Is the National Fossil Hall Heading in the Right Direction?

Hey there every peoples!

Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick! It has truly been forever. Well it’s that I have been so busy with WAVP, a trip to Florida, field work in New Mexico, Live Oak, and the one or two gigs I have managed to land. Plus my proof reader is busy overseeing an overhaul to his collections space. But I have some things I want to write about. And what shall it be?

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Critters Abroad: Alamosaurus

Hey there every peoples!

This post goes out to a little known sauropod who got a boost from a recent paper. I could try to build it up but you already know who it is from the title. Today i want to talk about Alamosaurus and how he pertains to my grandiose ambitions.

Right off the bat, let’s get the common misconception out of the way. Alamosaurus is not named for the Alamo in Texas! It is instead named after a cottonwood tree (in a round about sort of way). The first fossils were discovered in the Ojo Alamo formation of New Mexico in 1922 (dinosaurs come mostly from the Naashoibito member, which many consider part of the Kirtland formation). The dinosaur was named for the formation it was found in, which in turn was named after the Ojo Alamo Trading Post which was in turn named after a cottonwood tree growing next to a nearby spring (Alamo is the local Spanish name for cottonwood trees). It would be a long while after this initial discovery that Alamosaurus would be found in Texas. This dinosaur has so far been restricted to the American southwest, being found in New Mexico, Texas, and Utah (with that last one representing the northernmost extent of Alamosaurus’ range). So far the two most complete specimens are an adult from the North Horn formation of Utah and a juvenile from Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Aside from those 2, many isolated bones have been referred Alamoaurus. How do we know these bones are Alamosaurus? Well for the same reason that Alamosaurus is unique among North American sauropods. Alamosaurus lived at the end of the Cretaceous period, 69 to 65 million years ago. For a long time in paleontology this represented a bit of an enigma. The late Jurassic was the heyday, it seemed, of North America’s giant long necked plant-eaters. But after reaching such a high diversity they all just vanished at the close of the Jurassic period. There was a gap of over 75 million years before the arrival of Alamosaurus into North America. Even though a large crop of early Cretaceous sauropods have been found in Utah (as well as a couple in Texas and Oklahoma) that shows they persisited well into the Cretaceous, they still managed to peter out around 100 million years ago. There wouldn’t be a sauropod in North America until Alamosaurs arrived in the late Cretaceous. Why? Scientists are still working that one that. The currently accepted view is that Alamosaurus migrated north from South America. This idea is supported by the fact that Alamosaurus was a titanosaur, a group of sauropods who thrived throughout the Cretaceous in the southern hemisphere. So far Alamosaurus is the only late Cretaceous sauropod in North America, so scientists can be fairly confident that when they find a sauropod in strata younger than 70 million years it is probably Alamosaurus.

Brian Switek once said “For years, one of the cardinal sins of paleontology illustration was showing a Tyrannosaurus attacking a sauropod dinosaur.” This was largely due to T. rex living tens of millions of years after the last sauropods died out. But a face off between the tyrant lizard king and a lumbering sauropod was declared a possibility when in 2005 a T. rex specimen was found in Utah’s North Horn formation. Since one of the most complete specimens of Alamosaurus was found in the same strata, it is reasonable to assume they lived at the same time and place. Though i find it interesting that few reconstructions of a T. rex attacking Alamosaurus have been rendered, considering that they have both been known from the same areas for some time (The north Horn formation, Utah; Javalina formation, Texas; and New Mexico). Nonetheless, one or two have emerged (though i couldn’t find any to post here).

Recently the big guy got another boost to his public image. Not too long ago paleontologists Denver Fowler (Museum of the Rockies) and Robert Sullivan (State Museum of Pennsylvania) published fragmentary specimens from New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. The fragments proved to be especially large, so the two scientists compared two vertebra fragments ( cervical and caudal) and a distal femur to some dinosaurs from South America, a continent that has produced many contenders for the title of largest dinosaur*. Specifically, they compared Alamosaurus to Puertasaurus and Futalognkosaurus and found that the Alamosauruses from which the three specimens came from (each was found in a different location, ruling out that they came from a single, abnormally large individual) were in the same ballpark in terms of size. Of course, this is all based on fragmentary remains:

Cervical vertebra fragment of Alamosaurus (top, in posterior and right lateral views) compared to cervical vertebra of Puertasaurus (bottom, in anterior and right lateral views). From Fowler and Sullivan, 2011

Caudal vertebra of Alamosaurus (first 3: vertebra 2-4 from the North Horn specimen. Fourth: fragment from the San Juan Basin, New Mexico) compared to caudal vertebra of Futalognkosaurus. From Fowler and Sullivan, 2011

*(I define “largest” by mass. It just seems like the best measurement to determine who is bigger than another. For example, a giraffe is much taller than an elephant and yet it is the elephant who is granted the title of largest living land mammal. Another example is the Arctic lion’s mane jellyfish and the blue whale. Even though the jelly fish can grow longer, the whale is considered bigger because it is exponentially heavier. Plain and simple, putting two of any of these animals on a scale against each other, the scale will always tip towards who is heavier. So i think the best definition of largest is by weight)

The Alamosaurus material is all incomplete bones, Puertasaurus is based on four vertebra, and Futalognkosaurus is known from a significant section of the spinal column made up of 3 individuals. These animals have been estimated between 90 and 110 feet long and anywhere between 80 and 100 tons. Since Alamosaurus appears to be of a similar size, that would make it North America’s largest dinosaur, surpassing the two current contenders Supersaurus (108 to 112 ft long and 35 to 40 tons) and Sauroposeidon (~80 ft long, 56 ft tall, and 55-65 tons).  Of course, Alamosaurus and Sauroposeidon are known from very fragmented (and in the case of Sauroposeidon limited) materiel, so knowing just how bulky and proportioned they were is going to take a lot more fossils and study.

While throwing North America back into the ring as far as fossil records go, Denver Fowler apparently had another goal intended with this paper. He wrote in a comment on Dinosaur tracking:

Anyway, the “biggest dinosaur” label is fun, but I was hoping that this paper might drum up some further interest in the New Mexico faunas. We really need to get down there with larger field teams and find more complete specimens of the unique fauna.

Over the past 20 years or so, fieldwork by Bob Sullivan (State Museum PA) and the NMMNH has identified a number of good fossil sites and horizons. I would really like to see the New Mexico Late Cretaceous achieve something similar to the great work the Utah crew have done in the Kaiparowits (and elsewhere, e.g. the early Cretaceous).

To which i replied in the same post:

While not as a result of your paper (well, a little bit), I do have interest in the late cretaceous of New Mexico. I got hooked by the idea of dinosaur provincialism (boosted by the description of Bistahieversor (god, that’s a hard name to spell and pronounce!)) and as such want to build a provincial collection. No one has any idea how much i have been chomping at the bit to go search the Two Medicine, Kaiparowits, and Kirtland formations (and maybe the El Gallo formation in Baja California. Anyone got good relations with Mexico?). I agree that the late Cretaceous of New Mexico does warrant more exploration. Wish i could be out there right now looking for Titanoceratops, Bistahieversor, Kritosaurus, and their countrparts to the north. Unfortunately, i’m just a community college student at the moment and am so far having trouble just looking for fossils in my home county. But at least your paper has given me one more incentive!

As some of you might know, i have a rather unrealistic vision of opening my own museum some day (which i feel like is likely never to happen. I figured i might be better off helping some other museum. We’ll just have to wait and see) and part of that vision is building a provincial collection of dinosaurs. It would consist of: Two Medicine formation in Montana for north; Kirtland formation in New Mexico for south; and the El Gallo formation in Baja California for west. While it would be nice to dig into the Kaiparowits to complete the north-south chain, the El Gallo has priority for me (but if i can’t get search the El Gallo, the Kaiparowits will make a nice back up). As i mentioned above many consider the Ojo Alamo formation to be part of the Kirtland formation. While it doesn’t necessarily fit with the typical idea of dinosaur provincialism, I said i wanted to search the Kirtland formation so that means looking in this member as well. And why not? Finding more of the (possibly) largest dinosaur in North America, finding new species, fleshing out what the south looked like at the end of the Cretaceous (so much has been focused on the north, namely the Hell Creek formation) sounds awfully enticing. This rock preserves the final chapter of North America’s dinosaurs. Considering that so little has been done in the Ojo Alamo formation, it’s sounds like a fantastic place to break new ground (like several other instances in this post, no pun was intended). That’s plenty reason enough for me! So thanks Denver and Robert for giving me another reason to go to New Mexico for my dinosaurs.

Till next time!

The Tragedy of Tinker

Hey there every peoples!

This post was inspired by my little debate with Brian Switek over at Dinosaur Tracking spawned by my stupid little observation. First off in my defense i did offer a suite of possibilities other than new species (Jane was a runt, Thomas may have been eating something different to gain weight faster, or they may have been different sexes). Well the reason i used those two was because they were the only ones i could get full specs on. Bucky length and height (33 feet long, 10 feet tall) matches Thomas’ but he/she has no age or weight listed. The juvenile specimen in the LA Museum’s upcoming growth series has only been described as 20 feet long (same length as Jane). And another fossil that was claimed to “have the potential to end the Nanotyrannus debate once and for all” doesn’t have any specs because of the legal tug of war he became a part of.

A commercial collector named Mark Eatman was looking for dinosaurs to whore off in the badlands of South Dakota in 1998. But the land he found the bones on was a little fuzzy; it either belonged to rancher Gary Gilbert or land that had been leased to Gilbert by South Dakota’s Harding County. Eatman only found the T. rex and had no desire to dig it out, so he sold his excavation rights to a group of fossil hunters led by Texas prospector fossil whore Ron Frithiof. Frithiof got a lease from Harding County for the rights to the fossil, so long as the county got a 10% cut. Frithiof made a deal with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for $8.5 million for the skeleton. That’s when the troubles began.

supposedly parts of Tinker's skull

A damaged and healed rib supposedly from Tinker

The county didn’t know the value Frithiof slapped on the fossil. So in 2003 they began litigation to rescind the lease and make the claim that Frithiof had collected the specimen illegal from federal lands. Tinker was placed in the holdings of a private preparator where the fossils sat around (with some still in the ground). The legal battle raged for years, but on August 6, 2009 an appeals court sided with Frithiof. They concluded that it was the County’s fault for not checking into what kinds of fossils were being found. They declared Frithiof’s lease valid, meaning the County will still get 10% of what Tinker gets sold for.Unfortunately this did not mean the end of Tinker’s life in purgatory. The preparator filed for bankruptcy, and the fossils were taken into the custody of a federal bankruptcy court. No new information has since come to light. I doubt any will for some time.

Anyone who knows me or has read my post on Lone Star is familiar with the utter disdain i have for commercial collectors. They are not interested in serving science or the public. They are only interested in their pocket books. Frithiof in an article for Smithsonian Magazine even admitted that he got into paleontology because he heard how much was payed for Sue and thought he too could cash in on prehistory. And to add on to the crap heap: he was going to charge a children’s museum $8.5 million for the specimen? What the hell! Where were they supposed to get that kind of money? Museums are strapped for cash as it is. The only reason The Field Museum was able to buy Sue was because they were able to make deals with Disney and McDonalds (probably the only good thing to ever come out of McDonalds). And just Like Tinker, Sue was the subject of legal disputes. And Tinker wouldn’t have as much scientific value because i doubt the guys took detailed geologic notes when digging him up (the less of that you have to do, the quicker you can get him out and sell him). Fossils need all that collateral data, as Brian Switek  so eloquently points out:

It is not paleontology’s aim to simply fill museums with the inhabitants of lost worlds or create static menageries of ancient monsters. The goal of this science is to understand prehistoric life, and this requires that we pay careful attention to the context and associations of bones. Carelessly rip a specimen out of the rocks, and you lose a world of information

Also, according to Pete Larson, the bones weren’t treated with adhesive or glue, so they are in really rought shape.

Tinker, along with other fossils like Lone Star, illustrate one of the most contentious debates today: who should and should not be allowed to excavate fossils. Unfortunately since fossils on private land are considered private property, people often let yahoos like Frithiof or Joe Taylor dig there and keep them. This is a big part of why i want to start my own museum. We need another professional entity out there to find fossils and bring them to the public trust. But that is a monumental task, and until i can get it off the ground, more fossils are either eroding away or being snatched by greedy fossil hounds. Gah!

Till next time!

Forgotten Dinosaurs of the Lost Continent Part 2

Hey there every peoples!

Last time I gave a little background info on what I call the “Forgotten Dinosaurs of the ‘Lost Continent’”. This time we’ll look at the dinosaurs themselves.

But first I don’t feel like I was clear enough in my reasoning in the last post. Why have I bestowed these animals with the title of “forgotten”? Well even though the West Coast is a crappy place for dinosaur hunters, a few fossils beyond fragments have been found. I call them the “forgotten dinosaurs” because in discussions of Laramidia and dinosaur provincialism, they are almost never mentioned. So now I present you with the few, the proud: the dinosaurs of western Laramidia!

Aletopelta

Not too much to say here since I have already done a post about it. Nonetheless Aletopelta is unique in that it is the only genus endemic to western Laramidia (at least so far). All the other dinosaurs are known from elsewhere, whereas Aletopelta is a beast all its own.

Lambeosaurus laticaudus

Like most other dinosaurs in this discussion, Lambeosaurus laticaudus is known from the El Gallo formation of Baja California. Also, this dinosaur is a member of a genus known from elsewhere. But this dinosaur really stands out from its kin to the northeast. For one, it’s huge, possibly the largest hadrosaur known; it has been estimated at 50 feet long and over 20 tons in weight. It also had a narrow tail, which the original describers interpreted as an adaptation to swimming. The disassociated remains of several individuals have been found, including juveniles, which suggests Baja may have been a breeding ground. A couple hadrosaur specimens have been found in San Diego County, but they are too fragmented to be assignable to any genus.

A fleshed out model of Lambeosaurus at the San Diego Natural History Museum

While most of the Baja fossils have been referred to Lambeosaurus (indeed its own species of Lambeosaurus), there has been some doubt as to its exact identity. Some have suggested it might be a species of Hypacrosaurus. More recently, some think it may belong to Velafrons, a new hadrosaur known from eastern Mexico. However, without a crest, it may be difficult to determine just who Lambeosaurus laticaudus really was.

Saurolophus

It is well known that Saurolophus has been found from Canada and Asia. What people don’t know is that it has been found on the west coast as well. Way back yonder Chester Stock, one of the giants of California paleontology, discovered two skeletons of Saurolophus in the Panoche Hills of Fresno County. One, while fairly complete, was poorly preserved. The other was nearly complete and in good condition. While both lack the diagnostic crest and can’t be assigned to a specific species, they are the most complete dinosaurs found in either Alta or Baja California (or west of the Rockies for that matter)! The LA Museum plans to have a display about California dinosaurs in their new dinosaur hall. Looking at concept renderings it looks like one of these Saurolophus skeletons will make an appearance as well as what looks like a silhouette of Lambeosaurus laticaudus.

skeleton of Saurolophus, the most complete dinosaur on the West Coast

Albertosaurus

A smaller earlier relative of Tyrannosaurus, Albertosaurus is known definitively from Alberta and Montana. It may also be known from Alaska, Texas, and Baja California. Some teeth thought to belong to albertosaurus have been found in the El Gallo formation. Whether it truly is Albertosaurus or something else all together is unknown. Unlike mammals, dinosaur teeth are not very diagnostic beyond the family level. So while Albertosaurus may have lived in California, we cannot say for sure.

Cast teeth of Albertosaurus from Baja California at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Sauronitholestes

Again inferred from a couple of teeth in the Ell Gallo formation. Sauronitholestes was a dromeosaur about six feet long.

Troodon

Inferred from a tooth and a toe bone from the El Gallo formation, Troodon is famous for its relatively large brain.

Cast toe bone of Troodon at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Other dinosaurs

An ornithomimid is known from the El Gallo as well as well as several indeterminate theropod teeth. Fragments of hadrosaurs are known from many places in California such as Orange and Tehama Counties. So far no ceratopsians are known from either Alta or Baja California. This is very interesting since ceratopsians show a high degree of provincialism in eastern Laramidia Perhaps the environment in western Laramidia wasn’t suitable for ceratopsians. Or maybe we just haven’t found them yet.

I mentioned in my last post that the dinosaurs found in Alta and Baja California might throw a monkey wrench into the idea of dinosaur provincialism. Why? Well the idea stipulates that various dinosaur species are unique to their respective regions. Indeed this seems to hold true for the east of Laramidia. Pentaceratops is known only from New Mexico, Kosmoceratops is only known from Utah, and Chasmosaurus is only known from Alberta. The same goes for many other dinosaurs. But the dinosaurs of western Laramidia all seem to be dinosaurs found in Canada. According to dinosaur provincialism, they ought to be their own assemblage, because dinosaurs of the south haven’t been found in the north. See the problem? However, they may not be alone in this problem. Gryposaurus is known from Alberta but also from Utah. But maybe this isn’t such a problem since they are different species. But this still doesn’t wholly explain the dinosaurs of western Laramidia. How did genera found in the northeast somehow end up in the southwest when most other dinosaurs in the south consist of their own genera? Were they somehow able to circumvent the mountains from the north and settle into the west? Unfortunately, most of these apparently lost dinosaurs (save for Saurolophus) are represented by scrappy material. As noted Albertosaurus is inferred from just teeth! Those teeth could have belonged to an unknown theropod for all we know. While California has yielded few informative specimens, Baja California remains our best bet for finding the dinosaurs of Western Laramidia.

Who knows what we may find in the El Gallo formation. It certainly shows promise. But what I have been able to read has not been encouraging. Apparently the terrain is very uneven and the climate harsh, making it difficult to look for fossils and even harder to extract them. Also, apparently Mexico doesn’t like outsiders snooping around. According to a book on California dinosaurs, the LA Museum was pressured to cough up many of its specimens from the El Gallo and return them to Mexico. Whether this holds true for today is unknown to me but if it does it must only be for dinosaur fossils since the LA museum still has tons of Pleistocene fossils from Mexico, which they continue to find. I’d love to try and search for the dinosaurs that called Baja California (and from extrapolation maybe Alta California as well) but right now it doesn’t look like it’s in the cards. Certainly more fossils would help solve the many questions we have about dinosaur provincialism. However, the threat of stirring political ire is a little too daunting for me.

Till next time!

Just a Thought

Hey there every peoples!

Just wanted to chime in on some random thought i have had as i sit here looking up random stuff. As you may or may not know, in the last 20 years there has been an explosion in specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex. One of the most famous of these specimens is Jane. Jane was discovered by the Burpee Museum in the Hellcreek formation of Montana. She helped launch the Burpee Museum to stardom and launch their now blossoming paleontology program ( that such a small museum could have such success has been a big inspiration for me). Jane is important because she is a juvenile. Standing 7.5 feet at the hips, stretching 20 feet long, and weighing 1500 pounds, she would have been quite the bully at the playground. Estimated to be 11 years old, she is an important part in our understanding of T. rex growth.

Cast of Jane's skeleton at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Ohio (photo from flickr user statePaige)

But wait a minute. We have all heard this stuff time and time again. You’re probably wondering why I’m babbling about her. Well the answer has to do with another T. rex. His name is Thomas. Like Jane he was discovered in the badlands of Montana but by the Natural History Museum of  Los Angeles County. Thomas is a juvenile like Jane but estimated to be 13 years old. Thomas is set to appear as part of a T. rex growth series in the LA Museum’s new Dinosaur Mysteries hall which opens next year. He was quite hefty for a teenager standing 10 feet at the hips, 30 feet from nose to tail, and weighing in at 8,000 pounds.

Reconstruction of Thomas' skeleton with body outline

That’s all well and good, but what do these two have to do with each other and why are they getting a post? Here’s a hint: look at their sizes. It strikes me as odd that these two members of the same species who are only a couple years have such a huge gap in their size. Now I have often read that T. rex went through a freakish growth spurt when growing up: almost 5 pounds a day! Now if Jane was growing at that rate, she would have weighed 5,150 pounds when she reached Thomas’ age. That’s more than half of Thomas’ weight but almost 1 and a half tons short. Now I’m no expert (in dinosaurs or math) but that sounds like such an incredible disparity in size. Was Thomas eating something that helped him put on weight faster? Was Jane simply a runt? Was T. rex like some modern raptors where the female is larger than the male, making Thomas “Tanya” and Jane “Joe”? Or most provocatively, was one a different species than the other? Only time, more fossils, and more research will tell. Just thought I’d share that with all of you.

Till next time!

On With Their Heads

Hey there every peoples!

Finals are now out of the way and so my busy period is almost over. After that, I’ll be able to do a couple posts I’ve been meaning to put up for a long time. So this week sees another creature feature about an animal you may have heard of.

That animal’s name is Abydosaurus. You probably know him from a flurry of news reports back in March. Abydosaurus is just another of the new dinosaurs coming out of Utah’s cretaceous rocks, in this case the Cedar Mountain Formation. Interestingly, Abydosaurus was found in an outcrop at Dinosaur National Monument near the old visitor center. With any luck, he’ll show up in the new visitor center!

Reconstruction of the early Cretaceous brachiosaurid Abydosaurus

Why? Because Abydosaurus stands out among sauropods. Not because it’s a new species (those pop up all the time), not because of its size (it’s only 25 feet long, though the individuals recovered are juveniles), and it’s not because of its time or relationships (early cretaceous brachiosaurid. I love brachiosaurids!). What makes Abydosaurus unique is that the quarry where the 4 individuals were found yield a complete skull. What is more, it also produced the remains of 3 additional skulls! This is unheard of in sauropods. Their skulls are so small and delicate that they mostly don’t survive fossilization. Paleontologists are ecstatic when they find a sauropod skull. To find 4 is simply unheard of.

The most complete of the four Abydosaurus skulls

This gives us an unprecedented look into the biology of this animal. Skulls are the part of the body that reveals the most about an animal: what it ate, how strong its senses were, the structure of its brain, balance, and possibly even mating habits. And because skulls carry such a suite of features they are very important in classifying animals. The skulls of Abydosaurus upfront showed that it was a brachiosaurid, a group of sauropods who resembled reptilian giraffes. The skulls showed that this animal had wider teeth than other brachiosaurids. The skull is very similar to Africa’s Giraffatitan even though the Abydosaurus , with its age of 104 mya, lived 45 million years after the famous Jurassic giant (who was once known as Brachiosaurus brancai).

The name of Abydosaurus stems from an uncommon source of animals names: Egyptian mythology. I used to be a nut on Egypt back when we studied it in 6th grade. Abydos is the Greek name of a temple that rests on the Nile. According to Egyptian mythology, Abydos is the resting place of the head and neck of Osiris, the lord of the Egyptian Underworld. Seeing as the holoytpe of Abydosaurus consisted of the head and upper neck, and the site overlooked the Green River, the named seemed to apply. In my opinion, an extinct animal needs to be named (whether it’s a nickname or a scientific name) after a mythological figure with one of the coolest names out there: the Greek hero Belerophon.

Till next time!