Tag Archives: Dinosaur

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.

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.

New Deinocheirus Discoveries

I remember the first time I saw the Deinocheirus arms at the American Museum of Natural History.

Deinocheirus
These are in London, not New York, but you get the idea…

Tipped with viciously curling claws, the arms clearly belonged to a theropod, a dinosaur suborder that includes the giant predators Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex.  But where all T. rex arms were puny and average Allosaur arms were a little over two feet long, Deinocheirus mirificus featured monstrous, eight-foot-long forelimbs — and that’s all we had to go on.  There were no other bones to clue us in as to what D. mirificus was all about.

The arms were captivating enough on their own, but the absent body presented an irresistible mystery.  Standing before the oversized glass case to the right of the dinosaur hall’s entrance, I stared and imagined.  Surely with those arms, Deinocheirus must have been a fearsome predator.  (In fact, so thought famed Polish paleontologist Halszka Osmólska, who first described the dinosaur in a 1970 paper and noted that the arms would be useful “in tearing dead or weakly agile prey asunder.”)

As it turns out, nope.

In recent years, paleontologists have generally agreed that Deinocheirus was probably an herbivore.  And not just any herbivore, but an ornithomimosaur.  While most theropods were predators with an assembly of sharp teeth and wicked claws, members of the theropod subgroup Ornithomimosauria generally had toothless beaks and many have been discovered with gastroliths (stones swallowed to aid digestion, typically by herbivores to grind up tough plant matter).  The family’s name itself means “ostrich mimic reptile” — hardly the stuff of nightmares, and seemingly not the stuff of 8-foot-long, claw-tipped arms either.  In fact, it was generally agreed that Deinocheirus would be an aberration as an ornithomimosaur — as one point of comparison, one of the largest definite ornithomimosaurs, Gallimimus, had differently-proportioned arms only about three feet long (and not nearly as imposing as those of Deinocheirus).

Now a recent presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology apparently has confirmed that Deinocheirus was an ornithomimosaur.  It seems that paleontologists returned to the Nemegt formation in Mongolia (where the original specimen was found) in 2006 and 2009 and discovered two near-complete Deinocheirus specimens indicating beyond doubt that those giant, claw-handed arms belonged to a giant, bizarre ornithomimosaur. (Though explanatory details were presented at the meeting, the rest of us will have to wait until a paper is published for these and other materials unavailable in the presentation’s abstract.)  Giant is plain enough, but why bizarre?  Deinocheirus possessed “anterodorsally oriented distal dorsal neural spines (7-8 times taller than centrum height) with basal webbing)” — which is to say, the skeletal undergirding for a sail or hump on its back.

Neural spines aside, what were those huge arms and claws for? Based on what’s available to the public, the answer to this question still seems unclear. A leading dinosaur text (Weishampel’s The Dinosauria) calls Deinocheirus‘s claws “raptorial.”  Perhaps the presenters’ eventual paper will hazard a guess as to what use a massive herbivore had for these wicked-looking claws.

Despite hugely expanding our knowledge of the paleontological oddity Deinocheirus and promising to deliver even more, the presenters did provide one cause for unhappiness.  According to a report by Brian Switek, when paleontological teams uncovered the new Deinocheirus specimens, the skulls of both had already been poached. In light of recent controversy over the smuggling of dinosaur bones from Mongolia to private auction-houses in the United States (which came to a head in a dramatic auction-room scene and led to the prosecution and guilty plea of smuggler Eric Prokopi), the loss of two Deinocheirus heads stands out as yet another instance of the plundering of Mongolia’s natural heritage to the loss of that country, the scientific community, and the public, with gains to only a few.  To my cautious relief, Switek also reports that at least one skull might have been found:

“We still have no skull material,” [University of Edinburgh paleontologist Stephen] Brusatte says, “although there are rumors of a skull being privately collected, looted from Mongolia, and sold on the black market to a legitimate museum in Europe.”

So questions have been answered but mysteries remain, and those eight-foot arms are as impressive as ever — even if they did belong to an odd, herbivorous ornithomimid.

Selected References

Osmólska, H. and E. Roniewicz (1970). “Deinocheiridae, a new family of theropod dinosaurs.” Palaeontologica Polonica 21:5-19. [Link]

Lee, Y., Barsbold, R., Currie, P., Kobayashi, Y., Lee, H. (2013). “New Specimens of Deinocheirus mirificus from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts 162.

Middleton, Kevin M. (2000). “Theropod forelimb design and evolution.” Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 128 (2): 149–187. [Link]

Weishampel, D., P. Dodson & H. Osmólska, eds. (2007). The Dinosauria: Second Edition.