February 18th

1928 – John Ostrom Born

On this day in dinosaurs, we remember the contributions of John Ostrom–his struggle and those who took the steps to make his once-outlandish notions into mainstream scientific thought.

John Ostrom and Deinonychus
John Ostrom / Wikimedia Commons

He may be most famous for giving the world Deinonychus, but John Ostrom’s biggest contributions to science were his ideas about warm-blooded dinosaurs and the evolutionary links between non-avian dinosaurs and modern-day birds.

Ostrom was one of those who kickstarted the “Dinosaur Renaissance” and brought new ideas to the science of paleontology that are still reverberating through the field today. He was one of the first to postulate dinosaurs moving in herds from trackways and also contributed significant studies on Archaeopteryx. In his later years, he watched a flurry of feathered dinosaurs emerge from China, further vindicating his hypotheses from decades earlier.

 

1839 – Harry Seeley Born

Today, we also celebrate the birthday of the man who classified dinosaurs into two major groups: Saurischians and Ornithischians. The “lizard-hipped” and “bird-hipped” dinosaurs, respectively, were named by Seeley for their way their hips resembled those of modern animals.

Harry Seeley / Wikimedia Commons
Harry Seeley / Wikimedia Commons

Until the development of cladistic analyses in the 1980s, paleontologists could not even conclusively state that all dinosaurs had a common ancestor. We also recognize that, somewhat confusingly, “bird-hipped” dinosaurs did not evolve into birds. The “lizard-hipped” saurischians include sauropods and theropods–the group most closely related to modern birds.

Classifications are always hotly contested in the scientific community, so for Seeley’s system to stand since he proposed it in 1888 is a major achievement.
Share photos with dinosaurs that would make Seeley and Ostrom smile! Post your photos on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

February 17th

The Gateway to Science

Many, if not most, children go through a “dinosaur phase.” It’s almost a rite of passage. Some of these fascinations last a few weeks or a few months. Some persist for years. Some cases are even terminal. But whether young or old, learning about dinosaurs prompts a cavalcade of consideration in a wide range of subject matter.

Sinornithosaurus / AMNH
Sinornithosaurus / AMNH

Dinosaurs belong to the natural world of the past, but their world has grown into our own. So studying nature and dinosaurs requires inquiry into biology, ecology, and evolution. Seeking for origins, we plunge into physics and chemistry. The forces that shape the world are important too, geology and plate tectonics and continental drift. Then there’s geography–where the dinosaurs lived and where the museums that house them stand.

The names of the dinosaurs are tongue-twisting miniature sonatas for voice that beguile young ears into a love of language. The stories of bone hunters and science through the generations prompts an appreciation for human history as well as natural history. We learn the techniques that artists and movie makers use to resurrected ancient beasts. We learn about fossil preparation and casting, museum exhibits, and how animatronic dinosaurs operate. We learn about where to see dinosaur sculptures along our roadways and where fossilized trackways lie exposed in the rock.

Dinosaurs are indeed the gateway to science, but they are the gateway to much more than that. They are the catalyst for critical thinking and a worldview rooted in reality and reason. They are the path through which our eager minds find the connections that link us to all of nature.

What’s your favorite part of dinosaur fandom? Tell us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

February 16th

1974 – Doctor Who’s Dinosaur Series Concludes

On this day in dinosaurs the final episode of Doctor Who’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs series aired in the UK. While lambasted for its special effects, the series used dinosaurs only as a distraction. The plot is driven by a group of people from the future who want to return to the past to build a better, more natural world to inhabit. So they manipulate time to bring dinosaurs into London as a diversion, prompting evacuations which will allow them to take control.

Doc Oho Reviews
Doc Oho Reviews

Sound confusing? Well, it’s vintage Doctor Who and the series was released on home video years later so it’s a darling of many fans–despite the underwhelming dinosaurs. But if you had a machine that could affect time, what would you do with it? Would you be keen on bringing dinosaurs to the 20th or 21st century, or travel back to the Mesozoic yourself?

Share your time traveling stories and Doctor Who memories with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

 

February 15th

Where The Dinosaurs Live Now

We find them everywhere–on our phones, tablets, and computers; on television and movies; in our libraries; and our classrooms. But most of us don’t get our first glimpse of a dinosaur as its fossilized skeletal fragments erode out of a hillside. For many of us, our first encounter with a dinosaur is at the natural history museum.

Smithsonian Insider
Smithsonian Insider

Natural history museums are among the finest institutions ever invented. They are much more than exhibit halls. Museum collections represent the entire biodiversity of our planet, and their active research divisions continue to investigate nature, both past and present. In addition to curating millions of objects that are accessible to the public and to scholars, many museums maintain educational outreach programs of all kinds.

But natural history museums, for all their practicality and admirable practices, are much more than utilitarian–they are portals into the imagination. Where else can you travel around the world and through millennia in just a few steps? Here, dinosaurs take their place as the stars of the Mesozoic. Yet, they are seen as a few fascinating chapters in the much larger history of life on Earth. The animals of today are all descended from creatures that lived long ago. Lifeforms change, but the struggles of life remain constant on this dynamic and bountiful globe.

A trip to the museum can seem like a fun way to spend a day with dino-crazy youngsters. But visiting as an adult allows a person to contemplate their own participation in the progression of life. We are given the privilege of looking up at those fossil skeletons and wondering about where we fit into the story of our universe. It is our insatiable wonder that draws us to the extinct dinosaurs, and the same wonder that drives us to the natural history museum. We crave  connections to the wild and wondrous natural world–connections which our modern, tech-savvy, fast-paced lives have severed. What better place to find your muse than at the museum?

Share photos from your favorite natural history museums (and their dinosaurs) with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

February 14th

Following Footprints

Yesterday, we discussed how dinosaur skeletons have become fixed in our imaginations. But skeletons are always reminiscent of carcasses, even when they are mounted and poised in dramatic life scenes. Dinosaurs left behind more than just their dead bodies. They left behind trace fossils made while they were alive. Perhaps none of these fossils are so vivid or invigorating as their fossilized footprints.

Sauropod tracks / Wikimedia Commons
Sauropod tracks / Wikimedia Commons

Dinosaur trackways can tell us a lot about the animals that left them in the muds and sands of the Mesozoic era. Using a special equation, scientists can measure the distance between the prints and, using the approximate length of a dinosaur’s limbs, determine how fast it was moving. Trackways can reveal behavior–herding, stalking, parenting, migrating. They also helped to clear up misconceptions about dinosaurs–that they were all slow-moving, that their limbs were sprawled out to their sides like those of lizards, and that they dragged their tails.

We find fossil footfalls all over the world. Their real power is not only in their value to science, but in the tangible way they connect us to the distant past. Place your hand where a dinosaur once placed its limb and you’ll feel the millennia slip away. Like you, the animal that left that print was alive for a short time, and only its ghostly impressions remain.

Share your favorite dinosaur trackway photos with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

February 13th

The Curious Business of Mounting Fossil Skeletons

O.C. Marsh, one of the most celebrated paleontologists of all time, was totally against the notion of assembling fossil skeletons for public display. He felt the exercise did not serve science and was therefore, not worth his time. But a few of his contemporaries and almost all of his successors think otherwise. So why are we so drawn to the vacant, mineralized skeletons on display in our natural history museums?

The first dinosaur discoveries in England were fragmentary. A few teeth here and leg bones there. Illustrations fired the imagination, but the public’s first real outbreak of dina-mania began when life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs were unveiled in Crystal Palace Park in 1854. Without full skeletons, mounting dinosaur fossils in life position was not even considered. But discoveries in the United States would change that.

Waterhouse Hawkins, the man who sculpted the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, was recruited to help mount the first semi-complete dinosaur skeleton ever found–Hadrosaurus from Haddonfield, New Jersey. In 1868, Hadrosaurus went on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, becoming the first dinosaur ever to be mounted as a complete skeleton for public display. The missing bones were sculpted to match the ones found in the New Jersey marl pit. The resulting skeletal model was nothing short of a sensation and copies were sent to various institutions, spreading the dinosaur fever to the New World. Thousands flocked to see the dinosaur wherever it was displayed, and museum halls have never been the same.

Hadrosaurus / Wikimedia Commons
Hadrosaurus / Wikimedia Commons

Today, paleontologists can rely on a number of solutions to the problems of missing bones. A left leg can be made in mirror image to become a right one (thanks to the bi-lateral symmetry of vertebrate tetrapods). Similar species can donate a few bones, too. Computers can help to scale specimens of different sizes to match the animal going on display. With advancements in digital scanning, computer modeling, and 3d printing, paleontologists can assemble life-like skeletal mounts without compromising authenticity. Yes, there is always benefit to seeing the authentic bones, but if many more people can enjoy copies of the same skeleton (as Andrew Carnegie’s Diplodocus and its worldwide fame have shown), then displaying a replica is a boon, not a bust. Replica dinosaur skeletons at natural history museums are far from “fake.”

In the ancient architecture of the dinosaurs, we find stark, brutal truths about mortality. We find humility in the shadows of the once-ruling giants. We struggle to understand the scale of their existence, in epochs so remote that we struggle to imagine how much time has passed since their unsurpassed sojourn on our planet. Dinosaur skeletons–whether harvested from the earth or mounted as exact copies–are not suitably appreciated on mobile devices or flickering computer screens. They must be contemplated in person. Their power rests in their defiant and triumphant rise from the grave into our life in the human imagination.

Share photos with your favorite dinosaur skeletons with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

February 12th

1873 – Barnum Brown Born

When it comes to Barnum Brown and his fossil collecting, no grandiose words seem sufficient. Brown was a colorful character in all aspects of his life–he gambled, drank, smoked, womanized, and was always dressed to impress, even in the field. He discovered fossil animals in localities all over the world and even spied for the U.S. government. He worked for the American Museum of Natural History for 66 years and became known as ‘Mr. Bones.’

Barnum Brown, wearing a fur coat in the field., circa 1914
Barnum Brown, wearing a fur coat in the field., circa 1914 / AMNH

Brown is best known for discovering the first Tyrannosaurus rex, and he went on to discover several more specimens of the most famous dinosaur of them all. But Brown is single-handedly responsible for most of the AMNH’s legendary dinosaur displays. One of Brown’s successors, Edwin H. Colbert, noted that of the 36 dinosaurs in the Museum’s “Tyrannosaur Hall,” Barnum had collected 27. Colbert called the feat “an unsurpassed achievement.” In today’s fossil halls, 57 of the creatures on display were unearthed by Barnum Brown.

Brown and his T. rex
Brown and his T. rex / AMNH

Brown was also an expert in public outreach. He hosted a CBS radio program about ancient life, was instrumental in the creation of the Dinoland pavilion at the World’s Fair, and consulted with Walt Disney for the famous animated dinosaur sequence in Fantasia.

Barnum Brown
Discover Magazine

To attempt to sum up his life and achievements in a blog post, or even a book, is difficult, and that he died at ninety years old while planning a fossil-collecting trip to the Isle of Wight says more than most accounts of him.  Barnum Brown will always be a major figure in the history of American dinosaur paleontology, and to many he is simply the greatest dinosaur hunter who ever lived.

Learn more about Brown with this video from the American Museum of Natural History:

Share photos with your favorite Barnum Brown specimens on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

February 11th

1905 – Zdeněk Burian Born

On this day in dinosaurs, one of the great paleo-artists of all time was born. Czech visionary Zdeněk Burian abandoned the stylized and/or speculative approaches of his predecessors and brought prehistoric animals to life with his brushstrokes through realism. He depicted many of the most famous lifeforms of the past–including a gallery’s worth of legendary dinosaurs–and his own fame grew beyond his native country.

Burian / Citarny
Burian / Citarny

Internationally, Burian is acclaimed for his artistic achievements. The words “romantic” and “heroic” crop up often in the writings that attempt to describe his vision of prehistory. Even today, as science has given us lively feathered dinosaurs, Burian’s work still has a visceral impact on the viewer. There is a bold vitality in his figures, and a sense of grandeur that evokes all that is powerful and mysterious about the natural world, past and present.

Tarbosaurus baatar by Burian / ZBurian.blogspot.com
Tarbosaurus baatar by Zdeněk Burian / ZBurian.blogspot.com

Enjoying Burian on his birthday? Share your favorite dinosaur art with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

February 10th

1825 – Mantell Presents Iguanodon

On this day in dinosaurs, Gideon Mantell officially described his Iguanodon in a letter to the Royal Society in London. Mantell discussed the scattered teeth and bones of the animal from Tilgate forest and his attempts to classify it–finally seeing a kinship between the extinct beast and the modern-day iguana at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Iguanodon Teeth
Illustrations of Iguanodon teeth made by Mary Ann Mantell for her husband’s description of the extinct reptile. / Brooklyn College

Mantell placed his creature alongside the already-known Megalosaurus to begin establishing an entire range of large, long-forgotten reptiles. The modest note read to the Royal Society was an important step for Mantell, who was seeking to win favor and fortune for his fossil discoveries. This act represents the second of the first two dinosaur discoveries officially described to the scientists of the day and established Mantell as one of the leading figures in the discovery of the primeval world.

 

1967 – Happy Birthday Laura Dern

We also wish Laura Dern–who portrayed paleobotanist Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park–a happy birthday today!

Dern in Jurassic Park / Rolling Stone
Dern in Jurassic Park / Rolling Stone

As the voice of reason in the classic film, Sattler talks sense into the power-hungry John Hammond. She’s not afraid to get in a dinosaur’s face either, and as we learned, she’s…”tenacious.”

Share your favorite Ellie Sattler and Iguanodon photos with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.

February 9th

Most of what we know about the lives and deaths of dinosaurs comes from their fossilized bones. Since the 19th century, and likely since prehistoric times, we’ve been fascinated by these undeniable relics from the distant past. Maybe because we are supported by our own osteological superstructure, growing inside us at the very moment our eyes scan these words. Our bones are our link to every vertebrate that has ever existed–no offense, invertebrates, but many of you have tough shells that are even more durable than our bones!

AMNH
AMNH

So what is our fascination with dinosaur bones? The curiosity may rest with bones being synonymous with death. For centuries Death, personified, is skeletal. We often only see bones when we see carcasses or when we dissect our meat before eating. This union of calcium and collagen is both a token of oblivion and the monument to life.

If you want to be fossilized, you have to be buried in the right place at the right time. Being covered over quick is best, preferably by something like mud or sand that will be compacted and turn to stone. The other layers of earth around you may buckle and shift, but under the ground your bones will be relatively safe from the elements. If your skeleton is turned to stone itself, with minerals replacing much of its structure, you’re in great shape for preservation.

What about those news stories about soft tissue surviving from the Mesozoic? Could Jurassic Park be possible? Sorry to be a downer, but probably not. The fragmentary tissue that has survived has been preserved and protected by iron. It’s not suitable for keeping DNA intact. It’s much too old. And yes, it’s exciting that some scraps of tissue might make it through to our era, but it’s a curiosity more than a tool for de-extinction. Yet, these tantalizing clues provide further inquiry into how fossilization occurs.

We have dinosaur trackways, trace fossils of all kinds, feathers and scales, and even a few dinosaur “mummies,” but most of our connection with the greatest creatures to ever live on land is through their biologic architecture. From there, our imaginations take over.

Share your favorite photos of dinosaur bones and skeletons with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.