Category Archives: Dinosaurs

Link to artistic rendering of Deinocheirus

Paleoartist Luis V. Rey has put together a fascinating and fantastic artistic rendering of Deinocheirus factoring in new material from the last year — neural spines, duck bill, and all.  Go check it out!

As a bonus feature, Rey’s post also features a photo of Deinocheirus‘s discoverer Halszka Osmólska pondering the dinosaur’s eponymous “terrible hands.”  Even without the Deinocheirus illustration, that photo alone would be worth clicking through for a look.

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A Deinocheirus Skull!

Recall Deinocheirus, the theropod dinosaur (read: T. rex relative) best known for its eight-foot-long arms and huge, impressively clawed hands.  Last fall, paleontologists presented lots of newly discovered Deinocheirus material at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting.  In fact, this new material provided a nearly complete picture of Deinocheirus, with one notable exception: there was no Deinocheirus head.  I wrote about this and quoted the following from Stephen Brusatte via Brian Switek: “There are rumors of a skull being privately collected, looted from Mongolia, and sold on the black market to a legitimate museum in Europe.”  Intriguing.

Now it looks like there was some truth to the rumors: infomongolia.com has reported that a Deinocheirus skull — the first to be identified as such! — was returned just last week to the nation of Mongolia by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.  Excitingly, the report includes pictures.  So let’s take a look:

deinocheirus-skull

I’m no expert, but I suspect that even if I were one I’d have difficulty making sense of this hadrosaurine (duck-billed) skull on an ornithomimid (ostrich-mimic) dinosaur known for its huge arms and ferocious-looking claws.

The upshot?  I can’t wait until there are some papers published on all this new Deinocheirus material.

New Quetzalcoatlus and Therizinosaurus Figures in 2014

I’ve previously written about some bizarre late Cretaceous creatures.  There are azhdarchid pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus — huge beasts with wingspans up to 35 feet that could stand up to 20 feet tall when prowling prehistoric prairies on foot and snacking on sauropod hatchlings.  And there are therizinosaurid dinosaurs like Therizinosaurus — long-necked, small-headed, beak-faced, feathered plodders with truly gigantic claws.

These are some of my favorite ancient oddities.  So today I got to revel in my nerdiness when I learned, courtesy of the Dinosaur Toy Blog, that model-maker CollectA will be introducing new figures of Quetzalcoatlus (complete with baby sauropod snack) and Therizinosaurus this year.  On the off chance that this excites you as much as it does me, I include pictures below for your enjoyment:

CollectA 2014 Quetzalcoatlus, courtesy of Dinosaur Toy Blog.

CollectA 2014 Therizinosaurus, courtesy of Dinosaur Toy Blog.

There are other Quetzalcoatlus and Therizinosaurus figures out there, but none (that I’ve seen) captures the research as well as these new ones do.  Sadly, neither figure appears to be available yet in the United States.  However, I believe Quetzalcoatlus is due out imminently and Therizinosaurus should be out by midyear.

Diplodocus For Sale – Sold! – And Going to Copenhagen

I previously worried about a rare Diplodocus skeleton going up for auction.  Then I worried again when it was sold.

There was good reason for my worries — unique specimens enter private hands all the time and are lost to science.  But it turns out that this particular Diplodocus will be well housed after all.  It’s going to Copenhagen as a centerpiece of an impressive-looking Natural History Museum of Denmark, scheduled to open in 2018.

If you find yourself in Copenhagen five years from now, be sure to pay the museum and its Diplodocus a visit.

Therizinosaurs Were Bizarre and Probably Had Beaks

Long-necked, gigantic-clawed, feathered, herbivorous T. rex cousins, therizinosaurs were some of the weirdest creatures ever to walk the earth.  A study published in PNAS earlier this week offers an explanation for how and why these beasts developed beaks.

A sketch of E. andrewsi courtesy of ArthurWeasley via wikimedia commons.

At the ends of their usually long necks, therizinosaurs had rather small heads.  One particularly well-preserved skull of the therizinosaur Erlikosaurus andrewsi lacked teeth at the front of its jaw.  This toothless portion seemed to suggest that Erlikosaurus likely featured a beak.  (And a beak would not be surprising given that other dinosaur species from the same geologic era probably had beaks too — ceratopsians, for instance.)  More specifically, Erlikosaurus‘s partial lack of teeth suggests that the toothless portion of the jaw was likely covered with a rhamphotheca, the keratinous sheath that makes up the exterior of most beaks.  But what benefit would a beak bring to a bizarre creature like a therizinosaur?

University of Bristol paleontologist Emily Rayfield and some of her colleagues used the Erlikosaurus skull to answer that question.  They scanned the skull to create a very precise digital model, then modified that model in different ways — adding a modest beak in one, adding a large beak in another, and adding teeth to the front of the jaw in a third.  They then used the model in its original and modified forms to simulate the stresses caused by biting.  They found that a beak would have helped Erlikosaurus harvest tough plants:

Evidence … suggests that the tip of the snout (i.e., edentulous
premaxilla plus overlying rhamphotheca) was used as the main
device to procure and process food. The presence of a keratinous
rhamphotheca in this region would have helped to dissipate and
absorb stress and strain while making the snout less susceptible
to bending and displacement. As an ever-growing material,
keratin has the advantage over bone that it is able to rapidly
repair fractures and has a slower crack propagation rate, thus
reducing the risk of constant damage.

So there’s the answer: beaks are useful for eating.

This might not seem surprising, but given some context it is — at least somewhat.  Previously, it had been thought that beaks evolved as lighter alternatives to teeth, a feature valuable to flying animals or those in the process of developing flight.  This new paper calls that view into question.  (In fact, the paper notes that “a more extensive rhamphotheca would actually have increased the weight (mass) of the cranium” in Erlikosaurus.)  A press-release quote from the paper’s lead author Stephan Lautenschlager sums the issue up nicely:

“It has classically been assumed that beaks evolved to replace teeth and thus save weight, as a requirement for the evolution of flight. Our results, however, indicate that keratin beaks were in fact beneficial to enhance the stability of the skull during biting and feeding.”

Of course that doesn’t mean beak necessarily evolved in birds for the same purpose, but it does add some complexity to the question of why beaks exist.

A New Ankylosaur from Spain

A Spanish coal mine has yielded thousands of paleontological specimens, among them two individuals of a newly discovered nodosaurid ankylosaur described in a PLOS ONE article yesterday: Europelta carbonensis.

Figure 33 showing reconstruction of E. carbonensis from Kirkland, et al. (2013).

As an ankylosaur, Europelta was heavily armored with bony plates.  Indeed, the paper’s authors describe “an abundance of dermal armor” recovered from the sites of both individual specimens — albeit in such disarray that it’s impossible to reliably reconstruct just how the armor would have looked.  The armor that was recovered ranges from large osteodermal spikes and plates to small, knobby “ossicles.” In addition to armor, Europelta had two sets of facial horns — one below and one behind its eyes.

As a nodosaurid, Europelta had no tail club and a relatively long and narrow head.  To illustrate the head-shape differences among ankylosaurs, compare Europelta, whose head measured about 370 mm long and 200-300 mm wide to, say, Euoplocephalus, whose very broad head measured [pdf] about 330 mm long and 380 mm wide.  Despite its heavy armor, then, Europelta was perhaps more graceful in appearance than some of its cousins.

Horns and bony plates aside, Europelta apparently gives us a better date for the effective division of the supercontinent Laurasia into today’s Europe and North America.  The thinking goes that nodosaurids like the newly discovered Europelta and its North American cousin Sauropelta simultaneously sprung up in Europe and North America, respectively, about 110 million years ago.  This was probably the result of geographic connection, not random chance.  And both types of nodosaurids displaced the same type of dinosaur too — polacanthids.  Some paleontologists had thought that rising sea levels might have isolated Europe and North America from one another about 125 million years ago; Europelta provides striking evidence that this separation might have been millions of years more recent.  Pretty cool.

Finally, here’s one thing I love about reading primary scientific literature.  You sometimes get details like this;

The bonebed was located many tens of meters underground prior to strip mining operations in the Santa María coal mine. …By the end of 2012, an area of approximately 25 ha had been investigated and the areal distributions of 101 vertebrate concentrations were documented; 33 of these consisted of associated dinosaur skeletons (mostly iguanodonts) and 68 consisted of other vertebrate remains (mostly turtles and crocodilians). During this stage of the project, numerous dinosaurs (ornithischian elements and associated skeletons, and saurischian teeth), two types of turtle, crocodilians, fish (both ostheicthyians and selachiens), coprolites, molluscs (freshwater bivalves and gastropods), arthropods (ostracods), and abundant plant remains (logs, plant fragments, palynomorphs, and amber) have been excavated.

The bonebed designated AR-1 contains more than 5000 identifiable vertebrate specimens …

It’s too easy to think of strange creatures like Europelta in isolation.  Or perhaps we imagine Europelta battling some other charismatic megafauna like the smallish theropod Genusaurus, which apparently also existed in Europe around 110 million years ago [pdf].  But details like those in the excerpt above remind us that way back then there were complete ecosystems comprising many interconnected parts: dinosaurs, turtles, crocodiles, fish, molluscs, bugs, trees, other plants and their pollen or spores — and the ancient animalian droppings that have fossilized into coprolites.

(References to coal mining, though, mandate that I include this last statement: strip-mining for coal is nasty.  Check out this aerial view of the mine where Europelta was discovered.)

Reference:

Kirkland JI, Alcalá L, Loewen MA, Espílez E, Mampel L, et al. (2013) The Basal Nodosaurid Ankylosaur Europelta carbonensis n. gen., n. sp. from the Lower Cretaceous (Lower Albian) Escucha Formation of Northeastern Spain. PLoS ONE 8(12): e80405. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080405

Diplodocus for Sale — Sold

Remember that Diplodocus that was for sale?  It sold today for £400,000.

According to the BBC, “An undisclosed institution bought the skeleton, which auction officials said would be going on public display.”  Whether that’s display in a carefully curated science museum remains to be seen — the BBC quotes the auctioneer as saying, “Within the context of a shopping mall you can make a real ‘wow’ statement.”

Wow is right.