“A Diplodocus? Dippy the Diplodocus!”

A reconstruction of Diplodocus carnegii, the species that Dippy belong to!
Image Credit: Fred Wierum, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diplodocus_carnegii.jpg

From February 2018 to October 2021, a giant dinosaur has been travelling the UK. It’s had a long journey! Starting in Dorset, its migrated to Birmingham, then across the Irish sea to Belfast, back across to Glasgow, then south to Newcastle-upon Tyne, on to Cardiff, then to Rochdale and finally to Norwich. After a bit of a delay due to a certain virus millions of times smaller than it, the dinosaur finally reached Norwich in May 2021 and stayed there until the end of October. As Norwich is close to me this humble writer went to visit this dinosaur back in August 2021. I had not seen it since roughly the early 2010s, back when it was a star of one of the most famous museums in the world, the Natural History Museum in London. Since it was already well known, and since dinosaurs are always popular, hundreds of people had gathered to see it. The queue at its temporary home of Norwich Cathedral stretched from the entranceway of the southwest doorway all the way back through the cloisters and snaked its way past the front entrance of the cathedral. It took at least 20 minutes, but finally I reached the front of the line and entered the 900 year old cathedral nave that was big enough to house it! As I entered the huge, vaulted space, Dippy the dinosaur came into view. Dippy predates Norwich Cathedral itself by 153 million years and walked the land that would become the United States. But what was Dippy like? And how did this giant make its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain?

The original fossil of Dippy was unearthed in 1899 by railroad workers in Wyoming in the United States. After being fully excavated was put up on display in the Carnegie Museum, Chicago, where it still stands today. Now you might think “hang on, isn’t Dippy in the UK? Not the US!” Well, the UK skeleton we know, and love is not the same as the original fossil that’s at the Carnegie. Instead, it is one of 10 casts (or copies) of those Wyoming bones, (with other casts being present in museums in Paris, Berlin and more). The “Dippy” cast was made and sent to the UK on the order of none other than King Edward VII, who had been shown a drawing of the original skeleton by the owner of the Carnegie Museum, Andrew Carnegie, A Scottish-American Millionaire Philanthropist and Industrialist. Edward VII believed that it would make a fine addition for the Natural History Museum in London. It’s safe to say that he was right, as it has wowed millions upon millions of visitors for 111 years. Originally, Dippy was placed in the museum’s reptile gallery when it was unveiled in 1905. But in 1979 it was moved to its more recognisable position in the centre of Hintze Hall, where it greeted visitors as they entered the museum! In 2017 Dippy was dismantled to be given a deserved rest, being replaced by a hanging skeleton of an even larger animal, a Blue Whale! (Which has affectionately been named “Hope”).

Dippy itself! Standing proudly in Norwich Cathedral!
Image Credit: My own (low quality) photo that I took during my visit.

So now that we know how Dippy came to the UK, the next question is what exactly is Dippy? Well, if you were to guess that it was a big dinosaur then you would be correct! More specifically Dippy is a member of the species Diplodocus carnegii, named after Andrew Carnegie himself. Diplodocus means “Double Beam” and it stems from two strange rows of bones on the underside of its tail that helped to support it and promote flexibility. Diplodocus carnegii is not the only Diplodocus species known to science, there are in fact four! (The others being Diplodocus longus, Diplodocus lacustris and Diplodocus hallorum). First discovered in 1878 by the American fossil hunter Othniel Charles Marsh, Diplodocus were long necked, long tailed, heavily built, four-legged plant eaters that belonged to the group of dinosaurs known as the Sauropods. The first Sauropods appeared in the Early Jurassic period (a period lasting from 201-174 million years ago, exactly where Sauropods appeared in this time is still debated), and the group would last up until the very end of the Cretaceous period (66 million years ago). The ancestors of sauropods were small, upright walking, relatively lightweight generalists, a far cry from the giants that would evolve later! Later, multiple sauropod species, including Diplodocus itself, would occupy the large herbivore niche across the world, from the USA, to Argentina, to China and to Australia. The Jurassic was one of the best times for the Sauropods, with many of the most famous species originating in this period. Diplodocus fossils, alongside other famous sauropods such as Brontosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Apatosaurus, are all found in a Late Jurassic rock formation in the United States known as the Morrison Formation. This formation is HUGE! Geographically it stretches across the states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico, while chronologically it contains rock sequences and fossils dating to 155-150 million years ago. As well as Sauropods, the Morrison has preserved many other famous dinosaur species such as Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Dryosaurus, an early Ankylosaur known as Mymoorapelta and even an early Tyrannosaur called Stokesosaurus, as well as a collection of insects, fish, amphibians, early mammals, other reptiles (e.g. lizards, crocodilians) and flying reptiles known as Pterosaurs. The environment that Dippy and all these other spectacular dinosaurs lived in was warm, seasonal and semi-arid, that progressed to a wetter climate with floodplains and rivers, varying over the thousands to millions of years. Herbaceous (i.e., non-woody plants) were prevalent, with sporadic areas of woodland. This means that Dippy’s world would have had an almost “Savannah” like feel to it (except without any grasslands), with plentiful resources for all the giant dinosaurs. Sauropods are iconic dinosaurs because of their often absurdly huge sizes. They were so big that even a “small” sauropod would usually still be bigger than an Elephant!

Sometimes when you see your old house, city, or a treasured object again after a substantial number of years, it can seem smaller than you remember. Well, this is not what I felt when I saw Dippy again! On the contrary it seemed even bigger! Not only that but now I know more about Paleontology I can appreciate just how unusual Diplodocus is when compared with other sauropod dinosaurs. Here is what I mean.

First off, Dippy’s head is small, long and slender compared to the rest of its body, and to other sauropod skulls. Furthermore, this head contains a set of peg-like teeth which jut out slightly at the front, giving it an almost “goofy” look. This skull allowed Diplodocus to grab and strip off (or bite off) the leaves of low and medium growing plants before swallowing them whole. To sustain a Diplodocus carnegii that grew to lengths of roughly 25 metres (and up to 33 metres in Diplodocus hallorum!) and weighed roughly 11-15 tons (or somewhere between 25-50 tons in D.Hallorum), a Diplodocus would’ve needed to spend a lot of time eating. Luckily this “grab and pull” method is efficient, and by swinging their long necks around from side to side they could cover a wide area without needing to waste energy moving around. Furthermore, Diplodocus could lower their necks to access low growing plants, and even (briefly) rear up on their hind legs to access plants that would be out of reach otherwise. This skull and teeth did give Diplodocus a relatively specialized diet, limited to mostly soft leaves, but it meant that it could avoid direct competition with the other huge sauropods that it lived with. These other sauropods ate different plants that grew to different heights. For example, Camarasaurus’ boxy robust skull meant that it could have had a more generalized diet involving tougher woody stems. Furthermore, the orientation and reach of different sauropod necks meant they could access different foods. For example, while Diplodocus had a long, gently S-shaped neck and head that was held at a roughly 60 degree angle to the ground, a Sauropod like Brachiosaurus had a neck held more vertically like a giraffe, which allowed it to reach the leaves of the tallest trees. These differences in diet and head/neck anatomy allowed multiple different species of large 15-30 metre Sauropods to establish functioning populations in the same area at the same time. This is like having at least 5 different populations of animals all at least double the size of an African Elephant crammed into an area the size of Western Europe without the ecosystem collapsing!

File:Diplodocus species size comparison.svg
A size comparison between two Diplodocus species (D.carnegii & D.hallorum) and a human. Fun fact, Diplodocus hallorum wasn’t always considered a Diplodocus! It was originally called “Seismosaurus“, meaning “Earth Shaker Lizard”.
Image Credit: KoprX, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diplodocus_species_size_comparison.svg

Secondly, Dippy had a relatively thin tail, with vertebrae that start off thick at the body end and thinning until they became smaller than your hand. This, along with the “Double Beam” bones mentioned earlier, made its tail strong, but mobile and whip like, very different to the thick and sluggish tails dinosaurs traditionally dragged along after themselves in classic illustrations and movies. Such a tail could’ve had multiple uses. It would’ve counterbalanced Diplodocus’ long neck and potentially been used for communication between other members of its herd (via a recognizable sequence of swings and tail movements). It could’ve also been used as a defense weapon, cracked like a whip or swung into any predators that wouldn’t have been deterred by Diplodocus’ sheer size or strength in numbers. Diplodocus would’ve needed this protection (along with the single row of small spines along it’s back and tail), as the lands of the Morrison Formation was also home to a collection of fearsome threats. Large predators such as the previously named Ceratosaurus (7 metres) and Allosaurus (9 metres), as well as Torvosaurus (10 metres)and Saurophaganax (11.5 metres) would’ve targeted sub-adult, sick or wounded Diplodocus. Also, smaller carnivores such as Stokesosaurus and Ornitholestes would’ve tried to take unwary hatchlings and exposed eggs. Life was tough for a young Diplodocus, but fortunately they didn’t stay small and vulnerable for long. It’s been estimated that, from hatchlings no more than a metre long (that hatched from eggs no bigger than footballs), Diplodocus attained lengths of roughly 3 metres by age 1, 9 metres by age 6, 19 metres by age 12 and the full 25 metres by the age of 20 (though rate of growth and final size attained could vary between different individuals). Just like with humans, Diplodocus kids grew fast and had a growth spurt as teenagers! What fueled this growth was consuming vast quantities of food. It has been found that Diplodocus youngsters had a more generalist diet (i.e., browsing on tree saplings and low growing plants), before transitioning to the more specialized adult diet. This meant they could find food more readily and keep up their fast growth.

All in all, Dippy’s time in the UK has been an unqualified success. The “Dippy on Tour” event alone has been seen by over 2 million people across the country, and the accompanying displays have helped educate people not only about the distant past but also about the current challenges faced by the world today. Not only does Dippy help tell the story of Diplodocus, how it lived, how it ate and the world it inhabited, but it also provides more evidence for why dinosaurs were such successful, remarkable and (yes I’m going to say it!) cool animals!

Further Reading

An article piece on the Natural History Museum website, written by Matthew Prosser, on the history of Dippy

Prosser, Matthew, “Dippy: this is your life”, Natural History Museum, 1st January, 2016, www.nhm.ac.uk, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/diplodocus-this-is-your-life.html?gclid=Cj0KCQjws4aKBhDPARIsAIWH0JVsPEwiVHhKSzP_dK7BI-X6s9do5Sklu-ScuPBslgKvrzLzweH0ze8aArY6EALw_wcB

Young et. al. 2012 paper that analyzed the biomechanics of a Diplodocus skull to help give clues into how it ate.

Young, M.T., Rayfield, E.J., Holliday, C.M. et al. Cranial biomechanics of Diplodocus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda): testing hypotheses of feeding behaviour in an extinct megaherbivore. Naturwissenschaften 99, 637–643 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-012-0944-y

Fiorillo 1998 paper that looked at the dental microwear (i.e. the tiny scratches made on an animals teeth by its food, different wear patterns are made by different foods) on the teeth of Diplodocus and another sauropod named Camarasaurus, to figure out how they could co-exist in the same environment.

Anthony R. Fiorillo (1998) Dental micro wear patterns of the sauropod dinosaurs camarasaurus and diplodocus: Evidence for resource partitioning in the late Jurassic of North America, Historical Biology, 13:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/08912969809386568

Dunagan & Turner 2004 paper that studied the depositional environment and paleoclimate of the Morrison Formation.

Dunagan, Stan, Turner, Christine, 2004, Regional paleohydrologic and paleoclimatic settings of wetland/lacustrine depositional systems in the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic), Western Interior, USA, Sedimentary Geology, VL 167, 10.1016/j.sedgeo.2004.01.007

Parrish, Peterson & Turner 2004 paper on the plant life and climate of the Morrison Formation.

Judith Totman Parrish, Fred Peterson, Christine E Turner, Jurassic “savannah”—plant taphonomy and climate of the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic, Western USA), Sedimentary Geology, Volume 167, Issues 3–4, 2004, Pages 137-162, ISSN 0037-0738, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sedgeo.2004.01.004.

Woodruff et. al. 2018 paper that details the finding of a juvenile Diplodocus, and what it can tell us about its lifestyle and growth.

Woodruff, D.C., Carr, T.D., Storrs, G.W. et al. The Smallest Diplodocid Skull Reveals Cranial Ontogeny and Growth-Related Dietary Changes in the Largest Dinosaurs. Sci Rep 8, 14341 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-32620-x

• A blog article about baby sauropods, the differences between youngsters and adults, and their growth rates

Mike, “Why does a Baby Diplodocus have a Short Neck?”, Everything Dinosaur, December 12th, 2007, www.blog.everythingdinosaur.co.uk, https://blog.everythingdinosaur.co.uk/blog/_archives/2007/12/12/3405222.html

Information about the “Dippy on Tour” event, which ran from February 2018 to October 2021 and included places from across the UK.

Natural History Museum, “Dippy on Tour: A Natural History Adventure”, Natural History Museum, www.nhm.ac.uk, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/take-part/dippy-on-tour.html

• A blog article by Darren Naish, from 2009, on the biggest sauropods ever.

Naish, Darren, “Biggest… sauropod…. ever (part 1)”, scienceblogs, December 28th, 2009, https://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2009/12/28/biggest-sauropod-ever-part-i

Would a Velociraptor make a good pet?

File:Velociraptor Restoration.png
A modern artistic reconstruction of Velociraptor, feathers and all!
Image Credit: Fred Wierum, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Velociraptor_Restoration.png

If you have no idea what a Velociraptor is, or only know of them from pop culture, then let’s start this blog article off with a bit of creature building. Take a medium to large sized Eagle (like a Golden Eagle for example). Eagles are a good place to start to build as they are also predatory animals that possess a full coat of feathers, long sharp talons and a powerful, wickedly hooked beak. Next we make the Eagle flightless by reducing its wings down until they are not large enough for flight. Then we replace its beak with long, slender reptilian like jaws full of sharp teeth. Then we enlarge both of its legs, reflecting a land based lifestyle, and greatly increase the size of the curved talons on each foot. We finish by lengthening its tail, giving it a strong and rigid bony structure. The resulting animal is close to what palaeontologists believe a Velociraptor looked like; a ground dwelling predatory animal that would’ve looked like a bird but with more basal, classically dinosaurian features. This sort of creature building is incidentally the basis of the “Chickenosaurus Project”. This project involves scientists (e.g. the famous palaeontologist Jack Horner) “switching on or off” certain genes in chickens in order to turn bird like features into more basal dinosaurian ones. By doing this the scientists aim to not only bring a non-avian dinosaur like animal back, but also increase our understanding of the relationships between genes and an animals development and anatomy. The “Chickenosaurus” produced from this would not be a true non-avian dinosaur, both in appearance and genetically speaking. Instead it would look like a Chicken with some Velociraptor like features (e.g. toothed jaws, a long bony tail etc.).

Velociraptor lived in Mongolia and Northern China during a period of the Mesozoic era dubbed the Late Cretaceous, (roughly 83 to 72 million years ago). It belonged to a family of dinosaurs known as the Dromaeosaurs. This group generally consisted of lightly build carnivores (though some of the largest members, like Utahraptor, were more stocky), and are commonly known by their nickname of “raptors”. This is not to be confused with the nickname for modern day birds of prey, who are also called “raptors”. Dromaeosaurs are known by dinosaur enthusiasts as one of the families of non-avian dinosaurs most closely related to birds, and as the description of Velociraptor at the beginning shows, dromaeosaurs would’ve been very bird like in appearance. In fact if they were around today (and especially if you didn’t know as much about dinosaurs) then you might easily confuse one with a large ground dwelling bird from a distance. Now before I go any further I think I need to address the Sauropod in the room, Velociraptor is a name that is familiar to the general public due to its starring appearances in the Jurassic Park films. I’m not going to talk about those particular Velociraptors, nor am I going to point out the huge number of scientific inaccuracies that they possess. There are plenty of blog articles and YouTube videos that cover that topic in great detail. Instead this blog article will concentrate on the real Velociraptor, the one that once walked the same planet that we do now, and try to answer a fun question; Would Velociraptor make a good pet?

Before we get into answering this it must be stated that this question is purely hypothetical. Despite what Jurassic Park or the Chickenosaurus project suggests it is not possible to bring any true non-avian dinosaur back from extinction. This is because DNA, that key ingredient required to clone any animal, is easily biodegradable. Therefore it can’t survive for any longer than a million years or so, and that’s with ALL conditions in favour of its preservation. This is also true even if it’s within blood found within mosquitos trapped in amber! Therefore for this “new pet” scenario we will assume some fictional science will make it possible to resurrect the Velociraptor. Furthermore in all likelihood if Velociraptors were alive today they would probably be (or at least behave like) wild animals and so you can’t just take one from the wild and expect it to be a great pet. So another assumption must be that the Velociraptors in this scenario have been captive bred and imprinted on the owner from birth, or are selectively bred to be pets.

Velociraptor is an interesting little dinosaur, and yes I do mean “little”. A fully grown Velociraptor measured only around 1.8-2.0 metres long (up to 2.5 metres in the largest estimate), less than a metre tall and weighed roughly 15-20 kilograms. This makes it similar in size to a modern day Labrador retriever, which is relatively small for a non-avian dinosaur! The feature that characteristically defines Velociraptor, along with all Dromaeosaurs and a closely related family known as the Troodontids, is an enlarged, sickle shaped toe claw found on each foot often dubbed the “killing claw”. These wickedly sharp instruments might look intimidating to many pet owners. But bear in mind that even domestic cats also possess sharp claws, we just don’t always see them because they’re retracted into their paws a lot of the time. If a Velociraptor were kept as a pet then an owner might wish to get their Velociraptors killing claw trimmed regularly (or even cut off entirely) to avoid furniture, carpet and skin getting punctured by it!

File:Velociraptor size.png
A size comparison between Velociraptor mongoliensis and a human. This comparison is using the upper size estimate of 2.5 metres for Velociraptor
Image Credit: PaleoNeolitic, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Velociraptor_size.png

Another factor in favour of the Velociraptor pet movement would be the coat of feathers that covered their whole body except for the feet, jaws and claws. These feathers also included wing feathers on each arm and a long fan of feathers covering the tail. Velociraptor feathers would’ve had multiple uses. A downy coat would’ve kept them warm during cold desert nights, and maybe (and I’m speculating as we don’t know the colour of Velociraptor) they could’ve been sandy coloured to camouflage against the desert sand. Feathers could’ve also aided in courtship and maybe have been used to differentiate males and females, uses both seen in modern birds. Examples include the extravagantly coloured peacocks and birds of paradise, to the male/female colour schemes on some bird species found in the UK, such as Greenfinches; where males are yellow/green all over while females are a dullish grey/brown with yellow wing and tail edges. We can only speculate what a potential Velociraptor courtship display might have looked like (if it had one), but I think it might have involved the male performing a dance routine, consisting of flaps of its short wings, bounding movements and fans of its trail and accompanied by a soundtrack of hoots, rasps and gasps. The wings wouldn’t have enabled Velociraptor to fly (as stated in my Dakotaraptor blog article from late 2019, I couldn’t even imagine how threatening a large flying Dromaeosaur would’ve been!) but would have had other purposes. As well as potentially aiding in courtship, the wings would’ve allowed Velociraptor to maintain its balance when making tight turns at high speed. Flaps of the wings would’ve also been used to help when balancing on and pinning down struggling prey. As a prospective pet these feathers might make Velociraptor look cute to prospective owners! Feathered coats are one of the features that make many species of birds, like parrots or budgies, favoured pets. Furthermore since the body feathers would’ve been more down and fuzzy like it’s not too much to assume that this soft texture would’ve helped the Velociraptors case. Maybe it was soft and cuddly!

Another argument for keeping a Velociraptor as a pet is that, due to their size and weaponry, they might make good guard animals (especially if there’s more than one!). We know from multiple studies that Velociraptor would’ve been an effective hunter, with acute binocular vision (even at night!), a good sense of smell and relatively long legs that powered it through its environment. A study conducted in 2007 by William Sellers and Phillip Manning used a musculoskeletal model of a Velociraptor, built from measurements from Velociraptor fossils, to indicate that it could’ve ran at speeds of approximately 10.8 metres per second. This equates to 38.88 kilometres per hour (kph) or 24.15 miles per hour (mph). By comparison the “average” human speed calculated in this study was 7.9 metres per second, which equates to 28.44 kph or 17.67 mph. In short, a Velociraptor could’ve run faster than the average human! Furthermore the researchers state that these values are a lower range estimate. This is because an animal is rarely needing to run at absolute top speed (why waste extra energy when you can already catch up to prey) or in ideal conditions. As a result it’s likely that Velociraptor could’ve reached speeds faster than this (though it’s difficult to exactly estimate an extinct animals top speed as we only have fossils and computer models to work off of). Another study conducted by Park et. al. in 2014 built a robot Velociraptor (I’m not joking!) in order to reconstruct its locomotion. On a flat treadmill the robot managed to achieve speeds of 46 kph/28.5 mph. However bear in mind that it was a robot, and running on a flat treadmill, so this value is another estimate. Once it caught up with its prey Velociraptor would’ve leapt on top of it, using its iconic killing claw to latch onto and secure itself while using its body weight to pin down its struggling prey. As this was happening it would balance itself with flaps of its wings and use its sharp teeth and claws to tear into its prey, wearing it down with deep wounds. This strategy was most effective on prey that was smaller than Velociraptor itself. So as a result Velociraptor main diet would’ve mostly been herbivores it could outweigh, such as small sized dinosaurs and the young of larger dinosaurs. This “pin down” method is not too dissimilar to how a modern bird of prey hunts, except that they swoop in from the air rather than chase on the ground. A lot of Dromaeosaur depictions show them swarming large herbivores in a pack, and the Jurassic Park movies also show Velociraptor living in groups. However there actually wasn’t a lot of evidence to back up this claim. The main piece was the discovery of several shed teeth and skeletons of a closely related Dromaeosaur known as Deinonychus alongside a herbivorous dinosaur known as Tenontosaurus. While this was interpreted at the time as evidence of co-operative pack hunting it could also be interpreted in other ways. Maybe several independent Deinonychus had gathered to scavenge on the dead Tenontosaurus? Or they had opportunistically converged to finish off the injured animal without any co-operation? Fighting over the kill afterwards like modern day Komodo Dragons. Furthermore a study in 2020 (Frederickson, Engel & Cifelli 2020) on a closely related Dromaeosaur known as Deinonychus showed that the Carbon 13 isotopic values were more depleted in adult teeth than in juvenile teeth. Carbon 13 isotope values in teeth are influenced by diet, therefore it was inferred that adult and juvenile Deinonychus were eating different prey. This is not consistent with living and hunting in a pack as all animals in a pack would hunt and eat the same animals, producing similar Carbon 13 values. As Velociraptor is a close relative we can assume with some confidence that it too might have been solitary, however this doesn’t totally rule out juveniles staying together for survival or adults congregating together in exceptional circumstances, as animals such as Crocodiles and Bears do during mass migrations of their fish prey. For our question this means that you could maybe have been okay with keeping just one Velociraptor, though keeping two or even three (especially if all the animals knew each other from a very young age) could also be okay if you can afford it and have enough space.

File:Velociraptor.jpg
A skeletal illustration of Velociraptor mongoliensis. This image shows its slender body, proportionally long legs and long stiff tail. These indicate that Velociraptor was built for speed and agility.
Image Credit: Jaime A. Headden, https://www.deviantart.com/qilong/art/It-Lives-Velociraptor-24578261?q=gallery%3AQilong%2F5004771&qo=83

Just like all predators, hunts didn’t always go smoothly, and prey would often fight back aggressively. This is captured in exquisite detail in the famous “fighting dinosaurs”; a beautiful pair of skeletons that preserves a Velociraptor locked in combat with a Protoceratops (a sheep sized four legged herbivorous dinosaur that was an early relative of the Ceratopsidae, the dinosaur family containing the famous Triceratops). In this encounter, a risky one since Protoceratops outweighed Velociraptor, the Velociraptor started the fight by attacking the Protoceratops from behind. This probably happened in dark or low light conditions such as at night, dusk or dawn as these are the times Velociraptor is thought to have operated mostly at. In response the Protoceratops managed to turn and bite down hard on the Velociraptors right arm with its sharp horny beak. The Protoceratops held the Velociraptor in that position while the Velociraptor tried to break free, stabbing and raking the Protoceratops’ chest and belly with its feet while grabbing its face with its claws. Locked in this position, and suffering massive blood loss and fatigue, the two dinosaurs perished together. Then they were buried by a collapsing sand dune to be preserved for roughly 72 million years until it was unearthed again by palaeontologists in 1971. This beautiful fossil preserves a predator prey interaction in exquisite detail and was also one of the most complete skeletons of Velociraptor ever discovered. However Velociraptor had been known to science before this. The first fossils to be discovered were found 48 years prior in the Gobi Desert in 1923. This material consisted of a nearly complete skull and a finger bones, and it was from these finds that American palaeontologist John Ostrom would name the dinosaur Velociraptor (meaning “swift thief”). Today two species of Velociraptor are recognised; Velociraptor mongoliensis, described from those bones found in 1923 in Mongolia, and Velociraptor osmolskae, described in 2010 from fossils unearthed in Northern China.

File:Fighting dinosaurs (1).jpg
The fighting dinosaurs fossil, which captures the final moments of the two dinosaurs in exquisite detail!
Image Credit: Yuya Tamai, https://www.flickr.com/photos/tamaiyuya/13446145343/

However, while they would make vicious guard animals, you probably would NOT be able to train them to do more than protect against intruders (while holding your arms out to a group of them like in that one scene from Jurassic World). A popular misconception about Velociraptor, one perpetuated by the Jurassic Park franchise, is that they would’ve been highly intelligent. However, while smart for non-avian dinosaur standards, Velociraptors wouldn’t have been on the same level as a dolphin or a primate. Instead would have been similar to other modern day birds such as chickens or hawks, and some mammals like rabbits. That being said their comparatively high intelligence would’ve given them an advantage over other dinosaurs it lived with, especially over their prey. Luckily for the prospective pet owner, it’s not going to be opening any doors and there probably wouldn’t be much chance of it performing complicated routines on command, or mimicking speech like parrots can.

One final thing to consider is how just how Velociraptor would fare being a pet. Plenty of animals are difficult to keep as pets or in captivity, requiring large sums to fund the building and maintaining of enclosures and to provide them with enough food. Owls, Eagles and other birds of prey, as well as Lynxs and large Catfish are great examples of animals that can be hard to keep as pets. A decently sized Velociraptor would perhaps require a similar level of commitment. So only someone with enough time, space and resources could keep one and ensure that it has a happy life. There might also be problems with regards to the pet trade. As well-known and popular dinosaurs, Velociraptors might be regarded as highly valuable, and sadly there would be people out there who would want to illegally profit from this at the animals’ expense.

Velociraptor, the swift, agile thief of the Late Cretaceous, was an animal that successfully continued the Dromaeosaur dynasty. One that had lasted for roughly 60 million years before it and is remembered 72 million years after it had died out. While it is quite different to the silver screen version, in my honest opinion the real Velociraptor was a much more interesting animal than the movie monsters of Jurassic Park. Now to answer the important question, would they make good pets? Well I reckon that Velociraptor would have enough going for it that there probably would be a market for it. Furthermore humans can always selectively breed them over multiple generations to gradually get rid of or dilute the less favourable parts. So if you want to own one the advice would be to always remember to keep the claws suitably trimmed and to give them plenty of food, water and warmth. But most importantly only get one if can afford to treat it well, and when raising one you must love it and treat it like a member of the family. Oh and make sure to take many cute photos of it too!

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An artistic interpretation of a Velociraptor mongoliensis hunting a juvenile Oviraptorosaur dinosaur. Here it is using the “pin down” (or “Mantling”) hunting method that palaeontologists think Dromaeosaurs used to catch prey.
Image Credit: Durbed, https://www.deviantart.com/durbed/art/Mortal-techniques-II-Velociraptor-279158025

References/Further Reading

Turner, Makovicky & Norell 2007 paper describing the existence of quill knobs on a fossil of Velociraptor. Evidence that these theropods possessed not only feathers, but small wings.

Turner, Alan H., Makovicky, Peter J., Norell, Mark A., Feather Quill Knobs in the Dinosaur Velociraptor, 2007, Vol. 317, Issue 5845, pp. 1721, DOI: 10.1126/science.1145076

King et. al. 2020 paper on the endocranium anatomy of Velociraptor, further proving that it could track prey effectively, was swift and could hear at a wide range of frequencies.

King, JL, Sipla, JS, Georgi, JA, Balanoff, AM, Neenan, JM. The endocranium and trophic ecology of Velociraptor mongoliensis. J. Anat. 2020; 237: 861– 869. https://doi.org/10.1111/joa.13253

Frederickson, Engel & Cifelli 2020 paper examining tooth Carbon 13 isotope levels in Deinonychus teeth and what the results tell us about Dromaeosaur pack hunting.

J.A. Frederickson, M.H. Engel, R.L. Cifelli, Ontogenetic dietary shifts in Deinonychus antirrhopus (Theropoda; Dromaeosauridae): Insights into the ecology and social behavior of raptorial dinosaurs through stable isotope analysis, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 552, 2020, 109780, ISSN 0031-0182, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2020.109780.

Godefroit et. al. 2010 paper describing Velociraptor osmolskae

Godefroit et. al., A new species of Velociraptor (Dinosauria: Dromaeosauridae) from the Upper Cretaceous of northern China, 2010, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Volume 28, Issue 2, https://doi.org/10.1671/0272-4634(2008)28[432:ANSOVD]2.0.CO;2

Sellers & Manning 2007 paper estimating the top running speeds to Velociraptor and other dinosaurs.

Sellers, W. I., & Manning, P. L. (2007). Estimating dinosaur maximum running speeds using evolutionary robotics. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 274(1626), 2711–2716. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2007.0846

Park et. al. 2014 study that built a robot Velociraptor in order to study its locomotion and tail stability.

J. Park, J. Lee, J. Lee, K. Kim and S. Kim, “Raptor: Fast bipedal running and active tail stabilization,” 2014 11th International Conference on Ubiquitous Robots and Ambient Intelligence (URAI), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2014, pp. 215-215, doi: 10.1109/URAI.2014.7057424.

Roach & Brinkman 2007 paper revaluating the idea of Co-Operative pack hunting in Deinonychus, a close relative of Velociraptor

Brian T. Roach, Daniel L. Brinkman “A Reevaluation of Cooperative Pack Hunting and Gregariousness in Deinonychus antirrhopus and Other Nonavian Theropod Dinosaurs,” Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, 48(1), 103-138, (1 April 2007)

An excellent YouTube video by “Your Dinosaurs are Wrong” on Velociraptor.

A follow up video also by Your Dinosaurs are Wrong” correcting some information about Velociraptor made in the previous video.

A 2015 National Geographic article written by Riley Black on the feasibility of bringing non-avian dinosaurs back from extinction via the Jurassic Park method and the Chickenosaurus project.

Black, Riley, “What Could Live in a Real Jurassic World? A Chickenosaurus”, National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com, 8th June, 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/150618-jurassic-world-genetic-engineering-chickenosaurus

A Live Science article written by Laura Geggel (published on the 19th of May 2015) on the Chickenosaurus project

Geggel, Laura, “Dino-Chicken Gets One Step Closer”, Live Science, www.licescience.com, https://www.livescience.com/50886-scientific-progress-dino-chicken.html

Paleo Safaris: Dinosaur Island

File:Wessex Formation dinosaurs.jpg
A selection of dinosaurs that once lived on the Isle of Wight. Dinosaurs pictured include Iguanodon (middle left), Eotyrannus (bottom right), Neovenator (top right) and Hypsilophodon (bottom left). One thing to bear in mind is that a number of palaeontologists now think that Eotyrannus, Hypsilophodon and the Ornithomimosaurs (middle right) would have been more extensively feathered than shown here.
Image Credit: ABelov2014, https://www.deviantart.com/abelov2014/art/Barremian-fauna-660152146

The Isle of Wight, 127 Million Years Ago.

The sun rises over the horizon as another day dawns on Dinosaur Island. Light dapples through the coniferous trees, illuminating the forest in a hazy yellow glow. As the morning continues the forest begins to waken, with the buzzing of insects, the crashing sounds of distant dinosaurs and the calls of the crow sized pterosaur Vectidraco echoing through the trees and creating a Cretaceous era symphony. Making the most of this early start are the Hypsilophodons. These small feathery dinosaurs chirp and bound among the gaps between the trees, nipping away at ferns that grow as far as the eye can see. As the group feeds one Hypsilophodon notices a bright yellow flower blooming among the green ferns. Flowering plants are a new phenomenon on Planet Earth at this time, having only appeared a few million years before this Hypsilophodon was born. Their appearance adds a dash of colour to the otherwise brown and green landscape of the Cretaceous period, and plants like these will continue to grow and evolve across the planet, watching millions of other species come and go and be a staple of the earth’s ecosystem right up to the modern day. The young Hypsilophodon curiously sniffs at the flower for a moment, taking in its distinctive smell, before taking a bite out of it and moving on to the next tasty plant!

Exiting the coniferous forest onto the wide open plains a loud bellowing sound reverberates in the distance. If we follow this noise we come across a large herd of Iguanodon travelling along the banks of a large river. They walk along on all four of their limbs but when they need to run or reach higher branches they rock back and balance themselves on just two legs. This also frees them up to swing their deadly “thumb spikes”. Their hands are like multipurpose Swiss army knives. The little fingers are incredibly dexterous and are used to manipulate and hold branches steady for their beaked jaws to reach. Their thumbs in contrast have evolved into spikes that act as effective stabbing weapons that give them protection against attack from the hungry predators on the island. However two male Iguanodon are currently using their thumb spikes against each other! Luckily for both of them no serious harm occurs this time and the victor of the dispute wanders towards the female he’d just won the right to court. These herbivorous ornithischian dinosaurs are a common sight on the island with their vast herds reminiscent of the large Wildebeest herds in the Serengeti and Masai Mara of modern day Africa. Amongst the large adult Iguanodons are what initially appear to be adolescents. However these are actually not Iguanodon but a close relative named Mantellisaurus. Inter species mixing like this can be seen in modern day, where Wildebeest and Zebra sometimes form huge herds together. So it’s no surprise to see these dinosaurs exhibiting this behaviour too. Lumbering along the outskirts of the herd is another, very different species of plant eating dinosaur. This is a Polacanthus, a 4 metre long four legged dinosaur that boasts a heavy casing of hard armour plating (known as osteoderms) on its back and a battery of sharp spikes lining its back down to its tail that it uses to protect itself. To complete this spectacular gathering of plant eaters are humongous Brachiosaurs; sauropod dinosaurs that tower over the rest of the herd. Palaeontologists currently do not have a formal scientific name for these particular Brachiosaurs yet, but what is abundantly clear is that these were by far the largest animals on Dinosaur Island. They feed on vegetation at the tops of the coniferous trees far above the reach of the other dinosaurs. As a consequence they can co-exist with the other herbivores as they do not compete for the same food.

A restoration of Polacanthus. Their bony osteoderms and spines would have made them tough proposition for any carnivore!
Image Credit: FunkMonk (Michael B. H.), hip armour by Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polacanthus_foxii.jpg

As the sun moves higher in the sky some of the herd notice a bipedal, sharp toothed dinosaur crossing the path ahead. They watch each other for a moment, the herd wary of the sharp teeth and heavy claws of a predator! Luckily, this Baryonyx is not interested in them and instead makes her way towards the river bank. Her lunch today is not of the land living variety. Standing on the riverbank the Baryonyx places her long, crocodile-like snout in the water. Concentrating intently, she uses small sensors on her snout to detect movement in the water, and in combination with her forward facing eyes uses it to locate her prey. Suddenly, sensing a flash of movement close to her, she lunges forward, snapping her jaws around a large fish. She drags it to shore and, held securely by her strong foot, tucks into her hard earned prize. This is the first of many catches that the Baryonyx will need to make today in order to fuel her one and a half ton, 9 metre long frame. This fish eating lifestyle has allowed her kind to carve out a unique niche for itself on the island, one that is characteristic of the spinosaurid order of dinosaurs that Baryonyx is a part of. Later spinosaurids will take this lifestyle even further, evolving shorter hind limbs and paddle like tails to aid swimming. However Baryonyx still possess the stereotypical body plan of a theropod dinosaur (except for its long skull) and whilst they spend a lot of time fishing in the rivers and lakes of the island they’re not totally reliant on them and can hunt on land if they need to. Whilst this Baryonyx left the herd alone earlier in the day she may turn her attention to them at a later date if the fish stocks dry up.

File:Baryonyx life restoration.jpg
A Baryonyx patrolling the banks of a river.
Image Credit: Андрей Белов, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baryonyx_life_restoration.jpg, (Original Image: https://www.deviantart.com/abelov2014/art/Spinosauridae-773270478)

It is now evening, and as the sun sets the herd begins to move on to other feeding grounds. However just 300 metres downwind the Isle of Wight’s top predator is watching them intently with hungry eyes. He is a Neovenator, a 7.5 metre long theropod dinosaur that is a relative of the mighty Allosaurus, which dominated the Late Jurassic just 25 million years earlier. He edges closer to the herd, keeping as silent as he can and staying downwind to conceal his scent as best he can from the Iguanodons. He needs to stalk his prey precisely to be successful. If he’s too far away he’ll run out of steam before he can catch his prey. If he’s too close the herd will spot him and his cover will be blown. The Neovenator picks his spot and identifies his target; an older Iguanodon struggling to keep up with the rest of the herd. The Neovenator strikes! As he charges towards his target the Iguanodon sound the alarm, making loud calls and sprinting away on their powerful hind legs. But it’s too little, too late, and the great carnivore reaches on his target, tearing into it with his blade like teeth and claws. The blood loss and shock is too much for the Iguanodon and the Neovenator finishes proceedings with a final bite to the neck. It’s brutal and it’s messy, but today it has proven effective. The Neovenator picks up his prize and drags it away to a secluded spot so he can eat in peace.

But the Neovenator will not get that peace today. As he tucks into his meal a small group of Eotyrannus approaches the giant. At only 4 metres a single one of these small feather coated carnivores isn’t going to trouble the Neovenator. But if they work together they pose a much greater threat. They hound the great carnivore like Hyenas do to Lions on the African Savannah today, surrounding and harrying the giant carnivore, using their speed to dodge his aggressive lunges. Eventually the Neovenator begrudgingly surrenders his kill to the group. This is a shape of things to come. In time the descendants of Eotyrannus will evolve larger body sizes, complete with bone crushing bites, and they will take over the role of top predators from the likes of Neovenator. But for now these relatively small, early tyrannosaurs are content with their place in the pecking order.

Today the Isle of Wight is still an island (hence the name). One thing is for certain is that it is a lot colder now than it was 127 million years ago! The dinosaurs that once roamed the island are now found preserved as fossils, and have been unearthed at locations such as Compton Bay, Yaverland and Shanklin. Fossils have been discovered at such sites like these on the Isle of Wight for centuries and new species are still being found today. In August of this year, partial remains of a new theropod dinosaur named Vectaerovenator inopinatus, which lived roughly 12 million years after the dinosaurs we’ve seen on this particular safari, were discovered in the rocks of Knock Cliff, Shanklin, on the east side of the island. Some of the many amazing dinosaur fossils are now on display in the Dinosaur Isle museum located in the town of Sandown, a place that showcases the lost world of Dinosaur Island for all to see. It’s amazing to think that a thriving ecosystem, containing miniature insects, flying pterosaurs and magnificent dinosaurs, once existed right here in the UK. The Isle of Wight is absolutely, unquestionably, the “Dinosaur Capital of the UK”!

File:Dinosaur Hall-Dinosaurisle.jpg
Some of the Isle of Wight dinosaurs on display in the Dinosaur Isle Museum in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.
Image Credit: N.Cayla, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dinosaur_Hall-Dinosaurisle.jpg

References/Further Reading

A page on UK Fossils website detailing the main fossil sites on the Isle of Wight

UK fossils, “Category: Isle of Wight”, ukfossils.co.uk, https://ukfossils.co.uk/category/isle-of-wight/

A website, named Dino Wight, detailing the dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals discovered on the Isle of Wight

Dino Wight, “The Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight”, Dinowight.co.uk, http://www.dinowight.co.uk/

The website of the Dinosaur Isle Museum

Yi qi: The Dragon of the Jurassic

The Jurassic Dragon takes flight!
Image Credit: Emily Willoughby, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yi_qi_restoration.jpg

In a dense forest, full of hissing, rumbling and bellowing noises, a dragon perches on a branch. Using its sharp eyesight it locates its next meal; a large beetle crawling along a tree trunk 50 metres away. The dragon stretches its leathery wings and takes flight, swooping down silently with barely a flap towards its prey. However, just before the dragon can strike the beetle notices and unfurls its own wings in a desperate attempt to escape. But with a couple of quick flaps the dragon adjusts in mid-air and intercepts, snapping it out of the air with its toothy jaws. The beast lands and swallows the meal. But this is only a starter, and the little dragon surveys the forest again before moving on in search of the main course.

Believe it or not this really did occur in the Late Jurassic forests of China. But with one difference. The animal in question was not a mythological dragon, but a dinosaur named Yi qi.

The binomial name Yi qi, meaning “Strange Wing” in Chinese, is the shortest scientific name given to any dinosaur, and one of the shortest names of any animal living or extinct. It belonged to a family of theropod dinosaurs known as the Scansoriopterygidae (a real tongue twister of a name). Yi qi is one of only three known members of this group (the others being Epidexipteryx and Epidendrosaurus/Scansoriopteryx) and as a result relatively little is known about their evolutionary history and general lifestyle. The Scansoriopterygidae were part of a wider theropod order known as the paravians; which includes the dromaeosaurs (i.e. raptors) and all birds (that’s right ALL birds). However the Scansoriopterygidae seem (unless future discoveries say otherwise) to be an example of an evolutionary dead end as they are only known from sites from the Mid-Late Jurassic (and potentially Early Cretaceous) China and nowhere else.

Size comparison between Yi qi and a human being
Image Credit: Matthew Martyniuk, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yi_scale.png

Yi qi was roughly the size of a pigeon with toothed jaws, forward facing eyes, sharp claws, long thick tail feathers and simple filament feathers covering its body, head and upper arms. The fossilised feathers are so well preserved that even the melanosomes (the small organelles that give feathers and other biological structures colour) were clearly preserved. Examination of the shape of these melanosomes, and comparison with melanosomes in living birds, showed that Yi qi had a black/grey body with reds and yellow colours on its arms. This gave it a distinctive contrasting colour scheme with the red/yellow arms perhaps used for signalling or species recognition. So far from this description Yi qi sounds more like a bird than a dragon! However when palaeontologists examined its forearms they made an astonishing discovery. An elongated third finger extended from both its hands and a long rod like bone (known as a styliform) jutted out from its wrist. These supported a skin membrane, known as a patagia, connecting the ends of its elongated fingers to the end of the styliform. It’s theorized that this membrane would also have stretched from the end of the styliform to the body, giving Yi qi “bat-like” wings (though another competing theory is that Yi qi would have had skin membranes like those of a modern gliding tree frog). These unique wings give Yi qi and its close relatives an appearance unlike any dinosaur, bird or pterosaur, one that draws comparisons with a dragon (specifically a “wyvern”). Whether Yi qi would have used these wings for powered flight or gliding (like a flying squirrel) is unclear. However it may have employed a combination of the two; long distance gliding (or as Buzz Lightyear would say “falling with style!”) and powered flapping for initial take off and manoeuvring through the air. Yi qi’s discovery also shows that flight had evolved in dinosaurs on multiple occasions, with the bat winged Yi qi being only one such evolutionary experiment.

The one and only Yi qi fossil. Note the feather covering around its body and head, as well as the styliform on its elongated wrist.
Image Credit: Kumiko, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kmkmks/27011985534/

All we know about Yi qi so far comes from one remarkable fossil that was discovered in 2007 in the Hebei province of China. It was found in the Mid-Late Jurassic age Tiaojishan formation of rocks. This is important as a large proportion of feathered dinosaurs are known from the Early Cretaceous onwards (20-30 million years after Yi qi). Therefore its discovery shows that feathers were present on dinosaurs far earlier than initially thought, with some palaeontologists suggesting that they originated even earlier than Yi qi. After its discovery the fossil was studied by a team led by the eminent Palaeontologist Xu Xang, who has described and named a whole menagerie of Chinese dinosaurs (e.g. the feathered tyrannosaur Yutyrannus). Yi qi was revealed to the world in a paper released in 2015 and it’s strange, dragon like appearance meant that it, like many dinosaur discoveries from China in the last few decades, made headlines around the world.

Yi qi is one of the most unusual dinosaur discoveries of the last decade. It proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the world of palaeontology continues to unearth astounding discoveries. Discoveries that add more paint to the canvas that is the history of life on earth.

References/Further Reading

The original Xu et. al. 2015 paper describing Yi qi

Xu, X., Zheng, X., Sullivan, C. et al. A bizarre Jurassic maniraptoran theropod with preserved evidence of membranous wings. Nature 521, 70–73 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14423

A blog (originally from tetrapod zoology) published in Scientific American by palaeontologist Darren Naish on Yi qi and theories on its lifestyle and features

Naish, Darren “Yi qi Is Neat but Might Not Have Been the Black Screaming Dino-Dragon of Death”. Scientific American, May. 5, 2015, blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/yi-qi-is-neat-but-might-not-have-been-the-black-screaming-dino-dragon-of-death/

A blog written by Nick Garland and published in Earth Archives on Yi qi

Garland, Nick “Meet Yi qi, the dinosaur with bat-like wings and feathers”. Earth Archives, 2015, eartharchives.org/articles/meet-yi-qi-the-dinosaur-with-bat-like-wings-and-feathers/

Stegosaurus: A Jurassic Icon

Sophie the Stegosaurus. On display at the Natural History Museum in London, England
Image Credit: Aya Reyad, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D9%85%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%81_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%AE_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B7%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%B9%D9%8A_8.jpg

In late 2014 the Natural History Museum revealed a new dinosaur display. It is situated almost immediately after you go through the east entrance, and is different from most fossils in that she has her own identity. Her name is Sophie, and she stands in front of the giant globe that marks the entrance to the Earth Hall as if guarding it. While she is small for her genus she is nevertheless an imposing sight; larger than any living elephant, two rows of plates lining her back and a spiked tail that she raises in defence. Her original home was the coniferous forests and floodplains that would later become the Western United States, and she walked the land 150 million years before humans. She is a special dinosaur, one that is instantly recognisable the world over by dinosaur lovers and casual observers alike. She is power, she is serenity, she is a Stegosaurus.

The first fossils of Stegosaurus (“roofed lizard”) were discovered in the state of Colorado, USA by Marshall Parker Felch in 1876. Felch was a veteran of the American Civil War and was a fossil hunter working with the palaeontologist Othneil Charles Marsh, who subsequently described and named this as a new dinosaur in 1877. The fossils were unearthed from what is known as the Morrison Formation; a 1 million square kilometre Late Jurassic rock sequence that stretches across a large area of the western USA including Arizona, Utah and Wyoming. The very first reconstructions of Stegosaurus was based on the initial assumption that it was an extinct turtle! This resulted in a wildly different animal to what we think today. In this initial reconstruction it reared on two legs, its spines were positioned on its back, its plates were laid flat on its back like roof tiles (hence “roofed lizard”) and it had two brains. That’s right those Victorian palaeontologists though Stegosaurus had TWO brains! A small, walnut sized brain in its head, and a “second brain” located in its hips. The thinking was that its main brain was so small compared to its body size that it needed a second one to help control its hind legs and tail. We know of course that it didn’t really have two brains. The “second brain” is thought to be a body cavity containing glycogen stores to help provide energy, in the form of glucose, to its muscles.

Since those early days many Stegosaurus fossils have been unearthed with Stegosaurus stenops, the species that Sophie belongs to, being the most common (in fact Sophie is the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever found). This has allowed palaeontologists to construct a more detailed picture of what this animal was like. It was a relatively slow moving, four legged animal belonging to its own group of ornithischian dinosaurs known as the Stegosaurs. Stegosaurus is the largest and most iconic member of the group, but Stegosaurs have been discovered across the world; such as Kentrosaurus from Africa, Tuojiangosaurus from Asia and Dacentrurus from Europe. Stegosaurus and its relatives were herbivores, using peg-like teeth to strip leaves off low growing ferns, mosses and shrubs. To help digest this, Stegosaurus would intentionally swallowed small stones (called gastroliths) that sat in its stomach and helped to grind up incoming plant matter. This diet may not seem very exciting, but consuming vast quantities of these simple shrubs allowed Stegosaurus to grow to a huge size; up to a maximum of 9 metres long and weighing 7 tons in the largest species (Stegosaurus armatus).

Size comparison between a human and two Stegosaurus species: S.ungulatus and S.stenops (the species Sophie belongs to)
Image Credit: KoprX, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stegosaurus_size_comparison.svg

Stegosaurus is characterised by two eye-catching features. The first is the two rows of alternating pentagon shaped plates that stretch along its back from its neck to near the end of its tail. These plates were covered in a sheath of a horn like material called keratin, the same material that makes up fingernails, horns and antlers. Currently the best explanation for what these huge, lavish structures were used for is that they were multi-functional. The main use is in display and signalling to others. Whether males trying to attract a mate, Stegosaurus’ sizing each other up, ward off predators or to simply recognise each other these plates position on the body and their size would have made them very effective “billboards”. As a bit of fun speculation I wonder if these plates could have been brightly coloured, especially since it’s thought that the plates might have had an outer covering of thin skin. Unique variations in plate colours between different individuals would have acted like a fingerprint, allowing for identification and signalling. Another idea is that Stegosaurus used its plates to help regulate its body temperature. To do this Stegosaurus would have pumped blood into the plates, allowing the heat to be radiated outwards or to be taken in. This was a popular theory for a long time and while the size and positioning of the plates would have allowed them to passively radiate heat, and there are some channels within the plates that could have aided with this, the latest thinking is that the plates weren’t especially adapted for heat radiation or absorption.

The other defining feature of Stegosaurus was the two pairs of long spines that jutted out sideways from the end of its tail. This formed a structure that is referred to as a “Thagomizer”. This term is unique as it originated from a cartoon in the comic “The Far Side”, which had a caveman name the spiny tail after the fictional “late Thag Simmons”. The name has stuck since with palaeontologists accepting it as a valid scientific term. The thagomizer was a deadly weapon that Stegosaurus used by positioning itself sideways or with its tail facing its attacker, giving it room to swing and forming an impenetrable barrier to protect the more vulnerable front end. A thagomizer would have certainly been required as Stegosaurus was prey for the large predators stalking the area at the time. Large theropod dinosaurs such as Torvosaurus and Saurophagonax would have been among these, but by far the most notorious was Allosaurus. Fossil evidence of conflicts between Stegosaurus and Allosaurus have been found frequently, ranging from a damaged piece of Stegosaurus plate to large holes in Allosaurus bones caused by a Stegosaurus thagomizer (including one fossil where a thagomizer went straight through an Allosaurus pelvis, hitting a place where the sun doesn’t shine!). It seems that the two dinosaurs clashed frequently, sharing a rivalry similar to the one between T-Rex and Triceratops 90 million years later. Thagomizers may not have been Stegosaurus’ only method of defence. One theory is that Stegosaurus might have lived in small groups, with the numbers giving mutual protection. Furthermore it’s been speculated that Stegosaurus might also have formed mixed herds (like those seen between Wildebeest, Zebra and Ostrich’s on the African Savannah) with other plant eating dinosaurs such as the smaller Camptosaurus. This arrangement would have provided mutual benefits; Camptosaurus’ keen eye sight would have allowed it to act as a scout, while the Stegosaurus would have been the heavily armoured knights.

A life like model of Stegosaurus
Image Credit: DinoTeam, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stegosaurus_02_DinoPark_Ko%C5%A1ice.jpg

For me personally Stegosaurus has held a fond place in my heart for a long time. It was my favourite dinosaur when I was young, so much so that I still have a toy one amongst my collection. I think I was fond of it it so much because not only did it have an eye catching appearance, quite unlike any animal alive today, but also because I saw it almost like a superhero. Normally it would peacefully munch on ferns and go about its business. But if it or its herd were threatened it wouldn’t hesitate to swing into action, lashing its spiked tail at any predator brave enough to take it on. While many prehistoric animals have left a mark on me over the years, none have done so quite like Stegosaurus, and for that I will always love it.

References/Further Reading

A paper (Carpenter et.al. 2005) on the predator-prey relationship between Allosaurus and Stegosaurus

Carpenter, Kenneth & Sanders, Frank & Mewhinney, Lorrie & Wood, Lowell. (2005). Evidence for Predator- Prey Relationships Examples for Allosaurus and Stegosaurus, The Carnivorous Dinosaurs, Chapter: 17, 325-350

A paper (Farlow, Hayashi & Tattersall 2010) reviewing the possible heat regulatory properties of Stegosaurus plates, using comparisons with Alligator osteoderms

Farlow, J.O., Hayashi, S. & Tattersall, G.J. Internal vascularity of the dermal plates of Stegosaurus (Ornithischia, Thyreophora). Swiss J Geosci 103, 173–185 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00015-010-0021-5

A blog article, published on Scientific American (originally on Tetrapod Zoology), by renowned palaeontologist Darren Naish on Stegosaurus plates and their research history

Naish, Darren, “The Stegosaurus Plate Controversy”, Scientific American, Jul. 11, 2016, blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/the-stegosaurus-plate-controversy/

An article by The Evolution Institute on the geology and fossils of the Morrison Formation

Marano, Michael, “Utah’s Morrison Formation: A Fossil Treasure Chest”, The Evolution Institute, Dec. 13, 2012, evolution-institute.org/utahs-morrison-formation-a-fossil-treasure-chest/

A New Scientist article on the origin of the word “thagomizer”

“The word: Thagomizer”, New Scientist, Jul. 5, 2006, newscientist.com/article/mg19125592-200-the-word-thagomizer/?ignored=irrelevant

A National Geographic article on the history of Stegosaurus reconstructions

Laelaps, “Out With the Old Stegosaurus”. National Geographic, Apr 29, 2013, nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2013/04/29/out-with-the-old-stegosaurus/

Yutyrannus: The Feathered Tyrant

Image result for yutyrannus
Reconstruction of Yutyrannus huali, Feathers and all!
Image Credit: Tomopteryx, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yutyrannus_huali.png

Tyrannosaurs are arguably the most famous members of the great dinosaur pantheon. Their traditional look has been set in stone in the public eye for decades, being immortalised in various media, of a giant scaly lizard with tiny arms and a massive head full of sharp, banana shaped teeth. However what if I were to tell you that this picture isn’t completely accurate, and that at least some tyrannosaurs were in fact a lot more on the soft and fluffy side! While it’s still being debated to this day whether the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex had feathers (a story for another blog!), there was another tyrannosaur that not only possessed feathers, but was completely covered in them! Revealed to the world in 2012 Yutyrannus huali (meaning “Beautiful Feathered Tyrant” in a mix of Mandarin and Latin) shaked pre-existing ideas about Tyrannosaurs to the core.

Yutyrannus was discovered in the Yixian formation, in the Liaoning Province of China by a Chinese palaeontologist named professor Xing Xu. This particular corner of the world is extremely rich in dinosaur fossils, mostly dating to the Early Cretaceous period (125 million years ago). A large majority of the feathered dinosaur finds in the last few decades originated from this area. Xu is a big name in the world of contemporary palaeontology as described and named a lot of these feathered dinos, such as the “four winged” Microraptor and another feathered tyrannosaur called Dilong. The Yutyrannus fossils discovered by Xu and his team consisted of an adult and two juveniles, all of them almost complete. This is remarkable as tyrannosaurs are often only known from incomplete fossils. So in this case we have a vividly detailed picture of this particular animal.

One of the most surprising observations about Yutyrannus is not only that it had feathers, but that this was a big animal. Previously other known feathered tyrannosaurs, such as Dilong and Guanlong (both also discovered in China), were relatively small; ranging around the sizes as modern big cats. However Yutyrannus bucked this trend by growing up to 9 metres long, 3 metres tall and weighing up to 1 and a half tonnes. This makes Yutyrannus the largest animal with direct definitive evidence of feathers ever discovered. While other dinosaurs like Therizinosaurus and Gigantoraptor are likely to have had feathers, there’s been no direct evidence found yet, so Yutyrannus keeps the crown for now. Unlike other large tyrannosaurs Yutyrannus shares many features with other early tyrannosaurs, such as possessing three fingers instead of two and a lack of a specialised weight-bearing middle toe (used by later tyrannosaurs to support their weight). By comparing its anatomy with other tyrannosaurs it was also deduced that Yutyrannus was not a direct ancestor to T-Rex, but instead belonged to a family of tyrannosaurs that split off during the Early Cretaceous, meaning that Yutyrannus was essentially T-Rexs great great uncle. Unlike later Tyrannosaurs Yutyrannus also possessed a small, midline crest at the end of its snout. This could have been used to attract a mate or to signal other individuals, saying for example “I’m the biggest and baddest of the Yutyrannus! Keep away!”. As the fossils were of an adult and two juveniles this could potentially be a family group. It has been theorised that tyrannosaurs may have lived in groups, so perhaps this find represents the sad end of a mum or dad raising its offspring.

Size comparison between a full grown Yutyrannus and a fully grown human. As you can see this was certainly a large feathered animal!
Image Credit: Conty, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yutyrannus_SIZE.png

The feathers themselves have been found preserved in patches across the whole body of all 3 fossils. In life they were relatively simple “proto-feathers”, consisting of long simple filament like structures. These filaments would have intertwined to produce a fluffy down; somewhere between the down on a baby chicken and the longer, fibrous feathers of an emu. The primary function is likely to have been to keep Yutyrannus warm. A study by Amiot et. al. in 2011 looked at oxygen isotope compositions found in reptile fossils from East Asia. These seem to indicate that at the place and time where Yutyrannus lived was a relatively cold, compared to the hothouse that was the rest of the Mesozoic, so a feathery coat would have helped to keep an active hunter like Yutyrannus at the right temperature. Other possible usages of this coat of feathers could have been to assist with attracting mates, as has been speculated to have been the case in other feathered dinosaurs (e.g. Caudipteryx), and any shed feathers could have been used to line their nests, as it is employed by modern birds. It has even been suggested that the colour of the feathered coat would have helped Yutyrannus camouflage itself against its surroundings, a trick that is employed by most predators today. Some reconstructions have given Yutyrannus a fully white coat to blend in with a snowy background (like a polar bear). While this is a neat bit of speculation, it can’t be proven until any melanosomes that may be preserved are examined. If so then palaeontologists would be able to discover the colour of a tyrannosaur for the first time!

An illustration showing a group of Yutyrannus hunting a juvenile Dongbeititan
Image Credit: PaleoEquii, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dongbeititan_and_Yutyrannus.jpg

A lot of criticism of these feathered dinosaurs, and particularly with ideas about feathers existing on dinosaurs that were previously thought to be scaly, is that it makes dinosaurs “less cool looking” and more like giant turkeys. However I think that Yutyrannus is an excellent example of how feathers can enhance the interest in dinosaurs, providing another side to how we see these great lizards. An animal like this would certainly make a cute pet when it’s young. However, like pet owners who buy young tiger cubs, it’ll grow up over the years into a giant unmanageable carnivore, leaving the owner thinking “I REALLY didn’t think this through!”

References/Further Reading

Xu et. al. 2012 paper describing the 3 complete skeletons of Yutyrannus, including the description of its feathers

Xu, X., Wang, K., Zhang, K. et al. A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China. Nature 484, 92–95 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10906

American Museum of Natural History blog on getting to know Yutyrannus

AMNH, “Get to Know a Dino: Yutyrannus huali”, American Museum of Natural History, Apr. 11, 2016, amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/get-to-know-a-dino-yutyrannus-huali

Amiot et. al. 2011 paper on oxygen isotope compositions in fossils from the Early Cretaceous East Asia

Amiot, Romain et al. “Oxygen isotopes of East Asian dinosaurs reveal exceptionally cold Early Cretaceous climates.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 108,13 (2011): 5179-83. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011369108

A National Geographic article, written by Cliff Tarpy, about the fossils of Liaoning

Tarpy, Cliff, “Liaoning Province—China’s Extraordinary Fossil Site”, National Geographic, nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/china-fossils/

Plateosaurus: A dinosaur that laid foundations

Image result for plateosaurus
Two Plateosaurus greeting each other, whether its friendly or not is debateable!
Image Credit: Nobu Tamara, http://spinops.blogspot.com/

The Triassic period was a time when the age of dinosaurs was just starting. The Permian/Triassic Extinction event of 250 million years ago (mya) had killed off almost 90% of all life, making it the biggest mass extinction event of all time. In the millions of years after this, the world was recovering. Life that survived this catastrophe expanded to fill in the many niches that had been left behind. This resulted in a weird menagerie of animals, dominated mostly by the reptiles. One group of reptiles known as the dinosaurs (you may have heard of them!) first evolved roughly 240 million years ago, and for the first 30 million years of their existence they competed with other reptile groups (e.g. rauisuchians, dicynodonts and cynodonts to name a few) for the inheritance of the earth. However by the Later Triassic, roughly 210 mya, dinosaurs were starting to gain the upper hand, and with the extinction of competing reptile groups were able to diversify into a variety of different shapes and sizes. This included their first evolutionary exploration into becoming giants. Whilst the true giants of the dinosaur world, the sauropods, had yet to appear on the scene their distant ancestors (and fellow members of the Sauropodomorpha sub-order) were already taking these first steps. These were the prosauropods. This group of dinosaurs were iconic members of the Late Triassic ecosystem and group members included some of the oldest dinosaurs yet discovered. The most famous member of this family would have been a common sight across the European edge of Pangea (a massive landmass consisting of all of the continents put together) 214-204 mya. Its name was Plateosaurus; meaning “flat lizard” (not because it was shaped like a pancake but because its fossils were noted to be much flatter than others discovered).

The first Plateosaurus fossils were discovered in 1834 by German Palaeontologist Johann Friedrich Engelhardt, and one Plateosaurus species (Plateosaurus engelhardti) was even named after him. This means that it was discovered just before Richard Owen coined the term “dinosaur”. However Plateosaurus wasn’t included as one of Richard Owen’s examples of dinosaurs because it was known only from fragmentary remains, which meant that it was poorly understood at the time. However this has changed, with multiple fossils of this animal having since been discovered (mostly in Germany but with some in Greenland and Norway too). One area which has produced multiple Plateosaurus fossils is a site near the village of Trossingen in the Black Forest, Germany. Here multiple Plateosaurus individuals have been unearthed, buried here over a period of time. One theory as to why this is the case is that the area contained thick sticky mud, in which the dinosaurs got stuck, before eventually collapsing and dying from exhaustion as they desperately tried to wiggle free (which is not a way to go!). However the large number of fossils means that Plateosaurus is now one of the best understood dinosaurs, with multiple papers being published about it, something I noticed when researching for this blog! These papers detail its anatomy and lifestyle, from studies of its skull, locomotion, its vertebrae and even its growth. As such Plateosaurus is one of the best known Triassic dinosaurs.

A reconstructed skeleton (known as “Skelett 2”) of Plateosaurus engelhardti in the Institute of Geosciences of the Eberhard-Karls University in Tübingen, Germany. This reconstruction is based on two individuals found at Trossingen.
Image Credit: FunkMonk, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plateosaurus_Skelett_2.jpg

Due to the large concentration of fossils it is thought that Plateosaurus travelled in large herds. These herds would have stripped the landscape of almost any vegetation that they came across, the leaves of ferns and cycads being their favourite meal (though an estimated faster jaw closure speed than later sauropods, and different types of teeth, suggest that they might have eaten meat occasionally). To access this vegetation they would have used their long necks to reach leaves that were too high up for other herbivores. They also had claws to hook around and pull down plants and sharp crushing teeth to rip off leaves before swallowing them whole. Plateosaurus could also reach these heights because they walked around on two legs, with their long tail balancing out their long neck. This is a new discovery; previously it was thought they walked on all fours like their sauropod descendants. This theory is based on two main observations; firstly their front arms couldn’t pronate, meaning that they couldn’t lie their hands flat on the ground to support their weight; and secondly their centre of gravity was located over the hips, meaning that the hind limbs supported all of the weight. Further studies have also revealed another side to Plateosaurus. Deep depressions found in its dorsal vertebrae suggest that it possessed a bird like respiratory system with air sacs. This is surprising, as birds evolved from small, nimble theropod dinosaurs; not large long necked sauropods! One possible explanation is that bird like characteristics evolved much earlier in dinosaurs than previously thought, before they had diversified into their key groups. The other is that this system evolved convergently (i.e. it evolved separately in two different groups). These air sacs would have allowed Plateosaurus to carry around their large bulk more efficiently, and would have enabled them to process enough oxygen to have a more active, almost warm-blooded lifestyle. Plateosaurus is best envisaged as the Elephant of its day, approaching 10 metres long and 4 tons in weight. However not all adults would have reached this size. This is because Plateosaurus is one of only a few dinosaurs that is known to show “developmental plasticity”. In simple terms this is variation in growth between different Plateosaurus individuals, resulting in different adult sizes (in this case an adult range of 5-10 metres long and 0.6-4 tons). This is seen on a smaller scale in humans, with adults ranging from approximately 5”0 to as tall as 6”8. Being relatively large, a fully grown Plateosaurus would have been a tough proposition for most predators. Two exceptions however were the simply named Smok (meaning dragon in Polish), a 6 metre long archosaur reptile related to dinosaurs, and Liliensternus, a 5.2 metre long theropod dinosaur belonging to a family known as the Coelophysidae. Like the pro-sauropods this group were also dinosaurs that were characteristic of the Triassic, and fights between Liliensternus and Plateosaurus would be a subject for a segment in any nature documentary about life in the Triassic.

Plateosaurus has even appeared on the stage! This is from the Walking with Dinosaurs live show
Image Credit: Dark Dwarf, https://www.flickr.com/photos/darkdwarf/42887589745

Plateosaurus is undoubtedly one of the most famous dinosaurs of their earliest days. Its large size, plentiful fossils and connection to the later sauropods makes it a talisman among dinosaur enthusiasts. I think Walking with Dinosaurs summed up Plateosaurus the best, stating “This is the shape of things to come”.

EDIT: Based on studies of related pro-sauropods such as Massospondylus and Mussaurus (e.g. Otero et. al. 2019) it is thought that while Plateosaurus was a biped when fully grown, they were actually quadrupeds when they were juveniles. This theory is based on evidence such as observed changes in the centre of mass from the mid-thorax (in juveniles) to the pelvis (in adults), and in changes in body mass over time (e.g. Mussaurus grew from 60g when hatched, to 7kg at 1 years old, to over 1000kg when adults).

References/Extra Reading

Hofmann & Sander 2014 paper on the study of juvenile Plateosaurus fossils and developmental plasticity in Plateosaurus

Hofmann, Rebecca, and P Martin Sander. “The first juvenile specimens of Plateosaurus engelhardti from Frick, Switzerland: isolated neural arches and their implications for developmental plasticity in a basal sauropodomorph.” PeerJ vol. 2 e458. 3 Jul. 2014, doi:10.7717/peerj.458

Gunga et al 2007 paper estimating body mass and volume in Plateosaurus

Gunga, H., Suthau, T., Bellmann, A. et al. Body mass estimations for Plateosaurus engelhardti using laser scanning and 3D reconstruction methods. Naturwissenschaften 94, 623–630 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-007-0234-2

Mallison 2010 paper accessing range of motion of Plateosaurus legs and vertebrae, proving, among other results, that Plateosaurus walked on two legs only

Mallison, H. (2010). “The Digital Plateosaurus II: An Assessment of the Range of Motion of the Limbs and Vertebral Column and of Previous Reconstructions using a Digital Skeletal Mount.” Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 55(3): 433-458, 426.

Button, Barrett & Rayfield 2016 paper comparing the jaws of Plateosaurus with the Late Jurassic sauropod Camarasaurus

Button, D, Barrett, P, Rayfield, E. Comparative cranial myology and biomechanics of Plateosaurus and Camarasaurus and evolution of the sauropod feeding apparatus. Palaeontology, Vol 59, Iss 6, 887-913 (2016), https://doi.org/10.1111/pala.12266

Otero 2019 paper on the grow changes in Mussaurus, a close relative, that show a shift in locomotion from a quadruped to a biped

Otero, A., Cuff, A.R., Allen, V. et al. Ontogenetic changes in the body plan of the sauropodomorph dinosaur Mussaurus patagonicus reveal shifts of locomotor stance during growth. Sci Rep 9, 7614 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44037-1

Leaellynasaura: A dinosaur that called the South Pole home

A drawing of the South Poles resident dinosaur Leaellynasaura
Image Credit: El fosilmaníaco, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:El_fosilman%C3%ADaco

It’s hard to imagine any land based animal living at the South Pole. The frozen wastes, completely prevents any significant plant growth, complete darkness covers the area for about half the year, and temperatures are nearly always well below freezing. This results in an environment where the largest life-form is no more than microscopic. However for a sizeable chunk of earth’s history there was no permanent ice cap at the South Pole. Instead temperate forests covered the continents that were located there. During the Early to Mid-Cretaceous period, (around 105-110 million years ago), a landmass that would eventually break up to become Antarctica and Australia was present at the south pole of our planet. If you trekked through this land, often with only the southern lights illuminating the landscape, you might be able hear the chirps of a small, unassuming little dinosaur piercing the otherwise silent frozen forest. These sounds belonged to an ornithopod known as Leaellynasaura amicagraphca (Latin for “Leaellyn’s lizard”, with “amicagraphica” referring to the friends of Museum Victoria who helped with the research).

When a prehistoric animal is given its scientific name, the usual procedure is to either; 1. Name it because of a distinguishing feature; 2. Name it after the area it was discovered in; or 3. Give it an eye catching name that involves the words “terror” or “massive” or “weird”. However Leaellynasaura bucks this trend by instead being named after Leaellyn Rich, the young daughter of Palaeontologists Thomas and Patricia Rich, who first discovered Leaellynasaura in 1989 (a great present for any person!). The fossils were found at a place known as Dinosaur Cove, which is located just outside of Melbourne, Australia. This site, and others in Australia, have shown that Leaellynasaura lived alongside a wide range of other animals. This included other dinosaurs, such as the large vegetarian iguanodontid Muttaburrasaurus and the mid-sized hunting theropod Australovenator, as well as a giant 5 metre long amphibian named Koolasuchus. Fans of the hit BBC documentary “Walking with Dinosaurs” might recognise some of the names I’ve just mentioned. This is because the fifth episode, titled “Spirits of the Ice Forest”, is actually based on this fossil assemblage.

A selection of Leaellynasaura amicographica fossils.
Image Credit: Kumiko, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kmkmks/8086848566/

Leaellynasaura itself was a small dinosaur, with estimates varying between 1-3 metres. It is unclear what specific group of Ornithopod Dinosaurs it belonged to, however it is similar in anatomy to the Hypsilophodontids (try saying that five times fast!). These dinosaurs are characteristically small, bipedal, nimble herbivores, using their beaks to browse vegetation, all whilst scampering between larger herbivores (the best modern analogue might be modern day Gazelles). When you look at the skeleton of Leaellynasaura a few features stand out. Firstly it had large eye sockets relative to its skull. Combined with a large optic lobes in its brain cavity this suggests that Leaellynasaura had excellent eyesight, allowing it to spot predators and locate juicy plants to eat. Secondly its tail was very long, nearly 3/4 of its entire length! This tail contained over 70 vertebrae and lacked many of the ossified tendons involved in stiffening and strengthening the tail of other dinosaurs. This means that Leaellynasaura probably possessed a remarkably flexible tail, capable of a wide variety of movement (maybe even curling round up and around its body). The function of this long tail is unclear at the moment, though it has been theorised that it was involved in display, especially when combined with any feather covering that it likely possessed.

Size comparison between Leaellynasaura amicagraphica and an adult human. Note Leaellynasaura’s proportionally long tail that takes up 2/3rds of its total length!
Image Credit: Slate Weasel, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leaellynasaura_Size.svg

The biggest challenge that Leaellynasaura would have faced would have certainly been surviving the elements. As Dinosaur Cove was located well within the Antarctic Circle it would have endured the same seasonal variations that Antarctica does today; 6 months of near permanent sunshine followed by 6 months of near permanent darkness. So how could a dinosaur possibly have coped with these long periods of darkness, where temperatures would’ve regularly dropped well below freezing? This is where its key distinguishing features come into play. Its large eyes would have allowed it to see well in the dim light, key for spotting what little edible plant matter could be found in the frozen ground. Its long flexible tail could potentially have been wrapped round itself when the animal rested in order to keep itself warm (rather like your pet cat does when it is taking a nap!). Another strategy to protect itself against the cold could have been taking shelter in burrows. Fossil burrows have been found at Dinosaur Cove and it has been suggested they could have been made by Leaellynasaura. Support for this theory comes from fossils in Montana of a close cousin, named Oryctodromeus. Fossilised remains have been found preserved in the burrows that they lived in. Also because of fossil evidence from ancestral relatives (such as Tianyulong) it has been suggested that Leaellynasaura was covered in feathers. Speculations range from simple velvety fuzz to a multi-layered fluffy coat according to different reconstructions. The feathered coat makes sense considering the cold climate, certainly allowing it a much greater degree of insulation than traditional reptilian scales.

It may not be the biggest, or possess giant claws, bone clubs or spines, but Leaellynasaura in its own way was just as remarkable a dinosaur as any that have ever existed, perfectly adapted to an environment that was previously thought to be impossible for a reptile to live in. Also, especially if we assume it did possess a thick fluffy coating of feathers with its big eyes and long tail, Leaellynasaura would have certainly been a contender for the cutest dinosaur to ever exist! If it were alive today dog grooming shows would have serious competition from Leaellynasaura grooming shows!

References/Further Reading

Article on Australian Dinosaurs (including Leaellynasaura) and Dinosaur Cove

Udurawane, Vasika, “Dinosaurs down under”, Earth Archives, 2016, eartharchives.org/articles/dinosaurs-down-under/

A 2017 study by Sharp et al. which put a Leaellynasaura fossil through a CT scanner

Sharp, Alana & Regalado Fernandez, Omar & Siu, Karen & Rich, Tom. (2017). Revealing the skeleton of the polar dinosaur Leaellynasaura amicagraphica using synchrotron computed tomography, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) 77th Annual Meeting.

The Western Australian Museum’s article about Leaellynasaura, talking about its anatomy, size and growth.

“Leaellynasaura”, Western Australian Museum, 2014, museum.wa.gov.au/explore/dinosaur-discovery/leaellynasaura

Dakotaraptor: The Thief from Hell Creek

Dakotaraptor in all its feathered glory!
Image Credit: Emily Willoughby, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dakotaraptor_wiki.jpg

If there was only one place and time that I could take someone new to the topic of dinosaurs, it would undoubtedly be Hell Creek, 65 million years ago. Here, in an environment of lush forests and temperatures similar to Spain today, lived a variety of instantly recognisable dinosaur icons. You could see a Triceratops lumbering through the woods, view a herd of Edmontosaurus browsing the nearby vegetation, hear two Pachycephalosaurus crashing their heads together and ensure to keep us a safe distance from the solid club tail of an Ankylosaurus. To cap it all off you would see the most famous dinosaur of them all, Tyrannosaurus Rex. In one area I could show someone a ceratopsian, a hadrosaur, a pachychephalosaur, an ankylosaur and a tyrannosaur all in one afternoon. Now, thanks to new fossils described only four years ago, you can add a large dromaeosaur (aka, “raptor”) to that list.

This animal has been given the name Dakotaraptor steini (“Stein’s Dakota Thief”), after the State of Dakota where Hell Creek is located and in honour of palaeontologist Walter Stein. It was discovered by a team led by Robert DaPalma, who described some partially articulated fossilised skeletons of a few individuals including arm and leg bones, some tail vertebrae and teeth. There was also a “wishbone” that was thought to belong to Dakotaraptor, however a study by Arbour et al in 2016 showed that this was actually a turtle bone (an honest mistake on the DePalma and his teams part!) These fossils showed that this dinosaur was no chicken! Measuring 5 and a half metres long and 1.8 metres tall it would have been almost exactly the same size as the famous Velociraptors from the film Jurassic Park. However for a large raptor Dakotaraptor was relatively lightweight, partly due to its vertebrae having air spaces within them. Combing this with legs built for long strides and Dakotaraptor would have been able to achieve top speeds of around 30-40 mph, that’s as fast as a greyhound! Just like the Jurassic Park raptors, Dakotaraptor would have been a lethal predator, hunting in packs to take down large herbivorous dinosaurs. To do this Dakotaraptor needed some serious weaponry, luckily that’s just what it had in the form of the raptors signature weapon; the killing claw on its feet. Dakotaraptor’s was especially big, measuring 9 and a half inches, with a serrated hook shaped end. It used to be thought that raptors used their claw in order to violently slash and disembowel prey. However it is now thought that the claws were mainly used to hold onto large struggling prey and to pin down smaller animals, rather like a modern bird of prey.

A illustration of Dakotaraptor showing the position of all the known bones (highlighted in white).
Image Credit: PaleoNeolitic, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dakotaraptor_Skeleton_Reconstruction.jpg

The resemblance to birds doesn’t end there. Dakotaraptor, just like all other raptors, was completely covered in feathers (sorry if I’ve just ruined your childhood memories of scaly raptors!). In fact Dakotaraptor is the first large raptor to have direct evidence of feathers (previously it had been inferred that they had them based on smaller relatives possessing them). On its ulna (one of the arm bones) palaeontologists discovered a series of 15 regular notches running along the bone. These notches are called quill knobs and their purpose is to act as anchor points for long pennaceous feathers to attach to. As a result Dakotaraptor would have sported a small pair of wings! However these wings weren’t strong enough for flight (Dakotaraptor was already lethal enough without needing to fly!) Instead, through flapping and balancing motions it could have helped keep the raptor steady while running or holding on to prey. Wing feathers could also have been for display, with potentially bright colours being used to attract a mate or to show off to rivals (a trait common in modern birds). Feathers could have made the animal look bigger and more intimidating and could even be used to cover its young while nesting. With a full head and body of soft feathers, a feathery tail fan and small wings, you might have mistaken Dakotaraptor (and other raptors for that matter) for a giant grounded eagle or hawk from a distance.

Being discovered at Hell Creek also means that Dakotaraptor, just like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, was one of the last of the dinosaurs. It would have lived right up until the end of the Cretaceous period and would have been another victim of the asteroid strike on the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago. After the impact and resultant climate change the vegetation that its plant eating prey relied on disappeared. With its prey gone Dakotaraptor would disappear too, and with it the entire line of fast, remarkably bird like dinosaurs known as the dromaeosaurs would be no more.

Size comparison between Dakotaraptor and an adult human. With how close the human is he won’t be waving for long!
Image Credit: Matthew Martyniuk, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dakota_raptor_scale_mmartyniuk.png

Now I’m going to end this blog with the question that I’m sure some people would be asking. Would Tyrannosaurus Rex and Dakotaraptor have clashed? Such confrontations would have certainly been possible as the two dinosaurs lived in the same place at the same time, and might have hunted similar prey at times. However fights may not actually have been that common. Dakotaraptor would have mostly targeted smaller and faster prey than T-Rex. As a result of this it would have occupied a different role (or “niche”) in the Hell Creek environment, that of a medium sized predator. This idea is called “niche partitioning” and we see it happen today on the African savannah, where cheetahs hunt fast gazelles while lions hunt the larger wildebeest, and so don’t compete with each other (except over a carcass). As a result Dakotaraptor might not have directly competed with Tyrannosaurus Rex for food. But for the sake of fun, what if they had come into conflict? Well a single Dakotaraptor would probably have fared against an adult T-Rex about as well as the Velociraptor at the end of Jurassic Park did! However a pack of Dakotaraptors against an adult, or an adolescent T-Rex would have been a different proposition. One could even envision a Dakotaraptor pack chasing a Tyrannosaurus off a kill in exactly the same way as a pack of Hyenas do to Lions on the African Savannah. So that fight between a T-Rex and a raptor at the end of Jurassic Park could have happened, just with a lot more feathers flying around!

UPDATE: A new study (Frederickson, Engel & Cifelli 2020), published in the journal Palaeonon the 3rd of May 2020, has cast doubt on the theory that raptors like Dakotaraptor lived and hunted in packs. The study examined the level of tooth carbon isotopes in juvenile and adult Deinonychus, a smaller and earlier relative of Dakotaraptor. What they found was the carbon isotope levels were rich in juveniles but depleted in adults. This indicates that they were eating different prey and this difference is consistent with animals like crocodiles who don’t live in packs. In pack hunting animals, such as Lions, both young and adult individuals eat the same food as they’re often sharing a kill between members of the group, so have the same or similar tooth carbon isotope level. In short, raptors like Dakotaraptor May have lived a more solitary life.

References/Further Reading

A National Geographic article, written by Ed Yong, on the use of the raptors killing claw

Yong, Ed, “Deinonychus and Velociraptor used their killing claws to pin prey, like eagles and hawks”, National Geographic, Dec 14, 2011, nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2011/12/14/deinonychus-and-velociraptor-used-their-killing-claws-to-pin-prey-like-eagles-and-hawks/

The DePalma et. al. 2015 paper describing the first Dakotaraptor fossils

DePalma, Robert A., Burnham, David A., Martin, Larry D., et. al., The first giant raptor (Theropoda: Dromaeosauridae) from the Hell Creek Formation, Paleontological Institute, Paleontological Contributions;14, (2015), https://doi.org/10.17161/paleo.1808.18764

The Arbour et. al. 2016 paper that pointed out that one of the fossils was actually a turtle

Arbour VM, Zanno LE, Larson DW, Evans DC, Sues H. 2016. The furculae of the dromaeosaurid dinosaur Dakotaraptor steini are trionychid turtle entoplastra. PeerJ 4:e1691 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1691

Another blog, by Brian Switek, talking about possible interactions between Dakotaraptor and T-Rex

Switek, Brian, “Did Dakotaraptor Really Face Off Against Tyrannosaurus?”, goodreads, Nov. 25, 2015, goodreads.com/author/show/3958757.Brian_Switek/blog?page=23

Frederickson, Engel & Cifelli 2020 study that used tooth carbon isotope data to indicate that raptors may not have been pack hunters (EDIT)

J.A. Frederickson et al, Ontogenetic dietary shifts in Deinonychus antirrhopus (Theropoda; Dromaeosauridae): Insights into the ecology and social behavior of raptorial dinosaurs through stable isotope analysis, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2020.109780

Get the all new Spinosaurus while stocks last!

The skeleton of an ancient river monster!
Image Credit: Mike Bowler, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spinosaurus_swimming.jpg

Let me tell you a story. Three time travellers meet in a bar. They decide that they want to journey back to Mid Cretaceous North Africa, around 95 million years ago. They plan to have a dinosaur safari, just like the safaris that are conducted across the modern day Serengeti. However the area is dangerous as there are plenty of dangerous dinosaurs roaming around, some big enough to take out the jeep faster than the time travelling tourists can say “holy cow is that a dinosaur!” So they come up with a plan. Instead of going by jeep, they will use a river boat. “It’s perfect!” they say, “no dinosaur will be able to reach us as we are on the water and because it’s inland there’s no need to fear any sea faring marine reptiles”. After some time planning the time travellers undertake their boat journey. They marvel at the herds of the huge sauropod Paralititan and see an impressively large Carcharodontosaurus watching the herd hungrily. However as they are distracted by what they are seeing they don’t notice a large object moving in the river. Suddenly one of them hears the sound of rushing water and turns round to see a large sail poking out of the water like Jaws’ fin and heading right towards the boat. In five minutes, the time travellers will have seen their last dinosaur….

The unidentified river monster in this story is not a fish, nor a crocodile. It is instead the largest of all theropod dinosaurs: Spinosaurus aegyptiacus (meaning “Egyptian spine lizard”). The first Spinosaurus fossils were discovered in Egypt by German palaeontologist Ernst Stromer in 1912, however sadly these remains were destroyed during allied bombings raids on Munich during World War Two. Spinosaurus has gained more attention in recent years as new research has shown that this theropod had a lifestyle unlike any other dinosaur. The research suggests that Spinosaurus is the first known aquatic dinosaur.

There are certain anatomical features that support this interpretation. One area is the shape and design of the skull. The teeth were long and conical, well suited for gripping and holding on to slippery prey such as fish. The nostrils were placed high on its snout so it could hold it submerged in water while still being able to breath. It’s also thought that holes at the end of Spinosaurus’ snout contained pressure sensors, similar to those seen in modern crocodiles, which are used to detect disturbances in the water. The water based adaptations don’t stop there; one specimen of a Spinosaurus upper jaw has a barb embedded in it that belonged to a species of giant swordfish called Onchopristis. This suggests that Onchopristis was one of Spinosaurus‘ main sources of food. So taking all these adaptations together it suggests that Spinosaurus had a mostly fish based diet (however it is still possible that it ate meat as well).

An illustration of the head of Spinosaurus. Note the distinctive long, crocodile like jaws, conical teeth and small head crest.
Image Credit: Steveoc 86, https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spinosaurus_skull_steveoc.jpg

All these adaptations are well and good, however the biggest evidence for Spinosaurus‘ aquatic lifestyle was detailed in a paper released in 2014, written by a team of palaeontologists led by Spinosaurus expert Nizar Ibrahim. The paper examined and described a new 11.3 metre long specimen (that wasn’t fully grown, Spinosaurus could reach a maximum length of 15 metres) that is the most complete Spinosaurus skeleton ever found. Examination of the hind limb bones and pelvic girdle showed that they were much shorter than previously thought. These hind limbs were so short that Spinosaurus could not have walked on two legs for long periods of time as its legs couldn’t support its massive, front heavy bulk. This meant only one thing, Spinosaurus walked on all fours (at least occasionally). This is certainly very different to the bipedal, T-Rex killing beast that terrorised Alan Grant and the Kirbys in the 2001 film Jurassic Park 3. This new discovery also fits with the theory of a mostly aquatic based Spinosaurus. Short hind legs reduce drag when swimming and diving through water and is something that other aquatic and semi-aquatic animals, such as crocodiles and otters, exhibit today. These hind limbs were also solid and dense, helping with buoyancy control, and it has been speculated that feet would have been webbed to further aid in swimming. This means that Spinosaurus would have been comfortable and manoeuvrable in water, and a somewhat clumsy walker on land!

This reconstruction, which has commonly been dubbed “new Spinosaurus“, has caused quite a stir in the palaeontology community, Not everyone is on board with the idea and a few have even written articles and papers questioning the findings of the Ibrahim et al. 2014 paper. For example palaeontologist Scott Hartman questioned the length measurements of Spinosaurus’ hind limbs and Donald Hendersons 2018 paper questioned its buoyancy. However both these counter papers have their own issues; for example the Henderson paper based their buoyancy calculations on bone density data from other theropods and birds, except Spinosaurs have been shown to have proportionately thicker bones than these animals. The debate is still ongoing to this day, and so it is still not known for certain whether Spinosaurus truly was a quadruped or a biped.

So let us rejoice in the quadrupedal walking, gracefully swimming, humongously sized, sail-backed fish eater that Spinosaurus has become! Proof that during their 170 million year reign there were few habitats that the dinosaurs couldn’t reach.

UPDATE: Spinosaurus reconstructions continue to change with every new paper! A new study was published on the 29th April 2020 in the journal nature. Written by a team led by Nizar Ibrahim, has revealed that Spinosaurus had unusually tall neural spines and elongated chevrons on its tail vertebrae. These special vertebrae supported a flexible, paddle-like tail and it’s theorised that Spinosaurus used it to swim through the water! The image below illustrates what most palaeontologists now think Spinosaurus aegypticus looked like.

The most up to date (as of 29th April 2020) look of the river monster that our time travelling tourists had the misfortune of encountering!
Image Credit: Gustavo Monroy-Becerril, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Spinosaurus_aegyptiacus_underwater.png

EDIT: One key piece of evidence, that I missed when writing this blog (my apologies!), from the Donald Henderson 2018 paper is that Spinosaurus’ centre of mass was located closer to its hips than to its torso. This is further evidence that Spinosaurus was a biped, walking on its short stubby legs (almost like a duck!). At the time of writing this Nizar Ibrahim has yet to publish his latest research on Spinosaurus so the two legged/four legged debate rages on. But currently the common consensus, at time of writing, is that Spinosaurus was a biped.

References/Further Reading

Ibrahim et al. 2014 paper, published in Nature, describing “New Spinosaurus

Ibrahim, N., et al. (2014). “Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur.” Science 345(6204): 1613-1616.

Henderson et. al. 2018 paper countering the Ibrahim et. al. 2014 paper

Henderson DM. 2018. A buoyancy, balance and stability challenge to the hypothesis of a semi-aquatic Spinosaurus Stromer, 1915 (Dinosauria: Theropoda) PeerJ 6:e5409 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5409

Nizar Ibrahim’s response to Scott Hartman, published on Scott Hartman’s Skeletal Drawing.com.

Ibrahim et. al., “Aquatic Spinosaurus – The authors respond”, Scott Hartman’s Skeletal Drawing.com, Sept. 18, 2014, skeletaldrawing.com/home/aquatic-spinosaurus-the-authors-responsd9182014

An article in Smithsonian Magazine on the history of Spinosaurus research

Smithsonianmag.com, “Cracking the Code of Spinosaurus”, Smithsonian Magazine, Apr. 19, 2017, smithsonianmag.com/sponsored/spinosaurus-lost-dinosaur-paleontology-new-discovery-great-courses-plus-180962953/

New Ibrahim et. al. 2020 paper on the structure of Spinosaurus’ tail (USED FOR UPDATE)

Ibrahim, N., Maganuco, S., Dal Sasso, C. et al. Tail-propelled aquatic locomotion in a theropod dinosaur. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2190-3