Image borrowed from here.

This isn’t the most perceptive prognostication of all time, and others probably have or will come up with it independently, but I still wanted to get it out there. The upcoming TV show Terra Nova, about a family sent back to the Cretaceous as pioneers from an ecologically wrecked future Earth, will have dinosauroids. I haven’t heard any leaks to that effect, it just seems inevitable. My reasoning is as follows:

It’s awfully hard not to read Terra Nova as Avatar, with time substituted for space to yield the exotic backdrop. Especially with Stephen Lang returning as Colonel Quaritch or whatever they’re calling him this time (“Out there beyond that fence every living thing that goes from the ground up, the trees down, or WAIRs wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes”). Which is what made me realize that they’re going to have dinosauroids. Pandora without the Navi is just a prettier version of the Amazon.

There are only so many human vs. dumb dinosaur plots one can do, and human vs. human plots make the show a normal drama set in a jungle. I am certain that there will be a Treachery plotline, probably of the form Whoever Controls Mankind’s Bolt-Hole in the Past Controls Mankind. And there will be Difficulties Back Home, and Things That We Didn’t Know About This World That Can Kill Us, apart from the Random Dino Danger. But let’s face it, swap out “dinosaurs” for “lions” or “blizzards” and those plotlines would work just as well if the last humans are escaping to the Serengeti or Antarctica. Going into the past brings up the possibility of Them–the intelligent non-human adversary–and the writers will not be able to resist Their siren song.

And it might not be a siren song. It might be a thundering anthem of pure awesome–think BSG with dinos. I don’t think it’s impossible to do a dinosauroid storyline that is smart, or that the show will necessarily be bad because it involves dinosauroids. I’m just pointing out that the eventual arrival of the dinosauroids is as certain as the presence of the Outwardly Tough But Inwardly Vulnerable Hottie and the Lovable Doofus. If the show was set on a moon base, the humans would end up fighting intelligent machines and/or aliens. We’re dealing with inexorable laws of mass entertainment here.

There is a small chance that They will be aliens (probably time-traveling aliens, if so, but Enterprise already did that), but my money is on dinosauroids. They might not look like scaly humanoids–They might just be normal-looking raptors with australopithecine or better intelligence–but I’ll bet you a big pile of SV-POW!bucks that They will be there, and before the curtain drops on Season 1 (addendum: if They haven’t appeared sooner, someone will find a dinosauroid arrowhead at the very end of the season finale).

Any takers?

———————-

If you’d like to read more about dinosauroids, Darren Naish has left a vast trail of dinosauroid-related posts through the blogosphere. In addition to the post linked above, check out this, this, and and this, for starters. Also note that sauropods have not been ignored in the quest for speculative intelligent dinosaurs, as previously covered here.

[This is a guest post by frequent commenter Heinrich Mallison.  Heinrich is maybe best known to SV-POW! readers for his work on digital modelling of sauropodomorphs, though that may change now that his paper on sauropod rearing mechanics is out.  Read on ...]

Maybe this post should have been titled “How sauropods breathed, ate, and farted”. Or maybe not. But breathing, eating and fermenting the food will play an important role.

Last week held a special pleasure for me. I spent it in New York, digitizing sauropods bones in the American Museum of Natural History’s Big Bone Room. Treasure trove that this room is, the museum still held something even better: the opening of a new special exhibit titled The World’s Largest Dinosaurs. While all such exhibits are of general interest to me, this one is special. Mark Norell, famous palaeontologist and curator at the AMNH, had a co-curator for this exhibit, Martin Sander of Bonn University, who is the head and speaker of the German Research Foundation Research Unit FOR 533 “Sauropod Biology”. As a member of FOR 533, and having received funding for both my PhD work and my first post-doc project, I am obviously somewhat biased, so please take this into account when you read this report.

The exhibition does not show a large amount of sauropods material. Not that it wouldn’t make for a nice exhibit, as the AMNH’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs doesn’t really have that many sauropods (one Apatosaurus mount, to be exact, with a mashed up Barosaurus vertebral column half-hidden away and a wonderful but obviously depressed “prosauropod”, my old friend Plateosaurus, thrown in to make up a bit for the many, many stinkin’ theropod specimens). But instead of showcasing some of the usually hidden-away bones of the AMNH collection (and believe me, there is some wonderful stuff there), it rather focuses on those parts of the animal that are usually missing: the soft tissues. “How did sauropods get so big?”, or, reversing the question: “Why did and does no other group of terrestrial vertebrates reach such gigantic body sizes?” These were the questions our research group has been busily investigating for the last six years, and the answers to these question are what the exhibit now tries to communicate to the public. And it does so quite successfully!

The centerpiece of the AMNH exhibit: the belly of Mama Mamenchisaurus.

The centrepiece is a full-sized, fleshed out model of a sauropod (Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis), but on one side the skin and superficial musculature has been cut away. The visitor can see the neck vertebrae, the trachea, the carotid artery, and the ribcage. And the ribcage is also a projection area, on which a video is played that shows the internal organs and how they work.

With a voice-over that explains the actions in simple terms, the principle of the avian-style unidirectional lung and the air sacs is explained (albeit with a small error, as lung physiologist and FOR 533 member Steve Perry was quick to point out – the AMNH has promised to fix things), as well as the basic principles of sauropod reproduction (high number of offspring). Many things are not said or shown here, which is a good thing as it allows for the normal short attention span of the average museum visitor for one piece of exhibit. Instead, interesting stuff like how much fodder a sauropod needed per day (or even per hour), a comparison of a sauropod’s and an elephant’s heart, and of a giraffe’s and a sauropod’s neck vertebra (wow, how light the sauropod one is!) are explored at small science stations spread around the room. I won’t go into a detailed description here, you can find that elsewhere on the web. The AMNH did a blogger’s preview a while ago, and invited the press for a press conference and walk-through of the exhibit with the chance to interview the scientists present on Wednesday, so much info has already been plastered all over the web. Instead, I’ll just show you some pics and talk a bit about the concept of the exhibition, and how various issues were handled that can make or break a show.

One thing is how to catch the attention of visitors and direct it to the content of the exhibit. You don’t want people just going “aw, sh*t! That is one HUGE bone/animal!” and wandering off into the next room. If you want to educate them (and that, may I remind you, is the central purpose of a museum exhibit), you need to get them interested in stuff. Get them to read texts, look at stuff (not just let their eyes wander across it for a few seconds), try to get their brains going. The sauropod exhibit manages this by, first of all, being behind a closed door you can’t see through. Usually, the AMNH halls are accessible either through an open doorway, or in a few cases through glass doors. Secondly, the exhibit, especially the rather confined area you enter first, is dark. Very dark. Again a marked contrast to the AMNH’s usually well-lit halls. Just a few plants greet the visitor, and it takes a second to adjust to the dark – enough time to look around a bit and notice the neck and head of Argentinosaurus (fleshed out model) above.

My esteemed colleague Vivian Allen from Royal Veterinary College London going "Aw, sh*t! That is one HUGE sauropod!"

Next, the visitor is channeled along, with only a very few specimens to catch his attention. Well done, because these few pieces (sauropod leg, Komodo dragon skeleton, human skeleton, etc.) focus on getting the main message across (sauropods = way larger than everything else), aided by the largest animals (or their silhouettes) or various groups painted on the wall. Only once the message has been driven home, as I could detect from the comments I overheard, are the visitors released into the main area that contains the sauropod model and the various detail exhibits around it.

The next thing is giving people time to check things out. If you herd them too much, they will get driven along by the masses. That’s why the larger, opener area around the sauropod model and the smaller bits around it works so well: people can sit down to see the projected videos on the sauropod belly, or they can drift around from one specimen or science station to the next.

The stations are not just glass cabinets with some bones in them. Instead, at many of them you can DO things. One allows you to measure either an adult or baby sauropod femur or your own, and then calculate how heavy a sauropod of that size was. At another you can pump a sauropod’s and an elephant’s lung. One I liked very much simply had an unpainted sauropod model, and two sets each (adult and children height) of oculars. One showed a colorful “show-off” version, the other a “camouflage” one. “Which one is true? We don’t know!” is how I’d paraphrase the text that goes with it. One that innocently hides in the corner is among the most impressive: a 5 ½ ft cube (1.7 m, for the civilized) made from Plexiglas filled with sauropod food. A serving sufficient for one day! On it, also, the various plant groups available in the Mesozoic were rated for various factors, getting an easily understood rating in stars. That’s another big thing: make things easily understandable, visualize them!

Yummy! 100% Recommended Daily Value for your average sauropod.

With all these things well done, there remains only one more thing: make things fun for kids! And the AMNH did just that by adding a kids’ dinosaur dig. OK, it is one of those cheesy things where you use brushes and stuff to brush sand off fossils (cast), but it was done well enough that kids lined up like there was no tomorrow.

Overall, the exhibit gets two big thumbs up from me. If you make it to NY while it is on, or to any of its future stations, go see it! However, as FOR 533 member Steve Perry was quick to point out: if you’re in it only for the size, you’ll be disappointed! Aside from a few isolated bones, not much of the largest dinosaurs (Argentinosaurus and Amphicoelias) is to be seen in bone. It is the biological details that matter!  But don’t get me started about the tail musculature, especially the caudofemoralis, of the big model.

And then, there is the other thing about it that is closely tied to shameless self-promotion: the AMNH did not produce a catalogue or anything similar. Instead, the latest book from the “Life of the Past” series (Editor: James Farlow) of Indiana University Press was presented at the press conference. The lucky reporters all even got a free copy! The title is Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants, edited by N. Klein, K. Remes, C. T. Gee and P. M. Sander. And by now, I am sure, you have figured out who the authors are … It is intended to be a summary of the research findings of the first (and part of the second) funding period of FOR 533, and yours truly has two chapters in it. The first doesn’t really give much new information; most is already contained in my two papers here and here. The second, however, presents novel research that didn’t make it into the AMNH exhibit. But hey, why spoil the surprise – go and buy our book!) Overall, it is quite a technical book, so laypeople beware, but we did try to make the research as accessible as possible while retaining a high standard. For the even more technically minded there is the summary of our research group’s work (which cost the DFG ~€6.000.000) to be found in Sander et al. 2010. However, reading that paper is not half as much fun as the book, or the exhibit.

References

A few months ago, prosauropod supremo Adam Yates blogged about the Aardonyx cake that the BPI honours class baked in his honour.  In the comments, I mentioned that my wife Fiona once made me a BMNH R5937:D9 cake (i.e. a cake in the form of the more posterior of the pair of nicely preserved dorsal vertebrae of The Archbishop, in right lateral view). At the time, I couldn’t find the photo that I knew had been taken, and Adam asked me to post it when it turned up.

Voila!

And here, once more, is the real thing for comparison:

(Note that the topology of the lateral lamination is spot on, with a single infradiapophyseal lamina which forks into anterior and posterior branches only some way ventral to the diapophysis.  That’s what you look for in a cake.)

Update (21 April)

Silly me, of course what I should have shown is the cake and the vertebra side by side.  Here they are — together at last!

Coombs’s chimaera

April 7, 2011

“Sauropods are basically alien animals . . . What can be said of the habits of an animal with the nose of a Macrauchenia, the neck of a giraffe, the limbs of an elephant, the feet of a chalicothere, the lungs of a bird, and the tail of a lizard? With so many plausible but conflicting interpretations, it is unlikely there will be general agreement on sauropod habits as long as more than one paleontologist has an opinion on the matter.”

–Walter Coombs, 1975, “Sauropod habits and habitats”, page 29

I first encountered that passage at age 9, in The Dinosaurs, by William Stout, William Service, and Bryon Preiss. Peter Dodson quoted it in his introduction to the book, and it really stuck in my head. So much so that I quoted it myself when the opportunity arose, and now present it here for your consideration. More recent investigations have pretty well done in the idea that sauropods had trunks (for more about that, go here [which will lead you to this, which I had completely forgotten that I wrote, but quite like now that I've rediscovered it]), but the rest of Coombs’s comparisons are still apt. I had no idea when I was 9 how long a shadow the “lungs of a bird” part would cast over my life! And certainly there are aspects of sauropod biology that are still contentious, and some may always be so.

But I really feel like a synthetic view of sauropod paleobiology is emerging, and the best evidence of it to date is the massive paper by Sander et al. (2010) in Biological Reviews. That paper is one of the zillion things I’ve been intending to blog about, but have not gotten around to yet (and there’s a book by most or all of the same folks due shortly from Indiana University Press). When I read it right after it came out, I had the very strong feeling that it was a watershed moment for sauropod paleobiology, such that it will be fair to ask of any future study, “How is this an advance beyond Sander et al. (2010)?” I like papers like that–Coombs (1975) was one such–because they inspire me to start figuring out what’s going to come next.

References

A month ago, I posted an article containing all the examples known to me of that sadly neglected palaeo-art theme, Sauropods Stomping Theropods: Mark Hallet’s Jobaria squishing Afrovenator, Luis Rey’s Astrodon biting/carrying a raptor, Mark Witton’s Camarasaurus grinding juvenile theropods to dust, and of course Francisco Gascó’s and Emily Willoughby’s Brontomerus pieces, both of them showing Bronto giving Utahraptor a good kicking.

I closed that article with a question and a challenge: had I missed any existing pieces on this theme?  And would anyone go out and make a new one?

Well, there were a few interesting responses in the comments and by email, so I thought I’d report back.

First, I am delighted that David Maas was provoked by the earlier article to produce a speedpaint entitled Sauropod Stomp, whose progress he described on his own site (version 1, version 2, version 3), and which I reproduce here:

I love the boldness of this, and the “Hey!  Quit it!” expression on the theropod’s face.

Also partly provoked by the earlier post — it’s an old project, but only brought to completion in response to our challenge — is Brian Engh’s new Shunosaurus whacking the head of a theropod with its tail club.  (We’ve previously discussed Shunosaurus tail clubs here and here.)  Brian also chronicled the evolution of his image on his own blog (version 1 [scroll down], version 2, version 3), and here is the result:

There are a few more Shunosaurus pieces out there, of which my favourite is Mark Hallett’s Direct Hit:

This image was used in Czerkas & Czerkas’s book Dinosaurs: A Global View.  The original painting is for sale on Mark’s site (as other pieces, including the classic Long March).

Todd Marshall also has a Shunosaurus, but I don’t know anything about its history as the only non-tiny version of this image I’ve found is in Wikidino:

(I think Todd Marshall’s pencil drawings are absolutely sensational, as for example in this Spinosaurus, but for me the colour versions of his work seem to lose something in comparison.)

There’s also a Shunosaurus-whacking-Gasosaurus piece that’s cropped up in various places, but I won’t reproduce it here because I am keen to avoid violating his copyright.

And now for something completely different: Brad McFeeters’s unintentionally carnivorous Omeisaurus, about to find a Scansoriopteryx in its salad.  This was done for ArtEvolved’s sauropod challenge.

Har har.

As we now start to head towards the sillier end of the spectrum, there is this, which Jonathan Kane says is by Emily Willoughby (though I’ve not not been able to find it on her DeviantArt site):

And of course this never-to-be-forgotten classic by our own Darren Naish (previously featured here):

Finally, I urge you to watch this video, which has given me many hours of uncomplicated joy.

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