Sunday, 29 May 2011

Blogging with Dinosaurs

Time disappears a little too quickly when your very busy, but still having fun! Fifty Seven blogs later and a year has passed and I am stilling finding time to write about the wee timorous beasties (such as Archaeopteryx below)...not all were so 'wee' I suppose.

The bulk of my time these past few months spent organising this year's field season and writing-up research. I will soon have teams of palaeontologists, biologists and geologists coming from the UK, Spain and the USA to help dig a site that we have in the Hell Creek Formation. This will keep my field team and I up to our armpits in dirt, a happy place, while the Jurassic CSI series is transmitted in the USA.

Planning for the excavation has several hoops that needed to be jumped through...all very necessary. Earlier this year I had to complete formalities with the suitable authorities to arrange access to the said dig site. This has been done and we are now waiting for the final say on the excavation paperwork.

Funding such excavations is not much fun. The economy is hardly booming and this impacts directly on many areas of research, especially in the UK. Last year I had to use my own savings to keep some of my field team in South Dakota. I should say, it is not uncommon for palaeontologists to dip into their own pockets to fund digs. I am still hunting for funds from various places to see if I can keep the 18 folks on my field team in a mosquito populated, arid, windy, sunburnt, dirt-shifting 'heaven' for a month.

For those of you who have been following the blog from last May, a big Thank You! In the past year you will have read how palaeontology can comfortably hold its head high, when it comes to the relevance of our research to everyday life. The information that we are now able to glean from the fossil record is influencing many fields, including; climate research, the burial of waste, long-term storage of radioactive waste and the impact of oil spills and suchlike on living species and many other crucial areas.

Whilst our research is firmly anchored in the past, we set our sights on its application to the future.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Seeley, dinosaurs and divisions...

Harry Govier Seeley gave us something that neither Huxley, Cope nor the infamous Marsh could (but this was not from a want of trying). In 1887 H.G. Seeley gave us the lasting major division within Richard Owen's tribe of beasties, giving us the saurischian and ornithischian dinosaurs. You have already met the tooth and claw of the saurischia ('lizard-hipped') that ultimately gave rise to all birds today. Now this is the rub, the ornithischian ('bird-hipped') dinosaurs have nothing to do with birds, other than being the sister group to the saurischia that did...confused? When folks say, 'Whats in a name', maybe here hindsight would have made Seeley chuckle. His division is robust, but the names often confusing, given each groups evolutionary products...sadly zero for the ornithischian dinosaurs post-Cretaceous. One thing about this group, if you visit the AMNH in New York, you'll get to see some of the most important ornithischian fossils from north America. Here is a brief tour of the said gallery.
Triceratops with its distinct horned face and solid frill has been having a rough ride with its contemporary Torosaurus... identifiable from its larger perforated frill. Jack Horner and colleagues have recently suggested the latter is an adult of the former...'slaying' a species with a stroke...or should I say 'stage' of ontogeny (growth).  This is not a new approach to slaying dinosaur species, as Peter Dodson did the same back in 1975 with his analysis of hadrosaur skulls...reducing nine to three species in a stroke. However, folks must have been more careful when naming species since Peter's work back in 1975...or have they? Other palaeontologists have urged caution, such as Mike Benton at Bristol, who also suggests that ~50% of dinosaur species might not be valid! Something to think about when we explore museums, their collections and the barren Badlands when hunting 'new' species...or maybe just another growth stage. Lets just say, we must be careful when naming new species of dinosaurs.
However, my favourite fossil in this gallery is not something horny from the Cretaceous, but wrinkled hadrosaur (Edmontosaurus) that looks like it overstayed its welcome at a sun-bathing contest. This 'beautiful' fossil was dug-up by the royal-family of palaeontology collectors, the Sternberg' this was a family of fossil hunters extraordinaire!
When you stand above this remarkable dinosaur, with its arms and legs wide open and its chest caved looks almost too incredible to be 65 million years old, but that is exactly what it is, incredible and 65 million years old! What is most amazing for me, Charles Sternberg and his two sons prepared the fossil, as you see it today, while still in the Badlands of Wyoming.
When dinosaurs are not fully grown, they really can fool us...this skeleton has been given several names in the past, but now most agree it is either a juvenile Lambeosaurus or Corythosaurus! This is possibly why our research group has concentrated on understanding more about the preservation, biomechanics and anatomy of these enigmatic beasties. I shall add some more on my visit to the AMNH ornithischian gallery soon!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Long overdue AMNH visit!

Oh how time disappears quicker than a rat down a drain-pipe...It seems only last week that I was promising images of the American Museum of Natural History )New York), but failed miserably at getting back to my blog...until now!

Just entering the museum provides you with a stunning dino-tastic diorama...and that's before you even have to part with any money! If you get a chance...just stand underneath this vast animal and look straight up. Some dinosaurs were not just big, they were huge...
The dinosaur galleries are something to behold and have long been a favorite of mine. This is where I shall pictorially take you now.
The dinosaurs are divided into two main halls, one saurischian and the other ornithischian...lets start with our friends the lizard hipped beasties.
Here Apatosaurus ambles along in some Paluxy River (Texas) sauropod tracks....quite apt! Opposite is a theropod...
...possibly my favorite large predator from the Jurassic...which always leaves room for the skull and skeletal mount of possibly the most famous, or should I say infamous, predatory dinosaur in the world.....
...yup, Tyrannosaurus rex. This is the skull that we all want to see....well, almost! I have to admit there are other stunning predatory dinosaur fossils in this exhibition, some who lack in size, make-up on tooth count to cause major trauma...such as my favorite small theropod, Deinonychus.
However, before I depart on a Cretaceous note, why not end on a rather important predator from the Triassic of Ghost Ranch (New Mexico). A great location name, filled with beautiful fossils of one of the earliest predatory dinosaurs, Coelophysis...
Last and certainly not least...we must not forget the strange theropods from Mongolia, no...not Velocirapter, as they are not that strange at all, but jumping beak-first into the theropod (I forgot my teeth) strangeness awards, is Oviraptor...
...perched, or should I say 'nesting' on a clutch of eggs. This mis-named dinosaur, mistaken for an egg-thief, should have been named 'Ovimaiasaura'...the 'egg-good-mother' dinosaur!

It would be unfair to show you all the saurischian dinosaurs at the AMNH, as you HAVE to visit there if you ever find yourself in New York City. Now...that is enough tooth (toothless) and claw for one day. Tomorrow (I hope) I will take you to the land of bird-hipped dinosaurs, the ornithischians at the AMNH.