On this day in dinosaurs, Othniel Charles Marsh published famous illustrations of the most iconic dinosaurs–Triceratops and Brontosaurus.
The plates are still aesthetically pleasing today, although science has pushed past many of their limitations. Marsh’s descriptions are also dated–he imagined Brontosaurus eating aquatic plants and Triceratops moving very slowly. While Marsh had published earlier descriptions of fossils and even a Brontosaurus skeleton in previous years, these illustrations (and a Stegosaurus reconstruction we’ll discuss a few months from now) became definitive for generations.
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If you grew up in the late ’80s/early ’90s, you know that today’s television dinosaur documentaries seem awfully straightforward. A few CGI sequences and interviews with paleontologists are all you really need for a compelling program. But in those halcyon, pre-Jurassic Park days, dinosaur programming needed to adopt a collage approach. In an hour, you were almost guaranteed to see a number of things–fine paleo-art, excellent footage of mounted dinosaur skeletons in the great natural history museums, maybe an animated chase sequence or two, some black and white footage from King Kong or The Lost World, and more often than not, a look at Jim Gary’s dinosaur sculptures. What was so intriguing about them? They were made from automobile parts.
Gary, one of 11 children, took an interest in taking today’s scrapyards and turning them into works of art–lifesize dinosaur sculptures. Brake shoes became feet. Axles became femurs. Gary said it might take ten cars to make a dinosaur, and just one of his creations might take him a year.
Along with his metallic 20th century dinosaurs, Gary became a beloved figure in dinophile, museum, art, and even automotive communities. His work appeared in exhibitions across the United States for decades, along with appearances in national publications.
After his untimely passing at the age of 66, Gary lives on in the hearts and minds of those who cherished his work–and in the generations to come who will continue to marvel at his metallic dinosaurs.
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On this day in dinosaurs, a little predator stepped out of the shadows. The small dromeosaurid is known from a single, incomplete pelvic girdle discovered by Dr. Elizabeth Nicholls in 1982 in Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park. Phil Currie and Nick Longrich described the animal in a 2009 paper, and it is thought that some miniature toe claws in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology may belong to the diminutive creature as well.
Hesperonychus–whose name means ‘western claw’–lived 76.5 million years ago. It weighed about 4 pounds and was less than 3 feet in length. Not exactly a terror to something human-sized. But Hesperonychus filled an important ecologic niche–a small microraptorine taking on pint-size prey, alongside some very big neighbors.
Until Hesperonychus was discovered, microraptorines were thought to be a group isolated to the early Cretaceous in Asia. But Hesperonychus proves otherwise, with a late Cretaceous member of the group in North America.
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Dinosaurs are so weird and wonderful that it’s difficult to imagine humans dreaming up such fantastic animals. And yet, nature has produced so many forms within the dinosauria (many of them still waiting in the rock for us to find) that we are continually bemused and bewildered by the ancient creatures.
Dinosaurs sported plates, frills, spikes, horns, club tails, whip tails, head crests, body armor, feathers, quills, beaks, giant talons, and spinal sails. It is no wonder that artists, filmmakers, and the public have been drawn to dinosaurs for more than a century and a half. Many of the new species that are just being described are even more bizarre than their well-known cousins.
Let’s take a look just at the ceratopsians. Triceratops is one of the most popular dinosaurs, but the horned dinosaurs are a diverse group. Their main body plan is roughly the same–a quadrupedal trunk with strong legs and a relatively short tail. Their jaws were incredibly powerful. But the arrangement of the horns and spikes on their head frills varies widely.
Just within this one dinosaur family, we find tremendous diversity. The “duck-billed” hadrosaurs shared similar variables, with a body plan consistent across the group but wildly different head crests. These were used for display and, with hollowed out innards, acted as trombones (and various other wind instruments) to call for potential mates. It’s difficult not to draw modern analogues with behavior like elk bugling during the annual rut.
The ceratopsians didn’t bugle. They probably weren’t using their horns for self-defense either–at least primarily. Like most of today’s antlered creatures, Triceratops and its brethren most likely used their horns for courtship displays and tussling with rivals. Judging by the imagery above, there must have been a lot of titanic squabbles back in the Cretaceous.
What we find, then, is a greater number and range of dinosaur species than many people presume. With a new dinosaur species described, on average, about once every two weeks or so, we are discovering so many new dinosaurs that it’s difficult for many of us to keep up. Our dreams and imaginations will always fall short of the dinosaurian reality. We’ve only begun to unlock their mysteries and the riddles behind their strange shapes.
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Though many of the dominant animals looked different, life progressed much as it does today throughout the 180 million years that we call the Mesozoic era. These rhythms of life–which modern civilization can sometimes drown out–create the framework for the lives and deaths of numberless beings.
Dinosaurs, especially mounted in museums, can seem so remote and mythic–almost immune to everyday events like rainstorms or insect bites. But we must see dinosaurs as animals. They hunted and were hunted in a cycle between predator and prey that has persisted almost as long as life on this planet has persisted. They cherished the light of day and feared the lengthening shadows that preceded night.
On those ancient continents–just starting to resemble the ones we know today–there were wet and dry seasons. The herbivorous herds migrated to find fresh, succulent plants. The hungry predators followed them. As the weather changed throughout the year, the flora changed. Insects, like dung beetles, responded to the arrival of the herds. As dinosaurs ate through trees, they ingested fungi working hard to break down rotting wood. Just like today, the ecosystems were bound together in countless ways–both extreme and subtle. But too often, dinosaurs steal the show and we forget the connections between all lifeforms that existed then and still exists today.
Each dinosaur had its own rhythms, too–heartbeats, breath, reproductive cycles, courting, fighting. All of their existences balanced on the thin line between death and life. More broadly, species of dinosaurs (and other animals) emerged, prospered, and became extinct. Seas rose and fell, climate fluctuated, rivers flooded, lakes dried up. Snow and rain fell on the dinosaurs. They reared their young. They each tried to stay alive a little longer.
And it is these rhythms, these stories, that we find preserved in the rocks. The banded sediments beneath our feet and beside our highways reveal the narratives of Earth’s past. Dinosaurs are among the main characters in life’s story on this planet for a significant amount of time. But although their success overshadows ours in many ways, we share their primal yearning to survive.
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On this day in dinosaurs, a double birthday feature:
1949 – Happy Birthday Phil Currie
He can identify a carnivorous dinosaur from a single fossil tooth. A dinosaur museum has been named in his honor. He’s among the most revered paleontologists of his generation.
Phil Currie is one of the leading dinosaur detectives in the world. Working mostly in his native Alberta badlands, Currie has worked on many spectacular discoveries, including the Centrosaur bone bed, an assemblage of tyrannosaurids that suggest pack hunting behavior, and a number of fossil collecting expeditions to the Arctic, South America, and Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
Playing a role in the University of Alberta’s open online course, Dino 101, has brought Currie’s expertise to an even wider audience of children and adults alike. Under his tutelage, the next generation of Canadian dinosaur hunters are being born in the badlands and his influence will surely be felt for centuries to come.
Listen to Currie describing the baby Chasmosaurus pictured above:
1950 – William H. Macy Born
We also celebrate the birthday of William H. Macy today, who played Paul Kirby in the third film of the Jurassic Park franchise.
Hope nothing chases you today, William!
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Dean William Buckland was the first person to scientifically describe what would come to be known as a dinosaur, but although he was a pioneer, he was one of the most colorful dinosaur detectives of all time.
Buckland will always be remembered for his description of Megalosaurus in 1824, but he was a very eccentric and interesting personality in his own right. He famously surrounded himself with fossils–even having a tabletop set with coprolites (fossilized dung).
He was determined to eat every known animal, including reputedly devouring the heart of King Louis XIV. He was shown this relic and gobbled it down quickly before anyone could stop him.
His fascination with living animals and fossils dominated his house in Christ Church. Frogs and snakes inhabited cages in his dining room, while guinea pigs ran along his floors. Visitors told of occasional bites from Buckland’s jackal, which also wandered the house—sometimes devouring the guinea pigs, much to the horror of houseguests.
William Buckland also kept a bear as a pet–the biblically named Tiglath Pilesar–whom he brought to wine parties. Charles Lyell, one of Darwin’s best friends and scientific consultants, wrote of such a gathering at the Botanic Gardens: “Buckland had a young bear dressed up as a student of Christ Church, with cap and gown, whom he formally introduced…The bear sucked our hands and was very caressing.” Shy students worried for their dignity after speaking to ‘Tig,’ and Buckland found much amusement in making them do so.
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