Hooked on Common Descent

If there is a subject people are interested in, it is virtually guaranteed that there is a podcast somewhere devoted to it, and paleontology is no exception. Probably the best known of such podcasts is Palaeocast, which features interviews with paleontologists on various subjects. While Palaeocast is excellent in its own right, it is always nice to find another podcast to add to the small but growing list of those devoted to our prehistoric past. It is for this reason that I was pleased to discover The Common Descent Podcast, hosted by two gentlemen named David and Will. Upon listening to it, I can happily say that I will continue to do so, and will explain why.

Like Palaeocast, Common Descent has a particular subject to be discussed in each episode. But while Palaeocast tackles its subjects by interviewing an expert in said field, Common Descent generally consists of just the hosts talking about their chosen topic, though they are starting to include guests. The latter approach has its dangers, in that it can degenerate into off-topic rambling if one is not careful, but David and Will do a fine job of staying on track. While they do occasionally go on tangents, they are short and do not cause the podcast to drag, and are admittedly often entertaining. In addition, the two of them have an enthusiasm that is very infectious, often making me as ecstatic as they are about whatever it is they are discussing.

One advantage I have found of listening to podcasts is that they provide a good means to branch out my knowledge and interests. As much as I wish I could, I simply cannot read every book and paper on every subject that catches my eye, so these podcast episodes give me good summaries of topics I would otherwise not have the time to delve into. Common Descent does not disappoint in that regard. The episode topics range from specific groups of fossil animals to more broad and overarching subjects. Whatever it is they are talking about, they always do their research ahead of time, and it shows. They are even starting to take requests, as is the case with their latest episode on conservation paleontology. The opening news segment is also helpful, as it covers recent stories I may have missed.

So if you’re looking for another paleontology podcast to add some variety to your listening, I wholeheartedly recommend Common Descent. It has the combined benefit of being both informative and very fun to listen to, and I can’t wait to see what they will cover next.

Saurischia is a Lie!

Okay, so the title might be a little hyperbolic, but I’m still astounded by what has just been published. I don’t normally post about the latest discoveries, as there are already others who do it better than I could, but this one triggered such a strong reaction that I have to write about it. Basically, a new paper has been published proposing a new hypothesis on dinosaur phylogeny. Traditionally, dinosaurs have been divided into the “bird-hipped” ornithischians and the “lizard-hipped” saurischians (this is extremely oversimplified, but it gets the basic idea across). However, the new study suggests that theropods, typically classified as saurischians, are actually more closely related to the ornithischians, in a grouping termed Ornithoscelida (first coined by Thomas Huxley in the 19th century, but widely abandoned and forgotten after that). This would mean that the group traditionally recognized as Saurischia would no longer exist, and would either need to be abandoned or redefined.

Of course, it should always be remembered that no study is the final word on any subject. This study will undoubtedly face some serious scrutiny by other dinosaur paleontologists. But that’s a good thing. Science is all about challenging ideas and putting them through rigorous testing. If the results described above don’t stand up to that testing, then we will probably go back to the old orthodoxy. But if the hypothesis withstands that barrage, it will mark a major paradigm shift in our understanding of dinosaur classification. However it turns out, I have little doubt that this will be the most controversial and talked about paper in dinosaur paleontology of the year, possibly even the decade. If you want to know more, I highly recommend Darren Naish’s write-up on TetZoo.

What I’ve Been Up To

It sure has been a while since my last post. I’ve just been so busy with school and other things. That said, plenty has happened during my little hiatus, so let’s not waste any time.

Shortly after my last post, I headed with some fellow Fort Hays students to the SVP meeting in Salt Lake City. To say I had a good time would be a severe understatement. One young man I talked to mentioned that Jim Kirkland considers SVP to be even better than Christmas, and he may just be right. I was much less nervous than I was at the previous year’s meeting, probably because I now knew what to expect. While there was a lot of interesting research being presented, by far the best part was the people. Most of them were very friendly and all too willing to talk about their field with a lowly student like me. One person I particularly enjoyed talking to was David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum. It just so happened that I had listened to his interview on the Palaeocast podcast on the way to the meeting, so I decided to introduce myself. We ended up having a very nice conversation, in which, upon learning I was from Fort Hays, he told me how the ROM still has the notes of one of the Sternbergs who used to be affiliated with the museum. I also made at least one new friend there, and we’ve been keeping in touch.

Another thing that has happened is that I’ve developed a new paleontology obsession, that being pachycephalosaurs. I actually attribute this directly to the meeting, in particular the two people mentioned above. David Evans gave a talk about two new pachys from Utah and New Mexico, which ended up being one of my favorites of the meeting. My new friend also happens to be into this group, even wearing a Stygimoloch/subadult Pachycephalosaurus necklace at one point. As such, I’ve been reading up on the literature of the old boneheads, particularly their taxonomy and ontogeny. I’ve previously written on how hesperornithiform taxonomy is screwed up, but they’ve got nothing on the pachys. I won’t go into detail on this, but suffice to say it can get pretty confusing, especially when you’re dealing with species that have been assigned to several different genera. It doesn’t help that most species are only known from their domes, so the data is quite limited. Still, I’ve enjoyed reading up on this fascinating group, and hope to continue doing so.

Another development is that I plan to get back into creating paleoart. I dabbled in this hobby in the past, but became discouraged when I felt I wasn’t very good at it. Now, with the encouragement of another person from the meeting, I’m going to give it another go. I’ve accepted that I might not be particularly good at first, but hopefully I can improve with practice.

Finally, I now have a clearer idea of what I want to do with this blog. I’m no longer concerned with being part of the paleoblogosphere as a whole. Instead, I’m writing for myself. If others take notice and want to share what I’ve written, that’s great, but it’s not my main goal. I’d rather treat this blog as my own personal space where I can write down my thoughts on paleontology and related topics, and anyone who wants to read them can do so. With that in mind, I now feel better about continuing with this hobby. I look forward to what the future has in store.

 

 

Why The Dinosaurs! is the Best Dinosaur Documentary Ever

When I was a very small child, my parents taped a four part documentary on dinosaurs that was airing on PBS, simply titled The Dinosaurs! (and yes, the exclamation point is part of the title). For whatever reason, they would often let me watch it. Although I was too young at the time to understand the science being discussed, I was nonetheless enthralled. While the program was not my first exposure to dinosaurs, it is what I believe truly sent me down the path to paleontology, a path I remain on to this day. Occasionally I rewatch it to revisit some of that childhood nostalgia, but in doing so I have come to the realization that it is a quality documentary in its own right. In fact, I consider it the best dinosaur documentary ever made. Why do I think this? Let’s find out.

To really understand what makes The Dinosaurs! so great, we need to take a quick look at the current state of dino docs. These days, a great deal of emphasis is placed on CGI depictions of dinosaurs, with paleontologists merely serving as “talking heads” in front of a green screen to affirm what the narrator says (unfortunately, sometimes through deceptive means). Then there are programs like Walking With Dinosaurs, which focus entirely on telling stories using the aforementioned CGI creations. While these shows do incorporated scientific research, they also contain heavy doses of speculation, and it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the two. I don’t wish to bash WWD, which was fine for what it was, but it did start a lot of the irritating trends we see now.

The Dinosaurs! greatly avoided these pitfalls. Throughout the entire program, the main emphasis was the science of dinosaur studies. The interviews with the paleontologists were usually conducted in either the field or the lab, so you got to see them in their natural habitat, so to speak. In addition, there was a good deal of attention given to the actual work that was going on. One standout example was at the dig site of a Tyrannosaurus rex, with one of the excavators pointing out and describing some of the bones being unearthed. The lab work got a similar treatment, such as when it showed the preparation of a block of Coelophysis bones.

Like many dinosaur documentaries, The Dinosaurs! made use of animations to show these prehistoric creatures in action. However, the way these animations were handled was very different than today. For starters, they were hand drawn instead of CGI. While this was almost certainly because CGI was still in its infancy at the time, I still think the show benefited from using this older medium. Nowadays, the software used to make 3D animation is so ubiquitous that the animators often get lazy how they depict the dinosaurs. With these older 2D restorations, I get the impression that real effort was put into getting it right. Looking back, I’m quite impressed with how accurate for the time the dinosaurs looked. I also like the fact that the animated segments were used sparingly and were very short, allowing them to illustrate the points being made without overshadowing the science. And I think that’s a key word there, “illustrate”. They functioned very much like illustrations in a book. Yes, you can just look at the pictures, but to really appreciate them in context you need to read the text, or in this case, watch the rest of the program.

Another aspect I want to mention is the narration. These days, dinosaur documentaries are often given rather over the top narrators who really sensationalize the subject matter. The Dinosaurs!, on the other hand, was narrated by Barbara Feldon of Get Smart fame, and I have to say I like her performance here. She was rather subdued, but at the same time didn’t sound boring. There was a dignified quality to her voiceover, and she never talked town to the audience.

I really wish they still made documentaries like this one. Unfortunately, it is clear that times have changed, and excitement and sensationalism now seems to be considered more important to audiences than the actual science. I suspect some modern viewers would consider The Dinosaurs! “boring” by today’s standards, although I certainly would not agree. I still think The Dinosaurs! is a fine example of how paleontology communication can be done well. With current paleontology programming the way it is, I think it’s now all the more important that paleontologists get out and educate the public and show them how it’s really done.

Man, Hesperornithiforms are a Mess!

Wow, it’s been a couple months since my last post. There are a couple reasons for this. For one thing, there hadn’t been anything I really wanted to blog about, and I don’t want to force myself to write just because I feel I have to. In addition, I just completed my move to Kansas, and during that time I had neither the time nor energy to write anything. But now I’m back with a subject that’s near and dear to me; hesperornithiforms!

Last time I posted about these birds, I was outlining my intent to read as much of the scientific literature on them as I could. Now that I’ve read several of these papers, I feel I can give some more informed opinions on this amazing group. Of all the papers published on hesperornithiforms, one of the most important ones only came out last year. Written by Alyssa Bell and Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology, this paper presents what is probably (at least to my knowledge) the first comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of this group. The results of this study may have some interesting ramifications for hesperornithiform taxonomy.

The biggest issues seem to come from the genus Hesperornis itself. In addition to the type species Hesperornis regalis, numerous additional species have been assigned to this genus. Many of these are based on very scrappy remains, often consisting of a single bone, usually a tarsometatarsus. When coding specimens for their analysis, Bell and Chiappe found that many of these purported species, as well as the genus Asiahesperornis, coded identically to H. regalis, and were all lumped into the same unit for the analysis. In addition, there were a few specimens assigned to H. regalis that coded slightly differently than the main H. regalis unit, and were thus used as separate units. The remaining Hesperornis units consisted of specimens assigned to their own species that also differed from H. regalis. The end result was a clear lack of resolution in the Hesperornis portion of their trees, with little indication of which specimens are most closely related to each other. While they didn’t state any hard taxonomic conclusions, the authors made it clear that more work needs to be done on the taxonomy of the various proposed species of Hesperornis.

Imagine my surprise then when, just this year, a paper came out naming yet another new species, Hesperornis lumgairi. Given the current issues with hesperornithiform taxonomy, I was immediately skeptical. While I’ve so far only skimmed through the paper, what I have seen does not inspire confidence. This is yet another species named on the basis of a tarsometatarsus, and what’s more, it’s not even complete. The authors assert that this specimen cannot be assigned to any previously named species of Hesperornis, but given the issues outlined by Bell and Chiappe (which they cite but don’t really do anything with), naming any new species, especially based on such fragmentary material, only confounds the problems associated with the taxonomy of hesperornithiforms.

Hesperornis isn’t the only taxon with issues. Bell and Chiappe also analyzed three specimens that have traditionally been assigned to Baptornis advenus. While two of these grouped with their assigned taxon, one specimen was found to be closer to Hesperornis, and in a followup paper was given the new name Fumicollis hoffmani. While the reclassification of this specimen may not seem like that  big of a deal, it too may have a profound effect on our understanding of these birds. The specimen that would become the type of Fumicollis played a major role in an influential paper by Martin and Tate describing the osteology of Baptornis. With this specimen now split from Baptornis, it calls for a reexamination of other specimens attributed to this genus, as well as a reconsideration of its current diagnosis.

As you can see here, hesperornithiform taxonomy is somewhat confused at the moment. Fortunately, largely thanks to the work of Bell and Chiappe, we are getting a somewhat clearer view of the problems that need work. Hopefully they will continue on this track. There is some other work I wanted to mention, but it hasn’t been formally published yet so I decided to refrain from discussing it without the author’s consent. As for my own views, it seems likely to me that Hesperornis is severely oversplit, and it wouldn’t surprise me if most or even all species other than H. regalis are either lumped with the latter, or declared nomina dubia (that is, too fragmentary to have any taxonomic utility). I’m also interested in seeing how the identification of many Baptornis specimens is affected by the removal of a major specimen from this genus. But for now, I’ll leave it to the experts, though if I’m lucky, I may someday have a hand in sorting out these issues.

A Visit to My New Home

Last week I went up to Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, where I will be completing my geology credentials. While the trip was mainly for orientation and signing up for my classes, I did get a chance to see some of the cool paleontology stuff they have there.SAM_0769

As I was led into the physical sciences building, one of the first things to greet me was this Allosaurus skeletal mount, complete with a Camarasaurus to munch on. One of the coolest things about it is that the tail reaches all the way to the second floor, requiring an opening in the floor to accommodate it, which also allows you to look down at it.SAM_0776

Once my business on campus was finished, I went over to the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, which is run by the university. One of the most famous specimens housed there is the “fish-within-a-fish” pictured here, a large Xiphactinus with a smaller Gillicus that it consumed shortly before its death. It’s thought that the Gillicus may have been responsible for the larger fish’s death, possibly due to some injury inflicted as it went down.SAM_0787

The paleontology exhibits at the Sternberg Museum are mainly focused on the fossils of Kansas, an obvious choice given its location. What’s especially cool is the fact that Pteranodon (pictured above) and Tylosaurus, the two state fossils of Kansas, are specially labelled as such. Clearly the museum takes pride in being a repository of its state’s rich fossil history, and I don’t blame them.SAM_0828

In addition to all the Kansas fossils, there was a really nice temporary exhibit on Archaeopteryx. In addition to the casts of most known Archaeopteryx specimens, there was a bunch of art depicting the iconic animal on display. These included work by some well known paleoartists, including Julius Csotonyi, Mark Hallett, Luis Rey, and William Stout, among others. The gift shop was even selling prints, and I bought one of a Stout piece I especially liked.SAM_0837

Another cool temporary exhibit was one devoted entirely to rattlesnakes. Live specimens of every rattlesnake species native to the United States was on display (the picture above is of a prairie rattler). It was a great opportunity to appreciate a species that is too often viewed as a monster.SAM_0841

Another notable feature of the museum is its life-sized, walkthrough diorama of the Late Cretaceous period. It looks to be a little old, and some parts seem to be a tad outdated, but the child in me couldn’t help but enjoy it.

Overall, the Sternberg Museum really exceeded my expectations. My one gripe would be that there is so much there that it can be overwhelming. However, since I’ll be living in Hays shortly, I’ll have plenty of chances to absorb everything it has to offer. If you’re ever in the area, I implore you to check it our. Believe me, this post does not do it justice.

A Hesperornithiform Challenge

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I love birds. Anyone familiar with my interests can tell you that. And as far as different groups of fossil birds go, my favorite is by far the hesperornithiforms, the toothed diving birds that abounded in the seas of the Cretaceous. I’m not sure I can quite articulate why I find this group so fascinating. Part of it’s probably just because they’re so delightfully bizarre, in addition to the fact that they were part of such a fascinating ecosystem. Regardless, I am now taking it upon myself to learn as much as I can about these incredible birds. As such, I will begin reading as many papers on them as I can. This is the first time I’ve put so much focus on reading up on such a specific topic, and I look forward to the knowledge I will hopefully gain from such an experience. I have already begun by reading Martin and Tate’s landmark description of Baptornis, and there are many more already on my list. If you have any paper recommendations, feel free to let me know. Other than that, I’ve got some reading to do.

Achillobator in Jurassic Park…NOT!

1920px-achillobator_giganticus_skeleton

Achillobator skeletal reconstruction by Jaime Headden

There’s this idea floating around that the raptors featured in Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park are in fact of the genus Achillobator. This theory has gained some measure of popularity on the internet, to the point that even the popular fansite Jurassic Park Legacy accepts it. I, for one, remain unconvinced, and will explain why.

First, let’s start from the beginning. It is widely thought that Crichton used Gregory Paul’s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World as a reference when researching for Jurassic Park. Not only was Paul specifically mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgements section, but at one point in the story Grant mentions that Deinonychus was now thought to be a species of Velociraptor, a synonymy first proposed in Paul’s book (it should be noted that this bit was apparently removed from some later editions). Given the size of the raptors as described in the book, it is tempting to assume that they are, in fact, Deinonychus. But there is a problem. Dr. Wu states that the raptors are Velociraptor mongoliensis, and that the amber from which their DNA was extracted came from China. However, V. mongoliensis was rather small, only about the size of a turkey (and not a six-foot one, either). What was one to make of this size discrepancy? To some, the answer seemed to come in another genus described nearly a decade later.

In 1999, a team of scientists described a new species of dromaeosaur from Mongolia, which they named Achillobator giganticus. What was notable about this species was its size. Estimated to be about five to six meters long, Achillobator was one of the largest dromaeosaurs discovered up to that point, rivaled only by Utahraptor. Given its size and the fact that it was found in Asia, some Jurassic Park fans have latched on to the idea that this is the raptor that appears in the novel. However, as mentioned, Achillobator was described long after the novel was written, so how could Crichton have included a genus that wasn’t even known yet? Some have pointed to the following passage in PDOTW as justification for their position: “Also at the AMNH [American Museum of Natural History] is a hyper-extendable toe bone from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia that looks like a Velociraptor somewhat bigger than V. [Deinonychus] antirrhopus.” Aside from the fact that it’s impossible to know if Crichton had that sentence in mind when he wrote Jurassic Park, we know almost nothing about this specimen. Paul doesn’t give any information on the geological provenance, exact size, or even the specimen number. With such a lack of information, it is a significant leap to say that this specimen is from Achillobator. In fact, there is some circumstantial evidence that is not. Achillobator is currently only known from the Bayan Shireh Formation, which seems to have been predominantly explored by Russian and Mongolian paleontologists, and not the AMNH. As such, it seems unlikely that this single toe bone is from that unit.

Overall, I find the Achillobator theory to be based on very flimsy evidence, and comes of as little more than an attempt to rationalize an inaccurate depiction of Velociraptor. I think the oversized raptors in the novel can be best explained as either artistic license or simply a mistake on Crichton’s part. It certainly requires less leaps in logic than invoking a species that was unknown at the time.

A New Beginning (In More Ways Than One)

Greetings everyone, and welcome to my new blog! To those who don’t know, I had a few blogs previously, but I kept quitting and have ultimately deleted all of them. The reason I chose to do this was because I didn’t want someone’s first impression of me on the internet to be one of my old, sometimes embarrassing posts. After that, I honestly thought I would never blog again, but eventually I was once again struck by blogging fever. However, I was hesitant to start up again, due to my past fickleness. Ultimately, though, I realized I still have some stuff to say, and decided to embrace the challenge.

Here you will find my posts on paleontology, geology, and other subjects that interest me. I’m currently on the long, hard path towards a career in paleontology. I’m about to enter a new chapter in my education, as I will be going back to college to complete my geology education, since I feel my biology degree has not adequately prepared me. This is another reason I chose to return to blogging, as it goes along well with me getting a fresh start. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and chronicling my own progress. I hope you are too!