All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
21 05, 2015

Would a Dinosaur Make a Good Pet?

By | May 21st, 2015|Dinosaur Fans, Educational Activities, Teaching|0 Comments

Year 2 at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School Consider a Pet Dinosaur

Children in Year 2 at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School (Matlock, Derbyshire), have been tackling the tricky question of would dinosaurs make good pets?  This poser is one of the questions being explored as part of a series of themes for the summer term.  So far the children have learned about dinosaur eggs and taken part in some outdoor measuring activities under the guidance of their enthusiastic teacher Miss Sutcliffe.  It’s a good job the school has a large playground, especially when it comes to working out how tall a Brachiosaurus was.

Brachiosaurus was one of the largest of the dinosaurs, a huge plant-eater, fossils of which have been found in Upper Jurassic rocks.  The children estimated that a twelve metre tall Brachiosaurus would be the same height as nineteen Year 2 children.  This is a super exercise and certainly helps children gain an appreciation of the size and scale of some of the biggest dinosaurs.

One of the Biggest Dinosaurs of the Late Jurassic

A typical Brachiosaur.

A typical Brachiosaur.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Trouble is, Brachiosaurus (the name means “Arm Lizard” as the forelimbs were larger than the back legs), was not the tallest of the Dinosauria.  As more fossils have been found so different contenders for the “tallest dinosaur “accolade are proposed.  One contender, known from four neck bones and a handful of other fossil specimens found in rocks dating from the Early Cretaceous of the United States, is Sauroposeidon (the name means “Earthquake Lizard”).  Sauroposeidon is pronounced sore-oh-poh-sigh-don.  One of the neck bones measures 1.4 metres long, that is taller than most of the Year 2 children at the school.

Size estimates for Sauroposeidon do vary.  With so few fossils to study, it is difficult to work out just how tall, or indeed just how long or how heavy this dinosaur was.  Palaeontologists are not even sure if Sauroposeidon had the same basic body shape of Brachiosaurus.  However, if it did, then it could have been around 18-20 metres tall.

Sauroposeidon Compared to Brachiosaurus

Scaling up Sauroposeidon and comparing it to Brachiosaurus and an extant African elephant.

Scaling up Sauroposeidon and comparing it to Brachiosaurus and an extant African elephant.

If nineteen Year 2 children are as tall as a twelve metre high Brachiosaurus, then can the class work out how many of them would be needed to be the same height as a twenty metre tall Sauroposeidon?

Miss Sutcliffe and her teaching assistant have certainly developed a challenging and engaging scheme of work for the class.  The dinosaur workshop we conducted certainly helped as we were able to answer the children’s questions and some of those questions were quite challenging.  For example, we were asked how did dinosaurs chew bones?  Fortunately, some of the fossils we had with us were useful in demonstrating how some types of dinosaur ate.

The spacious and well-organised classroom had lots of dinosaur themed displays.  We were informed that after our visit the children would be designing a habitat for their dinosaurs.  This links nicely into the English national curriculum as this enables the children to learn about living creatures and what they need to survive.  Perhaps the children can compare the world of the dinosaurs with habitats seen today and the types of animals that exist in those habitats.   It was pleasing to note that Year 2 had a good grasp of the terminology related to ecosystems and food chains.  For example, the children were able to explain all about omnivores.  Our cast of the lower jaw of a Pachycephalosaur (Dracorex hogwartsia), proved useful when it came to explaining about animals that ate both meat and plants.  Dracorex might make a good pet dinosaur, it would have helped keep the school’s vegetable garden pest free, but a downside might be that it would be tempted to eat all the flowers!

A Colourful Dinosaur Themed Display in the Classroom

St Joseph's Catholic Primary School (Year 2) dinosaur display.

St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School (Year 2) dinosaur display.

Picture Credit: Year 2/Everything Dinosaur

We set the class a number of challenges as part of the extension ideas and activities we discussed with Miss Sutcliffe and we look forward to hearing how the children get on as they explore all things dinosaur for their summer term topic.

20 05, 2015

The Growth Spurts of Indominus rex

By | May 20th, 2015|Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur News and Updates, Main Page, Movie Reviews and Movie News, Press Releases|0 Comments

The Prehistoric Animals of “Jurassic World” – The Rapid Growth of Indominus rex

There are only another twenty-three days to wait before the movie “Jurassic World” opens at cinemas.  To say that this film has been eagerly awaited is a bit of an understatement, we expect things to reach fever pitch over the next three weeks or so.  In this febrile atmosphere, team members wanted to comment on an aspect of the movie, the fourth in the “Jurassic Park” franchise, that has not been discussed to any great degree.  Now we know this is pure science fiction, the extraction of ancient DNA from amber (or copal, the pre-cursor to amber for that matter), is extremely controversial but if we take all this with a pinch of salt, what gets us is the phenomenal growth rate of the genetically engineered dinosaurs.

Take for example, the new hybrid dinosaur developed by those scientists formerly of InGen and now working for the Masrani Corporation (the fictional conglomerate which owns and runs “Jurassic World”).

Fearsome “super-beast” Indominus rex

The hybrid dinosaur.

The hybrid dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Universal Studios

The growth rate for this hybrid dinosaur, which seems to be made up of a variety of Theropod dinosaurs as well as genetic material from a number of extant creatures, is phenomenal.  In trailers released to promote “Jurassic World”, Dr. Wu the leading geneticist behind the development of this new type of prehistoric animal, states that this dinosaur was designed to be “bigger than a T. rex.“.  In the film, it is believed to be around twelve metres long, a fraction smaller than an adult female Tyrannosaurus rex.

If the project to develop a genetically modified dinosaur was only given the go ahead sometime in 2012, this new species exhibits an accelerated growth rate.  It seems to have grown much more rapidly than any other large Theropod.  It was Masrani’s Chief Executive Officer, Simon Masrani, who announced that the company had been able to successfully engineer a new species, but that was only last year, so within twelve months the subject of this project has developed into a very big animal indeed!

At Everything Dinosaur, we have attempted to map the growth rate of Indominus rex against that of Tyrannosaurus rex.  This work is highly speculative, but we have tried to postulate the growth rates based on the timeline stated by Masrani Corporation and plotted this against the postulated growth rate for a large tyrannosaurid based on the current research.  At least in terms of growth rate, this is a no contest, I. rex wins hands down (or should that be claws down)?

Comparing the Growth Rates of Indominus rex and Tyrannosaurus rex

I. rex versus T. rex growth rates.

I. rex versus T. rex growth rates.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Quite a bit of research has been conducted on the ontogeny (growth) of dinosaurs, such as Late Cretaceous Theropods, an example being Tyrannosaurus rex.  It has been suggested that T. rex did not reach adult size until it got to its twenties.  It may even have had a growth spurt in its teenage years just like us humans.  Compare this to the genetic dinosaur hybrid Indominus rex, it reaches twelve metres in length in the summer of 2015, that means in three years or so it has had a spectacular growth spurt.

How we love the movies!  Of course, this is a science fiction film, the writers and film makers can do what they want, after all, it’s only CGI.  If they want a phenomenally quick growing dinosaur, then that is their prerogative.  When did science actually get in the way of a good film?

We suspect that I. rex will meet its demise at the end of the picture.  Not that we know anything, but just like the “raptors” in the first “Jurassic Park” film (1993),who were about to attack Dr. Grant and company, when a bigger predator intervened,  we suspect that another dinosaur might be responsible for the extinction of Indominus rex.

We shall have to wait and see…

As for certification, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), has given “Jurassic World” a 13 certificate for it contains “intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril.”   We are not sure about the UK certification (British Board of Film Classification), but we would expect this film to have a 12A certificate.

19 05, 2015

Not a Wishing Well and Not a Dinosaur Either

By | May 19th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page|0 Comments

Beijing Museum of Natural History Exhibit (Lotosaurus Confusion)

Team members have read with interest the various media reports about a Chinese museum exhibit being used as a wishing well.  Such is the hold that the Dinosauria seems to have over us, that any vertebrate fossil in a museum, ends up being described as a dinosaur by the media.  We can understand why this happens, but let’s try to put the record straight.

First the story, the Beijing Museum of Natural History has a huge collection of fossils and an amazing array of exhibits of long extinct animals.  Both vertebrates and invertebrates are exhibited, the vast majority of the displays highlighting the extremely diverse fossil assemblage from this part of Asia.  There are lots of dinosaurs to see.  However, the Museum has encountered a problem, it seems that tourists (and we suspect some superstitious locals too), have a habit of putting coins and notes inside the glass case of one of the many Chinese prehistoric animal mounted fossils on view.  The animal concerned is a Lotosaurus adentus, it might sound like a dinosaur but a member of the Dinosauria this reptile most certainly was not.

Museum Exhibit Treated like a Wishing Well

Lucky Lotosaurus?

Lucky Lotosaurus?

Picture Credit: ECNS

The picture above shows the mounted exhibit of the quadruped L. adentus.  Tourists and other visitors have taken to stuffing notes and coins through gaps in the glass case, the specimen makes a rather unusual “piggy bank”.  According to the media reports this practice has been going on for about a year, we suppose it’s a question of one person doing it and others following the trend.

A security guard at the Museum, one of Beijing’s leading tourist attractions stated:

“Most of it is five or ten Yuan bills [around £0.50 GBP to £1.00 GBP] and coins from kids and grown-ups…they do it for fun.  We usually don’t stop them since it doesn’t damage the booth or the exhibits.”

The Director of the Museum Zhou Ying has been quoted saying that people might be tossing in money as they believe the specimen will bring them wealth, good luck or better health.  This habit of “donating” to the glass case is going to come to an abrupt end as the Museum has taken steps to prevent this from happening.  Construction workers have been hired to seal the glass case and make it “coin and note proof”.

Perhaps it might be sensible to position a donation box close by.  We are not sure of the Museum’s policy on such matters, but if visitors wish to make a donation, perhaps something could be installed to enable them to do so.  Funds raised could support the educational work of the museum, that’s just a suggestion, but you never know.

Lotosaurus Not a Dinosaur

If you look at the display panels behind the Lotosaurus skeleton in the picture above, you can see some pictures of dinosaurs.  Lotosaurus may be displayed alongside the dinosaurs but it was not a member of the Dinosauria.  Let us explain…

Lotosaurus might be being exhibited in the dinosaur gallery as it was around at approximately the time when the very first basal members of the Dinosauria are believed to have evolved.  The fossils of this barrel-chested reptile come from Hunan Province (south-central China) and date from between 245 and 237 million years ago (Anisian faunal stage of the Triassic).  Most palaeontologists now believe that this bizarre creature is a member of the Poposauroidea clade, part of the Archosaur group, but this phylogenetic analysis has been disputed.  Trouble is, Lotosaurus is such a bizarre creature.  It measured in size from 1.5 to 2.5 metres long, the neural spines were many times taller than they were wide and this suggests that this animal had some sort of sail or large hump running down from its neck, down the back to the tail.  The top jaw is curved over and the robust skull suggests a powerful bite, but there are no teeth in the jaws.   What this animal ate has been debated, the fossil material is associated with having been laid down in a swampy environment.  Lotosaurus could have been a herbivore, but it has also been suggested that this slow-moving reptile might have specialised in eating the abundant shellfish, fossils of which are also associated with sediments to be found in the Hunan Province.   The species was formally named and described in 1975.

 The Very Peculiar Lotosaurus adentus – Definitely Not a Dinosaur

Very strange Triassic reptile.

Very strange Triassic reptile.

Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Although, there may be some debate as to the exact phylogenetic position of Lotosaurus, it was not a dinosaur.  The genus name (we think) means “Lotus lizard” and whilst to some observers it might look like a dinosaur and its genus name does end in “saurus” but it was most definitely not a dinosaur.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Whilst we doubt much of the exhibit in question consists of actual fossil material, we can’t condone this behaviour as money being thrown into a display case would have to be retrieved and the opening of the case and working in close proximity to any fossils could lead to their accidental damage.  In addition, if coins are thrown in and they hit the preserved fossil bone then this could result in the fossil material being chipped and scratched.”

18 05, 2015

Rise and Shine with Dinosaurs

By | May 18th, 2015|Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur News and Updates, Everything Dinosaur Products, Photos of Everything Dinosaur Products, Press Releases|0 Comments

Dinosaur Alarm Clock from Everything Dinosaur

Do you have trouble getting your little monsters out of bed?   Here’s a handy solution from Everything Dinosaur that is bound to get dinosaur fans roaring with excitement, a colourful dinosaur themed alarm clock.  The large, easy to see hands make telling the time a doddle even if your dinosaur brain is the size of a walnut.  The face of the clock measures around ten centimetres in diameter and it features three very colourful prehistoric animals.  Can you spot the Triceratops?

No Need to Get Alarmed – A Dinosaur Alarm Clock

Dinosaur alarm clock.

Dinosaur alarm clock.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The numbers on the dial are very clear and the alarm lever is a different colour from the hands of the clock so that it can be easily spotted.  This dinosaur alarm clock has child-friendly time settings and controls.  It requires 1 x AA battery (not supplied).

To view the dinosaur alarm clock at Everything Dinosaur: Dinosaur Bedding Accessories

Help your little monsters to raise and shine with this super dinosaur themed alarm clock.  An ideal accessory for a dinosaur fan’s bedroom.

The Dinosaur Alarm Clock

Rise and shine with dinosaurs.

Rise and shine with dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

17 05, 2015

Kronosaurus – Down on the Farm

By | May 17th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

Queensland Farmer Discovers Kronosaurus Jaw Fossil

A Queensland farmer, out spraying weeds on his farm near Nelia in the north-western part of the State, has unearthed the fossilised remains of the lower jaw of a huge marine reptile known as a Kronosaurus.  Although the jaw measures 1.6 metres long, it came from a sub-adult, most of the teeth may be missing, but this is one of the best preserved Pliosaur jaws found anywhere in the world.

Robert Hacon of Euroba Station, was taking advantage of the recent rains that have occurred in this drought hit part of Australia to spray some prickly Acacia plants when he noticed some shiny objects in amongst the weeds.  At first, he dismissed them thinking that they were fossilised mussel shells, which are relatively common in this part of the world, evidence to support the idea that much of the land mass we call Australia was part of a warm, tropical, shallow sea back in the Early Cretaceous.  However, curious to find out exactly what the objects were, he returned to the spot a few minutes later and discovered that the recent downpour had exposed a near complete lower jaw bone of a huge marine reptile.

Dr. Timothy Holland (Kronosaurus Korner) Poses Next to the Fossil Jaw

Dr. Timothy Holland provides a scale next to the massive Kronosaurus jaw.

Dr. Timothy Holland provides a scale next to the massive Kronosaurus jaw.

Picture Credit: Patricia Woodgate

 The first fossils of this apex, marine predator were discovered in Queensland in 1889.  At the time, the fragmentary remains were identified as a type of Ichthyosaur, but in 1924 they were reassigned to the short-necked Sub-Order  of the Plesiosauria, the Pliosauroidea.  Most of the fossil material related to the two species of Kronosaurus so far described, have been crushed, severely weathered and distorted, but pliosaurid specialist, Dr. Timothy Holland of Kronosaurus Korner, a museum that exhibits a number of marine reptile fossils found in Queensland, stated that this specimen was one of the best found to date.

An Illustration of Kronosaurus (K. queenslandicus)

A fantastic replica of the huge marine reptile Kronosaurus.

A fantastic replica of the huge marine reptile Kronosaurus.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows a superb model of the marine reptile Kronosaurus (Safari Ltd).  This replica is part of the now retired Carnegie Collectibles model series.

To see more prehistoric animals in the Carnegie Collectibles model range: Prehistoric Animal Models including Marine Creatures

The fossilised jawbones have been donated to the Kronosaurus Korner museum, they will shortly be put on display to the public.

Commenting on the fossil find, Dr. Holland stated:

“The scary thing is that this creature wasn’t even an adult when it died, it still had a lot of growing to do.  We are thrilled to display the specimen, it’s a timely reminder of Australia’s rich geoheritage and I marvel to think what else lies waiting to be found.”

The skull of this ancient marine reptile made up about a quarter of the animal’s entire body length, a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented on the excellent state of preservation and estimated that the total length of the animal would have been approximately seven metres.

A Close up of the Beautifully Preserved Jaw Bones

Some teeth can still be seen in the rounded sockets.

Some teeth can still be seen in the rounded sockets.

Picture Credit: Patricia Woodgate

Posterior parts of the jaw are up to eighteen centimetres thick, indicating that this powerful predator had very strong jaws.  It was most likely the top predator in the marine environment, eating fish, cephalopods and other reptiles.

Over the last few years, Everything Dinosaur has reported on a number of marine reptile fossil finds from Queensland, Australia.  Some of these fossils turn up in very unexpected places, such as the case of Ichthyosaur fossil bones being found in the vegetable patch of a school.

To read more about this amazing discovery: Marine Reptile Fossils Found at School

In Everything Dinosaur’s fossil and palaeontology predictions for 2015, we predicted that there would be some exciting new dinosaur discoveries reported from Australia.  This is certainly an exciting fossil find, but Kronosaurus was not a member of the Dinosauria.  Still, more than half of the year to go so we have plenty of time left to be proved right (just for once).

To see the full list of Everything Dinosaur’s predictions: Everything Dinosaur’s Palaeontology and Fossil Predictions for 2015

16 05, 2015

The Prehistoric Animals of Jurassic World – Indominus rex

By | May 16th, 2015|Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Movie Reviews and Movie News|0 Comments

The Making of Indominus rex – “Fierce or Untameable King”

The back story to the forthcoming film “Jurassic World” goes something like this.  With the death of Dr. John Hammond the founder of InGen in 1997, (according to the film franchise timeline), the corporate giant Masrani began negotiations to acquire the company and within twelve months InGen was part of the Masrani conglomerate.  A plan to develop and reopen the “Jurassic Park” attraction was put forward shortly afterwards and in around 2000, the go ahead was given to create a dinosaur led attraction on the island of Isla Nublar.  The attraction, known as “Jurassic World” was built between the years 2002 and 2004, construction materials alone are estimated to have been around $1.2 billion USD.  To give readers an appreciation of the costs of developing the new attraction, the construction of the new Wembley stadium (London), completed in 2007, cost around $2 billion USD in total.  The development of “Jurassic World” was a huge and ambitious undertaking for Masrani, the decision to go ahead with the project coincided with Masrani Global Corporation’s NASDAQ market debut (2000), the theme park was seen as a “flagship” enterprise for the organisation.  With many new shareholders to impress, the park had to be a success and when it opened in June 2005, it proved to be a huge hit, attracting 98,120 visitors in the first month alone.

Masrani – Ten Years of Making Dinosaurs

A decade of dinosaurs.

A decade of dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Masrani

The Need to Build Bigger and Better Attractions

Anyone who has ever played the video game “Theme Park”, (which was originally released in 1994, just a year after the original Jurassic Park movie hit cinema screens), knows that the rides and the park itself needs to be constantly refreshed and updated to keep visitor numbers up.  With visitor numbers at “Jurassic World” beginning to fall or at best plateau, in the last two to three years, investors began to grow concerned.  Revenue from ticket sales, merchandise and other income streams were not growing as strongly as they once were, this prompted Masrani’s Chief Operations Officer, Richard Wiesner, to describe the 2013 results for “Jurassic World” as merely acceptable, despite profits from the theme park exceeding 20 million USD that financial year.

Richard Wiesner stated:

“The world has seen what we have to offer, but they aren’t in awe as they once used to be.  We need to change that.  You can’t expect the world’s greatest theme park to merely rely on the same attractions.  We need to be proactive, thinking of bigger and better things.”

Putting things in perspective, EuroDisney (Paris) over the same period posted a loss of 78 million Euros, but apparently Masrani wanted bigger and better…

Dr. Henry Wu’s Contribution

The chief scientist at InGen, Dr. Henry Wu, one of the world’s leading geneticists, had successfully combined the DNA of a number of plant species to create the “Wu flower” (Karacosis wutansis) back in 1997.  As one of the architects of the prehistoric animals in the failed “Jurassic Park” experiment, Wu was installed as one of the lead scientists to genetically engineer a whole new generation of dinosaurs for the new attraction “Jurassic World”.  InGen remained a separate company within the Masrani portfolio and one can only speculate on where their genetic research took them, but in response to the call to create bigger and more exciting attractions, it was Dr. Wu and his team who were given the task of developing a hybridised dinosaur.  The project to create a genetically engineered, hybridised dinosaur is believed to have started in late 2012.  This was to be an entirely new species, one that had genetic traits from a variety of Theropod dinosaurs combined with other extant (living species) – the Indominus rex project was begun.

Indominus rex – New Dinosaur on the Block

The Group’s Chief Executive Officer Simon Masrani announced in 2014, that the company had been able to successfully engineer a new type of dinosaur.  Once the news story broke, on line ticket sales to the park “skyrocketed”, it looks like 2015 is going to be a very big year for “Jurassic World”.  The dinosaur has been named Indominus rex (fierce or untameable king), note, we at Everything Dinosaur prefer to spell untameable with an extra “e”.  The new dinosaur attraction is due to open this summer and we all know that this is going to end very badly.

As Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt) states:

“You just went and made a new dinosaur, probably not a good idea”

New Dinosaur on the Block – Indominus rex

The dinosaur instructs some Pterosaurs!

Classified as a genetically modified hybrid.

Picture Credit: Universal Studios

If Dr. Wu’s brief had been to create a bigger, more dangerous, fiercer and more intelligent dinosaur, then the project does seem to have achieved its goal.  We at Everything Dinosaur don’t know quite how the genome for this new theme park attraction was put together, originally there were two creatures, but one was eaten by the other.  I. rex does indeed look to be a mix of different meat-eating dinosaurs, with osteoderms resembling those seen on Abelisaurids (Carnotaurus, Majungasaurus and Rugops are mentioned)  and the Late Jurassic Ceratosaurus, three-fingered hands of an Allosaurid, but with much larger and more highly recurved claws, there is probably a bit of T. rex and a pinch of dromaeosaurid in there too.

Indominus rex – Dinosaur Attraction Due to Open in Summer 2015

A forthcoming attraction.

A forthcoming attraction.

Picture Credit: Universal Studios

In the pre-launch publicity for the attraction, it is stated that this new hybrid can run up to speeds of 30mph (48kmh), within the confines of its enclosure and that I. rex can roar as loudly as 140-160db, the sound created when a Boeing 747 jet takes off.  At around twelve metres, that is a phenomenal growth rate, much faster than the estimated growth rate for any other large Theropod.  Amongst all that dinosaur DNA, to obtain such a rapid growth rate, we speculate that some song-bird genes much have been thrown into the mixer, after all, blackbirds for example, can reach almost adult size in just a few weeks.  Although the growth rate of various members of the Theropoda are not that well understood, ontogenic studies have suggested it was actually prey such as Ornithopods that grew much more quickly.

To read about a study into dinosaur growth rates: Duck-billed Dinosaurs Grew Up Fast to Avoid Tyrannosaurs

Just how big this dinosaur could grow can only be speculated.  We suspect that in the forthcoming film this dinosaur will meet its demise, how this happens is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the history of the film franchise.  Could Indominus rex fight Tyrannosaurus rex?  Would a Spinosaurus (the big villain in Jurassic Park III), become involved somehow?  Like millions of dinosaur fans around the world we shall have to wait until the second week of June to find out.

15 05, 2015

The Chinese Pompeii – Dinosaur Fossils Can be Confusing

By | May 15th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

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.

14 05, 2015

Crocodiles Just Want to Have Fun

By | May 14th, 2015|Animal News Stories, Main Page|1 Comment

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…

13 05, 2015

Retracing the Beak of Birds to the Snout of Dinosaurs

By | May 13th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Educational Activities, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Teaching|0 Comments

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.

12 05, 2015

Sniffing Out a New Dinosaur Species

By | May 12th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

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.

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