Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Denver Gem and Mineral Show Part 1: Giant Ammonites, Burrowing Amphibians and Leaping Lizards

On Sunday, the 16th, my friend Masaki Kleinkopf and I visited the Denver Gem and Mineral Show at the Denver Merchandise Mart.  It was a ton of fun!  They had booths from all over the place, like the Morrison Natural History Museum and the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, an excellent dinosaur museum up in Woodland Park near Colorado Springs!  One of the most exciting things by far was when a pair of women came up to us, and asked if they could film us just going about our business.  They were part of a group making a movie under the working title "Quarry."  It's apparently going to be about American Paleontology, and it looks like Masaki and I may have made the part about why Americans love paleontology, and especially dinosaurs, so much!

MESSAGE FROM ZACK FROM THE FUTURE:  Hello, everyone.  This is Zack Neher.  I have travelled to this post from the future.  I wanted to give you a link to the Homebase for these posts.  I am like Rose Tyler, leaving clues in the form of Bad Wolf.  Except this is not quite like that at all really.  Anyways.  The Homebase for the series is HERE.
Creeper shot of the film crew following us, with a large iridescent ammonite in the foreground.  Notice the distinct chambers.  How magnificent.

We also saw Dr. Robert Bakker there.  After I said hello, he waved me over and said "You're a smart kid.  Can you tell me where the nostrils are on this thing?"  The "thing" that he was referring to was a baby Eryops skeleton that he has been working on, a Permian amphibian that lived in the south eastern United States.  Remains have been discovered in both Texas and New Mexico, and it was a contemporary of Dimetrodon, who most likely preyed upon it.  Upon my examination, I promptly tried to prove his assessment of my intelligence wrong, as I pointed all over the skull in my attempts to locate the nostrils.  Turns out, the nostrils were right where they should be.  They were just confusing because in life, the animal would have been able to cover the nostrils with little flaps of bone, sealing off the nostrils from dirt and such while it was burrowing.  Pretty interesting stuff!
Dr. Bakker's baby Eryops.  The snout is facing the pen in the left of the image, and the two holes that you can see are the orbitals, or the eye sockets.  The googly eyes are explained below.
Another picture from a few weeks ago.  This was taken at the Morrison Museum when my friend Kristie Chua came up to visit.  Dr. Bakker, when asked "Why the googly eyes?"  replied "I put the googly eyes on because I like it." 

We also saw a number of giant ammonites.  Below are a few pictures of the better ones, probably the largest I have ever seen!  The only other possible contender that I can think of was one that I saw at the Heritage Museum of the Texas Hill Country in (you guessed it!) Texas.  That one was a huge, probably five or six feet wide, imprint of an ammonite, right outside the entrance to the museum.  This was the same place that I have talked about before, in my Acrocanthosaurus on the Prowl post.  Great place!  I definitely recommend checking it out if you are ever in the Canyon Lake/San Antonio area of Texas!
The Heritage Museum ammonite.  Perhaps my memory is a bit off.  But I still remember it being incredibly, enormously large.  Perhaps the picture makes it looks smaller?  A mystery.  I suppose I will have to check it next time we go back there now won't I.
The ammonites, in order of amazingness.  Probably about a two, two and a half foot diameter.
Although its size was less impressive, perhaps only a foot or two wide at the most, it was most amazingly iridescent.  There were a large number of them here, but somehow I succeeded in capturing zero great pictures.  Go figure. 
Same story as above.  Not as impressive in size, but amazing in preservation quality.  Check out those septum!
Masaki next to one big ass ammonite! 
And Masaki with another big ass one!  This one a bigger ass!  Bigger ass one?  Bigger one.  A bigger one.
The third really cool thing that we saw there (that I am going to include in this post, at least) were these preserved lizards.  These lizards are from the genus Draco, and are found exclusively in Indonesia.  These lizards are remarkable as they can glide from tree to tree.  Many paleontologists and biologists speculate that this is what the earliest Pterosaurs would have looked like.  For those of you who don't know, Pterosaurs are the flying reptiles that were contemporaneous with the dinosaurs.  Often confused with the dinosaurs themselves, the Pterosaurs were distinct in that they were truly flying reptiles, and not a distinct grouping.  Calling Pterosaurs dinosaurs would be akin to calling a tiger salamander a mammal, on the sole observation that the tiger salamander is a contemporary of a squirrel.  Not so.
One specimen of the Draco lizards....
....and another!
Famous examples of Pterosaurs include (or "Pterosaurs That I Have Heard Of):

  1. Anurognathus
  2. Darwinopterus
  3. Dimorphodon
  4. Dsungaripterus
  5. Eopteranodon
  6. Eudimorphodon
  7. Hatzegopteryx
  8. Ornithocheirus
  9. Peteinosaurus
  10. Pteranodon
  11. Pterodactylus
  12. Pterodaustro
  13. Quetzalcoatlus
  14. Rhamphorhynchus
  15. Sordes
  16. Tapejara
  17. Tropeognathus
You probably also know the Pterosaurs as the "Pterodactyls."  Probably should have prefaced with that.
A skull of Darwinopterus from the show.  This guy was at the booth for the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, or RMDRC for short, an awesome museum up in Woodland Park.  
The wing of a good sized Pterosaur.  You can see at the bottom of the picture a white round thingy.  That's the ammonite featured in the picture with Masaki, above.  That should help give you an idea of the scale of the wing.  Probably around ten feet or so.  And get this; that whole thing is one enormously elongated pinky!
A fossil pterosaur from the show
Another fossil pterosaur from the show
Anyways, in the Imax production "Flying Monsters" with David Attenborough (FAVORITE.  IMAX.  EVER.), they talk about how many scientists speculate that these lizards of the genus Draco greatly resemble the earliest ancestors of the Pterosaurs.  Initially gliding from tree to tree to snatch flying insects in the air, eventually these small lizards would have become capable of powered flight.  Then, they would have grown larger and larger, until they became the biggest animals to ever take to the skies.  Except for humans, but really.  We don't really count.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

War of the Wombats

There are three different types of wombat.  There is the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus), the southern hairy-nosed (Lasiorhinus latifrons) and the northern hairy-nosed (L. krefftii).  They have been classified by the IUCN, respectively, as Least Concern, Least Concern, and Critically Endangered.  Unfortunately, all three wombats face threats that could easily result in their extermination from the wilds of the earth.  Fortunately, steps are being taken to prevent such a wombacide.

In Queensland, Australia  lies Epping Forest National Park.  In just two square miles of this park live the last ninety individuals of the northern hairy-nosed wombat.  Surrounding this puny area is a 20 kilometer long perimeter fence, erected after 10 wombats were killed by dingoes a few years ago, which, considering the severity of a ten percent population loss in such a small population, makes total sense.

Although these steps are being taken to protect the northern hairy-nosed, this species of wombat still faces several severe problems.  One such problem is the fact that 75% of these wombats are male, making a boom in their population more difficult to achieve.  Fortunately for the northerners, the southern hairy-nosed wombat has a very similar reproductive system as the northern hairy-nosed.  Scientists are therefore using female southerners as surrogate mothers for the northerners.  This method is referred to as "cross fostering," and has been used successfully when it comes to other marsupials.

The other major problem confronting the northern hairy-nosers is the fact that all of the animals are located in the same place.  In the event of a disease, wild-fire, or some other similar catastrophe, most or all of these creatures could be exterminated in the virtual blink of an eye.  Conservationists think it wise to create a second population of northerners, not too far away from the first, but far enough away to ensure that a disaster could not take out both populations with one fell swoop.  Scientists and conservationists have decided that it would be most beneficial to the northerners if they were to assist in their burrow construction.

These burrows, which can be over 100 feet long, would be time-consuming construction projects.  Not only that, but a single wombat will often use up to five different burrows, moving to a different one each day.  The first wombat doesn't just leave his or her old burrow unoccupied, however, as another wombat, probably the same one every five days or so (I would guess), temporarily moves in.  It's really less of a permanent residence, like a house, and more of a time-share condo.

But just how time and energy consuming would it be to dig such a burrow if you were a wombat?  Wombats have a problem with keeping cool.  If you ask my opinion, I suspect it has a lot to do with their body design.  As we discussed a few posts ago, animals that live in hot environments typically adapt in ways to increase their Surface Area to Volume ratio, or SA:V for short.  To learn more about why this is, click HERE.  However, fossorial, or burrowing, animals, like the wombat, aardvark, marsupial mole, and many, many others, try to keep their bodies streamlined.  Like dolphins and sharks, these animals want to be able to glide smoothly through their desired area (be it water or burrows).  Having random chunks of body, i.e. the ears of an elephant or a deer, would merely slow the animal down.  That is my theory, anyways.

To keep cool in the heat of the Australian day, wombats will take refuge in their burrows.  However, to be efficient enough when it comes to trapping moisture (as water can often be very difficult to come by in the habitat of the northerns), it has been estimated that the burrow would need to exceed fifteen feet in length.  It has also been calculated that the approximate amount of energy required for a wombat to dig a three foot long chunk of burrow is about the amount of energy that a wombat would expend running twelve miles.  That means for the comforting fifteen foot length of burrow, the wombat could instead run about sixty miles.  Clearly no small effort.

The way that the scientists actually figured all of this out was really quite interesting.  To see how long it takes for a wombat to dig a burrow, experimenters Glen Shimmin and David Taggart put one wombat into a box.  (Equipped with breathing holes, of course.  As pirates and I like to say, "A dead wombat digs no holes").  The human duo then dug a hole in the ground the same size as the box.  Placing the wombat-infested box into the ground, they then opened up one end of the container, allowing the wombat free access to the soil.  Instinctively, the wombat would begin to dig.  A half an hour later, Shimmin and Taggart ceased the wombat-excavation, and carefully measured how much dirt was displaced by the wombat, as all of the displaced dirt would conveniently be shoved (by the wombat) into the box!  Convenient, huh?  During the half hour digging session, the wombat moved more than 100 pounds of dirt!  Impressive, but the team concluded that, if conservationists were to release a group of northern hairy-nosed wombats into their new territory without pre-dug burrows, it was incredibly likely that the wombats would simply dig themselves to exhaustion, and subsequent death.  An undesirable outcome for all parties involved, it was decided to dig man-made burrows, resembling those of wombats, throughout the habitat, prior to the installation of the wombat center-piece.

What are some other problems facing wombats?  Well for starters, some of these problems, even when facing the wombats in the face, are virtually invisible to them.  Wombats, like Stegosaurus, rhinos, and myself (without my contacts), are virtually blind.  You don't need eyes if you are a fossorial (burrowing) creature; just ask the marsupial mole, the golden mole, or many other types of fossorial animals who no longer use, or even have, eyes!  However, when it comes to crossing roads, their terrible eyesight really takes its toll.  Hundreds, if not thousands, are hit by cars each year.

Other problems include starvation, drought, mange, and other people problems.  Starvation can be easily caused by the gradual squeezing out of the native grasses typically consumed by wombats by other, inedible grasses.  Drought should be self-explanatory; without water, the food dies.  Without water, there is no water.  Both are not good for wombats.  Mange, for wombats at least, is a fatal skin disease.  And as for the other people problems?  Let's just say that prairie dogs can relate.  (And now, even though I just said "Let's just say," I am going to go into more detail).  Like prairie dogs, wombats burrow.  And also like prairie dogs, the habitat of the wombat is perfect for ranchers.  So it goes like this.  Ranchers come along, and bring their cattle.  The cattle step in prairie dog/wombat holes, break their legs, and die.  The ranchers, enraged, take their rage out on the culprits: the prairie dogs or the wombats.  And as we have discussed before, wombat burrows can be quite extensive.  Furthermore, the entrance holes would have to be quite fat in order to accomodate such...robust occupants. 

As we have also previously discussed, much is being done in order to protect the wombat.  Another bit of good news is that a population boom of around 10% was recorded for the sole population of the northern hairy-nosed wombat!  Another wee bit of hope in a world that we willfully wish not to become wombatless.


  1. Cooling Off:  Besides retreating into their burrows, wombats will also flick dirt onto their bodies to keep cool.
  2. Olympic Runners:  Despite its dumpy appearance, the wombat can reach a top speed of around 25 mph.  This means that it can outrun an Olympic sprinter, like Usain Bolt!
  3. Cooling Off V 2.0:  Besides retreating into their burrows and flicking dirt onto their bodies, wombats are also nocturnal, meaning that they avoid the heat of the day.
  4. Life Span:  Wombats can live around twenty years.
  5. Wombat Wesearch:  Prior to around fifteen or so years ago, not much research had been done on wombats.  Most of what we know has been discovered since that time.
  6. Power House Excavators:  For their size, wombats may be the world's most powerful excavators.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thieving Penguins

Adélie penguins are quite interesting little fellows.  One interesting aspect of the Adélie penguins that we are going to look at today is their trickiness and thievery.

Penguins are popular animals and, with the possible exception of the emperor penguin, the Adélie is probably the most famous.  In his excellent book "Penguins:  Past and Present, Here and There," mammalian paleontologist and penguinologist George Gaylord Simpson says, "Pygoscelis adeliae has probably figured in more cartoons than any other creature except Homo sapiens."  This, in my opinion, and I believe his, too, is due to the fact that they seem so very human.  But looks aren't the only similarities that humans have with the Adélie; it appears that the Adélie penguin partakes in thievery, as well!  But if you don't believe me, you don't have to take my word for it!  Take the word of David Attenborough, in this clip from BBC's Frozen Planet, below!

The Adélie penguin is labeled "Near Threatened" by the IUCN, and lives throughout Antarctica.  Their two closest relatives, and fellow members of the genus "Pygoscelis," are the "Least Concern" gentoo (P. papua) and the "Near Threatened" chinstrap (P. antarcticus) penguins, seen below.
Finally, I would like to apologize for my lack of posts in the last couple of weeks!  What with school, the upcoming lecture, volunteering at the Morrison Museum, and watching every single episode of Psych (GREAT SHOW) in order, I have a lot going on, despite what my parents seem to think!  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

23 Fact Tuesdays: Ceratosaurus, Octopi, Aye-aye, and More!

Introducing:  23 Fact Tuesdays!  I'm thinking that (possibly) each week, we can look at twenty-three different groups of....things....and we can learn a fun fact about them each week!  Many of these topics feature North America, as that is where both I and most of my readers reside, but other topics include penguins, fossil horses, fossil mammals, early humans, various fish and birds, dinosaurs, and many more!
Here they are!

Don't want to read all twenty-three!  Well, in my opinion, the best ones are 10, 14, 15, 17, 18, and 19!  Enjoy!

1.  Alaskan Mammals:  The Sitka black-tailed deer will graze on beach plants like dune grass and kelp during the lean season.

2.  Alaskan Fish:  The whitefish may fast for eight or nine months during the lean season, surviving off of their stored fat.

3.  Dinosaurs:  In 1883, Ceratosaurus was the first large meat eating, or Theropod, dinosaur skeleton that was discovered more than half complete.  The first skeleton was discovered in Colorado.

4.  Dinosaurian Contemporaries:  Lagosuchus was either the direct ancestor, or a close relative of the ancestor, of the dinosaurs.

5.  North American Birds of Prey:  The robin-sized American Kestrel is not only the smallest hawk in North America, but it is also the most common.

6.  Tideland Treasures of South Carolina:  The palmetto, which is the state tree of South Carolina, can live for 75 years, and grow to a height of 60 feet, with a 1 or 2 foot diameter.

7.  North American Mammals:  The least chipmunk, besides eating the usual rodent foods like nuts, will also dine on insects, and occasionally small vertebrates.

8.  North American Hoofed and Marine Mammals:  The sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales.

9.  North American Birds:  The common goldeneye will often take over abandoned woodpecker nests.

10.  Fossil Mammals:  Despite the fact that primates no longer live in North America, many paleontologists think that they either evolved there or in Asia.

11.  Penguins:  Despite the fact that most people think of penguins living in cold, snowy climates, the king penguin typically forms colonies in the shelter of dense tussock grass.

12.  Fossil Horses:  One species of Hypohippus, H. osborni, had weak and infrequently used side toes.  Although not very exciting sounding, this is an important step from multi-toed horse ancestors to the one-toed horses that we know today. 

13.  Dinosaurs....Again!:  Ornithomimus, one of the "ostrich-dinosaurs," lived both in the states of Colorado and Montana, but also in the country of Tibet.

14.  Extreme Abilities:  In order to protect itself from various predators and to hunt its various prey, the amazing Indo-Malayan octopus can mimic an enormous variety of different animals, including flounder, sea snakes, crinoids, jellyfish, lionfish, hermit crabs, stingrays, brittlestars, stomatopods, and sea anemones, amongst many others.

15.  Extreme Movement:  Although this dude looks like a worm or something, the caecilian is actually a close relative of newts and salamanders.  It lives strictly underground, and is rarely seen, despite the fact that they can grow up to five feet long.

16.  Extreme Growth:  The ostrich is a serious record breaker amongst birds.  Not only does it when the tallest bird and heaviest bird awards, but it also is the fastest runner, has the biggest egg, and has the largest eyes.  In fact, the smallest bird on the planet, the tiny little bee hummingbird, could easily fit inside the eye of the ostrich!

 17.  Extreme Families:  The "Biggest Nest of Any Bird" Award goes to the orange-footed megapode, or the scrubfowl.  Although these nests are just on the ground (the biggest nests in trees are built by bald eagles), they are still very, very impressive.  On average, these nests can be 11.5 feet wide and 39 feet tall!  The biggest ever recorded, however, was a whopping 164 feet wide!

18.   Remarkable Mammals:  The aye-aye, possibly one of the creepiest looking animals in the natural world, is a type of lemur whose large incisor teeth grow continuously.

19.  Remarkable Birds:  Once thought to be the missing link between reptiles and birds, the South American Hoatzin hatches out of its egg with claws on its wing greatly resembling those of the ancient Late Jurassic bird Archaeopteryx.  These wing claws are not often, and maybe even never, found on birds today, with the obvious exception of the baby Hoatzin.  As the Hoatzin grows, its wing claws disappear.  

20.  Remarkable Fish:  The electric eel can discharge fifty volts from its body.

21.  Remarkable Reptiles and Amphibians:  The Cuban tree boa will position itself in small apertures in caves, striking with deadly accuracy at bats that fly out of the cave.  Remarkably, the snake will do this in complete darkness, somehow sensing where the bats are.

22.  Prehistoric Animals:  Like Lagosuchus, Effigia is another possible relative of the dinosaurs.

23.  The Evolution of Humans:  Homo heidelbergensis is thought to have been the last common ancestor between the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and us humans, Homo sapiens

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cryolophosaurus: The Dinosaur in the Freezer

When you looked at that picture, you probably didn't think much of the background.  You probably just glanced at the dinosaur.  Well take a closer look at that background.  Where do you think it is?  I'll give you a hint.  This is what that area looks like today:

If you guessed Antarctica, then you are 100% correct!  During the Mesozoic Era, or the time of the dinosaurs, Antarctica was a very different looking place.  It would definitely have been a bit nippy at times, but nowhere near as cold as it is today, and was more of a cool temperate biome!  Cryolophosaurus, meaning "Cold Crest Lizard" in Latin (and also the dinosaur in the first picture above), lived during the Early Jurassic Period, more than 180 million years ago.  As you can see on the map below, the world looked quite different than it does today! 

Interestingly, Cryolophosaurus was originally called "Elvisaurus," named such for the small crest that it has on its head, and its similarity to the swoop of hair that Elvis had on his own head.  I don't know why they changed the name, but if you ask me, Elvisaurus is a better name all around!

The inspiration for this post came from something that I saw Dr. Thomas Holtz, a famous paleontologist, share on Facebook the other day regarding Cryolophosaurus.  It was an incredibly interesting reconstruction, but I am not sure how factually based it is, given the dubious nature of the placement of the dinosaur.  Last I had heard, Cryolophosaurus was outside the given range of dinosaurs that had feathers, so I believe that it might have just been an artistic liberty on the part of the author!  Regardless, it was pretty cool looking, and I wanted to share!  

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