Tag: palaeontology

Names have power

My photographer friend Rob recently introduced me to The Inky Fool, a great blog about the English language. The most recent post, Dinosaurs and Tennyson, reminded me of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s famous poem which coined the phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, and which I had completely forgotten features dinosaurs – newly discovered at the time – as evidence that even species don’t last forever, and that one day, humanity itself may die. It’s beautiful, if melancholy.

The Fool also talks about a few dinosaur names, which is something I talked about during the most recent Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour season. See, when you discover a species, you can call it anything you want – so long as you make it sound Latin. It needn’t be real Latin, you can just stick -i or -us on the end, even if you’re using Greek or French or English words. (This is exactly the same rule used by J K Rowling for making Harry Potter spells.) I thought I’d share a few of my favourite dinosaur names, some of which I’ve talked about on the blog before:

  • Seredipaceratops arthurcclarkei – “Arthur C. Clarke, serendipitous horned face”. Serendipitous because the discoverers only realised it was a ceratopsian dinosaur after seeing a specimen in Canada that resembled their new dinosaur. Arthur C. Clarke because some scientists are massive nerds. Note that like many so-called ceratopsians, it quite possibly didn’t have any horns; the only common facial feature among them is the bone frill at the rear of the skull.
  • Sinosauropteryx prima – “first Chinese reptilian wing”. I like this more because it sounds like something you’d put up your nose to stave off hayfever, but also this is the first dinosaur to have it’s colouration in life identified – and it was a ginger. Yeah!
  • Raptorex kriegsteini – “Kriegstein, king of thieves”. King of thieves? Yes please! Though I’d prefer Autolycus from Hercules to Kevin Costner… I also appreciate the species name, Kriegstein: the father of the person who donated the fossil, and a Holocaust survivor, which is poetic: fossils being the only suriviors of the K-T extinction event, the dinosaur equivalent of the Holocaust.
  • Quetzalcoatlus northropi – “Jack Northrop, Quetzalcoatl”. Yes, it is a supreme act of imagination to name a prehistoric huge flying frightening beast after a mythical huge flying frightening beast, in this case Quetzalcoatl, feathered serpent of the Aztecs, patron of learning and knowledge. And eating innocent window cleaners and sunbathers, if terrible 80’s horror cinema is to be believed. John Knudsen “Jack” Northrop was the founder of the Northrop Corporation, an aircraft manufacturer, who wanted to make large aircraft based on Quetzalcoatlus‘ tailless design. We’ve yet to definitively work out if Quetzalcoatlus could fly or not, though, so maybe planes based on it aren’t the best idea; I get images of Howard Hughes in my mind…
  • Stegosaurus armatus – “armoured roof lizard”. The first discovered species of my favourite dinosaur, and though the meaning of the name is a bit naff, I do love the name itself. Stegosaurus, which a good friend of mine shortened to “steg” (she had to, I talked about them all the time). Instantly recognisable, just like their silhouette.

So those are some of my favourites; what are yours?

Science gives us monsters

I would have loved Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, but in many ways I’m glad I didn’t get into it until much later. When I was young, I got my monster fix not from beholders, gelatinous cubes or goblins, but from mythology – mostly Greek, but also Celtic – and science.

Two of my most treasured books were 50 Facts About Dinosaurs (and how I wish I still owned this – published in 1982, written for children, it is really, really out of date by now) and Monsters of the Deep. Both contained fantastic monsters which, while depicted only by painted illustrations every bit as lurid as those in the Monster Manual, are – or were – real.

All this is brought to mind once again by a news story about dinosaurs – or rather, marine reptiles. Student Raymond Hodgson and groundskeeper Ben Smith found an Icthyosaur fossil in the vegie patch at Richmond State School in western Queensland. The article doesn’t mention how complete a specimen it is, but the icthyosaur is an iconic superstar for anyone who’s familiar with the history of fossil hunting – and if you’re not, I recommend reading up about it. (I have two books on the subject: The Dinosaur Hunters and The Dragon Seekers. Honestly it’s been too long since I read either, and they were both good, but I think it was the latter that I preferred. The former focuses a lot of attention on the rivalry between Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen, though, and that’s quite an exciting back and forth.)

One more thing…

I’ve seen a bunch of different dinosaur pictures over the years, all of them highly speculative when it comes to colour; the colouration and look of dinosaurs has generally been in the hands of artists, not scientists, because you can’t figure those things out from bones or even skin and feather impressions. But not any more, or at least not for Sinosauropteryx.

Clever, clever  scientists at Bristol University, led by Mike Benton and working with Chinese palaeontologists, have used electron microscopes to find imprints of the melanosomes that carry pigment in hair and feather cells, and by doing so have deduced that Sinosauropteryx – a small theropod in the Compsognathis family, and the earliest dinosaur known to have feathers -  had a “russet” mohawk. (I’m reminded of our old friend Amargasaurus at Melbourne Museum, though its “mohawk” was made of bony spines, not feathers.) Just as importantly, the presence of melanosomes also puts to bed the debate over whether the structures are really feathers: they are.

I wonder now if modern punks will dye their hair in authentic shades from the Cretaceous, or if cosmetics manufacturers will see fit to release “theropod vermillion” rouge or lip gloss? The possibilities are without number…

Not about dinosaurs. Honest.

Because pterosaurs aren’t dinosaurs. What they have been, though, is a puzzle, at least in terms of how the later, classic pterodactyl form evolved from earlier long-tailed pterosaurs. There are so many differences between them – from the pterodactyl’s characteristic skull (and the number of openings in it) and much shorter tail, to differences in ribs and a second flight membrane between the legs – that it’s hard to tell what path that evolution took.

But once again, it’s Chinese fossils to the rescue, as a new species – another transitional form, Creationists! – has been discovered. As published this week by the Royal Society, Darwinopterus modularis (“Darwin-wing”…er…”modular”) is the kind of transition that makes things obvious – it has all the skull and neck characteristics of a pterodactyloid, but the rest of its body is old-school, long-tailed pterosaur. It’s as though a mid-Jurassic pterosaur had a new haircut and the new ‘do was such a big hit that it eventually changed it’s whole wardrobe to match…

The exciting thing is that this doesn’t just help explain how one form changed into another, but is also evidence of modular evolution. Normally we think of evolution in terms of an individual trait changing over generations – a tail getting longer, teeth getting sharper, colouration getting brighter. In modular evolution, though, sets of complementary features evolve together at the same time – in this case, D. modularis doesn’t just have a head closer to that of a pterodactyl; it’s evolved all the numerous head and neck features of pterodactyls, while the rest of its body retains the characteristics of an earlier pterosaur. It hasn’t just had a haircut, it’s gone in for some piercings and facial tatts as well, but it’s still wearing the stodgy old business suit.

This story is also interesting in the way that some news outlets have done better with it than others. The Independent did quite well, but fell into a common misconception: “Carbon dating has shown that the fossils fall in the middle of the age range from 220 million to 65 million years ago”. The erroneous word here is “Carbon”; Carbon dating is useless for anything more than around 60,000 years old, and palaeontologists – certainly those working with dinosaurs – use other methods to determine the age of their finds. To the author and paper’s credit, this little error and several others have now been cleaned up; to even greater credit, they added a comment in the story to let readers know! (Probably because bloggers with quicker trigger fingers than mine had already been pointing to it…)

On the other hand, The Australian were much worse; they ran with a headline about “Flying Dinosaurs” – pterosaurs are flying reptiles, not dinosaurs – but then go one better by reporting that the fossil was “baptised” with its scientific name. Baptised? Really? I mean, christened, sure; that has currency as a synonym for “named”. But “baptised”? I expected the article to conclude with a social item inviting the reader to Darwinopterus‘ confirmation… The article lists Agence France-Presse as the source, but somehow I’m not sure this translation is entirely their fault…

I never get tired of dinosaurs

…and just to prove it, here are a couple of cool dinosaur finds reported in the last week or so.

Tiny Tyrannosaurus – not actually a Tyrannosaurus, of course, since they’re pretty big, but the smallest Tyrannosauroid found so far. At around the height of a human and up to three metres long from head to tail, it’s not really all that tiny, but Raptorex kriegsteini is, as the name suggests, an excellent suggestion of how Tyrannosaurids – with their defining features of tiny arms and massive head – evolved from smaller theropods. As pointed out in the linked article, it’s unlikely to be a direct ancestor of T. rex, but still, it shows us what their ancestor probably looked like, and how they diverged from smaller predators before getting bigger. No transitional fossils my arse, Creationists.

Oh, and Raptorex isn’t just a portmanteau – it means “King of Thieves”. Yes: this is the Autolycus, and thus the Bruce Campbell, of dinosaurs. Kriegstein is the name of the person who donated the fossil, though it’s actually in honour of his father, a Holocaust survivor.

As a side note, check out Raptorex paper author Paul Sereno’s web site. It’s pretty awesome; among other things, he rents out and sells replicas of his fossil finds, and on his postings page you can be disabused of the notion that the scientific community is one big, happy family. This is why is pays to delve into the links given on any science story!)

Earliest feathered dinosaurRaptorex might have had feathers, but Anchiornis huxleyi is particularly significant because it pre-dates even Archeopteryx, usually acknowledged as the earliest bird. The genus name means “near bird”, but the type species honours Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley. It even had two different kinds of feathers. Dinosaurs are awesome.