The end of the field season is usually bittersweet. On the one hand, we’ve been gone from our homes for 6 weeks in harsh conditions with not much rest and even fewer showers. We are down to only 4 crew members, all with bent backs and sore knees. Camp food has started to get old and we are longing for our own beds. The sunsets are gorgeous, but it’s been too long since we’ve seen anything green.
On the other hand, we do this because we love the rock, the bone it produces, and the questions those bones raise and may eventually answer. There is still so much to be learned about the mid-Cretaceous dinosaur fauna of North America and its potential interchange with dinosaurs from Asia, as well as the evolution of the feathered dinosaurs, such as our favorite therizinosaur, Falcarius. More data is needed and that’s why we’re out here. It’s hard work, but well worth it.
When we left the Mussentuchit locality 3 weeks ago, we had a wide variety of specimens, including various dinosaurs, turtles, and crocodiles. And as we leave the Crystal Geyser Quarry now, we take with us 170 numbered specimens (some just single bones, some as jackets with multiple bones), from a huge sauropod ischium to a teeny-tiny caudal vertebra (both pictured below). We’ve found bones not previously documented for Falcarius and there’s always the possibility that some of what we’ve found may belong to a previously unknown species. We’ve mapped the location of each and every bone in hopes that their position may tell us what happened to these animals and how their remains came to rest in this place. With all of this new data, we can depart contented.
And so we head home with our trucks “severely overloaded” with fossils. There will be plenty of work to do back at the museum, but our work in the mid-Cretaceous of Utah is over until next year. We are ready to go home.
The Crystal Geyser Quarry is known for being hot, dry, and dusty. However, this has not exactly been the case this field season. While there have been plenty of hot, dry, and dusty moments, we have also been experiencing an unexpected amount of rain. As I write, I am sitting in our kitchen tent listening to the rain hit the tarp above my head and the thunder rolling around us. Earlier this week, we were lucky to have two cool nights in a row thanks to the evening rains that doused our camp. And our kitchen tent tried to fly away once again in a larger storm last week.
Although the rain is sometimes an inconvenience, it brings much needed relief from the more typical desert conditions. And these storms are an important reminder to always be prepared with a tidy camp and a well organized quarry.
UPDATE: I could not get this post uploaded before going to the quarry this morning, but of course, after only a few hours of quarry work, we were chased out by a massive storm. The whole time we did spend digging was some of the windiest we’ve seen here at CGQ. The storms have continued to roll through all day.
It’s week 5 of our summer expedition and the crew is pretty worn down. We are down to the last holdovers: two NCSU graduate students, a single NCSU undergraduate, and Asst. Director, Paul Brinkman at the helm.
Despite the wear, there is something uplifting about digging at the Crystal Geyser Quarry. Here ones tireless work is constantly rewarded, with new surprises lurking under every chunk of rock removed. We’ve been finding great bone here, some of the best I have seen at the site in a decade. Our first complete fibula (lower leg bone), plenty of new femora (upper leg bones) for our study on Falcarius growth and other treats, such as claws and teeth.
I am also fairly certain I uncovered several bits of skull that were previously unknown for this animal, which is terribly exciting although, with much of it encased in a nodule, confirmation of my field ID awaits preparation back in the lab.
More of our new sauropod has turned up and we are excited to be able to show off these bones being prepared at the museum. There is something awe-inspiring about sauropod bones that isn’t hard to understand. The sheer size of each individual bone is breathtaking.
Learning to excavate fossilized bones when they are preserved in a jumbled mass is one of the paleontologists great field skills, and one of the things the students have come to learn. This photo gives you an idea of how tricky it can be to think out a step by step plan to removing bones like Pick Up Stixs from the quarry face.
Earlier this week we moved camps and goals, leaving behind our prospecting for new dig sites and new animals to excavate for 3 weeks at an established bone bed in eastern Utah. Here hundreds of a feathered dinosaur called Falcarius died. The bones litter four sides of a plateau, defining the scope of the death that occurred at the site about 125 million years ago. Typically we come here to dig up a growth sample of Falcarius, a small theropod, which is not logistically challenging. Recently, however, something much larger has been lurking just behind the theropod bones. Last year we excavated some pretty large vertebrae, which we speculated might belong to a sauropod or long neck dinosaur (those bones are still unprepared, so no way to really tell other than size). This year Paul has been busy uncovering a gigantic bone, which clearly belongs to a sauropod, so know we are sure we are going to have to plan for many years of digging up behemoth sized fossils. Good thing we brought all that plaster!
Last month the awesome folks at Untamed Science came to visit us at the Paleontology Lab. They wanted to know how we dig up dinosaur bones and we were happy to oblige. Have you ever wondered? Check out the video for a crash lesson in digging dinos.
Today, colleagues from the University of Bristol, National University of Mongolia, Ohio University and I took aim at the doctor/patient confidentiality pact by publishing some very personal information on a research subject of ours. Fortunately, I don’t think this particular patient is going to get their feathers ruffled about it. Turns out, paleontologists are smarter than we often get credit for. In fact, we’ve got this whole messy doctor/patient thing figured out… just work on patients that are already dead… in this case, for over 90 million years.
One fortuitous day, we got the chance to do just that. The only good skull of a rare and whacky group of theropod dinosaurs known as Therizinosauria made the trek from Mongolia to the UK on holiday. While there, UK paleontologists realized that the skull of the therizinosaur Erlikosaurus was REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, overdue for its check-up. So they took Erlikosaurus’s head to a CT scanning facility for its 90 million year annual physical.
Why Erlikosaurus? Well, for starters, therizinosaurs are downright weird animals, which makes them really interesting to weird people (erg.. uh.. cough.. I mean “scientists”). Although they are theropods and therefore cousins of bloodthirsty predators like Velociraptor, therizinosaurs were clearly not taking a bite out of anyone. Sometimes it is hard to envision an advanced therizinosaur like Erlikosaurus as doing anything at all, other than finding a nice soft spot in the Cretaceous landscape to pop a squat and eat all day long. A quick run down of the therizinosaur anatomy makes this blaringly evident. These guys had tiny heads, tightly packed minuscule teeth, long necks, stocky legs with fat feet, hand claws up to four feet long, and giant bloated bellies. They also reached enormous body sizes up to 13,000 lbs. When I was in grad school I used to get this point across by comparing therizinosaurs to a cross between a gorilla, an ostrich, and Edward Scissorhands. If you ask me, the analogy is still apropros.
The question is… did the loss of predatory behavior coincide with a loss of smarts and a loss of sensory capabilities in therizinosaurs? No one knew. By CT scanning the skull, we were able to reconstruct soft tissue of the brain and inner ear of Erlikosaurus and tackle this intriguing question. The result? Despite its rather slow appearance, Erlikosaurus was not a dumb as a box of rocks. Although, these kind of estimates are admittedly crude, it seems as if Erlikosaurus was just a bit shy on the intelligence scale when compared to early birds, but likely a bit ahead of the great hunter T. rex. Pair this with the fact that Erlikosaurus had above average hearing capabilities for an animal its size and a higher than predicted sense of smell, and suddenly therizinosaurs don’t seems as dimwitted as…. well, as they look.
Scans did reveal that one Erlikosaurus sense could’ve benefited from some improvement–its vision, which probably wasn’t the best. Whatever these guys were eating, they were likely munching in the pure light of day.
The implications are interesting. Despite leaning toward vegetarianism, therizinosaurs seem to have kept the keen sensory toolkit they inherited from their predatory ancestors. All of which means that the brainpower and good senses of therizinosaurs had more to do with their place on the family tree as close cousins to birds than their dietary preference. Its also good to know that, should you ever encounter Erlikosaurus as a result of, say a time machine fluke, it could hear your terrified whimpers but would be kind enough not to eat you. (Just don’t sneak up on it at night or you could lose an eye).
Couldn’t say the same about T. rex.
The paper “The Endocranial Anatomy of Therizinosauria and its Implications for Sensory and Cognitive Function” by S. Lautenschlager, E. Rayfield, P. Altangerel, L. Zanno, and L. Witmer, is freely available to the public via the journal PLoS ONE, http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0052289
This post-Thanksgiving week, as you try to erase the memory of Uncle Henry indulging in his third slice of pumpkin pie, you may be delighted at the prospect of a distraction. In that case, try this one on for size. If your holiday meal included the traditional turkey, than you’ve just fed your family on the roasted carcass of a small dinosaur. Yes, that’s what I said, a small dinosaur. Feel better? Yeah… I didn’t think so.
Turkeys, like all birds, are members of a fascinating group of dinosaurs called theropods. Paleontologists love theropods, in part, because they were the Harry Houdini of the Cretaceous Period, managing a great escape when all other dinosaurs bit the big one 65 million years ago. This small factoid means that rather than always having to marvel at extinct animals, paleontologists can also study a small group of living dinosaurs in the flesh (how cool is that?!). And while living birds are cool, theropod dinosaurs on the whole were even cooler back in their heyday. Think: if birds are Maxwell Smart, than Cretaceous theropods are James Bond. This is because Cretaceous theropods also included animals like T. rex and Velociraptor, meaning that birds could have hosted some wicked and weird relatives at their holiday meals. (Can you imagine if cousin Utahraptor dropped by for Christmas dinner?)
Thankfully, a lot of Cretaceous theropods were more into veggies than flesh, including some very odd-looking and unusually large critters whose evolutionary history is just beginning to unfold. And while the benefit to your waistline that comes from choosing more vegetables over meat this holiday is clear, the same cannot necessarily be said for these veggie-loving theropod dinosaurs.
Scientists have long considered larger body size to be advantageous to vegetarian animals. Larger guts can fit larger digestive tracts allowing animals to get more energy from food with a lot of fiber and few calories. For that reason, scientists tend to think that bigger is better when it comes to plant eating animals. Interestingly enough, as you get closest to birds on the theropod family tree, the biggest species are also the ones we think ate plants not prey. Could this mean that feathered theropods fit the same pattern? A colleague of mine and I were dying to find out.
We began by estimating body mass for 47 species of feathered theropods representing three major groups that abandoned a strictly meat-eating diet–ornithomimosaurs (“bird-mimics”), oviraptorosaurs (“egg-thieves”), and the bizarre therizinosaurs (“scythe-lizards”). Our results showed that all three groups had members of gigantic proportions (up to 100 times more massive than an average person). The largest oviraptorosaur weighed over 7,000 pounds, and the biggest ornithomimosaurs and therizinosaurs topped out at over 13,000 pounds! rivaling the size of the great T-rex.
Nonetheless, just because some feathered dinosaurs got big, doesn’t mean that large size was an evolutionary advantage. To test whether these feathered dinosaurs were being driven to large body size by natural selection, we fitted a variety of evolutionary models to the data, looking to see which model best described the pattern. Turns out that plant eating theropods experimented with larger and smaller body sizes as they evolved and there was no clear drive to get big, no simple, overwhelming advantage to reach gigantic proportions. However, we did find one interesting pattern… different species from the same time and place tended to be about the same relative size.
Although we were a bit disappointed not to find a trend toward large body size, in a way this latter discovery was much more interesting. It suggests that changing environments during the evolution of these animals played a bigger role in body size evolution. Different climates, range sizes, resource abundance all exerted a stronger influence on the evolution of size than the simple relationship between eating plants and being big.
Of course, there are two other possibilities… first, these theropods might have been eating a high proportion of caloric plant material like fruits, nuts, and seeds instead of low fiber foods to begin with or, (and this one is always the elephant in the room for paleontologists), bias in the fossil record is messing with our data.
As in all good science, this research raised more questions for us than it answered. Back to the drawing board.
You can read more about this research in the November 28th online edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Thanks to my colleague Peter Makovicky of the Field Museum for his contribution to this blog post.