enclosure, or a 2.5 metre long Estuarine crocodile “surfing” waves off a beach in Australia.
  • Social play – defined as a pair of crocodiles (or more), indulging in play together, examples given included a pair of Cuban crocodiles in captivity with the male giving “piggyback rides” around the pool, the female being carried on the back of the male as he swam around.  Two young Black caimans chasing each other around in circles and reference to a “short sequence of film of two sibling Nile crocodiles tussling with each other in what looked like play behaviour” – a reference to personal communications between Vladimir Dinets and Dr. Darren Naish (Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Portsmouth).

Fancy a Ride?  Male Crocodile Swims with the Female Riding on His Back

Piggyback rides crocodile style.

Piggyback rides crocodile style.

Picture Credit: Vladimir Dinets

  • Play with objects – defined as playing with toys, interacting with various objects.  This is the most common form of play observed by zookeepers and staff responsible for looking after these reptiles in captivity.  Indeed, many zoos now toss in various objects such as robust floats and balls to provide a stimulus.

There has even been cases of interspecific play behaviour reported.  Vladimir cites the example of an American alligator interacting with a river otter (Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida).

It seems there may be a softer more playful side to these creatures, after all, as far as we at Everything Dinosaur are aware only about eight species are proven man-eaters.

There is also some evidence to suggest that Crocodilians can form a strong bond with humans.  Back in 2011, Everything Dinosaur wrote a brief article about two Dwarf caimans from the Blue Planet Aquarium in Cheshire that seemed to respond to their pet names, coming when called.

To read more about this: Crocodilians Respond to Their Own Names

However, there are a number of documented cases of crocodiles and people becoming playmates.  In the published paper, the story of an American crocodile called Pocho and its relationship with Gilberto “Chito” Shedden is recounted.  ”Chito” rescued the crocodile and became its keeper, the crocodile was soon tamed and so strong was the bond between them that “Chito” would often swim with the crocodile.  Various play behaviours were observed, including the crocodile indulging in mock charges, it sneaking up behind “Chito” as if to try to startle him and in return the reptile accepted being caressed, hugged, rotated in the water and kissed on the snout.  This unique relationship continued for twenty years, until Pocho apparently died of old age.  The two became celebrities in their native Costa Rica and were even the subject of a documentary made by Roger Horix “The Man Who Swims With Crocodiles”.

Crocodiles Like to Play with Objects

Apparently a number of crocodiles have expressed a preference for pink objects.

Apparently a number of crocodiles have expressed a preference for pink objects.

Picture Credit: Vladimir Dinets

Dinets’ study builds on previous work undertaken by colleague  Professor Gordon Burghardt (Department of Psychology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology).  It was Professor Burghardt who defined the concept of “play” in a way that allows it to be recognised in species not previously seen as playful or capable of play-like behaviours.  This new study supports the hypothesis that play behaviours are almost universal in “intelligent” animals, those capable of complex, flexible behaviour.  The research can help scientists to further explore the link between the evolution of more complex behaviour and even intelligence through playful activity.

Vladimir stated:

“Hundreds of thousands of Crocodilians are now kept in captivity in zoos, commercial farms and breeding centres set up for endangered species.  Providing them with toys and other opportunities for play makes them happier and healthier.”

This leads on to the question that if play is observed in animals such as Crocodilians and we know that birds indulge in play too, then this has consequences for the Dinosauria.  It may be very difficult to prove given the limitations of the fossil record when it comes to preserving behaviour, but it can be speculated or even asserted that dinosaurs played as well.  Cavorting Camarasaurs, or ticklish Tyrannosaurs, now that’s a thought…

Retracing the Beak of Birds to the Snout of Dinosaurs

Reverse Genetic Engineering to Produce a Dinosaur Snout

A team of scientists based in the United States have tweaked the developmental processes that take place in chicken embryos to re-engineer the snouts of their dinosaur ancestors.  The research team led by University of Yale palaeontologist, Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar and developmental biologist Arhat Abzhanov (Harvard University), have produced the first bird embryos that possess a snout similar to a dinosaur’s nose rather than a beak.  The chicken embryos developed palatial bones and a jaw configuration that resembles that seen in the fossil record, specifically in the Dromaeosauridae, a group of dinosaurs that are closely related to modern Aves.  The Dromaeosaurs, sometimes referred to as the “raptors” belong to the Sub-order Theropoda.  They are part of a clade of agile dinosaurs that reduced their tails, lost their teeth and evolved into Aves (birds).  Typical dromaeosaurids are Velociraptor, Deinonychus and the recently named Saurornitholestes sullivani.

To read an article about the newly described Saurornitholestes sullivaniSniffing Out a New Dinosaur Species

As the Yale University press release states: “Just don’t call them Dino-chickens!”

Tweaking the Beak from Dromaeosaurs to Modern Birds

From the Dinosauria (left) to the beaks of modern Aves (right).

From the Dinosauria (left) to the beaks of modern Aves (right).

Picture Credit: John Conway

The scientists were not in the business of trying to create a living dinosaur.  Manipulation of chicken embryos has taken place for several years, all part of research to help the understanding of how molecular processes affect the development of organisms.

Commenting on this research, which has just been published in the journal “Evolution”, lead author Dr. Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar (Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Yale) stated:

“Our goal here was to understand the molecular underpinnings of an important evolutionary transition, not to create a “dino-chicken” simply for the sake of it.”

For the young doctor, this is all part of his on-going research into cranial development in very young animals.  It is not part of a concerted effort to bring back the Dinosauria, a sort of “Jurassic Park from the embryo upwards”, as explained by a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur.

There are a huge variety of bird beaks, from the curved, tearing and cutting beaks of eagles, to the sophisticated sieves of flamingos.  The beak is an essential component of avian anatomy and the researchers are trying to unravel how the beak evolved from its reptilian ancestry.  A quantitative analysis of fossils closely associated with the origins of birds was undertaken along with a study of extant animals including lizards, crocodiles and birds.  This examination allowed the scientists to develop a hypothesis as to how the bird beak may have evolved from the Dinosauria and the developmental stages that were involved.

The team identified that both major living lineages of birds, the abundant Neognathae (which includes virtually all species of extant birds) and the much rarer  Palaeognathae (which comprises the Tinamou family of birds from South and Central America plus the flightless ratites – cassowary, ostrich, kiwi, rhea, for example), differ from reptiles that are not closely related to birds and from mammals in that they have a unique, median gene expression zone of two different facial development genes early in embryonic development.  This median gene expression had previously only been identified in chicken embryos.

Turning Back the Evolutionary Clock

In order to have an embryo revert to its ancestral state, before the beak as it were, the gene expression for beak formation in the young chicken had to be turned off.  Microscopic beads coated in a molecule inhibiting substance were used to inhibit the activity of the proteins produced by the bird specific, median signalling zone in the chicken embryos.  This led the embryo to revert back to its reptilian ancestry with a more dinosaur-like snout forming and surprisingly, the palatine bone in the root of the mouth was also altered.

Changing the Faces of Embryos (Modified Chicken Embryo with Snout)

Normal chick (left), modified chicken embryo (centre), alligator embryo (right)

Normal chick (left), modified chicken embryo (centre), alligator embryo (right)

Picture Credit: Evolution

Dr. Bhullar was surprised by the additional changes seen in the palatine bone, he stated:

“This was unexpected and demonstrates the way in which a single, simple developmental mechanism can have wide-ranging and unexpected effects.”

Commenting on the research, Professor Michael Benton (Bristol University), someone who knows a great deal about bird evolution, explained that this new study shows that the beak of birds develops very different from the snouts, noses and jaws of reptiles.  A different set of genes are involved.

He stated:

“That’s what proves the beak is a real adaptation or “thing”, not just a slightly different nose shape”

Why Beaks?

Intriguingly, although the fossil record for bird evolution is far from complete, the fantastically well preserved bird fossils of Lower Cretaceous deposits from China, specimens of Confuciusornis for instance, show that by around 125 million years ago the toothless beak had evolved.  Why the beak came about remains a point of significant debate, however, one of the most often cited reasons for a lighter, toothless structure is that as birds became more efficient fliers and spent more time in the air, the loss of a heavy, bony jaw lined with teeth was just one of a number of anatomical adaptations that occurred to help improve powered flight.

The “Early Bird” Confuciusornis sanctus from China

Confuciusornis sanctus a primitive bird but it had a beak.

Confuciusornis sanctus a primitive bird but it had a beak.

The American based researchers are confident that their work has important implications for other geneticists and for palaeontologists.  For example, if a single molecular mechanism was responsible for this transformation, there should be a corresponding, linked transformation in the fossil record.  The flightless, man-sized Hesperornis, a genus of prehistoric bird known from the Late Cretaceous of North America could demonstrate that link.

An Illustration of Hesperornis (Traditional View)

Hesperornis catching a fish.

Hesperornis catching a fish.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur/Brooke Bond

Dr. Bhullar said:

“This is borne out by the fact that Hesperornis, discovered by Othniel Charles Marsh of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, which is a near relative of modern birds that still retains teeth and the most primitive stem avian with a modern-looking beak in the form of a fused, elongate premaxillae, also possesses a modern bird palatine bone.”

The premaxillae are the bones that form the tip of the upper jaw (anterior portion) of most animals, but are enlarged and fused to form the beak of birds.

Moving forward, the quantitative analysis to establish a proposed hypothetical developmental path of a lineage of animals which could be tested by inhibiting the behaviour of proteins in embryos can be probably be used to investigate a wide range of underlying developmental mechanisms in organisms.

The dinosaur/bird link is now well established, a theory once proposed by the likes of Henry Govier Seeley back in the 1880′s is widely accepted.  Back in 2013, Everything Dinosaur reported on research from an international team of scientists, including researchers from the Royal Veterinary College (London), that looked at how the posture of birds was derived from the gait of small, cursorial dinosaurs.

To read more about this study: The Birds Have the Dinosaurs to Thank for their Crouching Gait

Everything Dinosaur notes the support of Yale University in the compilation of this article.

Sniffing Out a New Dinosaur Species

Saurornitholestes sullivani – Don’t Turn Your Nose Up When It Comes To The Dromaeosaurids

Steven Jasinski, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania (Department of Earth and Environmental Science), has identified a new species of North American Dromaeosaur, one that may have had a very keen sense of smell.  Saurornitholestes sullivani was not the largest predator known from that ecosystem, but with its sharp senses, grasping arms, turn of speed, large claws and jaws full of dagger-like teeth it was very probably a formidable hunter.

Steven made the discovery whilst studying cranial elements (skull fossils) that had been assigned to the genus Saurornitholestes but to another species, (S. langstoni).  Up until now, Saurornitholestes langstoni was the only species assigned to this genus, now there are two.  This is yet another example of a new dinosaur species being erected from a reassessment of previously described fossil remains.  The Saurornitholestes genus was established in 1978, following the description of a partial skeleton discovered in Alberta (Canada).  Although, no complete or near complete fossil specimen has been found to date, fossil material from both the Judith River Formation (Montana) and the Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation (Alberta) have been assigned to this genus.  The huge number of broken teeth found, indicate that this dinosaur was probably one of the most common predators in this part of North America approximately 75 million years ago (Campanian faunal stage).

An Illustration of a Pair of S. sullivani Attacking a Juvenile Parasaurolophus

Fearsome predator of the Late Cretaceous.

Fearsome predator of the Late Cretaceous.

Picture Credit: Mary P. Williams

 The picture above depicts a pair of feathered dinosaurs attacking a juvenile duck-billed dinosaur.  Although no evidence of feathers have been found preserved alongside fossil material assigned to this genus, it is likely, that this small, agile dinosaur was feathered.  A report on Saurornitholestes sullivani has been published in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science bulletin.

The fossil material was originally found by American palaeontologist Robert Sullivan in 1999, when a field team was exploring the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in northern New Mexico.  The fossils were initially described as Saurornitholestes langstoni and represented the southernmost location for this species.  However, Steven Jasinski conducted a comparative analysis of these fossils with those of S. langstoni from Montana and Alberta and he observed a number of differences in skull anatomy.  When the brain shape and volume was calculated, the student noted that the proportion of the brain dedicated to interpreting and analysing smells was unusually large.  The enlarged olfactory bulb indicates that this two metre long dinosaur had a powerful sense of smell.

Jasinski commented:

“This feature [enlarged olfactory bulb] means that Saurornitholestes sullivani had a relatively better sense of smell than other dromaeosaurid dinosaurs including Velociraptor, Dromaeosaurus and Bambiraptor.  This keen olfaction may have made S. sullivani an intimidating predator as well.”

 Steven Jasinski Holding a Replica of the Skull and Upper Jaw of S. sullivani

Student Steven Jasinski.

Student Steven Jasinski.

Picture Credit: University of Pennsylvania

The picture above shows Steven holding a replica of the fossil material, the large eye socket (orbit) also suggests that this little hunter had keen eyesight.

At the time S. sullivani lived, North America was split into several parts separated by an inland sea (the Western Interior Seaway).  This dinosaur lived on the landmass known as Laramidia.  S. sullivani represents the only named Dromaeosaur from the Late Cretaceous of southern Laramida, but the wealth of micro-fossil evidence, consisting of broken teeth suggests that there may have been several different species of Dromaeosaur inhabiting the floodplains on the eastern shores of Laramidia.

Although a distinct species, Saurornitholestes sullivani was very closely related to S. langstoni.  Finding two distinct species of this genus hundreds of miles apart supports the hypothesis that distinct but closely related megafaunal communities existed on Laramida (supporting the concept of ethnicity within the Dinosauria of Late Cretaceous North America).

Approximate Location of Saurornitholestes Fossil Material from Laramidia

Saurornitholestes fossil material mapped.

Saurornitholestes fossil material mapped.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Having an exceptional sense of smell would have helped this agile dinosaur to sniff out potential prey.  Although, in the illustration above Saurornitholestes is depicted attacking a duck-billed dinosaur, it may not have hunted large prey.  The sense of smell could have helped this dinosaur, that probably measured around one metre high at the hips, to sniff out mammals living in burrows or to find lizards and other small creatures in the undergrowth.  In addition, an acute sense of smell could have helped Saurornitholestes find carrion that it could then scavenge.

Jurassic World Dinosaurs are not Accurate – So What!

Jurassic World = “Dumb Monster Movie”

A number of news stories have appeared in the media over the last few days criticising how the dinosaurs are depicted in the forthcoming film “Jurassic World”, which is the fourth film in the hugely successful “Jurassic Park” franchise.  Articles with headlines such as “Jurassic World branded “dumb monster movie” with unrealistic T. Rex without feathers” from the Scottish Daily Record and “New Jurassic World film slammed as “dumb monster movie” because dinosaurs were covered in fluffy feathers in real life” from the Mail Online, are typical of the adverse publicity.

Knocking a movie before it has been released is not new, prior to the release of the first three Jurassic Park films there were criticisms.  In this article, we want to address the balance a little bit and to put some of the statements made into context with regards to the idea of extracting genetic material from amber in the first place.  The fluffy dinosaur debate will come later.

“Jurassic World” Gets Criticism

A "feat" of genetic engineering?

A “feat” of genetic engineering but are the dinosaurs accurate?

Picture Credit: Universal Studios

Getting the Terminology Right – What’s in a Bionomial Name?

First of all, let’s get out of the way one inaccuracy from the headlines.  The dinosaur name “T. Rex” should never be written with the species name – rex given a capital letter.  There are rules and conventions as to how the taxonomic hierarchy is expressed, rules that we, at Everything Dinosaur do try to stick to.  Formally, the names of all genera in this case Tyrannosaurus, should always begin with a capital letter.  The species or trivial name however, should always begin with a lower case letter.  The “King of the Tyrant Lizards”, should be written as T. rex or Tyrannosaurus rex, note also that the names of genera and species are always printed in italics.  We at Everything Dinosaur do try to adhere to these conventions whenever we can, but we do admit, whilst we try to put the binomial name into italics, when stating the genus, we don’t normally revert to the italicised form.

Despite claims that dinosaur fans could end up being extremely disappointed when this film finally gets released (June 12th), it is just a film, it’s entertainment and from what we have seen from the trailers “Jurassic World” is going to be very entertaining.

The extremely talented and eloquent vertebrate palaeontologist Darren Naish, is quoted in a number of articles (Sunday Times, Business Standard, Daily Mirror to name but a few), he states:

“The original film [Jurassic Park released in 1993], showed dinosaurs that were not simply roaring, scaly monsters but were active, social, bird-like animals with dynamic bodies.  Now, Jurassic World is simply a dumb monster movie and there has been a deliberate effort to make its animals look different from the way we think they should.”

Let’s try and put some of these “headlines” seen in the media into context.

The Amber Effect

The idea that genetic material can be extracted from the bodies of blood sucking insects that have been preserved in amber, the basis for the entire franchise, simply, is not true.  In fact, whilst we at Everything Dinosaur try not to say “never” as advances in science will change circumstances, it is highly improbable that DNA, that forms the basis of a “de-extinction” of a species, will ever by successfully recovered from amber.  The author of the book “Jurassic Park”, Michael Crichton, admitted that experiments to extract insect DNA from fossilised tree resin did influence his writing.  Not long after the book was first published, a number of academic institutes published papers, reporting sequencing DNA from a variety of ancient insect species that had been preserved in amber. There was even one report of DNA being extracted from a weevil that had lived in the Early Cretaceous.  Fascinating stuff, but much of the claims made in these papers have now been retracted.  It was just too good to be true.

Michael Crichton – The Author of “Jurassic Park”

Wrote the original book at a time when breakthroughs in DNA extraction from amber were being reported.

Wrote the original book at a time when breakthroughs in DNA extraction from amber were being reported.

Picture Credit: EPA

Back in 1997, roughly around the time when the sequel to “Jurassic Park” was in cinemas “The Lost World”, a team of scientists from the Natural History Museum (London), tried to repeat the experiments in order to validate the earlier results.  They used amber and copal (the pre-cursor to amber), but they failed.  The team were unable to recover and authenticate ancient insect DNA.  They did find insect DNA, even when they used pieces of amber and copal that actually contained no insect remains.  The sophisticated “DNA detectors” used were picking up ambient, contaminating genetic material from our modern ecosystem, not the distant genetic echoes of ancient life from millions of years ago.

Truth is, the properties of amber make it a very unlikely safe haven for any ancient DNA, insect or dinosaur DNA for that matter.  Amber is light, it can float on salt water.  It is permeable to gases and even some liquids.  Any biological material such as genes are not entirely isolated from the outside world.  The expression “entombed in amber” might be quite commonplace, a term we have used ourselves, but DNA trapped inside amber is not sealed off.  A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur explained:

“Any genetic material trapped within amber or copal is not cut-off.  Imagine a prison cell full of tiny microscopic doors, the delicate DNA is going to be exposed to forces that degrade and destroy it over time.  In addition, as copal changes to amber and whilst the amber remains in the strata, it will, in all likelihood, be subjected to pressure and tremendous heat that will obliterate any DNA.”

It always surprises us that the media picks up comments about the CGI dinosaurs and is happy to produce articles centred around the “accurate dinosaurs debate”, but they nearly always seem to miss the fundamental point that a genetically engineered dinosaur theme park is very much in the realm of science fiction and as such the idea of not having “accurately depicted dinosaurs” is something of a mute point.  This is a sci-fi movie and ultimately, the characters and creatures depicted within it don’t have to reflect the latest scientific thinking.

Non-fluffy Dinosaurs

Darren, is quite right in the comments that he makes, there are certainly many scientific inaccuracies, that is, if the trailers are anything to go by.  In the twenty-two years since the first film, there have been huge advances in our knowledge of the Dinosauria.  One of the main criticisms made by experts, dinosaur film fans and prehistoric animal fans generally, is the lack of feathers on the Theropod dinosaurs, that’s the Velociraptors, Tyrannosaurus rex, and so forth.

Naked Dinosaurs – Beware of our Feathered (or Unfeathered) Friends

Not feathered!

Not feathered!

Picture Credit: Universal Studios

The picture above shows a pair of “naked” Velociraptors as depicted in the forthcoming movie.  Although, no actual feather fossils are associated with Velociraptor mongoliensis, it is widely thought that these members of the Dromaeosauridae were feathered.

The original movie, when it was released in 1993, received some praise, but it too was also criticised.  Advances in CGI enabled film makers to depict dinosaurs as much more dynamic, active animals.   A nod was given to those scientists who had portrayed the Dinosauria as social animals living in herds with very bird-like characteristics, hence one of the most famous lines in the film when the ornithomimids run towards Dr. Alan Grant’s party “they’re flocking this way.”  This is exactly, one of the points that we think Darren was making, however, in the original “Jurassic Park”, the Tyrannosaurus rex was depicted as being somewhat akin to a reptilian Usain Bolt.  The character John Hammond, portrayed by the late Sir Richard Attenborough, excitedly exclaims “we clocked the T. rex at 32 miles an hour”.  Bio-mechanical studies and other evidence strongly refutes the idea of a speedy T. rex, one that in the film, nearly catches up with a Jeep.  If truth be told, based on what is known about large Tyrannosaurs, the “King of the Tyrant Lizards”, would have been lucky to have caught up with the fleeing scientists if they had been riding in a golf buggy.

Problems with the Pterosaurs and Mosasaurs

Let’s not just focus on the dinosaurs in the film, many of the other prehistoric animals depicted show considerable discrepancies from the fossil record and published research.  An oversized, shark eating Mosasaur for example, the shiny skinned flying reptiles several of which, just like the marine reptile, seem to have been subjected to a film makers “growth ray”.  Scientists like the highly respected Darren Naish are quite right to make such points.

Snack Time at the Mosasaurus Feeding Show

Come and see the "oversized" Mosasaur.

Come and see the “oversized” Mosasaur.

Picture Credit: Universal Studios

Feathered or naked, scaly dinosaurs.  Pumped up members of the Pterosauria or mammoth Mosasaurs are choices made by the Director.  It is simply a film, one that will be enjoyed by a great many people including palaeontologists and other scientists who are quite happy to suspend belief, at least for a couple of hours, roughly the running time of the movie –  (124 minutes with credits according to Colin Trevorrow, the Director).

The “Jurassic World” Legacy

We think that this film is going to inspire millions of young people to learn more about dinosaurs and animals that lived long ago.  Many of those young people in the cinema audience marvelling at the monsters, will go on to pursue academic careers of their own.  Perhaps, there might even be, amongst the millions of people who see this film, a girl or boy that will become an evolutionary biologist and contribute to the research on the genomes of extinct creatures.  Actually, this is quite likely, given the predictions regarding the box office potential of “Jurassic World”.

Those young people will want to quench their thirst for all things dinosaur!  The very fact that there are no “fluffy dinosaurs” in this film, will probably inspire young minds to find out more.  A very good place to start is to seek out the many books, papers and articles authored by the likes of Darren Naish and his counterparts in the scientific community.

“Jurassic World” is just a film, it is science fiction, it is entertainment.  The science behind the study of the Dinosauria and other prehistoric creatures has moved on dramatically since the very first “Jurassic Park”.  Research will continue long after films like “Jurassic World” have faded from the memory, and that research, will in all likelihood, reveal even more astonishing information about these fascinating creatures.

In Praise of Pegasus Hobbies Dinosaurs

Pegasus Dinosaur Model Kits – Produce Top Quality Models

Everything Dinosaur has added a number of new product lines to its range of dinosaur inspired merchandise over the last six months or so.  One new addition is the superb series of scale model kits from Pegasus Hobbies.  Currently, there are three to collect, a Triceratops, the Tyrannosaurus rex and a fantastic Spinosaurus.  Each kit has been designed by top figure sculptors and they are aimed at model makers from fourteen years and upwards.  Fans of top quality dinosaur replicas have the opportunity to produce museum quality, highly professional prehistoric animal themed dioramas and we have been really impressed by the many pictures sent into us by customers who have built these kits.

Pegasus Dinosaur Model Kits – A Range of Top Quality Prehistoric Animal Model Kits

Pegasus Hobbies Dinosaur model kits are available from Everything Dinosaur.

Pegasus Hobbies Dinosaur model kits are available from Everything Dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To see Everything Dinosaur’s range of Pegasus Hobbies Dinosaurs: Pegasus Dinosaur Model Kits

We are always pleased to hear from our customers and we really enjoy looking at pictures of dinosaur fan’s model collections.  We know that we have some very talented customers, some of the photographs that we are sent show fantastic and highly creative prehistoric animal dioramas.  Take for example, these pictures of a finished Pegasus dinosaur model kit sent in by David – they really are most impressive.

The Pegasus Spinosaurus Model Kit

Beautifully crafted model.

Beautifully crafted model.

Picture Credit: D. Wigley

The photograph above shows the amazing detail on the model.  The colour scheme chosen by David reminds us of the Papo Spinosaurus figure and the end result is a fantastic diorama.  The Spinosaurus, which scientists believe was a specialist piscivore, has caught a large fish and it is leaning over the body roaring.

A Close up of the Prehistoric Fish that the Spinosaurus has Caught

Xiphactinus, the victim of the Spinosaurus.

Xiphactinus, the victim of the Spinosaurus.

Picture Credit: D. Wigley

David has done a wonderful job on the fish, the metallic look to the scales and careful painting on the inside of the mouth make this feature on the model’s base really stand out.  Everything Dinosaur would like to congratulate David and all the other Pegasus Hobbies dinosaurs fans who have sent in pictures.

In addition to the photographs sent in, we have received lots of feedback and reviews on the Pegasus dinosaur model kits.  For example, Andrew wrote in to say:

“This model kit is of Sideshow Dinosauria quality, the sculpt is even sharper in the teeth than the promotional photographs.  The head fits perfectly on the base and the standing leg is of a more rigid plastic than the rest of the kit to hold the model rigidly when assembled.  Make no mistake, this will impress the most discerning of collectors, it truly is a fantastic model of Sideshow Collectible quality.”

It was a Worm’s World Back in the Cambrian

Palaeontologists Name New Species of Ottoia Worm

Whilst many a television documentary or published article on the fauna of the Burgess Shale focuses on the nektonic predators (actively swimming creatures above the sea floor), such as the formidable Anomalocaris, lurking in the soft mud of the sea floor itself was another very nasty hunter, one that left an extremely rich fossil record.  The most abundant type of creature preserved in the Burgess Shale is a type of worm, a member of the Phylum Priapulidae and now thanks to a detailed study of the teeth, hooks and spines on this tubular predator, scientists have discovered a method of identifying new species and also of determining just how abundant these creatures actually may have been.

An Ottoia Fossil (Burgess Shale)

An Ottoia fossil (Burgess Shale).

An Ottoia fossil (Burgess Shale).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Ottoia fossils from the Burgess Shale of British Columbia (Canada), measure just a few centimetres in length and they are one of the few types of creature preserved in those 5o5 million year old sediments that can be associated with a living animal group, the entirely marine priapulids.  At least fifteen hundred specimens have been excavated from the Burgess Shale deposits.  These creatures may have lived in “U” shaped burrows and ambushed other creatures that wandered or swam to close to the burrow’s entrance.  It could grab food with a proboscis, an extendible mouth which was equipped with tiny hooks and lined with teeth and spines.  The team of scientists from Cambridge University and the University of Leicester, writing in the on line Journal “Palaeontology” used a variety of techniques to examine micro-fossils to identify different types of teeth from Ottoia  It is from this analysis that the team discovered that the most common type of priapulid associated with the Burgess Shale, Ottoia prolifica, actually represented two species.

As a result of this research, a new species of Ottoia worm has been identified in the Burgess Shale deposits - Ottoia tricuspida.  O. tricuspida has been so named as it has distinctive, three-pronged teeth.  Using various microscopy techniques to examine the tiny teeth recovered from drill cores and from other samples, the scientists propose that subtle variations in the teeth could help to identify more species in Cambrian biota and in addition, as the teeth are more likely to be preserved than the soft bodies of these creatures, the teeth could help to establish how widespread such worms were in the Cambrian geological period.

Ottoia prolifica was named by Charles Doolittle Walcott in 1911.  Walcott,  an American invertebrate palaeontologist, discovered the Burgess Shale deposits in the Canadian Rockies back in 1909.  These bands of mudstone and shale are very rich in fossils.  The frequency of Ottoia fossil material might not be anything to do with the abundance of these types of animals in the biota, the numbers found could reflect the fact that these animals lived in soft sediment.  If one of these worms died in their burrow, then they could set in motion the fossilisation process.  The soft mud would act as an excellent medium to promote the preservation of creatures that lived in the sediment.

A Model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob)

A model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob).

A model of Ottoia (Safari Ltd Cambrian Life Toob).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Safari Ltd have a wonderful model of Ottoia in the Cambrian Life Toob.  This Toob contains a set of eight prehistoric animals that represent the bizarre fauna of the Cambrian explosion.

To view this Toob and other prehistoric animal model sets: Prehistoric Animal Toobs and Model Sets

A Teeth, Hooks and Spines Associated with Ottoia spp.

The variety of fossil teeth, spines and hooks associated with Ottoia spp.

The variety of fossil teeth, spines and hooks associated with Ottoia spp.

Picture Credit: Palaeontology Journal

Everything Dinosaur’s #VoteDinosaur Competition Ends

Win a Dinosaur Soft Toy Competition Ends

Over the last month or so, Everything Dinosaur has been running a competition to win a dinosaur soft toy on this blog site and our accompanying Facebook page.  Just as we promised when we started our #votedinosaur contest back in April, the competition would close when the polls closed at 10pm BST on Thursday May 7th (the same time as the polls shut in the UK General Election).

We had seven candidates, having tried to represent the leaders of the seven main political parties with a dinosaur soft toy.  Each soft toy dinosaur being in the colours of the respective political party.  The voting was tight with lots of votes for “Nigel” our purple Triceratops and for “Nick” our yellow Velociraptor, but in the end there was almost a dead heat between “Ed” our red Spinosaurus and “Dave” our blue T. rex.

With the polls closed it was simply a question of ensuring that all the entrants were placed in our “ballot box” and a lucky winner being drawn out at random.  This person has subsequently been sent a message on Facebook to let them know that they have won a soft toy dinosaur.

As for the result of our #votedinosaur poll, here is our very own version of the “state of the parties” after our dinosaur election.

Heading for a Hung Parliament?

Vote Dinosaur.

Vote Dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Our Returning Officer “Tyrannosaurus Sue” stated:

“I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the winner of the dinosaur soft toy, we will get this sent out as quickly as we can.  In addition, I want to thank everyone who took part, who shared our posts and liked Everything Dinosaur’s Facebook page.”

THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED

The Colourful Array of Dinosaur Soft Toys that were Our Candidates

Vote Dinosaur! #votedinosaur

Vote Dinosaur! #votedinosaur – this competition is now closed.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the range of soft toy dinosaurs available from Everything Dinosaur: Dinosaur Soft Toys

THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED

Early Birds Winding Back the Clock

Early Birds from the Early Cretaceous

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have published information about a new species of ancient bird which suggests that the clade of Aves that produced today’s modern feathery friends, the Ornithuromorpha was around at least five million years earlier than previously thought.  The new species comes from strata that is estimated to have been laid down around 130.7 million years ago (Barremian faunal stage of the Early Cretaceous).  This new type of early bird, named Archaeornithura meemannae has been described from two beautifully preserved fossils (mostly, see below), discovered in the Protopteryx horizon, part of the Huajiying Formation (Sichakou basin, Fengning County, Hebei, north-eastern China).

 Archaeornithura meemannae – A Very Early Bird

Archaeornithura meemannae - believed to adapted for wading.

Archaeornithura meemannae – believed to adapted for wading.

Picture Credit: Institute of Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (Beijing)

The picture shows an artist’s illustration of this little bird that measured around fifteen centimetres in length.  The fossil has been preserved in fine-grained volcanic sediments and much of the plumage surrounding the delicate bones can still be seen.  Sadly, the skull and neck bones are not well preserved in either specimen and the researchers have been unable to confirm whether this bird had teeth in its jaws or not.  However, writing in the academic journal “Nature Communications”, the scientists identify this creature as the earliest known example of the Ornithuromorpha, the branch of the bird Order that led to the Neornithes (modern birds).  The previous earliest known example of a member of the Ornithuromorpha dates from rocks around 125 million years ago, this fossil too, was found in China.

The Holotype Fossil of  Archaeornithura meemannae

The slab and counter slab showing the holotype.

The slab and counter slab showing the holotype.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

The picture above shows the slab (left) and the counter slab (right) of the holotype fossil, which like the second specimen is part of the vertebrate fossil collection at the Tianyu Museum of Nature (Shandong Province, China).  These early birds should feel very much at home at the museum, as it houses one of the most extensive collections of vertebrate fossil material excavated from Lower Cretaceous sediments in the world.  The binomial name Archaeornithura meemannae comes from the Greek “Archae” for ancient and “Ornithura”, so the genus name means “ancient Ornithuromorph”.  The species name honours Dr. Meemann Chang in recognition of her work in the study of the Jehol Biota.

The environment of this part of north-eastern China during the Early Cretaceous was one of a sub-tropical climate, dominated by extensive forests interspersed by numerous large bodies of fresh water. The absence of feathers on the legs of A. meemannae and the long legs has led to speculation that this bird may have lived in a lacustrine habitat and been adapted to a wading life-style.  Little is known about the skull, so the diet can only be guessed at, but perhaps this ancient bird ate insects or pecked at water plants.  Although the research team cannot be certain, it has been stated that this early bird was not that interested in catching worms, as the proverb goes,  but it probably was a herbivore.

The Remarkably Well-Preserved Plumage (Wings)

A close up of the feathers on the wings.

A close up of the feathers on the wings.

Picture Credit: Nature Communications

The picture above shows:

a). Left wing main slab holotype

b). Right wing main slab holotype

c). Feathers on the remnants of the head and neck

d). Alular feathers on the left digits with one very clearly visible wing claw.

Alular feathers are found on the leading edge of the wings of birds (they are also associated with the limbs of some feathered dinosaurs, we think).  They help direct air over the upper surface of the wing, thus improving control and lift.  More primitive birds such as the confuciusornithids lack these feather adaptations.  Ornithuromorpha are believed to have comprised about half of the bird species that lived during the Mesozoic, the descendants of some of these birds from the Ornithuromorpha clade survived the Cretaceous mass extinction and evolved into modern birds.  The other major bird clade of the Mesozoic Era was the Enantiornithes, although common, this group died out and are not directly ancestral to modern birds.

Co-author of the study Wang Min (Chinese Academy of Sciences) stated:

“The new fossil represents the oldest record of Ornithuromorpha.  It pushed back the origination date of the Ornithuromorpha by at least five million years.”

To the casual observer, if you had travelled back in time to view Archaeornithura meemannae, it would have looked very similar to modern wading birds, except for the small claws visible on its wings.

The Chinese scientists conclude that by around 130 million years ago a number of avian lineages had already evolved and that it was quite likely that the Aves rapidly diversified during the early part of their evolutionary history.

Dinosaurs and More Dinosaurs in 2015

“Dinosaur Britain” Documentary Commissioned by ITV

By now it could not possibly have escaped your notice that “Jurassic World”, the fourth in the “Jurassic Park” movie franchise opens next month (June 12th).  Another teaser trailer has just been put out and the film is certainly one of the most eagerly awaited cinema events of this year.  However, you don’t have to visit Isla Nublar to view dinosaurs, travel back in time and “dear old blighty” was home to a huge range of prehistoric animals including three types of Tyrannosaurs*.

The very first scientific descriptions of dinosaurs in the early to mid 19th Century were all based upon fossil discoveries made in the UK.  To mark the United Kingdom’s contribution to this sub-division of vertebrate palaeontology, ITV has commissioned the production company Maverick Television to transport Britain back to the Mesozoic to depict how this part of the world was once home to a myriad of prehistoric animals.

“Dinosaur Britain” A New Television Documentary

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Different dinosaurs and approximate locations.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

 Over one hundred different species of dinosaur have been identified so far from fossils found in the British Isles.  This includes those three Tyrannosaurs as mentioned above* [Eotyrannus lengi (Isle of Wight), Proceratosaurus bradleyi (Gloucestershire) and Juratyrant langhami (Dorset)].  Back in 2014, Everything Dinosaur reported on the first formal survey of British dinosaurs undertaken by a group of scientists, which included the very talented Darren Naish, a vertebrate palaeontologist from the University of Portsmouth.  In August of last year, we reviewed the excellent “Dinosaurs of the British Isles”.  This book provided a comprehensive guide to the different types of Dinosauria that once roamed around Britain.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s review of “Dinosaurs of the British Isles by Dean Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura: “Dinosaurs of the British Isles” Reviewed

“Dinosaurs of the British Isles”

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

A comprehensive guide to British dinosaurs over 400 pages.

Picture Credit:  Siri Scientific Press

For further information on this fantastic book and to order a copy: Siri Scientific Press

Britain = Dinosaur Island

Not entirely accurate as for much of the Mesozoic, this part of the world was underwater and when dry land did occur in the past, it formed part of a much larger continental landmass, but that’s not the point, for the last eight thousand years or so, Britain has been an island and there is a wealth of dinosaur and other prehistoric animal fossils to be found in the British Isles, so much so, that it has inspired the commissioning of a new two-part television documentary series.

ITV has commissioned Maverick Television (creators of programmes such as ”Embarrassing Bodies” and television make-over shows such as “How to Look Good Naked”), to make two, one-hour long documentaries examining the types of different dinosaur that existed in the British Isles.  Everything Dinosaur understands that the working title for this series is “Dinosaur Britain” and CGI techniques will be used to place ancient creatures in modern-day settings.  So if you fancy seeing an Iguanodont wandering around Kent or a Megalosaurus taking a stroll through the centre of Oxford then this new television series might just float your boat!

Director of Factual Output for ITV, Richard Klein has ordered the programmes which will attempt to educate viewers not only on the types of dinosaur that once existed in the UK, but also to provide information about the habitats and ecosystems of the UK during the Age of the Dinosaurs.  Dinosaur fans can expect lots of hunting and fighting sequences too.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“Britain has a rich fossil heritage, of which the Dinosauria makes up only a small part.  However, with more than one hundred different dinosaurs identified from fossils found in the British Isles, documentary makers have a huge cast list to choose from.  Giants like Pelorosaurus and Brachiosaurs to fearsome predators like Becklespinax and Megalosaurus, which was the first dinosaur to be scientifically named and described.”

At the time of writing we are not sure when these programmes will be shown, but one thing is for sure, with all the hyperbole surrounding “Jurassic World”, we can expect dinosaurs to have a much bigger media footprint (even bigger than usual), over the next couple of years.

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