STL Science Center

STL Science Center

30 June 2014

Latin Recap

The Mongolian expeditions have the only video mention of Jaworowska for the day, if we were to stick to the Movie Monday idea as strictly as possible. However, it is in Spanish, making it not so useful for anyone that does not speak the language. Zofia Kielan-Joworowska has had a rather interesting career though, so we should not limit ourselves only to the short mention in a video about Mongolia. Instead, since there is no video that details her life, I recommend today that her autobiography be added to your libraries out there. It can be found on the Polyglot Paleontologist website as a pdf. There are a number of quality photographs and illustrations and it details a rather interesting life. Obviously it does a far better job than I can here, but a good author can usually tell their own story better than anyone else.

29 June 2014

The Roaring 60's

During the 1965 calendar year Polish-Mongolian expeditions shipped well over 20 tons of fossils to Europe. These included tarbosaurs, sauropods, mammals, hadrosaurs, and ornithomimids. By the time that the combative Protoceratops and Velociraptor fossil was discovered in 1971 hundreds of tons of fossils had been shipped from Asia to Europe. However, as stated before, Kielan-Jaworowska was not entirely interested in dinosaurs. her research from her school days until about 1963 was concerned mainly with trilobites and other invertebrates. Sometime during and after 1963 her focus changed though. Jaworowska began to study mammals extensively. This was in part due to the numbers of mammals that were recovered by the Polish expeditions in the 1960's that she was part of and those that she directed from afar. Regardless, she wrote of her experiences in Mongolian, dinosaur and mammal alike, in a book called Hunting for Dinosaurs. The book describes the 1960's expeditions she was a part of and various goings on during those expeditions. The book and articles she has written have been accompanied by some interesting artistic works, and a few of those monographs have managed to somehow survive until today. This example of a Catopsbaatar, from a 1974 article on limb posture, is a nice reference piece of the type of research she was conducting at the time, for instance.

28 June 2014

The Arms You Carry

In 1965 an expedition to Mongolia led by Dr. Kielan-Jaworowska turned up some enormous arms. Though they went on to be named by Osmólska and Roniewicz as Deinocheirus in 1970, Kielan-Jaworowska reported the find in a 1966 report where she quickly described the remains. The arms appear to be almost pure fantasy, until you know the extant of the collected material. Typically extraordinarily fragmented remains contain an amount of speculation and scientific extrapolation, but the arms of Deinocheirus did not need either because the shoulder girdles, arms, and entire left hand were recovered. Additionally, dorsal vertebrae, gastralia, supporting neck bones (ceratobranchialia), and five ribs were also collected with the arms. Deinocheirus has been described as a possible ornithomimid dinosaur with a hypothetically omnivorous diet, though the claws have been interpreted as both belonging to a carnivore and an herbivore rather than strictly as omnivore appendages. The earliest works of Osmólska and Roniewicz favored a carnivorous diet, but as more research has been done, more wildly clawed dinosaurs, like Therizinosaurs, have been discovered, and more examples of Deinocheirus have been unearthed, the shift has been toward herbivory of taller plant materials. Given that most ornithomimid diets have lately been hypothesized to have been supplemented by insectivorous habits as well, a case for an omnivore lifestyle is logical. Regardless, Deinocheirus remains the most notable dinosaur find attributed to Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska during her expeditions to Mongolia. Tomorrow we will discuss some of her other discoveries in Mongolia that are a little less well known.

27 June 2014

Discovering Like the Polish

1966 and young!
During the 1960's it appears that it was all the rage in Poland for female paleontologists to cart off expeditionary teams to Mongolia, specifically the Gobi desert. A couple of names are well known in association with these expeditions, including Teresa Maryanska and Halszka Osmolska. One name not typically at the forefront of the list is Zofia Kielan Jaworowska. Kielan-Jaworowska received a Master's degree in zoology and a PhD in paleontology from Warsaw University. In addition to her academic prowess she led multiple (7 of the 8 financed by the Institute of Paleobiology of the Polish Academy of Sciences) expeditions to Mongolia helping to discover a large number of fossil animals from crocodiles and birds to multituberculates (rodent-like mammals). In 1960 the director of the Institute, Roman Kozlowski, retired and Kielan-Jaworowska took over the directorship from 1961 until 1982. Despite all of the responsibilities and important positions she held, Kielan-Jaworowska's favored area of study is Devonian and Ordovician trilobites; this area of study has not led to as many high profile media circuses as some fossils, hence why her name is rather foreign to the majority of folks. Even more interesting about her favorite study subject is that she worked mainly on Central European populations, even while leading expeditions in Mongolia!

26 June 2014

Legendary Popularity

The reason John Ostrom is well known is because his revival of Victorian era musings of dinosaurian warm-bloodedness and his hypothesis of the dinosaur-bird evolutionary link. Ostrom's work on trackways and inferred behavior is understated and mostly forgotten by the world at large, but is preserved regardless in the wider realm of the Dinosaur Renaissance of the later 20th century. The hypotheses that are now accepted and supported theories of the paleontology world are a living legacy by which Ostrom should always be remembered. However, Ostrom's contributions are in danger of being eclipsed by the memory of his student who championed those causes into the modern era of paleontology and, literally, wrote the book examining those hypotheses further (extending Ostrom's hypotheses and augmenting them with his and other's work). Hopefully the memory of Ostrom's contributions to the Dinosaur Renaissance will be remembered into the distant future along the lines of other American greats like Cope, Marsh, and Brown (not to mention the worldwide recognition possible).

25 June 2014

Hadrosaurs on the Run

During the 1970's Ostrom took a short break from birds and Deinonychus to investigate some trackways discovered near the town of Holyoke in Massachusetts. Holyoke is near the middle of Massachusetts in the Appalachian Mountains and only a few hours north of Yale. The nearby Ostrom and Yale were the logical first calls for someone in Massachusetts to make. The trackway that was discovered was approximately 150 feet by 60 feet and covered by nearly 140 foot prints with three toes. The impressions measured between 2.5 inches to 13.8 inches long. The tracks belonged to small theropods like Grallator. Ostrom studied their feeding and moving habits and also studied trackways of herbivores to determine how they moved. The interactions of the tracks of predator and prey appeared to have indicated that the larger herbivores moved in larger herd for protection while the predators moved in small groups or singly. The trackways near Holyoke were oriented in parallel pathways, indicating that the small theropods must have been traveling together in search of prey items. The ichnofossil (trace fossils such as trackways) and inferred behavioral studies of Ostrom are less well known because they were eclipsed by his work on Deinonychus and warm-bloodedness as well as his work on bird-dinosaur connections. However, his 1972 article entitled Were some dinosaurs gregarious? was a very important piece of the herding and predating behaviors of dinosaurs that had not been highly explored at that time. Thankfully they have been explored in much depth since then, but this article was very influential in these studies.

24 June 2014

One More Bird Day

I want to talk about Ostrom and birds one last time this week. Tomorrow we will discuss the evidence of herding behaviors that Ostrom discussed in relation to Hadrosaurus, but I found an article from 2001 that I think is both great and sad. The article briefly discusses an article in Nature which describes the first Chinese dinosaur specimens that clearly show fully feathered bodies in exquisite detail. The specimens came to light years after the discovery of Sinosauropteryx and the primitive feathering of that dinosaur. That specimen, known as NGMC 91 or "Dave" depending on who you ask, was later described as having close affinities to Sinornithosaurus. However, this article is not about Sinornithosaurus or Ji Qiang and the team that described it. It is about how an elderly John Ostrom reacted to the news that there was finally a mountain of incontrovertible evidence and a key piece of the puzzle that made a lot of skeptics finally realize that dinosaurs and birds were uniquely related, just as he had proposed nearly 30 years before. It is a great triumph for someone that had been told many times over "Oh John, you're crazy" but it was also a sobering moment for a man who had been "saying the same damn thing since 1973".

23 June 2014

Ostrom the Almost Interview

John Ostrom, one of the most influential paleontologists of his day, probably gave many interviews during his career. However, these interviews have not been digitized or made publicly available online. The only interview available concerning him is actually the NPR interview of Robert Bakker that served as an obituary for Ostrom as well. The interview is about the legacy and career of Ostrom. Rather than rewrite the entire interview here, I encourage everyone to listen to the 5 minute NPR spot linked here.

22 June 2014

Haarlem Flights

In 1855 a slab was recovered from Germany that contained bones attributed to a pterosaur. In 1970 the slab, that had been in the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands, was studied by John Ostrom. A short year after the description of Deinonychus was published, the portion of the animal fossilized in the slab was under the scrutiny of the meticulous paleontologist. Recognizing elements of Archaeopteryx vertebrae, ribs, and limb bones, Ostrom set about describing what then became recognized as the first discovered specimen of Archaeopteryx. Ostrom described the process in this way: 
In 1970, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and with just exactly the right experience--having examined the London, Berlin and Maxberg specimens at various times during the preceding three years--and to my surprise, recognized that a fragmentary specimen displayed in a Dutch museum was not a pterosaur, as it was labeled, but actually was a fifth specimen of Archaeopteryx. The specimen consisted of two small counterpart slabs of limestone that had been found in a small quarry (now closed) north of Richstatt in 1855--six years before the discovery of the feather and the London specimen! (from Discovery, Vol. 11, no. 1, May 1975, pp. 15-23)
In describing the specimen, the paper being published in 1972, Ostrom began to become increasingly interested in the bird-dinosaur relationship. Studying the specimens of Archaeopteryx and other dinosaurs like Deinonychus, Ostrom noted that there were many similarities between birds and dinosaurs and noted specifically that Archaeopteryx "obviously represent[s] an extremely early stage in bird evolution." In the same article Ostrom recognized that his renaming of the specimen had incited not only his own interest in flight, but also that of others.

Ostrom went on to study flight origins. He specifically questioned and compared the hypotheses of tree down and ground up flight models. For those not sure of what that means, refer to this image:
©Robert Petty
Though illustrating a Chukar Partridge adult and chick in reference to wing angles for power strokes, this image conveniently shows the steps of a ground up wing movement in the left half of the image and the tree down movement in the right half of the image. Alternatively, the adult in the upper half of the image is definitely exhibiting a tree down flight from its perch while the chick is showing wing flapping from ground up as it climbs the rock. The ground up hypothesis is centered around arm and wing flapping for power and stability in an animal running up an incline whereas the tree down hypothesis centers around the idea of an animal safely reaching the forest floor from the trees. In the article linked above the hypotheses and their supporting evidence and mechanisms are well outlined by Ostrom.

21 June 2014

The Dinosaur or The Bird

©Emily Willoughby
Deinonychus was, and continues to be, a very important dinosaur in the "dinosaur renaissance" that is still ongoing as well as the ever growing list of evidence that birds and dinosaurs are related. The anatomy of Deinonychus actually began to be described many years prior to Ostrom's work on the dinosaur. A tooth was included in a description under a tentative name (Daptosaurus agilis) by Barnum Brown in 1931 while working on Tenontosaurus. Ostrom named the animal properly as Deinonychus antirrhopus, meaning Terrible Claw and "counterbalanced" (referencing the stiffened tail) in his 1969 description. That description is enormously detailed and meticulous. The Yale Peabody Museum keeps a copy of this description available online and it is well worth the read for anyone interested in anatomy and dinosaurs. It is also of interest to anyone interested in birds. Ostrom describes a number of bones discovered in Deinonychus that are very similar to those of birds, particularly in the forelimbs and pectoral  girdle (not that this is news to dinosaur and bird enthusiasts both at this point). In looking at these skeletal elements and the potential agility of these dinosaurs Ostrom also saw the potential for a warm-blooded animal. Not all paleontologists have always thought of dinosaurs as cold-blooded, but Deinonychus itself, Ostrom and Bakker's conviction to the idea, and more advanced knowledge and testing of fossils melded together to form the foundations of the "dinosaur renaissance". Part of the evidence rested in the agility of the skeleton and the active lifestyle that this dinosaur appears to have been the first evidence used by Ostrom to suggest warm-bloodedness.

20 June 2014

Birds and Dinosaurs

Academic lineage is important in many circles; basically it boils down to who taught whom throughout the ages. Anyone can trace their academic lineage and it is usually traced through PhD programs, though it can also be traced through lower level programs if someone wanted to do so (just like if I wanted to I could write my name as Ian Cost, BA, MEd, MSc; but I do not, ever). If I were to trace the lineage of my present academic level one of the people I would come to in this backward trace would be John Ostrom (however briefly he may have worked with my most recent advisor). Ostrom did a lot of work during his lifetime. He is most remembered, however, for his extremely detailed description of Deinonychus and his fostering and strengthening of the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs. He also proposed a revival of the idea that at least some dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded; these ideas were eventually championed and more regularly attributed to his student Robert Bakker. Ostrom also proposed that Hadrosaurus traveled in herds. We will probably have to tackle one topic at a time this week because there is so much to discuss!
John Ostrom and Deinonychus, courtesy of Yale University

19 June 2014

Gaps and Dinosaurs

Relationships between form and function were of great importance to the work of Romer. Popular culture, as we have stated many times, does not readily remember Romer as a guy that taught form, function, and evolution; however, there are a few things other than literature and his teachings that have the potential to remind the population about what he did for science. The most notable mention of Romer is probably in the naming of a small genus of reptiles (Romeria) and a Dinosauromorph called Dromomeron romeri. The animal was named after Romer in part because it represents an evolutionary middle ground between the pre-dinosaur reptiles and the dinosaurs and therefore represents Romer's lifelong work in fossil form (partially at least). The second area that Romer's name may hit more than paleontologists in is in the form of geological time. A gap between early Devonian land animals and Carboniferous terrestrial populations was recognized by Romer and has been thereafter referred to as Romer's Gap.

18 June 2014

Making Him Famous

Many, many times over it has been mentioned that Romer was famous because of his writing. What was it about his writing that makes Romer so famous and his writings so useful? The things in the writing that make Romer famous are the things that made him a good anatomist, evolutionary and revolutionary thinker, and the attention to detail he showed in his work. Connecting the dots of anatomy and evolution, Romer was quite food at seeing the links between one form and another. He tied together the forms as they evolved over time in his observations. This allowed for the development of storylines that Romer convincingly weaved, sometimes in advance of evidence. To say he made up histories would be completely incorrect; however, there are probably plenty of people out there that believed he was making it up at the time. Since Romer drew the connections during his lifetime many years ago many more pieces of evidence have been recovered from the earth. The work he did on vertebrate evolution furthered the sciences in many different ways. It was due to his understanding of the forms before him and visualizing the evolutionary histories of the animals that he became famous in his area. How he became famous as an educator and author is that his descriptions of what he observed and deduced were relatively easy to follow and informative enough that they can be discussed and followed by even the most novice learners. Unfortunately, as stated before, they are out of date a little bit and are not used outright. Other textbooks build off of his descriptions, clearly, and are used in classrooms today. He continues, therefore, to be referenced and his educational materials used, somewhat, to this day.

17 June 2014

More Writing From Romer

A slightly longer biographical memoir of Romer is available online. It was written by Edwin Colbert in 1982. Colbert is the type of person I mentioned yesterday; he is someone with a lot of information on Romer and wrote it all out in a well detailed biographical sketch. Most of the writings that Colbert mentioned and others known from the Romer catalog are textbooks. The reference book Osteolgy of the Reptiles has been mentioned before, but the many books on vertebrate paleontology have only been referenced a few times. In their day, they were very widely used, however, they have been replaced by newer texts written since long after the time of Romer. One that I plan to get my hands on and read someday in the near future is The Vertebrate Story. It is one of the cheaper Romer books out there still, and is widely available, but I just have not bought it yet.

16 June 2014

Something Is Missing

Movie Monday does not really exist for many scientists. Biographies for scientists do exist as documentaries, but most of them are for scientists more well known to the general public and, generally, for centuries old scientists. Modern scientists bestowed with this sort of honor are typically those that even the least scientifically interested person in the world can identify rather easily (I know there are exceptions to that rule). However, paleontologists tend to slip through the cracks of the documentary lens. The most that we see of paleontologists in documentaries is as "talking heads" rather than as subjects of discussion; notable exceptions do exist. Romer does not appear as the subject of a documentary or as a talking head in a documentary; the popularity of dinosaur documentaries did not spike until more than a decade after his passing. Despite all of the massively useful and popular works of Romer not even a written biography appears to exist. A 20 page biographical sketch does exist in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. Very little is actually recorded about Romer's life and images of Romer are few and most often subject to copyright laws as they belong to universities and magazines. These are some of the reasons why there are no documentaries or biographies written about Romer. There is information out there and someone must remember him well to this day. However, no books or movies are coming out as yet, as far as I can find. The best thing we can do is spread the word about Romer and hope that more people become educated about what he did for paleontology and all of science.

15 June 2014

Light Edition on Father's Day

Rather than doing a full entry today I am linking a site that gives a biographical chronology of A.S. Romer. For many the day is over or almost over and they are tuckered our from all of the fun Father's Day activities (in America) and for others it is the middle of the night or they are waking and catching up on a full day of football. Regardless of your situation at the moment, read through this page at your leisure and share it with the little scientists in your life!

14 June 2014

Romer the Writer

A. S. Romer wrote a lot of quality anatomy books. It was through his study of comparative anatomy, embryology, and paleontology that he was able to write these works and make them applicable to multiple disciplines rather than any single discipline alone. One of the most sought after of these works is Osteology of the Reptiles. The book is highly sought after by anatomists, paleontologists, and collectors alike. Romer wrote the book to describe the anatomy of all reptiles from their origins to the present day. This presents as a comprehensive catalog of all of the anatomical structures and organization that makes a reptile a reptile from the most generic shared characters to the more specific characters that define groups of lizards. Romer does not examine any species in ultra specific depth in Osteology of Reptiles; such an endeavor would simply take too long and would entail the publication of a set of volumes rather than a single book. The fact that the work is so well detailed that it is still highly used 58 years after its first publication is a testament to its actual amount of detail and how accurate the work is. 

13 June 2014

Fast-forwarding Science

A.S. Romer 1922, courtesy of the
HPS RepositoryArizona State University
While not starting out specifically as a comparative anatomist, Alfred Sherwood Romer is one of the most important names in vertebrate paleontology since paleontology became recognized as a legitimate discipline. Thought of as one of the most influential paleontologists, anatomists, and embryologists of the 20th century Romer, like Cuvier, advanced the science of paleontology by leaps and bounds during his lifetime. He founded the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and served as its first president, wrote scores of important works on anatomy, evolution, and embryology, and taught a generation of paleontologists that are now reaching into a 5th generation of graduate level students (graduate pedigrees are well documented for advisors like Romer). His life spanned from 1894 to 1973 and during that time he became a legend unto himself in his chosen areas. He used his love of the discipline to reach other disciplines and educate anyone that would listen and his written works are still used today because they are such comprehensive and straightforward research treasure troves. Anyone that has cracked open any of his works can attest to how willing he was to give credit where it is due; I noticed in a copy of the Osteology of Reptiles that he openly acknowledged and credited SW Williston's publication of the same title as laying the groundwork for his book. This week I plan to explore his 50+ year career and discuss some of the reasons that he is as highly respected as he is!

12 June 2014

Names Aplenty

Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier, Baron Cuvier, Georges Cuvier. They are all the same person. Where Georges came from I have not found as yet. There are videos and books dedicated to him (aside from the books and papers he authored). The real fame of Cuvier is not displayed in popular culture very often with his name attached. People know his work, they do not always know they know his work. In fact, many people on a regular basis look at models and casts of animals that he named without realizing that it was named by Georges Cuvier. Take this album of photos for example from the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. All of those photos are taken in front of a Mosasaur, a group named by Cuvier. There are a handful of people in those photos that may actually know that; I know they know because their acquaintances of mine. The name was not given until 1822 though in 1808 Cuvier confirmed the description of Adriaan Gilles Camper from 1799 that the remains being described were that of a lizard-like animal rather than an aquatic mammal or fish, as previous descriptions had asserted. Cuvier also named Pterodactylus (Cuvier 1809) and was one of the first to hypothesize that the world had once been dominated by the reptiles. The contributions of Cuvier are still important today and laid the base for a blossoming science. Truly he is a scientist that cannot be forgotten.

11 June 2014

Profiling a Master

Just a short note on a rather sticky topic: Cuvier is purported to have been the tiniest bit of a racist and has even been credited with laying out the principles upon which scientific racialism is based. The truth of that statement only holds water insofar that Cuvier's belief was that the three main racial profiles that still linger in the awareness of the culture (Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian) developed after major catastrophes or extinctions. His hypothesis was that the original human race was the Caucasian race. Unfortunately Cuvier's beliefs led others to think he was asserting that the individual racial backgrounds evolved from separate lineages (polygenism) rather than all of the races evolving from a common ancestor (monogenism). However, he did express some rather risqué views that would land him in a great deal of trouble these days though concerning his observations of the races and their innate abilities, as he saw them.

I have no desire to harp on what he may have meant, what can be read into it, or what others did with his statements. I would much rather spend the rest of this entry on one of the most influential books of its time, The Animal Kingdom (Le Règne Animal). Two initial editions were published: a four volume first edition in 1819 and a five volume second edition between 1829 -1830. It has been published since in other languages including English and is an extensive catalog of the animal species of the Earth. Cuvier wrote the work by himself (with the notable exception of the insects); a rather large accomplishment given the scope of the work and the number of taxa involved in a catalog of all known life on a planet. The number of covers of the book itself is a testament to the amount of content contained therein. As a reference work, even though it is rather "ancient" by our standards, it is of great use in the studying of the historical perspective of anatomists and zoologists. It is also free online, making it that much more appealing.

10 June 2014

Floods and Essays

The appearance of genera such as Megatherium, Mosasaurus, and Pterodactylus in the historical record are documented very well. Cuvier named these genera in various essays, but it was his Essay on the Theory of the Earth published in 1813 that explained, in Cuvier's own way, how these genera came to be on this planet. The work has been interpreted in many different ways, but the overall consensus is that Cuvier's essay and opinions embrace catastrophism very fondly. Catastrophism was originally, for lack of a better word, a fad in the geological sciences during the 19th century; it has since evolved in its scope but can still be connected with a Creationist slant. Catastrophes such as the Biblical deluge (Cuvier did not specifically reference the flood of Noah) were hypothesized to have caused the mass extinction of much or all of the life on Earth from time to time according to catastrophist beliefs. New animals and plants then took over the Earth; i.e. new life was created to populate the post-extinction Earth each time.

This sort of notion is in direct opposition to the ideas of a gradualist view like evolution, but the actual extent of Cuvier's embracing of popular catastrophism is not known. His works popularized the concept, but popularizing a concept and embracing the sensation (in Britain where it was most popular it was known as natural theology) after it becomes popular are two rather separate things. Catastrophism, "natural theology" is no longer referred to, is much more scientifically based now thanks to the work of scientists like Louis Alvarez. In some aspects it has become more accepted, however, the idea of catastrophism is still not popular with the majority of the scientific community. One of the positives of catastrophism that holds appeal is that long timelines either may or may not  exist for faunal assemblages. This kind of characteristic fits very well into the concept of punctuated equilibrium.

Back to the point though. Cuvier began to use these views of catastrophes as mechanisms of change to investigate the stratigraphy of the Earth. In these investigations Cuvier laid the principles for the concept of biostratigraphy (with the aid of Alexandre Brongniart). That makes Cuvier the father of paleontology, biostratigraphy, catastrophism, and an extremely famous and well regarded anatomist. There is a lot more history and theory on catastrophism than presented here. If you are more interested, check out the Wikipedia and this video (the video is fairly neutral).

09 June 2014

Go Extinct And Don't Evolve

Cuvier, like many scientists regardless of their eras, had his biases and made observations based on his opinions, biases, beliefs, and upbringing. Despite Cuvier's distinction as an anatomist and a father of paleontology, he was completely against the idea of evolution. Cuvier claimed that the fossil and extant materials he studied possessed no indications that one animal had ever evolved from another animal. One of his more famous examples involved a comparison of contemporary cats to those recovered from Egyptian tombs. Cuvier did not observe any differences between 18th century and pre-common ear cats. Using these observations he declared that the idea of evolution was supported by zero empirical evidence. Cuvier also studied other mummified animals recovered by Napoleon's expeditions.

Cuvier argued that short term studies, a few hundred years or even a decade, showed no organic change and that therefore long term studies, millions of years, would also show no organic change. That sort of argument sounds like it would be featured in a Creationist/Intelligent Design platform, however, it does not at all take away from the paleontological significance of Cuvier's work. In fact, Cuvier was so confident in the support of his assertions about evolution using anatomy as evidence, that he was said to remark "it [Lamarckian evolution] cannot for a moment bear the examination of anyone who has dissected a hand, a viscus, or even a feather." He did allow concessions in his hypotheses for the further discovery of other fossil animals, including fossil hominids that had yet to be unearthed. All of Cuvier's opinions and beliefs concerning the evolution of animal species were well known prior to the publications of Darwin and Wallace. His fame and the respect shown to him by others slowed the push of naturalists supporting hypotheses of evolution up until the publications of Darwin and Wallace and this is one of the many reasons that evolutionary theory took a while to truly take root in the natural sciences.

08 June 2014

The Young Reader's Cuvier

I have been considering how to approach a young reader's version of Cuvier for a good portion of the day. I can share encyclopedia articles written with kids in mind. The University of California Museum of Paleontology's Understanding Evolution site has a nice short history of Cuvier that would be beneficial to young readers as well. While discussing and reading over this information with younger readers it may be of interest to the kids (and the adults, we know it) that there are some good mastodon images available for coloring. The first one I like because it labels some characteristics of mastodons on it. The second I like because it is more scientifically accurate. I think I may put on my list of things this world needs a coloring book of famous paleontologists.

07 June 2014

Cuvier's Early Works

I left off yesterday saying that Cuvier's first employment was as a tutor for the Comte d'Héricy. During this time he became interested in fossil animals and, as he was already interested in the anatomy of extant animals, he began comparing the living and the fossil remains of a variety of animals. Mammoths were known to the scientists of his day and Cuvier studied the bones of mammoths, mastodons, and extant African and Indian elephants. His work on the subject of elephants led to his first paleontological lecture in 1796 (thanks in part to his recognition of a famed and on-the-run agronomist he befriended) and was published in 1800 under the title Mémoires sur les espèces d'éléphants vivants et fossiles (Memoirs on living and fossil elephant species). This publication and lecture set the stage for Cuvier's later paleontological work as well as definitively differentiating African and Indian elephants, mammoths, and mastodons as distinct species. For the first time ever the mammoth was officially declared to be an extinct taxa. Mastodons were officially given their name by Cuvier in 1806; their remains were referred to as the "Ohio animal" before that.

Cuvier's early work centered on large fossil mammals. He worked on elephants, named Megatherium, and described giant ground sloths. His papers on elephants and Megatherium elevated Cuvier to a near celebrity status in the scientific community, revolutionized comparative anatomy, and caused the world as a whole to recognize that extinction was a very real concept. Despite this early fame, Cuvier remained grounded and moved on away from fossil mammals. Cuvier focused his attentions on the ocean next. He investigated Mollusca, fishes, reptiles, and then later came back to mammals again. The work he did on fishes, including in depth descriptive comparative anatomy of 5,000 species of fish, was published as a 590 page treatise titled Histoire naturelle des poissons (Natural history of the fishes) and definitely contained a wealth of anatomical comparison between the species of fish. The work of Cuvier did have detractors and negative aspects. Those will be a topic for Monday, however, and tomorrow will remain set aside for younger readers.

06 June 2014

A Natural History's History

As far back in recorded Western history as the 6th century philosophers like Xenophanes of Colophon began to question the impressions and casts of anatomical structures found in rocks. Great scientists like Hooke and Steno described fossilized remains as footnotes in their research on other subjects. The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the science of paleontology become its own discipline through the work of Cuvier, Owen, Conybeare, Anning, Mantell, Buckland, and many others. Most of these early fossil hunters were amateurs, reverends, anatomists, and geologists; just to name a very few of the fields that came together to produce research in paleontology. Today, the field is much the same: an interdisciplinary collage of scientists interested in fossil animals working to understand and explain the past and the wonderful and awe inspiring creatures that inhabited the past. In a scientific discipline devoted to understanding the past of the planet, there can be a lot of confusion and arguments about what was what and the name of this animal or that tree (not that these arguments are not heard in relation to living animals and plants in some professional circles). Additionally, the history of the science itself is often riddled with confusion and debate. This is sometimes due to conflicting reports and sometimes due simply to the fact that the historical documentation is lost or irreversibly corrupted by manipulation of the story over time, like a long-reaching game of telephone.

The things that change the least in this long history of the science are the names of the scientists themselves (spellings are often changed over time and across political boundaries though). The first names that come up in discussions of the history of paleontology are usually modern names like Horner, Martin, Bakker, Ostrom, and Paul (we are using the media as a reference to create a short list here). However, looking back at the history is the best place to start a study of a science about natural history. The best place to start looking at the scientists of paleontology may very well be with Georges Cuvier.

Cuvier was born in 1769 in the eastern French town of Montbéliard (it was actually annexed from the Duchy of Württemberg in 1793). Tutored at home by his mother and then sent to school, he was a quick study and surpassed many of his classmates during his formative years; he moved to Stuttgart, Germany and learned the language so quickly that he had outpaced his German classmates and won a prize for German within nine months. Cuvier finished school in 1788 and took tutoring jobs to support himself while waiting for an academic position to become available to him. It was during his tutelage of Comte d'Héricy's son in the 1790's that he began to look at fossils. That is where the story of Georges Cuvier as a paleontologist truly begins. Tomorrow, we will look at some of these early observations of Cuvier and where that would lead his interests in biology, anatomy, and paleontology.

05 June 2014

Three Bones and Some Fame

The three main bones that the entire description of Becklespinax is based on are scant, though not the least number of anatomical elements that have ever been used to describe a fossil animal. Part of the fame of Becklespinax comes from the fact that Richard Owen attributed those three bones to Megalosaurus and a version of the dinosaur was commissioned with a humped back in the Crystal Palace gardens. Additionally, the popularity of Becklespinax is also due to the confusing history and changes of the name over time. Every time a dinosaur has its name changed it becomes media food and that tends to make the dinosaur more popular for days at the very least. In the more "popular culture" area, there are Becklespinax toys to help spread the love of Becklespinax to the world. Pokemon enthusiasts have even put Becklespinax on a fake card; obviously it would be more appropriate on a Digimon card. Becklespinax also shows up in a lot of amateur paleoart, which is pretty awesome some times. Not always, but some times.

04 June 2014

How It Works

©Sergey Krasovskiy
The hypothesized sail of Becklespinax would have had a very similar function to other sails that existed during the Mesozoic (and the Permian as well). Sails have become somewhat less evolutionarily vogue in extant taxa, though there are examples dotted throughout nature of sail-like structures. These are not sails in the way we think of ancient sails as membranous structures stretched over vertebral spines except in some fish. Regardless of the presence of sails on extant taxa, the sails of fossil animals are hypothesized to have served one or more of five distinct purposes: sexual selection, thermoregulation, sound display, camouflage, and/or food storage. Food storage is more likely to result in a fatty hump, something Becklespinax has not been hypothesized to possess (the evidence for various structures of the sail are all based on fragmentary evidence so a fat hump could be a viable possibility though it has not been explored to my knowledge). Sound display properties of sails have only been discussed by Gregory Paul in respect to Armagasaurus and its double row of sails. The most likely uses for the sail of Becklespinax was in the use of camouflage, sexual display, and thermoregulation. Thermoregulation in sails has been explored in a few papers and is fairly well understood. The general idea is that the blood flow and positioning of the sail in relation to the sun and wind helped to regulate body temperature of ectothermic or partially endothermic animals. Sexual display is a fairly straight forward use of the sail. Blood flow and pigmentation controls of the sail would have influenced the display structure of the sail. Camouflage properties may have been controlled in the same manner, or it may have been a static pigmentation pattern on the sail structure.

03 June 2014


Becklespinax was named in a reassessment of its description in Olshevsky's 1991 reassessment of Archosauria. Unfortunately the one place this appeared to have been online, Mike Taylor's website, has not been loading lately. If the site ever comes back up it may be available there again, however it may not; there is no telling whether or not he will fix the site and have that article back up. Until that moment, though, we have only the paper I mentioned Saturday with the comparison image of Becklespinax. Naish and Martill (2007) is a pretty long paper that discusses a lot of different English dinosaurs. The discussion that concerns Becklespinax begins on page 501 of the pdf under "Basal tetanurans." A good deal of other theropods are discussed in this discussion, so the description of Becklespinax is a little abbreviated, but is as comprehensive as it can be in the current circumstances of the scope of the paper.

02 June 2014

Tribute Videos Aplenty

There are a number of tribute videos out on Becklespinax and English dinosaurs in general that feature our interesting friend. As usual, the music is different, at best, but there are quite a few good images spread throughout. The same images do appear to be dotted about here and there, however, as we usually see with these kinds of tribute videos. I do not really have a favorite this time around, surprisingly. I think my favorite one, if I were forced to pick, would be this one. Some of the images are a little off, but dinosaurs deserve to be a lot more metal than most of the tribute videos we see.

01 June 2014

Kids Love Weird Dinosaurs

The two interpretations of Becklespinax are both strange and weird, to a point. They are certainly not the strangest of all dinosaurs, but they are strange enough that they excite the imagination quite a bit. Despite this interesting body plan, this dinosaur has not been popularized on child related websites or those friendly to younger readers. The NHM of London has a page, as it does wit many slightly less popular dinosaurs, but there are not many from other expected (i.e. we use them a lot) repositories of child friendly links and sites. One of our lesser used sites does have a rather good page on Becklespinax. Age of Dinosaurs is not often linked here, but this page on Becklespinax is rather well put together and very useful to younger readers. There are many images that can be used as coloring pages. There are no dedicated coloring sheets, however, this list of search results presents many images that can be repurposed in this way.