Into Jurassic World Part 2: When Science and the Movies Collide

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to part 2 of my coverage of Jurassic World. This time we’re going to look at a problem that has plagued so many people. It’s something that pops in every now and then and leaves everyone wondering why it’s even being discussed. Is it just an exercise in passion? Or is it just the prattling of those who take something far more seriously then they ought to? And why does the media shove it in our face whenever it happens? Here we go looking into science and the movies.

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“Dino Death Match” Misses the Point

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Things have been very Very VERY crazy for me lately. I only managed to do that last post because I managed to catch a breather. But now I have been getting ready for Live Oak (a music festival we volunteer at every year), then go to Live Oak (in which I will be gone 6 days) and I had to take care of my grandma while my aunt was out of town. Plus Jurassic World came out last Friday. So between all that I won’t be all that active. But a recent program on the National Geographic channel warranted some discussion so i quickly pounded this out.

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Jurassic World Needs Bigger Guns

Hey there every peoples!

This last Friday The Avengers: Age of Ultron kicks off the summer movie season. I’ll see it, but i can’t say i was actually waiting to see it. That honor goes to Jurassic World, which opens in about a month and a half. However, i won’t be talking about the history of the film. Nor will i discuss the inaccuracies in this film, as i already about that on facebook (not because i find them bothersome, but because of the giant temper tantrum the dino fanboys threw over them). This time, i’d like to talk about a different aspect of the film: the apparently underwhelming fire power of the Jurassic World security force.

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Searching Paleontological Hotspots

Hey there every peoples.

My last post seemed like a total non starter. I knew it would be insignificant, but damn, did it seem to go unnoticed, even by this blog’s standards. But still, whether I had a billion dollars or just a few thousand, where would my museum go? I have talked about all kinds of places on “The Hit List”. These are extremely numerous and probably unfeasible to try and tackle in my lifetime (of course assuming I even make it far enough to start building a collection). So I have decided to place priority on some select localities I have dubbed “Paleontology Hot Spots”. These are places that boast a long and continuous fossil history. Instead of just a few million years of most geologic formations, these “hotspots” have multiple sequences of formations that really detail the changes in life and environment through time. I have selected 4 that I’d like my museum to focus on should it ever take off.

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The Great “Toroceratops” Debate

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I have really let this blog go. And I’m not happy about it. I seem to have a small cadre of followers and I feel I let you down. School and family issues have kept me tied up. Plus I have been working on this post on and off since January. It’s the longest one I have written yet. I hope it’s worth it!

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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!