January 24th

On this day in dinosaurs, we celebrate two fascinating discoveries from recent history.

2011 – Linhenykus Discovery Announced 

National Geographic
National Geographic

A one fingered dinosaur? There are more of them than you might think. Linhenykus, announced this day in 2011, is a member of the alvarezsauroid family. Their stubby fingers were likely used for grubbing about for insects, and especially for excavating into termite mounds. Most alvarezsauroids have one large finger and two vestigial nubs, but Linhenykus was the first of the family to be unearthed with just one finger. Without the specializations for digging, it’s not clear exactly how Linhenykus used its digit.

 

2012 – Oldest Dinosaur Nest Site Discovered

Fossilized dinosaur nests are always extraordinary discoveries, but to unearth 10 separate nests with more than 30 eggs in each is a landmark find. What’s truly extraordinary about the nests found in South Africa announced this day in 2012 is their age–100 million years older than the previous nest record holder. This dinosaur colony is 190 million years old.

BBC News
BBC News

Among the treasure trove are embryonic skeletons of the dinosaur Massospondylus. This window into the reproduction of early dinosaurs was unprecedented before this discovery was announced.

Share your pictures of dinosaur nests–real or imagined–and your alvarezsauroid snaps and sketches with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

 

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January 23rd

1869 – Happy Birthday Elmer Riggs

After a brief stint with an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History in 1896, Elmer S. Riggs joined the staff of the Field Columbian Museum (now the Field Museum) in Chicago.

Formal portrait of Elmer S. Riggs ca. 1901.
Formal portrait of Elmer S. Riggs ca. 1901. / Expedition Live

Riggs became  best known for the discovery of Brachiosaurus altithorax, what became the largest dinosaur known in its day.  He also brought a beautiful specimen of Apatosaurus to Chicago, and you can still see both on display in the Windy City today. The sites where they were discovered are just outside Fruita, Colorado and are marked by historical plaques.

Today, Riggs is perhaps best known as the man who made one of the gravest nomenclatural transgressions in dinosaur paleontology–he’s responsible for classifying Brontosaurus as Apatosaurus and sinking one of the greatest prehistoric names of all time. But recent analysis has found sufficient differences between the two animals and Brontosaurus is back. So we’ll let that one slide, Elmer.

In the 1920s, Riggs traveled to Canada, Argentina, and Bolivia searching for display-quality fossils. He collected more dinosaur remains, along with an assortment of fossil mammals from South America.

Elmer S. Riggs
Riggs examines one of his specimens from South America ca. 1930. Field Museum neg. #GEO79214.

Riggs retired in 1942, after serving the Field Museum for more than 40 years. He died at the ripe age of 94 in Kansas, where he had spent much of his youth and where he was still volunteering his time to advance the science of paleontology.

Have you visited the Field Museum or the places where Riggs made his big discoveries? Share your favorite Riggs dinosaur photos with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

January 22nd

1998 – Coelophysis Skull Taken to Space Aboard Endeavor

On this day in dinosaurs, the bones of one of the earliest predatory dinosaurs were taken aboard the space shuttle Endeavor and flown outside our planet’s atmosphere.

Novelty can be the only reason to take dinosaur fossils to space. Most dinophiles are baffled as ti why anyone would go through the trouble of bringing the bones of extinct animals into orbit. Surprisingly dinosaurs have been transported into space several times.

In 1985, bones and eggshell from Maiasaura peeblesorum were granted the honor of being the first dinosaur remains to travel in space. After the mission, NASA returned the fossils to their home at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.

National Geographic
National Geographic

On January 22nd, 1998, the skull of Coelophysis became the second dinosaur in space. The skull was borrowed from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and taken to by Endeavor to Russia’s Mir space station.

Distinction is granted to any person or object that becomes an outer space voyager, but dinosaurs are particularly poignant travelers beyond our planet because their ultimate extinction would come from beyond the Earth. That another species would hold them in such high regard as to fly them beyond their home is a peculiar act, but one which showcases our fascination and reverence for the greatest terrestrial beings to rule our planet.

Share your favorite images of Coelophysis, Maiasaura, or wacky pictures of dinosaurs in space with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

January 21st

1996 – Original Universe of Energy pavilion closes at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center

On this day in dinosaurs, one of the most iconic Walt Disney World attractions closed for refurbishments, never to be the same. After more than a decade of entertaining park guests, Disney opted to reinvigorate its Universe of Energy pavilion in early 1996. The ride featured animatronic  dinosaurs similar to those first used in the 1964-65 World’s Fair for the Ford Magic Skyway exhibit. These dinosaurs were later moved to Walt Disney Land in California and became part of the Disneyland Railroad. For Disney’s EPCOT Center in Orlando, Florida, the dinosaur era was set as part of the larger story of how humanity produces energy–powering civilization through the use of fossil fuels.

Walt Disney World News Today
Walt Disney World News Today

Universe of Energy was reopened briefly (with minor alterations) for the summer of 1996 when peak season tourists would be keen to see the dinosaurs. But it was closed again in September to allow the final changes for the ride’s new features. Just a few weeks later, Ellen’s Energy Adventure opened to the public, incorporating Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy into the show’s narration and even into some of the moving dioramas.

Several minor updates have been made to the pavilion over the years, but either the story of Earth’s energy either has become outdated as EPCOT becomes more focused on thrill rides and Disney franchise attractions, or fossil fuel production has become too political an issue for Disney. In either case, the ride is rumored to close in order to make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster.

Share your favorite memories of Universe of Energy or Ellen’s Energy Adventure with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

January 20th

1978 – Happy Birthday Omar Sy

On this day in dinosaurs, we celebrate the birthday of French actor Omar Sy. Known by dinophiles for his portrayal of Barry in Jurassic World, Sy spent time wrangling the film’s wily raptors. His respect for the animals and his understanding of their presence and power echoes the franchise’s development from fear in the early films to a mature reverence.

omar-sy-jurassic-world-470
HeroesandHeartbreakers.com

We’re hoping to see more of Barry as the Jurassic World franchise unfolds.

We wish Sy a birthday untroubled by genetic mutant dinosaurs of any kind! Share your photos of Barry and thoughts about Jurassic World with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

January 19th

Thinking About Time

On this day in dinosaurs, we examine the distance that separates us from the Mesozoic superstars. The know there is a great deal of time between our modern world and that of the dinosaurs, but it’s difficult to understand how much time has passed. For one, our brains aren’t hardwired to easily comprehend time at a millennial scale. This sort of reasoning does not improve our daily survival, but for our longtime survival, it’s becoming increasingly important that we understand our place in the narrative of life on earth–a narrative that we are shaping more with each passing year.

 

So how can we begin to fathom the enormity of time recorded in our planet’s geologic history? We can start on the scale of our universe. This was the tactic Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steve Soter used when creating the original series of Cosmos in 1980. They envisioned a cosmic calendar that compressed the history of our universe into a single year. Imagine that the big bang takes place in the very first instant of the year, 12 a.m. on January 1st. And the last second of the year is the moment you are reading these words.

 

With the entire year established in mind, you may find it interesting to learn that our star and its planetary system do not take shape until August. For most of the cosmic calendar, our home and the solar system don’t even exist.

 

Multi-cellular life doesn’t appear on earth until November. Almost the entire year has passed before life really gets going into anything we’d recognize today. So where do the dinosaurs arise? Christmas Eve, December 24th. The long, long reign of the non-avian dinosaurs is over on December 29th. The seemingly interminable dinosaur kingdom ends in less than a week on the scale of our universe. And modern humans, we appear at 11:54 on New Year’s Eve. Civilization is just a few seconds at the end of the year.

 

While cosmic thinking can be humbling and provides context for our world, it’s not always the most useful way to describe the history of life on our planet. Let’s re-calibrate and think on a different scale.

The Mesozoic Era–the age of reptiles or the age of the dinosaurs–began 252 million years ago. Paleontologists call this early portion of the Mesozoic the Triassic period. Dinosaurs, small and inconspicuous, arrived toward the end of Triassic. From a scientific standpoint, the Triassic lasts 51 million years (255 times the duration that anatomically modern humans have existed).

Beginning around 200 million years ago, the Jurassic period sees the dinosaurs rise to terrestrial dominance. Throughout the next 56 million years, giants like Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus take their place in the dinosaur pantheon. Dynasties rose and fell. Species adapted to their environment for a few million years and then gave way as continents changed, seas rose and fell, and mountain ranges were thrust up.

The third and final dinosaur epoch, the Cretaceous lasted from 145 million years ago to the mass extinction event 66 million years ago. Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, the “duck-billed” hadrosaurs, and other favorites represent some of the very last dinosaurs to evolve during this time, a duration of 79 million years. The Cretaceous itself lasts longer than the time that separates our present day from the asteroid impact. It’s also worth remembering that there is more time between the famous Jurassic dinosaurs and T. rex than between the tyrant lizard king and us.

All this time is mind-boggling. But next time you’re outside and hear birds chirping, you’ll have a much better appreciation for their staying power. And I hope a better appreciation for your own tiny part in this epic and ongoing story.

Share your thoughts and pictures of your favorite lifeforms from earth’s history with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

January 18th

The Dinosaur-Bird Connection

Birds are dinosaurs. It’s a concept some people struggle to understand, let alone endorse. Like many of the startling conclusions made by the scientific community, the road to those conclusions took decades of data and discovery to turn opinions around. This simple, baffling idea has repercussions on our view of dinosaurs, birds, and ourselves.

Let’s start at the beginning. Sir Richard Owen, when he invented “dinosauria” as a classification of extinct reptiles in 1842, likened their limb structure to those of “heavy pachydermal mammals.” The structure of their limbs distinguished dinosaurs as being separate from modern reptiles, but also from the marine reptiles being described at around the same time.

Later, Thomas Henry Huxley (popularly dubbed “Darwin’s bulldog”) outlined the similarities between theropod dinosaurs and modern birds. But many origins for birds were being discussed and for decades, scientists debated where birds diverged from the main reptile lineage.

The Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx / Photo - National Museum of Wales
The Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx / Photo – National Museum of Wales

In 1969, Yale’s John Ostrom published his description of Deinonychus, which compared this agile predator to Archaeopteryx. By outlining the many anatomical similarities between the two creatures, Ostrom demonstrated that birds and dinosaurs could have closer affinities than many paleontologists of the era recognized.

In the 1980s, Jacques Gauthier published pivotal cladistic analyses that showed a large number of shared characteristics. According to the University of California Museum of Paleontology, dinosaurs and birds share:

  • Pubis (one of the three bones making up the vertebrate pelvis) shifted from an anterior to a more posterior orientation (see Saurischia), and bearing a small distal “boot”.
  • Elongated arms and forelimbs and clawed manus (hands).
  • Large orbits (eye openings in the skull).
  • Flexible wrist with a semi-lunate carpal (wrist bone).
  • Hollow, thin-walled bones.
  • 3-fingered opposable grasping manus (hand), 4-toed pes (foot); but supported by 3 main toes.
  • Reduced, posteriorly stiffened tail.
  • Elongated metatarsals (bones of the feet between the ankle and toes).
  • S-shaped curved neck.
  • Erect, digitgrade (ankle held well off the ground) stance with feet positioned directly below the body.
  • Similar eggshell microstructure.
  • Teeth with a constriction between the root and the crown.
  • Functional basis for wing power stroke present in arms and pectoral girdle (during motion, the arms were swung down and forward, then up and backwards, describing a “figure-eight” when viewed laterally).
  • Expanded pneumatic sinuses in the skull.
  • Five or more vertebrae incorporated into the sacrum (hip).
  • Straplike scapula (shoulder blade).
  • Clavicles (collarbone) fused to form a furcula (wishbone).
  • Hinge-like ankle joint, with movement mostly restricted to the fore-aft plane.
  • Secondary bony palate (nostrils open posteriorly in throat).
  • Feathers. Small, possibly feathered dinosaurs were recently found in China. It appears that many coelurosaurs were cloaked in an external fibrous covering that could be called “protofeathers.”

“So, dinosaurs are birds,” some may say. “So what?” Yes, it means dinosaurs are still with us today, but it also means that some dinosaurs avoided extinction 66 million years ago–making their terrestrial dominance all the more impressive. It’s also important to remember that modern birds are different from the first birds that split from the non-avian dinosaur lineage 150 million years ago.

Dinosaurs give us a profound context for time as well. Modern humans have existed for around 200,000 years. Non-avian dinosaurs existed for nearly 200,000,000 years. It’s worth remembering just how long they ruled the world in comparison to our own kind’s short sojourn.  We marvel at how dinosaurs still survive and proliferate, with more species alive today than ever before.

Post your favorite non-avian and avian dinosaurs on Facebook and Twitter and share them with us using the hashtag #TDIDinos.