Wednesday, 2 April 2014

From the Vaults Pt.3

I love unusual aspects when photographing specimens and I particularly like this shot. This is a cervical vertebra, in ventral view, from Diplodocus carnegii and while I am not anywhere near being an aficianado of sauropods I do appreciate what a marvel of evolutionary engineering sauropods were - with a special admiration for the biomechanics of the sauropod neck.

There is still a degree of uncertainty regarding how these animals actually functioned and I have always thought that once we have solved the miracle of sauropod biology then the rest of dinosaur palaeobiology will fall into place. Well probably not as simple as that but I hope you understand where I am coming from.

Back to proper blogging soon and thank you for the visits and checking the blog out. It is very much appreciated!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

From the Vaults Pt.2

Hadrosaurs are, quite simply, awesome. As a theropod man this may appear to be somewhat contrary but to anybody who spends time with the fossils of these remarkable animals, there is only a true appreciation of these wonders of nature. And their skulls, whether hadrosaurine or lambeosaurine, are magnificent.

The unkind epithet "Cows of the Cretaceous" is both undignified and is yet complimentary as it is easy to imagine great herds of hadrosaurs sweeping across the Late Cretaceous landscapes consuming vast amounts of vegetation. The well documented and super efficient jaw mechanism is a beautiful piece of evolved engineering although, I believe it fair to say, is still not fully understood and very much under appreciated by those who consider hadrosaurs mere theropod fodder.

I have come into contact with various hadrosaur skull bones that need preparation over the last few years and am now very familiar with them. I have three dentaries and one maxilla still to prepare (when time permits) and there are other bones in the cue but I am particularly fond of the jugal and quadrate. One quadrate, in particular, is exceptional and would come from a very large hadrosaur indeed. The predentary is another interesting bone with its castellated rim so perfect for nipping off fronds of vegetation.

The various crests of lambeosaurines are equally impressive and the range of ontogenetic and morphological extremes is fascinating and just what function they perform has long been debated although it is generally accepted that they were most likely used for intraspecific communications of some sort.   

The rest of the animal is pretty impressive as well - an ability to walk on both four and two limbs, to be able to rear up, and all supported by a magnificent framework of tendons and, lest we forget, an animal that exhibited a great deal of parental care that enabled hadrosaurids to proliferate throughout the Late Cretaceous.

Hadrosaurids deserve all the attention they receive and the sheer amount of fossils they left behind, including entire growth series from egg to adult, make them an appealing subject for research for any aspiring dinosaur palaeontologist.

Friday, 7 February 2014

From the Vaults Pt.1

Unfortunately, my increased workload is making blogging regularly somewhat difficult right now but just to keep things ticking over I will post some bits and pieces from time to time. This time I am glad to provide some cool images for the palaeoichnologists amongst you. Palaeoichnology has always been a fascinating discipline and is one of those branches of palaeontology that is certainly on the up as it increasingly benefits from digital technology.

Late last year a couple of us attended the Jehol-Wealden International Conference on the Isle of Wight and part of the conference entailed a field trip to visit some of the more famous fossil sites on the island. At Hanover and Brook we were very lucky to see many of the famous large dinosaur footprints and casts in situ - and very impressive they were too.  

It was great to discuss tracks with track specialist extraordinaire Martin Lockley, of the University of Colorado, and you could not fail to learn. So here are some of the track images from the day - enjoy!






Tuesday, 21 January 2014

More SVP Snippets

We are often fascinated by the large, some would say outsized, eyes in animals – particularly those in extinct animals such as ichthyosaurs. But do big eyes necessarily indicate a specific adaption to perhaps avoid being hunted by larger predators or, perhaps, do they serve multiple evolutionary driven functions? Lars Schmitz, of Claremont College in California, and his colleagues and have been looking at just that.
By testing a variety of theoretical models they compared the eyes of present day squid (the animal with relatively the biggest eyes of any organism) with those of ichthyosaurs by assuming that both squid and ichthyosaurs evolved their large eyes to avoid predation. They found, however, that large eyes are extremely useful for a number of key visual adaptations in low light level conditions and    that there is insufficient evidence supporting the evolution of large eye size due to predation.
Allometric testing was also indicative that actually both squid and ichthyosaurs do not actually have outsize eyes relative to their large body size within their respective clades.  This adds further weight to the argument that large eyes evolved naturally with large body size and helped the animals perform multiple functions in a light restricted environment although nobody doubts that they would indeed be useful in spotting a possible predator.
There were a few interesting presentations concerning phylogenetics during the meeting and Robert Sansom, of the University of Manchester, and Matthew Wills, of the University of Bath, threw a bundle of tinder wood onto an already burning fire and reinforced the necessity that we must all be alert to the external forces of fossilisation and the significant impact it can have on any phylogenetic tree.
The authors suggest that inherent loss of soft tissue during the fossilisation process causes morphological error. When comparing phylogenies of extant taxa that were filtered with those that are random by removing soft tissue data they found that these taxa actually dropped down lower in their respective phylogenetic trees.
Fossil filters, therefore, can cause significant signal loss which, of course, is the raw data utilised by phylogenetics and thus moves taxa down the tree causing the character states to appear more primitive. If this is the case then the element of caution when considering “parsimonious” character states would need to be greatly intensified.
To compound the issue for those of you involved in phylogenetics, Akinobu Watanabe and Mark Norell, both of the American Museum of Natural history Museum in New York, also highlighted the impact of poor sampling when variation within species occurs. In other words, intraspecific variance within species can cause character states to appear different from what they really are due to the lack of specimens.
A secondary taxon that is part of the same species that is different since it was not sexually dimorphic or ontogentically variant is known as a polymorph. To help combat the issues of polymorphic distortion, the authors have created a new script within TNT that simulates polymorphic sampling but replaces the polymorphic scores with single character states and then cross references the simulated results with the actual data.
The results are interesting albeit somewhat discouraging as the TNT variant recovers substantial differences in the organisation of phylogenetic trees. These discrepancies confirm what many palaeontologists have known for some time and that is that there is nothing that can be described as simple phylogenetics when dealing with extinct organisms and that sampling, not only from  the “more is better” standpoint,  but particularly of multiple specimens of the same species are essential to enable a clearer understanding of phylogenetic evolution.
More ichthyosaurs now which should not be a surprise since there is an abundance of research going on into these fascinating marine reptiles. It is well known that there was a significant extinction event across the Cenomanian/Turonian boundary during the early Late Cretaceous and, despite the odd rumour of ichthyosaur elements known from the Maastrichtian, it is generally accepted that ichthyosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cenomanian.
There are many theories on the cause of this extinction which also saw the demise of the spinosaurs, pliosaurs and, at the other end of the scale, the lepidotid fishes amongst many others. Whatever sparked this event led to depleted oxygen levels in the oceans and saw a rise in both sea and atmospheric temperatures.  And yet was the extinction of the ichthyosaurs a gradual decline or as a result of a sudden catastrophic event? Valentin Fischer, of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science, has been looking at just this.
Re-examining the phylogeny, taxonomy and palaeoecology of Cretaceous ichthyosaurs has revealed some interesting data. Firstly, it has always been generally accepted that ichthyosaur diversity diminished after the Jurassic but we now know that this is not the case and that ichthyosaurs were much more common and diverse in the Early Cretaceous than generally thought.
Secondly this revision has also highlighted the fact that ichthyosaur extinction lasted throughout the Cenomanian and is indicative that marine ecosystems worldwide endured significant faunal turnover that affected many groups of marine animals. This is part of an increased amount of evidence we have that ichthyosaur extinction was part of a much wider reorganisation of marine fauna at the beginning of the Late Cretaceous which, although plesiosaurs survived the extinction event,  paved the way for the mosasaurs to become the dominant marine reptiles for the last 20 million years of the Mesozoic.
Staying with marine reptiles and Neil Kelley, of Vanderbilt University, has been examining the adaptability and morphological variation of various marine forms in the Triassic period. By analysing both dietary data and morphological characteristics of extant marine taxa with those of known Triassic marine reptiles (51 species), Kelly was able to ascertain that the data recorded and observed was generally comparable.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, marine reptiles of the Triassic pursued a variety of dietary niches although it is interesting that as they got progressively larger in the Mid-Triassic that diets moved on from being mainly piscivorous to not only becoming more carnivorous but also specialising in invertebrate prey. After the Middle Triassic the specialist forms began to disappear whilst both the fish eating forms and the larger carnivores persisted.
The fact that open ocean forms continued to flourish in the Late Triassic may be indicative that there was a shortage of food resources in shallower waters near to shore. Because larger pelagic forms were able to persist into the Late Triassic may have ultimately led to a greater taxonomic diversity at the end of the period with many of the forms that dominated the seas of the Jurassic evolving during these very important stages.
Despite the data being assembled that led to these conclusions being comparable, much of it depends on assumption and the author rightly points out that the overall lack of fossil specimens does somewhat hinder this research and that there will always have to be a degree of conjecture.



Fischer, V. 2013. The extinction of ichthyosaurs is a facet of a major Cenomanian turnover in marine ecosystems.  Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp127.
Kelley, N. 2013. Ecomorphological diversity of Triassic marine reptiles.  Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp152
Sansom, R. and Wills, M. 2013. Fossilization filters result in significant loss of phylogenetic signal and cause organisms to appear erroneously primitive.  Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp205.
Schmitz, L., Motani, R. and Wainwright, P.C. 2013. Evolutionary drivers of giant eyes in large ocean predators. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp206 – 207.
Watanabe, A. and Norell, M. 2013. Tree building from Noah’s Ark: the impact of poor sampling within species on phylogenetic reconstruction. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp235.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Tyrannosaurs at Christmas

Despite SVP being understandably mammal-centric this year, there was still plenty of dinosaur related presentations and posters to keep us all happy. As usual, I was focussing mainly on marine reptiles (not a lot this year unfortunately) and theropod research – particularly tyrannosaurids and, in this particular instance, there were a few really interesting pieces of research on show.
Regular readers are aware that I have often discussed the importance of the tyrannosaurid Daspletosaurus and how continuing research into this animal is important – especially when it comes to tyrannosaurine evolution and the dispersal of Tyrannosauridae throughout North America. We have known for some time now there are multiple species of Daspletosaurus and here, for the first time, Tetsuto Miyashita, of the University of Alberta, and colleagues presented their research into one of these new tyrannosaurids.
The new taxon is represented by multiple skulls and skeletons and displays several characters that are distinctive from Daspletosaurus torosus. These include features in the premaxilla, nasal, postorbital boss, and lacrimal (amongst others). Remains are found in both the Dinosaur Park Formation and the temporaneous uppermost Oldman Formation and are thus more recent than D. torosus.
The authors’ phylogenetic analysis reveals that this taxon, as well as Daspletosaurus sp. from the Two Medicine Formation, forms a clade which is comprised of tyrannosaurine tyrannosaurids that are more derived than those from Campanian deposits in Utah and probably New Mexico. Interestingly, this analysis also recovered Bistahieversor as a tyrannosaurid which is just what the comprehensive analysis recently documented in the Lythronax paper (Loewen et al 2013) also found.
Here it is interesting that the authors favour Daspletosaurus as being derived with both Tarbosaurus and Tyrannosaurus but Loewen et al regard Daspletosaurus as a basal northern clade and separate from the southern Laramidian radiation of tyrannosaurids. They favour a southern distribution for more derived tyrannosaurids and suggest that both Tyrannosaurus and the Asian Tarbosaurus evolved from this dispersal event in the south.
This is intriguing because there are obvious differences between these two analyses and it raises yet more questions than there are answers. Personally, I remain open minded about tyrannosaurid dispersal events and, make no mistake, there were probably several. But perhaps there is now more evidence about Daspletosaurus being “northern” and it comes in the form of another unexpected new tyrannosaurid announced at SVP.
Anthony Fiorillo and Ron Tykoski, both of the Perot Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas, presented their research on skeletal remains of large theropods in the Upper Cretaceous Prince Creek Formation of Alaska. The Prince Creek crops out along the bluffs of the Colville River and the sedimentology reveals deposits that were laid down in a wet/dry seasonal environment. There are several sites of which one, the Kikak-Tegoseak Quarry, has yielded some extremely interesting elements from a tyrannosaurid.
One of these, DMNH 21461, is a skull roof displaying a bifurcated sagittal crest and would seem to indicate a total skull length of around 0.6 metres. Other elements include a partial dentary and are indicative of a derived tyrannosaurine and are quite diagnostic indicating that a new taxon is involved. The authors are naturally enough a little wary at the moment about confirming or naming the new taxon and, when questioned about the height of the sagittal crest by Thomas Carr, declined to answer in public. That is fair enough but my observations of the fossils on display, and the sagittal crest in particular, suggest that this may yet be another species of Daspletosaurus. And there is more.
The Liscomb Bonebed, another site in the Prince Creek, has also yielded tyrannosaurid elements and these display an unusual condition for their size. These include specimens DMNH 2012-25-31 (a neural arch), DMNH 2012-25-30 (a partial radius) and DMNH 2012-22-20 (a pedal phalanx) and  their overall morphology is indicative that they represent an adult tyrannosaurid – but this particular individual is only about 40% the size of what a conventional large adult tyrannosaurid would be.
This should actually not be a surprise considering the conditions that would have been endured in the palaeoenvironment of northern Alaska back in the Late Cretaceous and dwarfism would have been a logical response when resources are limited. As research progresses it will be interesting to know how these tyrannosaurids relate to each other and, as I mused earlier, how they will further enlighten our knowledge of the tyrannosaurid radiation throughout the Late Cretaceous.
Thomas Carr’s contribution to SVP this year was a poster looking at the sister group relationship between Daspletosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Just in case you are unaware, Carr is still working on a quite significant monograph on Daspletosaurus which was, when we were chatting at SVP, over 1000 pages long – a significant contribution. So it was not surprising to see this poster featuring his research into testing the evolutionary lineage of these tyrannosaurids and whether a case for anagenesis can be made.
A comprehensive cladistic analysis was undertaken to compare both phylogenetic and ontogentic sequences and patterns. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there are several factors that are suggestive of an anagenetic tyrannosaurine lineage but, equally, there is that question of the dispersal of Tyrannosaurinae in the first place. As Carr points out, Tyrannosaurus is phylogenetically removed from Laramidian species by some Asian taxa in the first place and the fact that, as I have already alluded to, there were several dispersal events between Asia and North America and then the case for anagenesis in Laramidian tyrannosaurines becomes very complex indeed .
Interesting again is how this analysis tends to support that of Myashita et al from earlier and contrasts with that of Loewen et al which favours a southern radiation for Laramidian tyrannosaurines. The origins of these formidable tyrannosaurids looks set to be undetermined for some time to come.
Finally, and moving away from tyrannosaurids, Joseph Sertich, of the Denver Museum of Science & Nature, and his colleagues unveiled another giant theropod but this time in the form of a primitive abelisaurid. This specimen has proven to be remarkably popular and there were lots of extremely interested workers at SVP and, again, in the palaeoworld since the meeting.
The specimens derive from the Lapurr sandstone in the Turkana Basin of Kenya and are rocks of Maastrichtian age. Elements include some from the skull and those from both axial and appendicular skeleton. Unfortunately, a lot of this material is scrappy and poorly preserved but is diagnostic enough to be able to refer these specimens to the Abelisauridae.
However, the size of the animal is readily evident and is confidently predicted to be in the region of eleven metres long – maybe more but there appears to be no significant cranial ornamentation on this taxa unlike other abelisaurids. This large theropod was part  of a diverse fauna that is now coming to life as more fossils are found and include sauropods, ornithopods, theropods, pterosaurs and crocodiles and, despite most of the fossils that have so far been recovered being scrappy, there is every likelihood of yet more surprises to come from this intriguing part of Africa.
Well it is the time of year when the season of goodwill should be the order of the day. It has been a very busy year for me and, as a result, I have not been able to post as often as I would like but, rest assured, I will always endeavour to post as often as I can. Between the amount of work I have and also looking after the interests of the group (which is important for all of us) time is of a premium just now - but we will get there in the end.
Thanks for all your support over the last year and now it just remains for me to say that, to those of you who celebrate it, I hope you all have a happy and peaceful Christmas. Enjoy!  


Carr, T. 2013. Using ontogeny and phylogeny to test hypotheses of anagenesis in the vertebrate fossil record: a case study of the sister group relationship between Daspletosaurus and Tyrannosaurus (Dinosauria, Coelurosauria). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp101.
Fiorillo, A & Tykoski, R. 2013. Distribution and polar palaeoenvironments of large theropod skeletal remains from the Prince Creek Formation (Early-Late Maastrichtian) of Northern Alaska. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp127.
Loewen MA, Irmis RB, Sertich JJW, Currie PJ, Sampson SD (2013) Tyrant Dinosaur Evolution Tracks the Rise and Fall of Late Cretaceous Oceans. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79420. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079420
 Miyashita, T., Currie, P. & Paulina Carabajal, A. 2013 A new species of Daspletosaurus (Theropoda: Tyrannosauridae) from the Campanian of southern Alberta represented by a growth series of well-preserved skulls and skeletons. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp178.
Sertich, J., O’Connor, P., Seiffert, E. & Manthi, F. 2013. A giant abelisaurid theropod from the latest Cretaceous of Northern Turkana, Kenya. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp211.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Guest Post: A Night With a Legend

Ever wonder what it would be like to spend some time with probably the worlds’ greatest living naturalist, Sir David Attenborough? I was delighted when my friend and colleague Mark Graham, preparator at the Natural History Museum in London, offered up this wonderful post describing his time with Sir David and a film crew as they filmed various sequences for the upcoming documentary,  David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D.
The post brings to life what it is like for a large institution like the NHM to cope with the rigors of a fully loaded professional film crew whilst all the time looking out for the specimens in your care and, of course, being able to converse with Sir David. I know I speak for so many in saying that I would absolutely love to be able to do that one day and I am incredibly jealous!
But this is the next best thing so read on and enjoy. Please note that all images are courtesy of the Natural History Museum and are used WITH PERMISSION.
A Night with a Legend...  
16 & 17th August 2013
I jumped at the chance to be present in the lab for a filming session by Sir David Attenborough ( surely a candidate as 'the greatest living Englishman'), even though it meant working right through Friday night and into Saturday morning. Arianne Burnucci, my conservator colleague, was also excited to meet the great naturalist and, although only we two wanted to  be on hand throughout, everyone in the Conservation Centre got involved and spent a great deal of time during the week in clearing up the lab in readiness for the film crew.
 This was no mean feat as the Conservation Centre services the needs of  the entire museum, following a restructuring which saw its remit change from fossil preparation and conservation as  the 'Palaeontology Conservation Unit' to that of  a facilities function for all the earth and life sciences, including for example, mineralogical,  zoological and botanical specimens. And the facility, which is a busy and well-used space, is showing its age, so getting it to look fit for state of the art 3D filming by the world's favourite naturalist (and everyone's favourite uncle) took up an enormous amount of everyone's time.
Before the floor could be deep cleaned by an external contractor (which itself had to be spread over two early start mornings) a mountain of plastezote (support foam) and cortex (corrugated card) offcuts had to be graded, stored or disposed of and a multitude of tools and other paraphernalia put away out of sight in various cabinets, drawers and adjoining offices. Work benches were stripped of their old worn paper covers and fresh new ones cut and taped into place. Fume cupboards, grinding booths , cutting tables and sinks were cleared and then attention turned to the various specimens around the lab, as each would need to be protected from potential damage during the organised mayhem that  results from a fully kitted out film crew going about its business.
These included a full sized stuffed lioness, a stuffed adult stag, hyaena and a deer - not to mention both marine reptile and dinosaur fossils as well as botanical specimens. And there was the small matter of bringing an adult sauropod femur up from the dinosaur collection in the sub-basement to the lab, which took 3 people and a hydraulic forklift.
Apart from one specific specimen (which I will not disclose as it would spoil everyone's fun), the selection of fossils for 'dressing the set' was left to me. The production company wanted a selection of skulls, dinosaur bones, trilobites and other interesting three dimensional fossils and so, with the help of curatorial colleagues, I plundered the collections for some of the best and most iconic specimens.

Bones awaiting preparation.

The film crew and their attendant entourage (amazingly around 40 people) turned up in their lorries around 7pm at our loading bay and traipsed through the lab and upstairs for a briefing. Arianne accompanied them and the lab was suddenly quiet again, when in walked Sir David and the production company director. It was a wonderful moment when I introduced myself to them and made them comfortable in one of the lab offices, which served as David's private space for the duration (I asked his PA and he prefers to be addressed as David - not 'Sir David', which didn't surprise me). He is very informal and easy going around everyone, which made for a great atmosphere straight off the bat.
After a little while, as the crew were setting up the cameras and deciding where various fossils were to be placed, I was asked if I could give David a look around the collections as he loves to see behind the scenes. And so we wandered off - (the godfather of natural history, whose programmes, DVDs and books have enraptured me for all my adult life, and me), down to the dinosaur collection - accompanied by a cameraman who was shooting 'making of the programme' footage.
But what to show someone who has been everywhere around the world and has seen everything in the natural world? I decided to re-acquaint him with two specimens that I knew he had an association with; a sauropod he helped collect on a field trip during the 1980s, Baryonyx, which he had seen during its preparation and Spinops, which I had prepared 5 years previously. And, just like all of us who work with dinosaurs, he was completely absorbed. Then, as he had mentioned an incident in our acid lab many years ago, when, following a series of time- lapse photographs, he had dropped his camera into a tank of acid and ruined it, I took him there to see some resin transfer fossil fishes that I am currently acid preparing.
After showing him back to one of the offices where he could relax between filming, I found myself much in demand from the crew members - could this bench be moved out of shot, could that specimen be angled differently, would it be ok if we described what you do in these terms, could I find some colourful equipment to put on display, could the air extractors be switched off, could the lab doors be set open, could the hydraulic table be lifted to show the large specimen to best effect - so on and so forth. But it was great fun and, more importantly they all treated the specimens with absolute respect, which was my main concern and they went about their business carefully and very professionally, so I felt confident that nothing untoward was likely to happen.
The first shot was set up and out came David to take his position by the main specimen and prop (I won't say what they were as I don't want to spoil the surprise for anyone ahead of broadcasting). 'Clap' went the clapper board and suddenly, in a nano-second, there was that so familiar voice, part science buff, part actor, all enthusiasm. I was grinning from ear to ear - entranced and not quite believing that here I was involved in helping one of my heroes. After three or four takes the crew were satisfied, and David got up and went back to the office, with his PA 'guarding' the doorway while he read the script and notes.
The crew went back into overdrive, moving all the camera tracks, lighting and sound gear to the next part of the lab. Several 'set pieces' were organised to enhance the special effects and, for the next shoot, David showed off his acting prowess - and he had everyone laughing in the process.

Specimens laid out for filming
While all this was going on, other crew members, who had set up a super-high definition camera in one of the collection areas, requested the first of the iconic dinosaur specimens that I had selected with them earlier. So, down I went with Ari and a trolley to the collections and out came the massive left dentary of T. rex, which we positioned carefully under the slow whirring camera that took a full 20 minutes to scan the specimen. One of the crew, a young guy, was absolutely in awe of the great jawbone with its array of killer teeth "it's the first time I've got a real sense of the timescales involved with these fossils" he said to me - he was almost dumbstruck to be standing inches away from the wrong end of the Tyrant King - it really affected him.
At some point (just before midnight I think) the catering crew announced that a curry was ready, and everyone went up to the common room to eat. We all sat round and David discussed the lives of some of the Victorian scientists associated with the museum and all manner of things palaeo.
Surprisingly, I was asked by the producer to be interviewed and the roving cameraman, who was taking the 'making of the film and behind the scenes' footage spent about 20 minutes asking me  questions about the museum and the filming experience - I hope that at least a few seconds make the final edit for posterity!
Next up for the hi-definition camera treatment was the Baryonyx claw - more open mouths from the crew...
The filming took 12 hours and, at the end of it all, David was understandably looking a bit tired and was ready to get away.  I felt a bit embarrassed, but he had earlier agreed to sign a couple of books for me and I also got a photo taken with him.
I'm happy to say that the old adage 'you should never meet your heroes' didn't hold true in this instance - he was as interesting and charming as I knew he would be and it was one of those very special experiences that I'll always remember and cherish.
Then, the crew quickly packed up all their kit, made a point of thanking us and made their exits and Ari and I set about placing the specimens back in their cabinets, tidying up and securing the lab before we left on Saturday morning.
David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D premiers on New Year's Day on Sky 1, Sky 1 HD and Sky 3D.

Mark and the great man himself.


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Bizarre Deinocheirus.....

Deinocheirus mirificus – a dinosaur that we are all familiar with and now, thanks to the disclosures at this year’s SVP meeting in Los Angeles, an animal that we are now much more able to visualise in life. I first learnt about Deinocheirus as a kid and I was mystified by the huge arms of the type specimen. For me, at the time, it represented the ultimate theropod but for palaeontologists it was inconceivable that the rest of the animal could be simply scaled up from the huge arms as you might restore a conventional theropod - it was just too big.
There was even a train of thought that Deinocheirus was a kind of giant reptilian sloth using its arms to pull down vegetation. Eventually, as the science of phylogenetics came to the fore, we got nearer to the truth and Deinocheirus was generally regarded as a basal ornithomimosaur but even then there were still discussions about whether this diagnosis was accurate and a few of us were always secretly hoping that it would indeed turn out to be some kind of super predator. One thing that everybody agreed on – we needed more fossils.
Eventually they were found and Yuong-Nam Lee, of the Korean Institute of Geoscience & Mineral Resources, and colleagues presented their findings to a large and expectant audience. Two specimens were displayed – MPC-D 100/127 and MPC-D 100/128 – recovered from the Upper Cretaceous Nemegt Formation at Altan Uul IV and BuginTsav in 2006 and 2009 respectively. Much of the missing post cranial material that had eluded fossil hunters of the years was recovered although one of the specimens had already been illegally plundered which is both disturbing and unfortunate to say the least.
Of the material that was displayed there were a series of cervical vertebrae in full articulation complete with the atlas vertebra (C3 – C10) which are very ornithomimosaur-like and a similar series of dorsal vertebrae which display tall anterodorsally facing and highly pneumatic neural spines. The dorsal ribs are fairly straight and are indicative of a narrow body.  The sacral vertebrae (S1 – S6) also demonstrate tall neural spines and are fused (except for sacrals S1 and S6) and form a strong plate of bone.  This appears to demonstrate the presence of a hump in Deinocheirus akin to those found in other dinosaurs and is somewhat unexpected in this taxon.
There is also a series of caudal vertebrae preserved whilst the ilium is quite distinct and displays a raised anterior dorsal margin. The pubic region, as a whole, is strongly developed. The femur is well developed, robust and longer than the tibia and is clearly both unique and diagnostic of Deinocheirus.  Also of interest is the presence of gastroliths in the gastralia of MPC-D 100/127 (well over a 1000) and this is indicative that the animal was probably herbivorous.
Despite the fact that there is still no skull material for Deinocheirus, this new post cranial material looks wonderfully preserved and has allowed us to confirm that Deinocheirus is indeed a basal ornithomimosaur and is, therefore, a stunning vindication and endorsement of phylogenetics – a real triumph. The real surprise, however, is the visual reconstruction of the animal that drew audible gasps from the enthralled audience. There are a number of reconstructions already circulating but, in my opinion, not one of these has got the proportions or appearance of the animal correct.
I do not intend to add further fuel to the fire, and I am certainly not talented enough to produce my own image but if I said to you that Deinocheirus looks like a cross between an ornithomimid, a therizinosaur and Concavenator then you will appreciate just what a bizarre animal this really is. We all look forward to the paper which, at time of writing, still unfortunately appears to be some way off.
Next up - tyrannosaurids but before that I will be publishing a guest post which is a terrific article about the filming at the Natural History Museum in London for David Attenborough’s new programme, David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D, to be broadcast on New Year’s Day so watch out for this one.
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, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp161.