Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dinosaur Round-up 11

I've been listening to James Taylor, so I'm in a good enough mood to post some things that don't suck. Jurassic Park doesn't suck -

Frankly, these are all just articles about dinosaurs (albeit good articles about good dinosaurs).

Jurassic Park comes back from extinction
Dinosaur-movie franchise Jurassic Park is set to take another bite out of the box office -- Hollywood bosses are planning to bring a second trilogy to the big screen.

The original 1993 film, starring Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum, was a massive success, grossing $914 million worldwide and spawning two sequels.

Now, nine years after Jurassic Park III hit theaters in 2001, movie bosses are planning to let the dinosaurs roam the earth once again.

And Joe Johnston, who directed the third installment, reveals a new movie will be closely followed by two more.

He tells BoxOffice.com, ""There is going to be a Jurassic Park IV. And it's going to be unlike anything you've seen. It breaks away from the first three -- it's essentially the beginning of the second Jurassic Park trilogy. It's going to be done in a completely different way.

""If you think of the first three as a trilogy, number four would be the beginning of a second trilogy. We just want to make them justified in their own right. We don't want to make sequel after sequel just because there's a market for it. We want to tell different, interesting stories.""

(c) 2009 WORLD ENTERTAINMENT NEWS NETWORK LTD. All global rights reserved. No unauthorized copying or re-distributing permitted.

Mily's blog about Korean children
Imperical evidence out of some part of Korea that dinosaurs make children better:

In Korea, I noticed that 5 year old boys only draw dinosaurs and vehicles, whereas girls tend to draw people and flowers. For the most part, the boys drawings were far more interesting, so I'm finally putting some online. Apparently professional artists are using the same style. Rawr!

Dinosaur Death Pits

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published January 19, 2010

Following in a giant dinosaur's footsteps could be fatal—but not for the reasons you might suspect.

Mysterious "death pits" holding the fossil skeletons of nearly two dozen small dinosaur species may actually be the 160-million-year-old footprints of an ancient behemoth, a new study suggests.

The first of three dino-filled pits was unearthed nearly a decade ago in northwestern China's remote Xinjiang region.

Inside the 3.5- to 6.5-foot-deep (1- to 2-meter-deep) depressions were the largely complete skeletons of several species of small theropods, bipedal raptors from the lineage that includes Tyrannosaurus rex.

The stacked fossils included Guanlong, or "crested dragon," a T. tex ancestor with a Mohawk-like head adornment. Limusaurus, also found in the pits, was a probable herbivore with an intriguing hand that some experts believe links dinosaur limbs to bird wings.

Even as scientists celebrated these rare fossil finds, a mystery remained: What created the death traps in which the animals were entombed?

Treacherous Tracks

Analysis of the rocks surrounding the dinosaur fossils shows that the unfortunate animals were stacked up inside in a mixture of volcanic mudstone and sandstone, say geologist David Eberth and colleagues, whose work was partially funded by the National Geographic Society.

"All of the geological data indicated to us that we're dealing with sediments that were originally very rich in fluids," said Eberth, of Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum. "These were never empty holes in the landscape."

Instead, the death pits might have been created by the wanderings of the massive sauropod dinosaur Mamenchisaurus, Eberth's team suggests in the study, which will appear in the February issue of the journal PALAIOS.

Although the pits lie in what is now the Gobi desert, 160 million years ago the region was a marshy wetland. (Related pictures: life in the Jurassic period.)

But at some point during the late Jurassic, erupting volcanoes showered the area with massive amounts of ash. This volcanic debris created a semisolid surface over pockets of quicksand-like volcanic mud.

When Mamenchisaurus went for a walk across the strange landscape, the massive plant-eater's feet punched through the ashy surface, and the dinosaur's footprints became backfilled with thick mud, the study authors think.

Like beach walkers leaving their "vanishing" prints in wet sand, the huge dinosaur's filled-in prints became "invisible" pit traps.

At around 40 to 50 pounds (18 to 22.6 kilograms) each, comparatively tiny theropods and other small animals could have walked unhindered across most of the region's solid ash crust. But the dinosaurs would have easily gotten trapped if they had stumbled into Mamenchisaurus's muddy footprints.

Theropods in particular would have had a tough time escaping, since the dinosaurs used only their hind legs for locomotion, Eberth said. (Quiz: Test your dinosaur IQ.)

"It's very likely that other kinds of animals would have entered these pits but were able to get out," Eberth said. "We picture quadrupeds being able to get out of these pits because they essentially had a natural four-wheel-drive to pull themselves out."

In addition, small theropods were most likely coated in feathers that, when covered with mud, would have weighed them down further.

When an animal died, it would become at least partially submerged. Other creatures would then fall into the muddy trap, creating layers of entombed bodies.

After a few months, it's possible some animals were able to escape death because they could stand on the piled-up corpses, the study authors write.

Springing the Trap

The footprint idea is plausible, said Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

"The small, possibly plant-eating theropod Limusaurus was common and conceivably could have traveled in small flocks or herds," said Sues, who was not involved with the study. "Many of these animals could become trapped on such treacherous ground."

"The larger predatory Guanlong would then have been attracted by seemingly easy prey and became itself ensnared in mud," he said.

Whatever the pits' origins, the importance of the skeletons found inside them is beyond doubt, he added.

Theropods of this era are considered closely related to birds and so are important pieces in reconstructing the evolution of flight. (Related: "New Feathered Dinosaur Found; Adds to Bird-Dino Theory.")

But even though the small raptors were common during the Jurassic, their remains are quite rare, he said. That's probably because theropod carcasses were typically ripped apart by predators, and their smaller bones were far less likely to survive to the present day.

Multiple individuals of the same species found together in the pits allow paleontologists to better understand the way dinosaurs grew and aged, as well as their roles in the larger ecosystem. The finds also help fill an enormous fossil gap for the middle to late Jurassic (see a prehistoric time line).

"Previously," Sues said, "we had known very little about dinosaurs and other land vertebrates from this particular time interval anywhere."


Footprints to be preserved

Dinosaur footprints formed 165 million years ago on an ancient shoreline in north Oxfordshire are to be given special protection by the Government’s conservation experts, Natural England.

The fossilised tracks of dinosaurs including the Brachiosaurus, a vegetarian, and the carnivorous Tyrannosaurus are in a working quarry at Ardley, near Bicester, close to the M40. It is to be designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest — the first to be protected for its geological features alone.

The fossils found in the rocks include a variety of sea urchins, molluscs, clams, lamp shells, horseshoe worms, snails, corals and very rare ammonites and nautiloids.

Helen Phillips, the chief executive of Natural England, said: “Geological sites of this quality and importance are few and far between and we are delighted to give this important window on our past the protection that it so clearly deserves.”

The site needs to be protected from exposure to the elemnts and damage from erosion. Experts will work with the site owners to ensure that the trackways are preserved to allow scientific study.


Hunting the T-Rex on Montana's dinosaur trail

LIFE for poor old Leonardo was nasty, brutish and short.

About 77 million years ago the juvenile duckbill dinosaur was attacked on the plains of what is now known as Montana, US, by a pack of Jurassic predators.

Fatally wounded, the young Brachylophosaurus struggled to the edge of an inland sea, where he sank into the soft sand and died.

The salt water mummified him, preserving the wrinkles and scales on his skin and even his last meal of conifers and magnolia-like plants.

He remained buried until he was discovered north of Malta, in central Montana, in 2000.

Named after graffiti carved in a nearby rock, Leonardo is now a worldwide palaeontological star and a leading attraction at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, one of the stops along Montana's so-called Dinosaur Trail.

The Dinosaur Trail links together a series of dinosaur-related museums, laboratories and archaeological sites including the Great Plains Museum.

The idea of a dinosaur trail was dreamed up by local tourism authorities who wanted to capitalise on the state's wealth of fossil resources.

And Montana has plenty.

Courtney Moles, the general manager of the Great Plains Museum, says dinosaur digs began in Montana in the late 1800s but the state didn't get to keep a specimen until the 1960s.

The museum was set up in 2003.

"It was formed by local community members who decided we have a lot of awesome dinosaur specimens, and we needed a place to keep them and where people can see them,'' Moles says.

As well as Leonardo, the museum houses the bones of Roberta, another Brachylophosaurus, and Ralph, a possible new species of sauropod.

Also on display is Giffen, the northern-most stegosaurus ever discovered. Giffen was found in 1997 by a local family who were building a retaining wall on their dam.

They originally thought the piece of bone they found was a curious rock and used it as a doorstop for four years.

"But as they found more they realised, they had a dinosaur,'' Moles says.

Home of the Tyrannosaurus rex
Visitors to the museum are able to hold and handle this 150 million year old fragment of dinosaur.

Great Plains is one of the few dinosaur museums in the world where you can do this, Moles says adding, ``We're not worried about it being damaged - it was a doorstop, after all.''

Another stop on the trail is the Fort Peck Dinosaur Museum, an architecturally impressive building located next to the Fort Peck Dam in Fort Peck, Montana, which opened in 2005.

Only about 40 Tyrannosaurus rex have ever been found, most of them in Montana.

One of these is the so-called Peck's Rex, a replica of a dinosaur found in 1997 30km southeast of the museum (the original fossils are kept in a sealed vault).

Montana is ideal for finding dinosaurs, says Fort Peck ranger Michele Fromdahl.

"It's not that there were more dinosaurs here, it's just that conditions at the time were perfect for preserving them.

"It was a swamp then but it's really arid and dry now, which makes it perfect for discovering dinosaurs. The terrain was perfect then and it's perfect now.''

People have an inherent fascination with dinosaurs, Fromdahl says.

"Part of it's their size, they're just so big. And they're just not around anymore.''

Fromdahl says the Peck's Rex is unusual because he is believed to be 65-75 per cent intact. It's thought that Rex may have had an arthritic jaw or suffered a fatal mouth infection, something of a liability for a T-rex, and starved to death.

Rex is also holding clues for palaeontologists at the University of New Orleans who are studying evidence to suggest that dinosaurs were left and right handed.

Surf's up!: How rafting lemurs colonized Madagascar

Who doesn't love lemurs? The strepsirrhine primates, or wet-nosed cousins of ours, are favorite documentary subjects and extremely popular zoo attractions. And, in one of those bits of zoological trivia that everyone knows, lemurs only live on the island of Madagascar off Africa's southeastern coast. The question is how they got there.

Documenting the paths of animals during geological history is not an easy task. In the days before scientists understood plate tectonics, land bridges, now sunk beneath the ocean, were often used to explain the dispersal of organisms. While some land bridges did exist in the past, like the one that allowed mammoths to cross from modern-day Russia to North America, they were not nearly as widespread as had once been thought. Instead many scientists began to think about how organisms might float their way to new places by becoming accidental passengers on bits of vegetative detritus. As articulated by paleontologist G.G. Simpson, this was a kind of "sweepstakes" in which creatures would be cast out to sea on floating mats of plant matter and of those wayward animals a few might be washed up in a new habitat able to support them. From these few survivors of tropical storms entirely new ecologies could become established.

The trouble with this was that the currents surrounding Madagascar circulate in a way that would make it very difficult for any raft to make it to the island. Maybe the unique island fauna could be attributed to a land bridge, after all. Neither option seemed entirely satisfactory, but, in a paper just published in Nature, scientists Jason Ali and Matthew Huber took another look at the sweepstakes hypothesis. As it turns out, the currents surrounding Madagascar might have been more of a help than a hindrance in transporting rafting animals to the island.

During the Late Cretaceous Madagascar was home to dinosaurs, including the knobby-headed predator Majungasaurus, but 65 million years ago they died out along with the other non-avian dinosaurs in the rest of the world. At this time Madagascar was already separated from the rest of Africa, but this did not stop it from being colonized by mammals. Studies of the genetics of Madagascar's living inhabitants have indicated that the ancestors of its modern-day fauna, such as the primates that gave rise to lemurs, started to arrive soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs. The ancestors of lemurs were among the first to arrive, between 60-50 million years ago, followed by tenrecs between 42-25 million years ago, carnivorans between 26-19 million years ago, and rodents between 24-20 million years ago. Representatives of these mammal groups clearly did not walk over all at once, as might be the case with a land bridge, but instead arrived bit by bit over tens of millions of years.

Just because the land bridge hypothesis is not well-supported, however, does not mean that we can safely assume that the sweepstakes hypothesis is correct. As the authors of the paper note, critics of the rafting hypothesis have cited the present currents and winds that move south-southwest and thus would prevent rafts from making it to the eastward island. If the same situation was true in the past then it could be safely assumed that whatever early primates found themselves adrift would be deposited back along the African coast, if they returned to shore at all.


The currents (red lines) currently surrounding Madagascar. (From Ali and Huber, 2010) .

But there is no reason to believe that the winds and currents around Madagascar have remained constant during the 120 million years that the island has been separate from the African continent. During the past 60 million years alone multiple ocean gateways have opened and closed, and both Madagascar and the African mainland have moved over 1,650 km towards the equator. Given all these changes it must be considered whether the flow of water around Madagascar has been altered, and Ali and Huber have answered in the affirmative.

Unfortunately the intricacies of prehistoric ocean currents cannot be observed directly, so the authors of the new study simulated the behavior of past currents using computer modeling. After accounting for what is known about the position of continents and climate over the past 60 million years the authors found that the currents around Madagascar were quite different in the past. In particular, the model predicted that during the Eocene (about 56-34 million years ago) there was a "vigorous eddy" off the east coast of Madagascar that would have drawn whatever drifted off the coast eastwards towards the island rather than south along the channel as occurs today.

Yet the normal flow of these currents would not have been fast enough to transport living animals to Madagascar. Under normal conditions it simply would have taken too long. Instead, it appeared that there were periodically faster currents at certain times of the year that could allow rafts to cross the channel in 25-30 days, and if tropical storms formed in the area (as seems likely) rafts of vegetation might have been given an even faster journey. This could explain why the dispersal of mammals to Madagascar took so long. The survival of the animals on the rafts was contingent on peculiar conditions that only occurred for a few weeks every year.

This pattern was in place through the Eocene and into the Oligocene, but by the early Miocene (about 23 million years ago) Madagascar had shifted enough that the currents changed again. The pattern of currents became more like what we are now familiar with, and they cut off the island from colonization by rafters (though animals that could swim and fly could still arrive). The fauna of Madagascar could thus continue to evolve in near-isolation; a sort of evolutionary experiment that itself was contingent upon which groups won the dispersal sweepstakes. This makes the destruction of Madagascar's native fauna all the more tragic. Lemurs, like many other animals there, exist nowhere else. If they are wiped out we will have ripped apart one of the most fascinating evolutionary stories we have ever come to understand.

Small dinosaurs crushed under feet of giant cousins

CALGARY -- It was a puzzle for experts in the field -- the fossil remains of small dinosaurs stacked on top of each other in three pits in China.

Now, the mystery of the "death pits" is solved, thanks in large part to the help of a senior scientist with Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller.

Those 1.5-metre deep pits, which contained a total of 18 small dinos, are in fact the massive foot prints of a 20 tonne sauropod-type dinosaur that roamed through the once-marshy area.

"We first found these localities with these dinosaurs, these raptors stacked up on top of one another like pancakes," said David Eberth, with the Royal Tyrrell Museum. "The fact of the matter is that's a very unusual way to preserve dinosaurs."

He said the smaller dinosaurs included two new species of great value to researchers.

The landscape was very muddy, Eberth said, and there were nearby volcanoes blowing ash.

When the sauropod trod through the mud, small dinosaurs would come along and fall into their footsteps, get trapped and die, he said.

Zhucheng, with miles of gated industrial complexes featuring signs advertising canned food and men's suits, looks like any other factory town aboveground. But underneath this city of 1 million, there's a treasure trove of dinosaur remains, more than 50 metric tons of which have been collected.

They are so numerous here that "fossils can even be found in some farmers' private courtyard areas and next to their houses," said Xu Xing, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is one of the lead researchers on the excavation here.

Residents in and around Zhucheng, on China's east coast in Shandong Province, have been digging up "flying dragon" bones for use in medicinal concoctions for generations. But it took a long time for the state to recognize their value.

Dinosaur researchers "had absolutely no money in the 1990s," said Clark, who has been coming to China to do research since 1991. But by 2002, the government put a stop to people who smuggled dinosaur bones and eggs and sold them. Now, Clark said, "because they are finding so many amazing fossils, the Chinese government is putting a lot of money into it."

As a result, there are more than 30 excavation sites in this area, the largest of which was discovered in 2008 and has been nicknamed the "Dinosaur Stream."

At the time dinosaurs were roaming across China, Zhucheng is thought to have been an area of grasslands submerged under several feet of water.

The researchers theorize that the dinosaurs were killed by the force of an explosion from a volcanic eruption or a meteor impact and then were caught in a flash flood, landslide or even a tsunami that threw them together. Perhaps several such disasters occurred over a period of years.

"It's very hard to understand why there are so many dinosaurs dead in one place," said Wang, the principal technician on the excavation.

The pit has yielded some of the world's largest duck-billed dinosaur specimens, bones of a type of dinosaur that had never been seen outside North America, and at least six new species.

One of the new dinosaurs has a pointy, triangular chin, kind of like a pelican's bill but made of bone. Xu says it is "the strangest creature I have ever seen."

What's even more intriguing is that there are seven distinctive "floors" of dead dinosaurs in the pit. Some of the soil is yellow, other layers are red clay, which Xu said seems to show that "there wasn't just one event. The dinosaur bones are preserved in different layers, suggesting they were killed in several different times," he said.

Local officials are less interested in these mysteries. What they see in Zhucheng are money-making opportunities. Wang Kebai, head of the Zhucheng Municipal Tourism Bureau, has contracted with a U.S. company to draw up plans for a dinosaur museum and park that he and other officials boast will rival Disneyland. He said he expects 2 million visitors a year.

Wang said the potential is so great that the government may order scientists to stop digging and simply put glass around some of the bones in the soil and rocks so that tourists can see them in the state that they were found, rather than in isolated cases in a museum, with signs on them.

"There are so many bones," Wang reasoned. "Not all of them need to be studied."

Gang broke into dinosaur park
A gang broke into a Norfolk dinosaur park, played on the attractions and stole £100 of sweets in a “stupid” late-night drunken prank, a court has heard.

The five defendants broke into the Dinosaur Adventure Park near Weston Longville on September 10 last year - and two of them enjoyed it so much they went back a week later and raided it again.

They escaped custody when they appeared before Norwich magistrates.

Prosecutor Lisa Britton said: “They broke into the Ice Age treat hut and stole sweets, fizzy drinks and other confectionary to the value of £100. Some of these items were later found strewn around the park in plastic bags.

“They also damaged the hut as they broke in and some of the dinosaurs had been moved out of place.”

Wayne Gray, 26, of Catton Grove Road, Norwich, and Paul Sillis, 18, of Berners Close, Norwich, both admitted two counts of theft after they returned to the park and carried out the same offence.

Richard Harvey, 22, of Julian Road, Spixworth; Jody Newton, 25, of St Leonards Road, Norwich; and Kirsty Gray, 20, of West Acre Drive, Norwich, each admitted one count of theft.

The court heard that none had been in serious trouble before. In mitigation James Burrows said their behaviour had been “stupid” but not malicious and amounted to “tomfoolery”.

He added: “It seemed like a good idea and was fun at the time but it has led to these five young people appearing before the court on some quite serious charges.”

Magistrate John Nicholls said that the cases of Wayne Gray and Sillis were aggravated by the fact they returned and repeated their crime.

Wayne Gray and Sillis were sentenced to 180 hours unpaid work for the community with £105 in compensation and costs. Harvey and Norton were sentenced to 120 hours unpaid work with £75 compensation and costs. Kirsty Gray was given a 12 month conditional discharge with compensation and costs of £75.
Study offers insight into dinosaur colours

What color were dinosaurs? Well, at least one of them had a feathered mohawk tail in a subdued palette of chestnut and white stripes.

Reconstruction of two Sinosauropteryx, sporting their orange and white striped tails.

Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing

That is what a team of Chinese and British scientists reported Wednesday in Nature, providing the first clear evidence of dinosaur colors from studies of 125-million-year-old fossils of a dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx.

“We might be able to start painting a picture in color of what these things looked like,” said Lawrence M. Witmer, a paleontologist at Ohio University, who was not involved in the study.

Of course, such pictures have been painted many times, but the colors were products of a painter’s imagination, not a scientist’s laboratory.

Dinosaur fossils are mostly drab collections of mineralized bones. A few preserve traces of skin, and fewer still preserve structures that many scientists have argued are feathers.

In the new study, Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol, and colleagues have analyzed the structures of what appear to be feathers and say they match the feathers of living birds down to the microscopic level. They used microscopic features to determine the ancient feathers’ color. The study builds on earlier work on fossil bird feathers by Jakob Vinther, a graduate student at Yale, and his colleagues. In 2006, Mr. Vinther discovered what looked like an ink sac preserved in a squid fossil. Putting the fossil under a microscope, he discovered the sac was filled with tiny spheres. The spheres were identical to pigment-loaded structures in squid ink, known as melanosomes.

Mr. Vinther knew that melanosomes created colors in other animals, including bird’s feathers. He and his colleagues made a microscopic inspection of fossils of feathers from extinct birds. They discovered melanosomes with the same sausage-shaped structure as those found in living birds. By analyzing the shape and arrangement of the fossil melanosomes, they were able to get clues to their original color. They determined, for example, that a 47-million-year-old feather had the dark iridescent sheen found on starlings today.

Dr. Benton was intrigued when he read Mr. Vinther’s research and immediately wondered what it might mean for dinosaurs.

Starting in the 1970s, a growing number of paleontologists argued that birds had evolved from a two-legged group of dinosaurs called theropods. The paleontologists pointed to traits in their skeletons found elsewhere only in birds. In 1996, Chinese paleontologists discovered an exquisitely preserved fossil of a miniature theropod, called Sinosauropteryx, that had whiskerlike structures on its head and back.

Some paleontologists argued that these whiskers were simple feathers. Skeptics have claimed that the structures were just shredded collagen fibers and that Sinosauropteryx had a smooth reptilian skin.

Since then, however, scientists have found a number of well-preserved theropod fossils with many more featherlike structures, corresponding to downy feathers and feathers with vanes. Scientists have even found bumps on the arm bones of dinosaurs, where the quills had attached. If all of these structures really were feathers, Dr. Benton reasoned, then they might have melanosomes. He and colleagues from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing set out to look for them in fossils of ancient birds and dinosaurs, including Sinosauropteryx.

The search was brief. “Essentially,” Dr. Benton said, “wherever you look, you find it.”

One of the dinosaurs Dr. Benton and his colleagues looked at, known as Sinornithosaurus, was a 125-million-year old squirrel-sized dinosaur covered in complex feathers. In a small sample of its fossil, the scientists found two types of melanosomes. One sort produces hues in birds ranging from gray to black; the other makes reddish tints.

The scientists also looked at a piece of the tail of Sinosauropteryx, the first feathered dinosaur ever found. They discovered melanosomes producing a reddish color that alternated with white regions. “I think the authors make quite a compelling case,” said Dr. Witmer, of Ohio University, adding that the study decisively closes the case on whether the whiskers are feathers or collagen.

One skeptic was not as impressed. Theagarten Lingham-Soliar of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa argued that the researchers should have investigated whether dinosaurs without so-called feathers also had melanosomes in their skin. “Regrettably, I have to say the study would not pass muster in college science,” Dr. Lingham-Soliar said in an e-mail message.

Dr. Benton rejects such criticisms. “These filaments are feathers,” he said. “They’re not shredded tissue: they’re stuffed with melanosomes.”

The discovery also offers clues to the early prehistory of birds. Richard O. Prum, an evolutionary biologist at Yale and a collaborator with Mr. Vinther, has argued that Sinosauropteryx’s whiskers represent an early stage in the evolution of feathers.

“It’s an important advance to show that this dino fuzz really is feathers,” Dr. Prum said.

Dr. Prum and Mr. Vinther are doing the same kind of research, examining dinosaur fossils for melanosomes.

Mr. Vinther said that the study published Wednesday did not have enough detail to provide a full-blown picture of a dinosaur’s color patterns. “One or two samples is not going to do it,” he said.

Discoveries by KU paleontologists trumpet the age of Chinasaurus

Lost in time, hidden beneath the earth for millions of years, dinosaurs aren’t creatures that reveal their secrets quickly.

Yet two new and surprising dino-discoveries recently have come out of the University of Kansas. Not surprising, both have emerged from fossils found in a nation that in the past decade has risen to utterly transform the study of the prehistoric past.

More than ever, this is the age of the Chinasaurs.

“Whether you are looking for marine reptiles or birds or dinosaurs, or whatever, China is developing so fast right now it is staggering.” said Philip Currie, professor of dinosaur paleobiology at the University of Alberta and vice president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. “I’d say that right now it is number one in the world for most major fossil finds.”

The first KU discovery, announced in December, looks at fossilized teeth of a nasty turkey-sized dinosaur to show that some meat-eating dinosaurs not only clawed or chomped their victims, but also oozed venom from glands in their mouths like cobras or Komodo dragons to poison their prey.

The second finding, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is sure to reignite the ongoing fight over the origin of flight.

Paleontologists David Burnham and Larry Martin and animal flight expert David Alexander — all with KU — worked with Chinese scientists to create a model using bones cast from a 125-million-year-old, four-winged gliding dinosaur named microraptor to show that the pheasant-sized critter probably did not run on the ground, as many scientists contend.

The scientists instead present evidence suggesting that the sharp-toothed carnivore, an ancestor of modern birds, always lived in the trees, spreading its wings and coasting from branch to branch.

The paper is a direct challenge to the “ground up” notion of flight, the theory that modern birds evolved from feathered dinosaurs that first ran on the ground before evolving the ability to take wing.

“With 7-inch flight feathers on its feet, it was implausible that it would even walk,” Burnham said.

To be sure, for nearly 130 years — ever since the late 1870s, when great long-necked dinosaurs were discovered in the American West —— the United States reigned supreme as the site of new dinosaur discoveries. But in the past five years, China has usurped North America in a dino-race that, to the extent it exists, is as collegial as it is competitive.

In fact, one of the most important figures in China paleontology, 45-year-old Zhonghe Zhou, the director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, happens to be a KU grad. He earned his doctorate there in 1999.

“We now have three people here from KU,” Zhou said in a telephone conversation from Beijing. “One guy on my team, he’s an expert on fossil amphibians. He got his master’s degree there.

“When I was at KU, I was really interested in sports. I watched all the basketball games. Even when I come back, I still pay attention to KU.”

But in paleontology — whether the focus is dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, 500-million-year-old sea creatures or even early humans — China is now ranked first among fossil-hunting sites.

“It’s not just dinosaurs, but fossil mammals, too,” said famed dinosaur hunter Bob Bakker, curator of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “They have great stuff: complete saber-tooth cat skeletons, three-toed horses. The Chinese have magnificent fossil rhinos.”

Dinosaurs unleashed in Jolly Old Oxford

It is known as one of London's busiest shopping strips but Oxford Street looks more like a scene from Jurassic Park as it is taken over by a large-scale dinosaur exhibition.

Parklife on Oxford Street has been transformed into a prehistoric jungle, complete with 24 life-sized dinosaur robots including the stegosaurus, the iguanadon, the diplodocus and the tyrannosaurus rex.

The Dinosaurs Unleashed exhibition, which opens today, is the UK's largest fully animatronic dinosaur display, which uses robotics and electronics to make the models move in lifelike ways.

Finishing touches are made to the Diplodocus exhibit at Dinosaurs Unleashed, which opens today

Finishing touches are made to the Diplodocus exhibit at Dinosaurs Unleashed, which opens today

Visitors will be able to walk amongst the dinosaurs and be given an insight into life 65million years ago.

The display features animals from the three great ages of the species' reign - the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous - which stomp through the park alongside a giant aquarium.

The largest model on display - the diplodocus - is three times the length and double the height of a double-decker bus.

The display runs until April 30.

The exhibition features 24 life-like dinosaurs including the tyrannosaurus rex and stegosaurus

The exhibition features 24 life-like dinosaurs including the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus

The models are fitted with electronics to make them appear lifelike

The models are fitted with electronics to make them appear lifelike

A follow-up to that story is:

One of London's most famous streets is set to exhibit a large collection of robotic dinosaurs.

The reptiles have been brought to life using animatronics - electronic puppets - at an empty site in Oxford Street.

They have been put on display as part of a roaming attraction to educate children and adults.

Visitors can get up close to a Diplodocus, a dinosaur longer than three double-decker buses. The exhibition runs until 30 April.

Velociraptors and a Tyrannosaurus Rex can also be found at the site opposite Selfridges department store.

The creatures can be seen in a mock Jurassic forest, complete with a watering hole, which has been created by organisers Progressive Events.

Nicky Allison, project director at Progressive Events, said: "The location, with the animatronics dinosaurs, will provide for a truly unique experience."

In 2008 developer Land Securities won planning permission to build commercial and residential properties on the site where the dinosaurs will temporarily be located.

The building, which is believed to be the largest development on Oxford Street for 40 years, will be designed by leading architects Hamilton Associates. Work is due to be complete by late 2012.



A newly discovered fossil has shed light on why a group of dinosaurs looks like birds, say scientists.

Haplocheirus sollers may not be as charismatic as T. rex or as agile as a pterodactyl but it's thought to solve a long standing puzzle.

Researchers believe its short arms and large claw show how bird-like dinosaurs evolved independently of birds.

The 3m-long skeleton, found on an expedition to China's Gobi desert, is described in the journal Science.

The fossil is a member of the Alvarezsauridae family, a group of bird-like dinosaurs. The group shares features with birds, including fused wrist elements and a loosely structured skull.

But the researchers say the new fossil shows the Alvarezsauridae group split from birds much earlier on the evolutionary tree than was thought.

"Haplocheirus is a transitional fossil," Jonah Choiniere from George Washington University told the BBC.

"Previously we thought the Alvarezsauridae were primitive, flightless birds. This discovery shows they're not and that the similarities between them evolved in parallel."

The fossil is of a nearly complete adolescent dinosaur skeleton and was found in orange mudstone beds in the Junggar Basin, Xinjiang, China.

It's like finding a great, great grandfather in your family which doubles the age of your family tree
Jonah Choiniere

It was spotted when a member of the team noticed the pelvis at the ground's surface. The rest of the skeleton was found only inches down.

The new dinosaur shows an early evolutionary step in the development of the short, powerful arm typical to the Alvarezsauridae group.

"The rest of the members of this group have really short forelimbs with huge muscle attachments, like body-builder arms. The fossil shows the first step in the evolution of this weird arm and claw," said Mr Choiniere.

Varied diet

The researchers believe the fossil shows development of the two diverged in the Late Jurassic period, about 160 million years ago. Until now there was no evidence of this type of dinosaur living at that time.

"It's like finding a great, great grandfather in your family which doubles the age of your family tree," said Mr Choiniere.

Scientists believe that birds descended from theropods or bird footed dinosaurs in the Late Jurassic. Theropods include alvarezsaurs, other bird-like dinosaurs including the well known Velociraptor, meat eaters like T. rex and modern birds.

Haplocheirus sollers means simple, skillful hand. The fossil shows the dinosaur had small teeth and researchers believe the claw may have been used for digging termites.

"It may have had a very general diet, tackling smaller animals like lizards, very small mammals and very small crocodile relatives," explained Mr Choiniere. "It was a lightly built animal and could run very quickly."

Tehran Times and T-Rex

T. rex's family tree just got one member larger. Scientists unearthed bones from a new dinosaur species, including an adult specimen and bones from a “teenager” that lived some 75 million years ago.

Called Bistahieversor sealeyi, the dinosaur lived about 10 million years before Tyrannosaurus rex appeared on the scene. Even so, B. sealeyi belongs to the same dinosaur linage as the famous T. rex.

Fossils from Bistahieversor (pronounced: bistah-he-ee-versor) were discovered in New Mexico back in 1998, and after many years of studying the bones, the paleontologists just announced the findings as a new genus and species, which they detail in the January issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

To the untrained eye, Bistahieversor looks like most of its tyrannosaur relatives, but many subtle features, especially in its skull, set it apart.

“When we take all these features together, it's clear that we have something different than what's been seen before,” said Thomas Carr, a professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin, who studies tyrannosaurs and co-authored the paper.

The scientists based their conclusion on one main specimen, consisting of a complete adult skull and partial skeleton.

This bipedal carnivore was about 29 feet (9 meters) long, with a head the size of a washing machine, and would have weighed at least a ton, Carr said.

Bistahieversor was thus quite a bit smaller than its T. rex cousin, which had a head about 5 feet long and weighed around 6 tons, said Thomas Williamson, a curator of Paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, who also was involved in the research.

The researchers also unearthed a “teenager” of the species, along with a few bones from another adult.

Bistahieversor shares a few characteristics with more advanced tyrannosaurs, like the T. rex, but also has many, more primitive features.

The findings give the researchers insight into the evolution of this dinosaur linage, helping them understand when particular features may have arisen.

“Our animal is a window on what that common ancestor might have looked like,” said Carr.

Like T. rex, Bistahieversor had a deep snout (as seen vertically from the side), which would help the animal kill its prey using its jaws.

The fact that Bistahieversor has a T.-rex-like snout, even though it is older, indicates that this feature is relatively primitive, Carr said, and it is not unique to more advanced tyrannosaurs.

More primitive tyrannosaurs were smaller, had shallow snouts and long forearms, and probably captured prey with their hands, Carr said.

These creatures then increased in size, but still retained their shallow snouts. Later on however, their snouts increased in depth.

“Our new animal represents that change, after the large body size was established, then the snout became deep and the head became the main killing instrument,” said Carr.

Finding this fossil in the American southwest “really changes our picture of what predators were around,” Carr said.

Up until it was discovered, most of the teeth and bones found in the area were thought to be from dinosaurs that were more closely related to T. rex, such as Albertosaurus, and who lived farther north. But this fossil shows that there was actually a predator unique to the area.

And since Bistahieversor is more primitive than its northern cousins, “it seems that we have primitive animals hanging on in the southwest, but the advanced ones are farther north,” said Carr, who added that he thinks this pattern was brought on by geographical barriers between the north and the south, such as the formation of the Rocky Mountains.
Dinosaur footprints found in east China city

JINAN, Feb. 5 (Xinhua) -- Chinese archeologists said Friday they have discovered an exceptional large track of dinosaur footprints in a city in the eastern province of Shandong.

After a three-month excavation, more than 3,000 dinosaur footprints have been uncovered on a 2,600-square-meter slope in a gully of Huanghua town in Zhucheng City.

Wang Haijun, a senior engineer at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Xing Lida, a dinosaur footprints researcher, said the prints dated back to more than 100 million years ago in the mid Cretaceous period.

The footprints in at least three layers are rare in the world in terms of both their number and total size, they said.

The footprints, which range from 10 cm to 80 cm in length, revealed more than six kinds of dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus, Coelurosaurs and Hadrosaurs.

The footprints were in the same direction. Wang said this might be a result of migration or panic escape by plant-eating dinosaurs when facing a surprise raid from meat-eating counterparts.

Wang said as excavation continues, there could be more footprint findings.

Archeologists have found dinosaur fossils in some 30 sites in Zhucheng, known as a "dinosaur city".

Zhao Xijin, an expert from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, said Zhucheng discovered the largest dinosaur fossil field in the world in 2008 where more than 7,600 fossils had been uncovered.

'Jurassic Park IV' absolutely does not feature gun-toting dinosaurs
The other future project I discussed yesterday with Joe Johnston is the long-rumored "Jurassic Park IV."

If you weren't reading my work on Ain't It Cool, you may not have read my report on the proposed sequel that was written by William Monahan and John Sayles. It led to Sayles accusing me of breaking into Steven Spielberg's personal computer at one point, which was just nuts. I did no such thing, but I guess the project was supposed to be under lock and key.

You can read that original report here.

That was back in 2004, and I figured they must have moved on by this point, even if they did have two giant A-list names on that script. For those of you who don't remember the report, here's the most important part of the article:

"There’s the eight-year-old-boy side of me that thinks that a DIRTY DOZEN-style mercenary team of hyper-smart dinosaurs in body armor killing drug dealers and rescuing kidnapped children will be impossible to resist. And then there’s the side of me that says... WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!

[The main character] is put in charge of training these five dinosaurs, X1 through X5, and the first thing he does is name them. 'Any soldier worth his pay has a name to answer to, not a number,' he says. So we are introduced to Achilles, Hector, Perseus, Orestes, and Spartacus, each of them a specially created deinonychus, which is sort of like a miniature T-rex. They have super-sensitive smell and hearing, incredible strength and speed and pack-hunting instincts, and they have modified forelegs, lengthened and topped with more dextrous fingers, as well as dog DNA for increased obedience and human DNA so they can solve problems well. All of this is topped off with a drug-regulating implant that can dose them with adrenaline or serotonin as the situation demands."

Seriously. That's what the script was about. A commando team made up of gun-toting super-smart dinosaurs.

It was the single most insane thing I've ever read from a major studio. It still blows my mind that they were considering it at any point, much less that they got William Monahan and John Sayles to both work on it. Spielberg spent a fair amount of time in the press at the time crowing about how great their new idea was, and I seriously wish they'd just gone ahead with it. Even if it turned out to be godawful, it would have been unforgettable.

Since Joe Johnston has said several times now that he's attached to direct the film, I told him that I'd read that draft, and I was curious about the state of development on the film right now.

Drew: Is that still in the offing, or have you moved on now to a new idea?

Joe: We have. There is an idea now for number four that is different from the first three, and that is more or less the beginning of a new trilogy, in that it sends the whole franchise off in a new direction. It's not about the dinosaur park anymore. It's about all-new characters. So Steven's busy right now with the stuff he's doing and I've got to do "Captain America," but hopefully afterwards, we'll find time to develop it. And really... it's something different that we haven't seen before in the "Jurassic Park" world.

Drew: I'm sorry we won't see the Sayles/Monahan idea.

Joe: Well, you know, Universal and Steven will want to keep making these movies as long as they're successful, and who knows? We may see the Monahan/Sayles version come back.

It sounds like no matter what, we're still a long way from any dinosaurs making their way to the screen, but at least I can finally confirm that the version I wrote about is no longer the version they're interested in making.

Again, my thanks to Mr. Johnston for his time yesterday, and to Universal for putting us together. Look for the rest of the Joe Johnston interview, as well as my chats with Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, as we continue our coverage of "The Wolfman" all week long.

No comments: