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New Apex Predator Theropod Dino Species Discovered November 29, 2013

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siats-meekerorum-dinosaurPaleontologists announced a major discovery in Paris recently, that of a new species of apex Theropod predator found in North America.   At over 30 feet long and weighing 4 tons, It was one of the greatest land predators on Earth when it lived 100 million years ago.  Scientists found the fossilized remains sticking out from a slope in the Cedar Mountain Formation of Utah in 2008.  It would take two years to slowly remove them from the rocks and cleaned, and two more to analyze the bones to see if in fact this were a new species not yet in the scientific/fossil record, etc.  Scientists named it Siats meekerorum; the genus honors the mythical, cannibalistic monster from Ute tribal lore (the genus name is pronounced “SEE-atch”).

The fact that a new 30-foot Theropod has been discovered is amazing news enough.  But what is even more amazing is that this is the first predatory dino species this size to be discovered in North America in more than six decades.

“It’s been 63 years since a predator of this size has been named from North America,” said Lindsay Zanno, of North Carolina’s State University and Museum of Natural Sciences, in a press release.

“This dinosaur was a colossal predator, second only to the great T. rex and perhaps Acrocanthosaurus in the North American fossil record,” Zanno continued.

Even more significant is that the discovery of a predatory species this size fills in a 30 million-year gap between the extinction of Allosaurs and the maturation of the evolution of the Tyrannosaurs in North America.  True, Carcharodontosaurus was a major predator at this time, too, but the current fossil record indicates it was only around from 100-93 million years ago — much more narrow span of time.  Moreover, its fossils have been found in what used to be the supercontinent Gondwana (specifically, present-day Africa and South America).  The aforementioned Acrocathosaurus was in the same taxonomical family as C. saharicus, and it was found in North America, but its known span of existence, according to current fossil records, was about 116-110 million years ago.

The discovery of this species has shed new light as to which species sat atop of the proverbial pyramid in this given ecosystem in North America some 98 million years ago.  The Tyrannosaurids that did exist at this time were much smaller.  The extinction of Acrocanthosaurus first, and later Siats meekororum dying out, eventually opened up the opportunity for Tyrannosaurids to grow larger into the T-rex that we all know and love today.

Hook ’em Horn…Faces, that is! July 20, 2013

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nasutoceratops-stipples-by-sammantha-zimmerman

A top view (“plan view” in engineering) and a side view (“elevation view” in engineering) of the top portion of the skull of Nasutoceratops, a new discovered dinosaur species in Utah. Note the curved, longhorn-like horns, and the usually large nose. (Illustration by Samantha Zimmerman)

Another new species of dinosaur has been discovered, this time a Ceratopsid (a term that means “horn face” in Greek).  What is particularly striking about this newly discovered species is twofold.  One, it was an usually large nose in a suborder/family (Ceratopsia / Ceratopsidae) whose species have large beaks that define their facial features.  Two, the horns.  The shape and direction bear a strong resemblance to those of, well, a Texas Longhorn (the type of cattle, not a football player!).

The name of this newly-discovered species is Nasutoceratops titusi, which in Greek/Latin roughly translates into “Titus’ Big-nosed Horn Face”.  The ‘titusi’ species designation seems to be an attempt at the genitive case of the name “Titus”, but ‘titusi’ sounds much better than the grammatically-accurate ‘titi’.  Indeed, the species name was fashioned in honor of Alan Titus, a paleontologist at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah*, which encompasses the area where the fossils were found.

Latin grammar aside, the name is quite fitting.  Usually, the first thing that draws the attention of the eye to most Ceratopsid species are the horns, but in this case, it’s a draw.  The horns are slightly smaller when compared to, say, Triceratops or Pentaceratops, but the nose is quite prominent, almost identical to that of a Macaw parrot in shape, though obviously much larger than the comparative bird.

The obvious use for horns was self-defense, but also, in the case of this species (if not for others, too) was to lock them with those of other males for dominance in a herd.  For years, it was postulated the the distinct frills behind the face and horns were a means of neck protection, but in recent years, that long-held idea has been subject to dispute.  As one can see in the “plan view” of the skull, there are two large ‘fenestrae’ (openings in a skull behind the eyeball socket) in the bone frill, which begs the question:  if the bone frill were a means of protecting the neck from predators, why have large holes in it?  Given that these ‘holes’ are thought to be fenestrae (‘windows’ in Latin), perhaps it might be for muscle attachments for strong jaws instead.  At least, that is an alternate idea.

The point of exploring these ideas is very germane towards the discovery of this species.  For example, the relatively smaller horns might suggest that there two distinct sets of Ceratopsids, as an interviewed paleontologist suggested in a National Geographic article.

Moreover, Nasutoceratops’ discovery was announced in a study co-authored by Scott Sampson, a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  He put the significance of this find very succinctly:  “[T]his find raises some great questions and mysteries. We’re just beginning to understand the world of dinosaurs.”  Such is a very telling acknowledgement, given that we have been studying dinosaurs for about 190 years.

*Utah is a long-time hotbed for both Jurassic dinosaur fossils as well as Cretaceous ones, including the species that is the subject of this article.  Along with its neighboring states (Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and states over such as Montana and the Dakotas), the whole badland interior of the western States has yielded new dinosaur discoveries since the 1870s, and continues to yield a wealth of new finds to this day.

The Dinosaur Football Roster April 3, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Science, Sports.
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Ornithomimus/Dromiceiomimus (depending on your nomenclatural school of thought) would make an ideal wide receiver within the world of dinos, according to a paleontologist. Photo and drawing by author.

Holy cow is this awesome!  Spencer Hall of Every Day Should Be Saturday interviewed a vertebrate paleontologist who gave him the break-down on what dinosaur species would be the best football players at different positions.  In yet another cool instance of where science meets sports, it doesn’t get much better than this!

The only flaw I could discern in the blog article is with one of the photo montages.  The scientist explicitly said that T-rex would make the best middle linebacker (and I concur!), but they superimposed a Raptor head from Jurassic Park on Ray Lewis instead of that of a Tyrannosaurus head like they should have.  True, both were carnivorous Theropods, but T-rex was much larger, robust species, whereas the Raptors, like the other Dromaeosaurids, were smaller and more nimble, thought arguably pound-for-pound, even more ferocious than the King Tyrant Lizard (whose head they stuck on Brett Favre instead!).  Spoiler alert:  in the article, Dromaeosaurids are, not surprisingly, given a place on the roster, too!

Buicks and Dinosaurs March 28, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture, Science.
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As a life-long Paleontology enthusiast, I feel compelled to give General Motors lots of credit for this creative commercial.  Remember that comic book and cartoon series “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs”?  Well, feast your eyes on the next-best thing:  Buicks and dinosaurs!

What caught my eye the first time I saw this commercial was not just the dinosaurs, but their species and size.  Yeah, they were big – really big, but just how big?  It obviously varies from genus/species to genus/species, but what interested yours truly was their depicted size in the commercial.  We science/engineering geeks are sticklers for accuracy, after all!

Start with the beginning.  The Stegosaurs parked next to the fire hydrant are accurate.  Stegosaurus armatus, for example, reached about 30 feet in maximum length, meaning that its likeness regarding shape and size in the commercial is well portrayed (S. stenops was not quite as long at 23 feet in max. length).  So far, so good!

At seconds 6 through 13, we feast our eyes on a massive Sauropod, massive even by the standards of the already-large species found within the infraorder.  My first guess was this was an outsized specimen of Apatosaurus (known by many as “Brontosaurus,”) which was indeed large at an average length of 75 feet.  But as big as it was, it is doubtful that its feet were almost as wide as the car itself, even if the Buick Encore is relatively small.  The photo below of a Apatosaur skeleton right next to a Diplodocus skeleton might give the reader a better reference of its average size, as one can see a couple of people standing behind it.

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Apatosaurus in the near background, and Diplodocus in the foreground at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh; photo by author, Dec., 2010.

My guess regarding the large Sauropod depicted in the commercial in question is either an outsized specimen of Apatosaur (it was the overall shape of one, if not oversized), or, more plausibly, an Argentinosaurus, one of the largest dino species currently known to man.  This compilation of photos I snapped at the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta back in early 2009 should back up the validity of this educated guess.  The man ascending the staircase gives the reader an idea of its huge size.

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Argentinosaurus reconstructed as being pursued by a Giganotosaurus, a Carnosaur/Theropod even longer than T-rex! Photo by author, Fernbank Museum, Atlanta, Mar. 1, 2009.

Next up at seconds 14 through 16, the couple in the Encore are passing up a couple of Ceratopsians.  The initial impulse is to say “Triceratops,” which is entirely understood, given that he was the biggest and most famous of that suborder.  But the frills of these two fellows are way too squared for that to be Triceratops, so my educated guess is that these are slightly outsized Chasmosaurs, who also had three horns like their slightly larger cousin (most Ceratopsians just had one, on the nose), even though theirs were not as long as the larger species.

Meanwhile (“…back in the jungle!”), as the camera gives us the vantage point of seeing through the windshield from the backseat, we see more Stegosaurs and Sauropods moving along the boulevard during seconds 17 through 19, and then the car has to maneuver around another large Sauropod (possibly a slightly-outsized Apatosaur, if not another Argentinosaur), before eventually pulling into a hotel entrance next to another Stegosaur to cap off the commercial.  Here the Stegosaurs is depicted a bit larger than its maximum size, unless the roof in front of the hotel desk had a very low clearance of 13 feet or less, as that was S. armatus’ maximum height, plates included.  The Stego tail and spikes in the background during seconds 27 through 29, however, are sadly way oversized.  The spikes in question would reach about three feet at the most.

Something else that gave cause for notice is that all the dino species depicted in this GM commercial are plant eaters.  So what, right?  The significance of this selection of species was that these are thought by many – though by no means all – scientists to be cold-blooded, or at least homoethermic, whereby they were big enough to maintain their own temperatures.  But put these two things together, and these species would be, on average, on the slower scale of dino agility, particularly when compared to their potentially hot-blooded Theropod predators.*  What it boils down to is a  “big-and-slow” versus “small-and-nimble” comparison that GM implicitly makes in this advertisement.

One must analyze these sizes with the perspective that these are all computer-generated, and as such, when superimposed into a real-world setting, it’s difficult to get the relative size proportions correct, especially when these objects are in constant motions and audience viewing angles are constantly shifting.  Still, while most shown sizes are a tad exaggerated, some were dead-on, and overall, the effort is quite laudable, as the commercial certainly piqued my interest, and hopefully those of millions of other viewers!

*The cold-blooded/warm-blooded dinosaur debate has been brought up before in a previous article and shall surely be revisited again.

Dinosaur tracks found in Australia August 24, 2011

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Australia is traditionally a relatively latecomer when it comes to dinosaur discoveries.  The first dinosaurs discovered were Iguanodon and Megalosaurus in England in the early 1820s.  We found herds of Hadrosaurs outside of Philadelphia in the 1840s (the significant finds out west started in the 1870s).  Compared to all that, the first dino finds Downunder not coming until the 1900s and 1930s seem quite recent.  It does not help things that Australia, even during the Age of Reptiles, did not have all of its land accessible to dinosaurs, as much of the present-day continent was covered by a shallow sea.  But it also was connected to both Antarctica and South America during this era, and as such, the part of Australia not covered by said shallow sea (try saying that three times fast!) was a crossroads of sorts for a number of species.

Despite the decent diversity of dinosaurs found in Australia, the actual number of species found Downunder are relatively few, for a number of geological reasons, one of which has already been mentioned.  But any dino discovery in Australia is significant because of its crossroads status, but also because it can give us clues to dinosaur migratory patterns as well as potential behavioral patterns during a unique time of when A) Australia was located further south than it is today, and B) despite the southern part of the continent’s almost polar latitudinal position during this time, a huge saving grace was that a major warming period occured at that same period, about 105 million years ago.

Hence the significance of the discovery of dino tracks along the coastline of Victoria dating to that time.  A research team led by Emory University Paleontologist Anthony Martin discovered what appear to be Therapod tracks from Australia’s polar period.  Keep in mind that dinosaurs were not discovered in Antarctica until the late 1980s — pre-dating the ground-breaking documentary on dinos hosted by Christopher Reeve in 1985.  But given that geologists surmised that the continents were at one time joined together, there were thoughts that finding dino fossils at the bottom of the world would be a matter of time.

Martin also found the first dinosaur trace fossils of a burrow in Australia back in 2006, so his track record for these finds is well-established.  This current find was in a location called Dinosaur Dreaming.  With a name like that, it sounds like Paleontologists ought to do more digging in that point on the map!