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There are a number of things going on in the Arkansas legislature right now that deserve attention here. The first thing I want to mention is that Arkansas now has its own official state dinosaur.
On February 17, 2017, Governor Asa Hutchinson approved House Resolution 1003 to list Arkansaurus fridayi as the official state dinosaur. This bill was pushed by a high school kid named Cypress Oury and sponsored by Greg Leding, AR House representative for District 86. As those of you who have been here before may remember, Arkansaurus is the informal name of the only dinosaur ever found in Arkansas.
Unfortunately, we only have half of one foot, so identification has proved elusive. The best that can be said is that it is some kind of primitive coelurosaurian theropod. It is not as derived as tyrannosaurids and certainly not a maniraptoran theropod or any of the others near to the avian line. Thus, while the new drawing by Brian Engh above is better than previous versions, it is highly speculative. The arms are almost assuredly wrong and should be longer. We don’t know if it had feathers or not. It likely did, but those feathers would have been unlikely to be as long as those shown in the drawing. They would more likely have been shorter and fuzzier. This is not to say the feathers Brian Engh drew are wrong, they are certainly plausible, but a bit more advanced than is likely for a coelurosaurian that far down the family tree.
When picking a state dinosaur, Arkansaurus is certainly the most likely candidate, being the only one with an actual body fossil. But it was not the only candidate. Arkansas is known for having some spectacular dinosaur trackways. The tracks include two types. The very great majority are from a large sauropod, possibly Sauroposeidon (or depending on the taxonomy one follows, Pleurocoelus or Paluxysaurus, which may or may not be all the same or all different). Since Sauroposeidon is one of the largest known dinosaurs, this would have made a fine candidate, but the taxonomic uncertainties and the lack of actual body fossil material make it less viable. The other possibility if Acrocanthosaurus, an almost sail-backed theropod related to Allosaurus. Unfortunately, while we have footprints, we have no actual bones of this one either. We only presume it was the track maker because there have been fossils of it found in both Oklahoma and Texas and it is the only theropod of the right size known in the general area.
That is the good news. Sadly, there is also bad news. The Arkansas legislature is on a religious kick these days, proposing a number of unconstitutional bills. One such bill is HB 2050, “An act to amend the Arkansas code to allow public school teachers to teach creationism and intelligent design as theories alongside the teaching of the origins of the earth and the theory of evolution; and for other purposes.” They always add “and for other purposes,” no matter what the bill is, just to cover their butts. This bill is clearly unconstitutional, as already decided by McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education in 1982 and Ktzmiller vs. Dover Area School District in 2005. As Judge Overton said in 1982, “No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.” The theory of evolution is one of the best supported by mountains of evidence and exhaustive, thorough research of any scientific theory currently accepted by science, whereas creationism and intelligent design fail all efforts to make them remotely scientifically plausible. The idea they can stand side by side with the theory of evolution as valid scientific explanations in a science classroom is an insult to all thinking people.
Then there is SJR7, by Senator Jason Rapert (the same man who, among other things, was responsible for the Ten Commandments monument being built on the Capital grounds), calling for Congress to propose an amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Because the Supreme Court of the United States has already made same-sex marriage legal throughout the country, the Arkansas legislature wants Congress to overturn their ruling. This is based on their religious beliefs and ignores a number of facts, such as it not actually being supported by the Bible, it violates the First Amendment by pushing a specific religious view onto everyone, and most importantly for our purposes here, ignores biological reality (and why I am talking about it here). Humans are not just male and female. There are several ways that genetics and development can intertwine that cause a mixture of male and female, making separation into a binary sex impossible. This bill would make it illegal for them to marry at all. Moreover, the bill does not define “man” or “woman,” making it ambiguous whether people who are biologically one sex, yet identify as the other, are banned from marriage. Considering that what gender one identifies with and is attracted to has a strong biological underpinning and is not a “lifestyle choice,” there is little to make this bill viable through any explanation other than prejudice.
In relation to that bill is SB346, by Senators Greg Standridge and Gary Stubblefield is a bill to require people in public schools to use the bathrooms that match their biological sex. To begin with, these two senators do not know the difference between gender (sociological) and sex (biological). Secondly, they have no answer for intersex individuals who cannot be easily classified as male or female other than they are not allowed to go to the bathroom at all, which has been the unfortunate situation at some schools for transgender children. This bill was pulled, but another was filed by Senator Linda Collins’ Smith targeting government buildings. Apparently, the backlash from the state LGBT supporters, business owners, and the governor were not sufficient to dissuade the legislature they needed to act against an imaginary scourge.
And of course, this list would not be complete without trying to make the Bible the official state book, as attempted by Rep. Tosh in HR 1047. He, of course, touts the myth that “the Bible form the basis upon which our modern civilization is structured,” pretending that he is simply supporting the Bible for purely historical reasons. He goes on to say that the Bible is “considered by many to be a book of truth,.. is widely read,” and why not throw in that we have a bunch of other state symbols, why not a religious book too?
All of these bills at the very least face constitutional challenges and have already been ruled as unconstitutional in other court battles. All this will do is cost the state a fortune in legal bills and drive away tax dollars as businesses leave the state and tourists opt to go elsewhere. Moreover, it seriously harms science education as we continuously have to battle this form of ignorance.
For Day 3 (a little late, yes) of Prehistoric Shark Week, I want to bring to your attention the diversity of chondrichthyans that have opted for a flatter bauplan.
Sharks are generally split into two groups, the galeomorphs, which are mostly the more typical torpedo-shaped sharks, including the sharks that most people think of when they envision a shark. The other group is the squalimorphs. These sharks lack an anal fin and many of them have developed a penchant for flatter bodies and broad pectoral fins, and in some cases pelvic fins as well (although not all, such as the dogfish and frilled sharks). Up until recently, the batoids, otherwise known as skates and rays, were considered part of this group, the consensus being that they were a more specialized type of squalimorph shark that had taken flat to an extreme. But the most recent molecular studies have indicated that they are a group unto themselves. The batoids have a long fossil history, with a number of ray teeth found in the Cretaceous deposits of Arkansas, particularly the eagle ray family Myliobatidae. Their teeth are typically flat rectangles on top with a comb-like surface below. Another type of ray that can be found are the guitarfish, or Rhinobatos casieri. These pectoral fins of these fish extend to their head, giving them a triangular shaped front end of a more traditional shark-like back end.
Skates and rays are generally very docile and would not be very threatening, spending their time scrounging about on the sea floor for benthic (living in or on the sea floor) invertebrates and the occasional fish. The same can’t be said for the last member of this group, the sawfish. Armed with a rostrum (its elongated snout) with teeth out to the side, the fish looks like it has a chain saw for a nose. The sawfish will swim into a school of fish and thrash its rostrum rapidly back and forth, spearing and stunning several fish, which it can then gobble up. They can also use it to dig up clams and crabs from the sediment. While they won’t attack humans, any human who provoked one may easily wind up perforated by the rostrum, probably not deadly but certainly painful. Most modern sawfish reach a respectable two meters, but the largest species, the green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) can top seven meters (24 feet). This is as large as the Cretaceous versions. Modern sawfish are typically put into the family Pristiformes. The Cretaceous ones are in their own family, called Sclerorhynchiformes and are not directly related, in that the Cretaceous ones are not thought to be ancestral to the modern ones. They are both put into the group Pristirajea, so they are thought to at least be related. But with the uncertainties in the relationships of the modern fish, the relationships with fossil forms are necessarily less certain. In any case, Arkansas sports several different species from this group, including Schizorhiza stromeri, Sclerorhynchus sp., Ischyrhiza mira, Ischyrhiza avonicola, and Ptychotrygon vermiculata. We were postively awash in sawfish.
The true squalimorph sharks that have shown up in the Arkansas Cretaceous rocks are best represented by the Angel shark (Squatina hassei), which looks like an early rendition of a skate, so it is little wonder that most researchers viewed skates and rays as simply more specialized versions of these sharks. Nevertheless, it appears this is case of convergence, not homology (similarity due to relationship). If it is homologous, it isn’t directly so. It is possible both groups had a common slightly flattened ancestor and each took their own route from there.
All of these fish are pretty docile hunters, scrounging around the sea floor for benthic organisms, all those animals that make their home in or on the sea floor sediments. They spend their time digging around the sand for crabs, clams, and other invertebrates, the occasional fish. When threatened by the presence of a predator, they hide on the bottom, using their shape to help them blend in with the seafloor. Neither the ones today or the ones in the Cretaceous would have bothered a human swimming around them.
Becker, Martin A., Chamberlain, John A., Wolp, George E. 2006. Chondricthyans from the Arkadelphia Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Upper Maastrichtian) of Hot Spring County, Arkansas
For Day 2 of Prehistoric Shark Week on paleoaerie, we are going to take a look at my personal favorite shark. In the late Cretaceous, it was called Scapanorhynchus, the spade snout. But its closest living relative is called Mitsukurina owstoni, also known as the goblin shark. The perfect shark for Halloween.
Scapanorhynchus means spade snout, so named for the elongated, flat snout, the same feature which got the modern shark named goblin. Most of them are small, less than one meter, but can get in excess of four meters. Spade snouts were some of the earliest sharks in Neoselachii, the modern sharks. One of the things this means is that they did not just have straight cartilaginous skeletons, they calcified most parts of the skeleton to reinforce the cartilage. They didn’t make true bone, but the calcium spicules provided more strength for the cartilage.
Goblin shark teeth are long and thin, looking like a mouth full of curved needles. But what most people are fascinated by is the amazing length to which they can protrude their jaws. Modern sharks have what is known as hyostylic jaws, meaning that the jaws are not directly connected to the skull. Instead, they are attached at the back of the jaws on an intermediary bone that allows the jaw to swing forward. All sharks can do this to an extent, but the goblin shark is expecially known for it.
The modern goblin sharks are generally only found in deep water. Its Cretaceous cousins, on the other hand, were widespread in shallow marine areas. Like many fish in the Cretaceous, they seem to have survived the mass extinction even at the end of the Mesozoic by going deep.
We have reached the end of Paleo-Animal Fest celebrating the animals that populated the Cretaceous seas of Arkansas 65-120 million years ago. We have seen early crocodilians and gars. We have seen the largest of the predators in the ocean and some of the smallest of creatures populating the seas. Today we are going to wrap it up with an animal famous the world over: elasmosaurs.
Many people today will not know them by that name, but show them a picture of Nessie, the Loch-Ness Monster, and the image they conjure up is the classic elasmosaur, a long-necked marine (which is funny because Loch Ness is a freshwater lake) reptile with big flippers and a small head, essentially looking like a predatory aquatic sauropod. Of course, it probably didn’t hold its head way out of the water like shown in most imaginings, but the general appearance is close.People are frequently pulling things out of the ocean and claiming they are long-lost Mesozoic Monsters from the time of the dinosaurs. Of course, they always wind up being something else.
Sadly, elasmosaurs died out the same time the big dinosaurs died out.But they had a good run, first appearing in the Triassic, close to the beginning of the Mesozoic Era. Elasmosaurs were part of a group called sauropterygians, which first appeared over 200 million years ago.
Here are a couple of illustrations of elasmosaurs. One is by my son, which will be appearing in a booklet I am making about Arkansas during the Cretaceous, as well as a coloring book for kids I am putting together. Some of them really did have amazingly flexible, ridiculously long necks.
Here is one in the expected habitat and following expected behaviors.
Come back next week to celebrate Arkansas Cretaceous Shark Week.
Welcome back to the new school year. Some of you will be excited to be back, seeing old friends, making new ones, and learning new things. Some of you will be sad to see summer end. Many of you will be doing both at once. Others of you of course aren’t in school and don’t care about it, but if you are here, you are nevertheless interested in learning cool new stuff. So it is a time for a celebration of the natural world.
Shark Week is a big summer event on the Discover Channel. It is probably their biggest viewer draw all year. Who doesn’t like learning about sharks and seeing them in all their awe-inspiring glory? Additionally, if one is keeping up with the weather, southern Louisiana is currently being deluged, with Baton Rouge and surrounding areas practically getting washed away.
So I thought this would be a good time for Paleoaerie to hold its own version of Shark Week. I can’t do a series of tv specials, so I am going to extend my Paleo Shark week over two full weeks. All this week I will be putting up short posts on marine creatures that swam in the oceans of southern Arkansas during the Cretaceous. Every day will be a new post on something that would make your swim…interesting. Next week will truly be Paleo Shark Week. Every day next week will be highlighting a different shark that would be swimming in the Cretaceous waters of southern Arkansas.
To kick things off, I will start with this creature.
This is a crocodylomorph, meaning that it is in the same group that includes crocodiles and alligators. Specifically, it is a member of the family Goniopholididae. Species in this group were, at least superficially, similar to modern crocodilians. They were semi-aquatic hunters living in marsh and swamp lands. They wouldn’t look out of place with the modern alligators swimming around Arkansas today, except that they probably couldn’t compete effectively with alligators, who are better adapted for the lifestyle than they were. They lived throughout much of the Mesozoic, from the early Jurassic to the Late Cretaceous, when the more modern forms replaced them.
Goniopholids are what is known as mesosuchians, which means “middle crocodiles”. Mesosuchians, as the name suggests, were more derived than the earliest crocodyliforms, such as the protosuchians, although less derived than modern-day crocodilians. Mesosuchians is not a formal name, but an informal and decidedly paraphyletic (i.e. not a valid cladistic grouping because it leaves out some descendants) name to designate those crocodyliform species showing the early characteristics and those that show the characteristics of the modern crocodilians. Here is a phylogenetic tree put out by Chris Brochu in 2001, showing the general relationships within the crocodylomorphs. The names on the left side of the long main line include everything from that point on, e.g. Crocodymorpha includes “sphenosuchians” and everything below it, but not the Aetosauria and above. Mesosuchians plus Eusuchia (which does include all modern groups) can correctly be called Mesoeucrocodylia, but that hardly helps us specify the group.
Mesosuchians include a wide variety of animals with a large number of species. They include terrestrial animals like the carnivorous boar croc Kaprosuchus and the herbivorous Simosuchus, as well as the more typical semi-aquatic pholidosaurs, which include the super croc Sarcosuchus, one of the largest crocodylomorphs ever, reaching almost 40 feet.
Sarcosuchus may not have been quite as big as Deinosuchus though. Deinosuchus was an alligatoroid (within the larger alligator family, but not a modern alligator), which potentially reached upwards of 40 feet, but may have been heavier set. Sarcosuchus lived in the early Cretaceous at the same time as Goniopholis in Arkansas, but lived in Africa and South America. Deinosuchus, on the other hand, lived int he Late Cretaceous right here in Arkansas. While we have no bones to prove this, we do know they lived in Texas and Mississippi, as well as many other places in the United States. The environment would have been suitable for them, so there is no reason to think they did not live here as well.
I know it has been forever and a day since I last posted, but I have not disappeared and Paleoaerie is not going away. I have been busy and pondering a reorganization for the website. One of the things that has kept me busy is a series of talks that I have given and, most importantly, am about to give. Mid-America Science Museum has asked me to be the guest speaker for their dinosaur exhibit over the summer. I will be giving one set this Saturday, July 23 and again on Saturday, September 3.
It is my plan to put all these talks online. But one thing I have learned this summer is that I am truly horrible at making a video that requires me to actually talk in it. So I am trying to figure out a way to get over that problem and bring my talks to you. In the meantime, here is a short description of the talks.
New Discoveries in Paleontology: This talk will focus on, as the name suggests, new discoveries in paleontology. I will be discussing new dinosaurs that have been found this year, but the majority of the talk is discussing how paleontology has gone high tech and what we have found with these new techniques.
Tyrannosaurs vs. Spinosaurs: A question that gets asked of all palentologists since Jurassic Park III came out is who would win in a fight between T. rex and Spinosaurus. So this talk discusses the new science on tyrannosaurs and comparing them with what we know of spinosaurs.
Mesozoic Arkansas: This talk covers what Arkansas was like during the Mesozoic, including all the different fossils that have been found in the area.
Dinosaurs, Giant Sharks, and Evolution: Selected Good (and Bad) Educational References: This is a talk I gave in April at AAIMS, the Arkansas Association of Instructional Media Specialists. I cover good books, websites, and shows on these topics, as well as a few to avoid.
500 Million Years of Natural History: Arkansas’s Secret Treasures: Here I give a brief rundown on all the fossils of Arkansas, starting from the Cambrian all the way up to the Ice Ages in the Pleistocene.
If you have a particular talk you want to see, let me know and I will concentrate on getting that one as soon as I can. If you can make it to Hot Springs, AR this Saturday or in September, stop by the Mid-America Museum and hear these talks in person.
I haven’t done an animal cross game in a while, so when I ran across this animal, I thought it time to do another one. I was not familiar with this whiskery creature, but found it fascinating as soon as I saw it. I’m sure you will too, if you can figure out what it is. The animal is a living animal and as you can probably expect, a mammal. It is also on the endangered species list as a vulnerable species.
Put your guesses in the comments or join the conversation on Facebook and we’ll see if anyone can figure it out before I reveal the answer.
Today I am going to do something a bit different. The books I usually talk about here are ones that I am recommending to people to check out. Today I am going to talk about a few that I do not recommend and why they don’t pass muster. As a result, I am not going to be putting quite as much information about the books because they aren’t ones I really want people to seek out and buy. I want you to avoid them when you see them and books like them. I have mentioned them very briefly on the Facebook page, but I wanted to talk about them a little more here for a less ephemeral record.
The first book on the list is A Weekend with Dinosaurs. This book is put out by Raintree, an imprint of Capstone Global Library. This book came out in 2014 as part of their “Fantasy Science Field Trips” Read Me! series for elementary schools. They list it as reading level grades 1-3, but interest level grades 3-5, which I think kind of whacked, but that is just my personal opinion because dinosaurs are of interest to all ages in my (entirely biased, of course) opinion.
The book is written by Claire Throp and I must say up front that the atrociousness of this book is not entirely her fault. The words in the book are not terrible as far as they go. So let’s take a look at that first.It begins with going back in time 230 million years to begin the field trip at the beginning of the dinosaurs. It’s written in a fun and interesting way which is, I think, just right for the desired tone and age range of the audience. She sets it up well, even mentioning that different dinosaurs lived at different times over a very long period of time, so kudos.
The book then goes through each time period of the Mesozoic. They hit the Triassic first. Here I have a serious disagreement with the book. They mention a massive extinction at the beginning of the Triassic, although they don’t name it as the end Permian or PermoTriassic, which it is better known as, but they blame it on an asteroid, I expect in an effort to link it to the asteroid at the end of the Mesozoic. However, the most accepted hypothesis for the PermoTriassic extinction event is the eruption of the Siberian Traps, the most extensive volcanic event in the history of the planet, as the main cause, which is not even mentioned. Sure, let’s blame a big, sexy space rock and completely ignore what we think really happened.
Another error here is mentioning Syntarsus, which has been generally considered to be a junior synonym of Coelophysis since 2004, which is noted in Wikipedia, so that information is easily found. Syntarsus itself has not existed as a valid species name since at least 2002, so there is really no excuse for a book published in 2014 to be mentioning it.
Moving on to the Jurassic Period, they pick some interesting dinosaurs to represent the time, such as Dilophosaurus, which, despite what they say in the book, has only ever been found in the United States.There was a specimen from China, but in 2003, it was discovered that it was actually a different dinosaur named Sinosaurus. Again, this was over a decade before this book was printed. And while I am talking about times, the geologic time scales they show at the top of the pages, while a good idea, are wrong. It is not clear what ranges they are supposed to be representing, but none of them really match currently accepted dates.
The other dinosaurs they mention for the Jurassic are good, classic dinosaurs of the time and good inclusions. They list Megalosaurus as having lived in England and Africa which, while possible and at one time considered as such, is now considered just to be in England. It has long been considered a “wastebasket” taxon and more recent work has reclassified the megalosaurs on other continents to different genera. This is just another example of old, outdated information used in this book though, which is unacceptable in such a recent book.
The chapter on the Cretaceous Period has several interesting dinosaurs. It is mostly decent, although one small comment is that a lot of the dinosaurs would fit into an adult’s hand when newly born. Even the large sauropods weighing tens of tons as adults had eggs no bigger than the size of soccer balls, so the babies weren’t that big when freshly hatched. They just grew incredibly fast.
The book wraps up quickly with only two pages to cove the end of the dinosaurs. Oddly, they say nothing about what ended the dinosaurs. They make it sound as if pretty much everything died except for birds, when what they (I hope) meant was that all the dinosaurs except for birds died off, leaving room for the mammals to diversify into the prominent spots.
I do like the picture of the footprint listing it as a fossil, showing that not just bones are fossils. The book also has a glossary, an index, and additional reading with books listed and a website. Unfortunately, they only list their own stuff, for which they have already demonstrated a lack of fact checking, so when they say that “all the sites on FactHound have been researched by our staff,” that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
Ok, so a fair number of mistakes, but on the whole, not ones that would make me scream in agony. But the pictures! Oh the horrible pictures! It looks as if they spent a few minutes on the internet and took whatever pictures they could find. The pictures are so incredibly inconsistent, it is a crime against education.
There are a few that are good. I like the spinosaur picture. Of course, that picture was done by Walter Myers, an excellent artist who is listed nowhere in the credits. So Raintree, did you actually pay the man?
Sadly, right next to that picture is the most godawful picture of an oviraptor stealing eggs that would have been an embarrassment fifty years ago. There is a decent picture of Syntarsus, excuse me, Coelophysis, right next to a picture of Plateosaurus that was never accurate, another picture taken from a stock illustration collection with no regard for accuracy whatsoever. The Troodon just made me want to cry as it is possibly the worst I have ever seen. I am sure I have seen it before, but I don’t remember where other than it was in a book published before I was born. Pictures were taken from old books and movie stills, computer generated images, poor drawings, apparently any place they could grab them quickly. It is apparent no effort at all was made to see if the illustrations conveyed any sense of accuracy at all.
In fact, the illustrations in this book are so bad that it really doesn’t matter what the words say at all. This book was made with the apparent idea that the accuracy of the illustrations don’t matter because it is a children’s book. That is as far from the truth as it is possible to get. The artwork is the MOST important part of a children’s book. They will remember the artwork long after they have forgotten every single word in the book. The art has to be right. When the art is screwed up this badly, the words are almost pointless. Even with the mistakes in the the text, Claire Throp was done a disservice by having her work destroyed by the illustrations. It might be entertaining to a little kid, but no one who knows anything about dinosaurs will let their kids anywhere near this book except as a warning how NOT to draw dinosaurs. The only decent artwork in this book seems to be possibly pirated, so there is even that problem on top of everything else.
There is really no excuse for this. There are a lot of really excellent paleoartists who work really hard to make their work as scientifically accurate as they can while still turning out beautiful work. The art is there. The artists are there. Pay them and get quality work to make a quality product. The kids deserve that.
The second and third books I am just going to briefly mention. One is Scholastic’s book, Dinosaurs of the Jurassic World and Beyond. Written by Paula Hammond, this book came out in 2015 to capitalize on the release of Jurassic World. Of course, what they really did was have this book on prehistoric animals that had nothing to do with Jurassic World whatsoever, notice that hey, it has a tyrannosaur in it, let’s put Jurassic World in the title and hope nobody notices that we lied our asses off about this book having anything to do with the movie so that we can sell more copies. I guess adding “and Beyond” explains not mentioning the movie and including animals like Dunkleosteus, Dimetrodon, and the Woolly Mammoth.
This book also has several inaccuracies and has not exactly stellar artwork. While not as horrifyingly bad as in Weekend with Dinosaurs, it is not great. Broken wrists and unfeathered dinosaurs are common.
The other book is Dinosaur Bites, by Heather Dakota, published by Tangerine Press. This one uses as a selling point that it comes with a necklace, of what I forget, a bronze tooth I think. Again, this suffers the same problem of poor research and bad artwork. They seem to insist on getting people who, while reasonable artists, are not familiar with their subjects and it shows in their artwork. Either that, or their book designers force them to make bad artwork to satisfy some preconceived notions, which is entirely possible.
Here is a gripe that I have with a lot of these books. They seem to be written by people who had their ideas about dinosaurs and other extinct animals set decades ago and they have never changed. Moreover, they don’t think it matters that they haven’t bothered to update their thinking. So they put the same thing they think they remember from their childhood. Not saying they are, but that’s what it seems like. Take for example, good old Dimetrodon. He is listed as a mammal-like reptile. Unfortunately, scientists have not used that term, really, ever. They haven’t even colloquially used that term in decades because Dimetrodon and his kin are not related to modern reptiles at all. There was a group of reptile-like animals from which two groups emerged. One group diversified into what eventually became what we think of as reptiles, along with dinosaurs and birds. The other group became mammals. Dimetrodon is in the group that became mammals. So if we are going to call them anything like that, we should be calling them something like reptile-like protomammals. Or we could just call them what scientists call them: synapsids.
Why is this important? Because it causes people to look at them differently. Dimetrodon and his kin were not reptiles with some characteristics superficially like mammals. They were animals on their way to evolving into true mammals. And that is an enormous sea change in perspective. How we talk about these creatures makes a difference.
Keely Sarr, for her story, “Standardized”, but I came in second!
The Center for the Future of Museums is an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums, an organization that tries to prognosticate about what the future holds for museums and help museums plan for that future. Foretelling trends and planning for them is tough, but important if museums are going to thrive, so I try to keep up with the information they put out on whenever I can.
Earlier this year, they sponsored a contest called the Education Future Fiction Challenge for people to contribute an educational vision for museums in the year 2040. I had written fiction stories many years ago and had been thinking about wanting to do so again, but finding the time and motivation to fit it in around my nonfiction writing had not happened. So as the deadline for the contest loomed, I decided to go ahead and see what I could do. I have had this idea for a living diorama that I thought would be fun to do if we had the right technology, along with some other ideas I would love to see happen if I ever wound up with someone who had the knowledge and ability to make it happen. So I took an afternoon, wrote the first draft of the story, put it aside for a day, then came back to it for a couple of hours to edit it and sent it in, squeaking it in just under the deadline.
A couple of interesting things about this story people may be interested in. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York does have a doctorate program in comparative biology. If it had been around in when I was looking at grad schools, I would certainly have applied. There is also really such a thing as the New York City Museum School, which is a high school run as a cooperative of several museums, including the Museum of Metropolitan Art and, at one time, although not currently, the AMNH. While AMNH doesn’t have anything like in the story yet, it does have a pretty nifty app that will really help navigating the museum and getting the most out of a visit.
The last thing about the story is that all the students in the story are named after real paleontologists. Characterizations are not reflective of the real people, although Casey is a big guy in real life, just like the Casey in this story, but otherwise, the fictional characters are not meant to represent any particular person, living or dead, other than honoring their hard work in providing the knowledge we all so enjoy reading about. The main character, RC, is named for my favorite paleontologist of all time, Roy Chapman Andrews.
You can find the story at their website, but I am posting the story here for everyone’s reading pleasure. Any scientific errors are of course mine alone, I can only plead for leniency as I was rushing to try to get it written and in quickly. I have corrected one major error already. In the original story, I referred to Majungatholus, which you will find on their website. That name is incorrect and should have been Majungasaurus, which I have corrected here. I also corrected one other minor typographical error. Now on with the story!
Living Dinoramas at the AMNH
RC and the rest of the advanced placement class stepped into the clearing. Everything was perfect. The oppressive heat, the towering conifers shading the magnolias, which shaded the ferns and other bushes serving as undergrowth. Even the smells and sounds of the forest seemed right. There was the furry multituberculate running through the leaf litter, its rat-like whiskers twitching as it felt its way through the shadows. He could hear the rustle of the leaves as it ran across the ground. He was pretty sure it was a Gondwanathere, but he was terrible with Late Cretaceous mammals. That was Janet’s area of expertise. He saw Patrick’s Rahonavis chase after it. RC thought the iridescent bluish black feathers on the dinosaur’s back looked amazing and the famous sickle claw of the raptor looked wicked. Nancy’s plesiadapid primate ancestor scampered among the trees, its big eyes showing its nocturnal nature, which ordinarily would be counted as a mistake by the teachers in this daylight setting, but an allowed departure for this showing of their presentation. It kind of reminded him of a modern aye-aye lemur, only without the extra-long finger aye-ayes were known for.
Now was the part he was waiting for. He was so excited, he could barely contain himself as he stepped from one foot to the other and repeatedly clenched and unclenched his hands. At the edge of the clearing on either side of them, two immense dinosaurs stepped out. One the left stood Casey’s Majungasaurus in all its glory. It always made RC think if a tyrannosaur had mated with a bulldog, this would be the result: short, pug-nosed, and warty. On the right, RC’s titanosaur stepped out. Nature’s crowning glory, the largest animal to ever walk the earth, RC loved his dinosaur. As it walked out, all 40 meters of its magnificent body came into view, his head sweeping 8 meters above the ground, its tail lashing out behind it. The Majungasaurus roared. The titanosaur roared and reared up…
and collapsed on broken legs.
The scene dissolved around them, leaving the skeletons of the animals in the exhibit hall of the American Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibit on the late Cretaceous of Argentina.
Three years. THREE YEARS they had been working on this. Everything else was ready. Except his part. The disappointment and frustration was almost more than he could bear.
The AMNH had installed a series of holographic projectors and various speakers and emitters into the exhibit halls to periodically bring each of the exhibits to life. One could walk into the exhibit halls and see all the dinosaur skeletons for 45 minutes each hour, but for five minutes, they would gradually turn on the projectors, until for ten minutes it was like being in a living scene. The five minutes allowed time for people to see the skeletons fleshed out before being dropped into the full scene and before they were animated. It also allowed time for the docents to warn parents to remove small children who may become frightened by the show before it started. It also, not coincidentally, saved a fortune on electrical bills.
The museum started a doctorate program in comparative biology in 2006. As an expansion of that successful program, the museum had partnered with the New York City Museum School to sponsor an integrated program for the school’s top high school students. Each year a team of students would be allowed to choose a display hall and redesign the display, based on the newest research. The students were given the assignment at the beginning of their freshman year. During that year they would choose their teams and display hall and then they would have until the end of their senior year to present it. It required in-depth research with the exhibit curators, cross-disciplinary studies, and above all, teamwork to complete a quality project. The class of 2040 had chosen the Cretaceous Dinosaur Hall.
But time was running out. They had only one more week to present their display and everyone had finished their part except for RC.
Everyone groaned, but none louder than RC himself. Casey glared at him, which, considering that Casey was just a shade under two meters tall and used to play on the football team, could be rather intimidating. “I thought you fixed that!”
“So did I! I just can’t seem to get the physics right on that stupid thing. You try getting 80 tons to balance on two legs without breaking the bones. If I can’t get the physics equations to work right, the computer won’t allow the animation. The simulation has to be real world possible. You know that. And I can’t get this bloody thing to work.“
“Patrick and Erin got their dinosaur to fly. You can’t get yours to stand?”
“I can make a paper airplane fly too. Can you hold up a car? It’s not the biodynamics I’m having problems with. It’s the strength ratios. The legs just aren’t strong enough.”
Casey shrugged. “Well we know they existed, so we know it’s possible. What did the mechanical engineers say?”
RC snorted. “They said it was impossible. There is no way that bone of that thickness can support that much weight, even with muscle wrapped around it. It’s close, just not quite close enough.”
“Well, best figure it out soon. We’re counting on you.” Casey turned and walked off with the others.
RC threw his bag over his shoulder and started glumly strolling through the museum, hands in his pockets. After a while he found himself unsurprisingly in one of the museum’s newest exhibits, a history of robots. He particularly liked the section on robots based on different types of animals as the engineers tried to figure out how to make them walk. There were dog robots, cat robots, cheetah robots, horse robots, even salamander robots and jellyfish robots. Unfortunately, there weren’t any titanosaur robots.
There was Jennifer though. She could often be found in this section of the museum studying the robots. She said that she wanted to build robots to explore other planets. Considering that she was the smartest person on the team, RC figured she probably would. She was sitting on a bench in front of one of the exhibits sketching in her notepad. She saw him and gestured for him to come over, all the while continuing to draw.
“So how’s it going?”
“Tough problem. I had a similar difficulty with the bones on the pterosaur. It just couldn’t fly using the same equations developed with birds. Birds have these massive flight muscles on their chests and strong legs. They can take a leap and use their powerful muscles to propel them into the air. Pterosaurs on the other hand, have tiny little legs. Pterosaurs couldn’t jump. They also didn’t have the keel on their sternum to hold the big flight muscles, so they couldn’t propel themselves off the ground using their wings quite as easily either.”
“So what did you do?”
“I had to look at the problem a different way. If they couldn’t fly like birds, was there some other way I could model them? Turned out they could use their wings as stilts to sort of fling themselves into the air and then start flying.”
“I don’t see how this helps with titanosaurs.”
“I don’t know…directly. But the direct approach isn’t working, is it? So see if there is another way of looking at the problem of standing. See if that gives you any ideas. Gotta run. Good luck.” She closed her notebook and hustled out.
He had no idea what to think about that as he had no idea how to think about other ways of standing. So he started walking out of the exhibit more frustrated than ever before.
And then he saw an animal robot that smacked him in the face with the answer.
The next week everything was set. Everyone walked into the exhibit hall. The class was standing around nervously, but excited. The teachers and curators were calmly curious, patiently waiting for the show to start. The parents and other onlookers were milling about looking at the displays. And RC was sweating bullets.
The lights dimmed as the holographic displays started lighting up. The sounds and smells started kicking in. Slowly movement appeared as wind started moving the foliage and small animals started moving about. The buzz of insects and chirps of birds filled the air. Then the Majungasaurus stepped in and a few parents and kids screamed. Casey laughed.
Majungasaurus, Royal Ontario Museum. By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22564248
Finally, RC’s titanosaur stepped out and made his way to his place. It lifted its head, roared its challenge to the Majungasaurus, and then leaned back, slapping its tail on the ground like a third leg as it reared up like the world’s biggest kangaroo before coming back down in a triumphant, titanic, stomp on Casey’s now not so majestic carnivore.
Here is a new fossil for you to identify. I haven’t put up anything like it before, so you can rule out any of the usual candidates. I will put up the answer next Monday unless some early bird beats me to it. Good luck.