Saturday, 15 September 2012

Waddling with Weighty Dinosaurs

The past few weeks have been a little busy. After spending much of August surveying, mapping and digging at our excavation site in South Dakota, the really hard work begins now! The busy weeks that followed have entailed shipping a few tonnes of dinosaur from South Dakota to New York, some lectures in Utah and a visit to New York....to deliver the more delicate finds from our Hell Creek excavation sites.

A weathered chevron bone (that hang between and beneath tail vertebrae) from a predatory dinosaur.

Preparing dinosaur bones for shipping is akin to squeezing a large elephant into a phone box along with vast quantities of bubble-wrap, foam and plenty of optimism...as the crate that looked so cavernous 5 minutes ago shrinks before your very eyes. This is possibly the only time when your precious dinosaur bones appear too large, as normally the 'fishermen's tale' principle makes your bones shrink prior to exhibition, public lecture or any time when you need to impress a potential funder...palaeontologists so love to hear, 'Oh, I thought dinosaurs were bigger?' or 'Is this a small one'...when you hand over a vertebra from a 40 foot predator.  I now simply shrug my shoulders and say, 'I'm sure they were bigger when I packed them?' or 'Its OK, the bones are just shy...deep-down they are huge'.

Tail (caudal) vertebra of Tyrannosaurus rex...now just think about your own relatively tiny vertebra!

A single bone can often cloak the size of a vast dinosaur. One tail vertebra from the distal-most part of a sauropod tale might well compare in size to a regular can of Red Bull, but this is but a small echo of a vast skeleton that was once attached to ten's of thousands of pounds of dynamic flesh. It is the same way you might look at the skeleton of an elephant or walrus in a museum and ponder on how big the animal might have looked in life. It is only when you are stood right next to a living elephant that you truly comprehend their sheer bulk and size. This often makes me think on how much meat once hung on the vast bones of a single sauropod dinosaur and how long it might have taken to dine your way through such an enormous feast. While bigger predators would have no doubt taken their fill of fallen prey, as is often evidenced from their shed teeth and the gnawed prey bones, it would have been the smallest facets of the community (bugs to bacteria) that ate more than their fair share. The 'recycling' of a fetted mountain of flesh and bone....as yes, even the bones would be reprocessed by members of the community...most dinosaurs and other extinct life stood little chance of making it into the fossil hall of fame...we call the fossil record.

African elephants...be careful!

However, it was clear that an occasional 'leak' existed in the recycling of dinosaurian and other beastly body parts. One that allowed some of our lost world residents to slip through the taphonomic net...taphonomy being the study of burial laws...to be trapped in the sands of time. Again, we should not snort in disbelief at such chance, given the carbon-based economy that drives our planet is a pure function of organic molecules surviving the ravages of time (albeit altered to various stages of hydrocarbon breakdown products). I personally am very grateful for these 'leaks', as it provides me with both fossil fuel and a career!

Its a wonderful thought that our precious prehistoric cargo is slowly waddling its way toward the hallowed halls of the America Museum of Natural History in New York City. Splendid!

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