STL Science Center

STL Science Center

25 February 2016

Effigia Has No Toys

The popularity of Effigia is mostly within the scientific community. There are some outlets that we have discussed and shared this week. These include a number of easily accessible videos like Dinosaur Train and the (still online) Dinosaurs Alive. There are no toys or coloring pages, statues or plush animals. Effigia is extremely important to science and is therefore very important within the scientific community. Unfortunately it has shown up as one of those anthropomorphic lady animals also. The most important thing about Effigia is that it is important to the scientific community and it has changed our understanding of crocodilian evolution as well as archosaurs in general.

24 February 2016

Anatomy of An Archosaur

Effigia has a different anatomy from the extant crocodiles and alligators that we know today. The femoral head, astragalus (the "ankle"), and the proportions of the manus (front "paw") have been discussed at length this week in terms of their being different and how they are different. The remainder of the anatomy (almost an entire animal) has not been heavily discussed. We mentioned that Effigia has shorter forelimbs than hindlimbs, making it a facultative quadruped that, when on four feet, angled downward rostrally. The cranium of Effigia is the most complete portion of the fossil animal, though the mandible of the archosaur is not known. A reasonable reconstruction of the mandible exists and the inferences that generated it came from the existing cranial elements as they were informative about the general morphology of the entire head.

23 February 2016

Fighting Over Effigia

The debate over the placement of Effigia is at most a smoldering pile of ash and not a blazing inferno a decade after the announcement of the archosaur. The discussion included a pair of papers that discussed the anatomy of Effigia in the two assumed contexts of its placement. Sterling Nesbitt in January 2007 asserted that Effigia was in fact an early suchian precursor and possessed crocodylian anatomical features that have continued through the line into extant crocodylians. These include femoral orientation, manus proportions, and the shape and articulations of the astragalus. Sometime during 2007 the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science released a bulletin containing a Spencer Lucas article. Lucas, et al. 2007 asserted that Effigia's diagnostic characteristics were not more characteristic of suchian ancestors than they were of theropod ancestors. To that end, Lucas, et al. placed Effigia within the genus Shuvosaurus.

22 February 2016

Effigia Goes to IMAX

Provided one wanted to see scientific videos of Effigia there are very few that are purely documentary related. The two quality videos that appear to be readily available online are very useful for learning something about Effigia despite not being documentaries entirely about the little archosaur. The first video is actually a taped talk on the cranial biomechanics of Effigia. This discussion is a summation of a student's work up to that point. There are a number of ways that are acceptable to interpret scientific talks, but rather than interpreting the talk for this audience I think it wise to allow everyone to watch the talk for themselves during this break.
The second video that is available online is actually not going to be online forever, I am quite sure. The IMAX special Dinosaurs Alive is available online and it really needs no introduction because you can watch it start to finish and enjoy learning about a lot of different animals. Some of those animals are not dinosaurs of course, as evidenced by the fact that Effigia is included in the film despite being related to crocodiles. Even dinosaurs need supporting casts though, and Effigia is a wonderful little animal.

21 February 2016

Facts and Films

Effigia is a charismatic and beloved archosaur. The early suchian reptile appeared in a few venues in the past ten years directed at conveying facts to young fossil enthusiasts. The publisher of the Eyewitness books, DK has featured Effigia both in print and on the internet. The internet version is more interactive but is a bit brief. The archosaur is also featured in the (old?) IMAX movie Dinosaurs Alive. The movie has an interview with Sterling Nesbitt in conjunction with the visuals of his described archosaur. Effigia also appears in the animated series Dinosaur Train. The series accurately discusses Effigia as a relative of crocodiles and alligators. We love to see shows geared toward younger enthusiasts with accurate facts. The appearance of Effigia appears to have been in season three in an episode called "Classic in the Jurassic: Air, Water, and Land." The name the character is given is Effie Effigia; not too original, but her running abilities are astounding.

20 February 2016

Confused Visage

Back in 2007 Raul Martin illustrated Effigia for National Geographic. Martin's interpretation of Effigia looks nothing like any kind of crocodylian animal that we know, fossil or extant. The reason for that is that Effigia was not very similar to its soon-to-be descendants. During the Triassic era reptiles were beginning to truly take command of the land and even the skies. The most successful forms of reptiles at the time were those walking on two legs at least facultatively; that does not mean that there were no successful quadrupedal reptiles at this time. Therefore, many of the reptiles that would become known as the ancestors of lepidosaurs, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and even crocodylians were similarly built animals with powerful hindlegs, long balancing tails, and mouths filled with little reptilian teeth. As an early member of the then developing suchian line, Effigia espoused these typical reptilian traits, but was also in the process of incorporating the precursors of crocodilian traits such as a similarly proportioned manus and an anteriorly articulating femoral head. Dinosaurs possess an articulation of the femoral head that is oriented medially in the hip socket. The astragalus, the reptilian "heel" bone (we call it the calcaneus),  of Effigia is morphologically similar to the bone as it is seen in alligators.

19 February 2016


© Giant Screen Films
The name Effigia okeefeae refers to a small archosaur discovered in New Mexico, at the Ghost Ranch site famous for its astoundingly populous Triassic fossil beds which include dinosaurs like Coelophysis. The fossil was unearthed by Edwin Colbert in 1947 and 1948. The proximity of the site to sites used by popularly known artist Georgia O'keefe (who also visited Ghost Ranch) prompted the naming of the specific epithet by Sterling Nesbitt and Mark Norell in 2006. Nesbitt, as a graduate student at the time, had unboxed the remains of Effigia that Colbert shelved and the American Museum of Natural History seemingly forgot for nearly half a century. This happens often in paleontology. The important thing is that those fossils are eventually rediscovered and described. Effigia is an interesting archosaur. Not a dinosaur, but actually a member of the basal line of crocodylians within Suchia and only very vaguely appears to be an ornithomimid theropod. This convergent evolution has caused some to question whether Effigia is only an example of convergent evolution or is actually a synonym of a similar appearing theropod named Shuvosaurus.

18 February 2016

Popular Wendi

I cannot attest to the popularity of Wendy Sloboda post-discovery, but the dinosaur named for her, as the locality discoverer, is quite famous at the moment. Wendiceratops is not famous for being a well fossilized and preserved specimen (though the post-crania of the dinosaur is fairly "complete" for a large North American ceratopsid), but it is famous for being recently discovered and rather novel, morphologically. Newspapers and newscasts heralded the dinosaur as possessing an "extravagant halo of horns" and the fascination from the the general public was ignited. Papers have also emphasized the idea that Wendiceratops is the key element to understanding the horns of chasmosaurs, which may or may not be true, but is certainly a little hyperbolic as every discovered ceratopsian is important in piecing together how horns came to be prominent in the largest and latest members of the family. Regardless of exactly how key a species Wendiceratops is, it remains, so far, a very popular dinosaur. It is so popular, in fact, that it has become a tattoo at least once (Wendy Sloboda sports this masterpiece). A spectacular tattoo at that. It is a little "young" to have found many more popular culture outlets, but given the amount of popularity it possesses already, it will not be long until there are toys and games, perhaps even documentary CGI versions.
Display at the Royal Ontario Museum, credit Brian Boyle

17 February 2016

Autapomorphies to Consider

Wendiceratops was described as possessing two novel autapomorphies and a distinct, but not novel, nasal horn. The horn is similar to others within the centrosaurine group. These similarities helped to place the dinosaur in the centrosaurine group, but this was not the only reason that Wendiceratops was assigned to the group. The first noted autapomorphy also led to the assignment of Wendiceratops. The epiparietals previously describe here and in the paper shared yesterday are characteristically centrosaurine in their morphology and help to set apart Wendiceratops and other centrosaurine dinosaurs. The general characteristic shape of the epiparietals is similar to other centrosaurs, but they are also unique enough to warrant a new genus and species. The second autapomorphy involves the posterior end of the ischium. That end is rectangular and is expanded moreso than in other ceratopsians as well as centrosaurs.

16 February 2016

Paper Dinosaurs

Partly due to the fact that David Evans, the lead author of the description paper on Wendiceratops, is an editor at PLOS One and partly because it is a quick publishing open source venue of science, we have a readily available product to talk about in regards to papers. The dinosaur is so new to science that this is literally the only article that has been published at this time. The paper describes Wendiceratops in a good amount of detail and even goes on to discuss evolution within ceratopsids. Specifically, the evolution of the nasal horn and other nasal ornamentation is discussed at length. The paper includes locality maps and quarry maps, something useful for anyone that wants to look at the formation discussed, as well as providing copious amounts of scientific illustration and, better than illustration, high detail photographs of all of the fossil material that was collected and attributed to Wendiceratops. High definition photos are easier to come by and produce in the current age, but even so, they are not often included in their entirety in descriptive publications. This is due in part to the limitations of print journals (score one for online supplementals and open access electronic journals).

15 February 2016

Fun Fact for Monday Movies

Last week, for the first time, I found a small series of videos on dinosaur facts that was fairly well done. The videos may just be starting out as they seem to have so far only covered a very few taxa. There is a video, though, for Wendiceratops. Rather than writing out a synopsis of a video, I would suggest watching it a few times and enjoying the animation and facts.

14 February 2016


There are announcements for newly discovered dinosaurs floating all over the internet. The announcements of Wendiceratops is still floating around the internet in full force, partly because it is so fresh and partly because it is a very charismatic dinosaur. A number of these stories are presented as facts and interviews (e.g. articles at UrbanMoms out of Canada and China Topix). The typical pages like About have ready fact files as we would expect as well. In the modern era we are also offered more intriguing looks into paleontology as well, including forays into the field with the people actually recovering the remains:


13 February 2016

Frills for Wendy

(C) Danielle Dufault
The frill of Wendiceratops is one of the things that sets the dinosaur apart from other ceratopsians. The highly ornamented fused parietals and squamosals that make up the frill have osteoderms that, unlike many other ceratopsian frill topping osteoderms, point back anteriorly and inferiorly toward the face. There are a few other members of the family at large that have frills that are something like this, but none of these takes their osteoderms to the same extreme. The patterning of the osteoderms and the stunted nasal horn are common characteristics of the sister group of Chasmosaurines within the Ceratopsidae known as the Centrosaurines. These sister groupings separate dinosaurs like Triceratops and Chasmosaurus from dinosaurs like Wendiceratops and Centrosaurus. Many other characters separate the two groups as well and most are found in the skulls. These include not only the general shape of the nasal horn but also its position posterior to the external nares, the postorbital bones are shortened or absent, and short deep snouts. The middle two osteoderms in particular are also considered diagnostic of Centrosaurines, as Chasmosaurines do not have extensive osteoderm frill horns in these positions.

12 February 2016

Friday Ceratops

Almost everyone knows about Wendy. Wendiceratops is another North American dinosaur described in 2015 that was afforded a considerable amount of media attention. Discovered in 2013-2014, the turn around time in description during 2015 as Wendiceratops pinhornensis (Evans and Ryan 2015) is one of the shortest in modern paleontology. Time between discovery and naming is not always indicative of a lack of detail, though smaller remains are sometimes described more quickly than larger groups or even single elements that are discovered. There are actually quite a few remains attributed to Wendiceratops, both cranially and postcranially. The quickness of the turnaround is partly due to the publication of the description occurring in PLOS One, which is known for its quick turnaround times. Notably, though, a great deal of post cranial elements that are attributed to Wendiceratops are significant structures of axial and appendicular skeleton not often recovered (relatively speaking) in ceratopsian fossil discoveries. Wendy was named after her discoverer, Wendy Sloboda, who found the area where the fossils were recovered within the Pinhorn Provincial Grazing Reserve in Alberta, Canada. The specific epithet comes from this locality name.
From PLOS One, Evans and Ryan
Blue elements denote discovered fossil remains

11 February 2016

Famous and New

Many reasons that dinosaurs, in general, become famous center around the size of these animals. Large animals, whether mammals, fish, reptiles, or otherwise, are almost always intriguing to the populace. Partly this is due to the fact that there is a sense of bewilderment that follows any animal larger than a human and partly it is due to the fact that that sense of awe is tied into some primal instinct to be wary of things that can squash, eat, or otherwise end your existence without really trying very hard. Dakotaraptor's fame has stemmed not only from its enormous estimated size, but also from its family tree. Dromaeosaurs are known to the general public as "raptors" and, thanks to Jurassic Park mostly, they have captured the imagination and fascination of at least two generations of movie goers and readers. These vicious looking animals are terrifying and when they reach the sizes of animals like Dakotaraptor they become doubly terrifying. Adding to this are the bird-like qualities of intelligence and the potential for communal pack life. Multiple deadly dinosaurs taller than the average person are extremely frightening, even if they are long gone from history. There has not been much time for well done books, toys, or other forms of popular culture to take hold of Dakotaraptor, but video games are often the first and they do not disappoint in that regard, even if they are represented by user created testing content so far:

10 February 2016

How Are You, You?

Dromaeosaurs are a rather unique and novel form of theropod. We may have described what makes a theropod a dromaeosaur at some point in the past, or at least what makes a bird a theropod; this is not necessarily what makes a bird a dromaeosaur, but they are related ideas in the wider context of paleontology. Widely, dromaeosaurs are feathered, bipedal, saurischian dinosaurs with many avian or paravian characteristics that still possess many diagnostically theropod characteristics as well. What does that really mean? It means that Dakotaraptor and other dromaeosaurs have theropod features like two temporal fenestrae, sharped curved and serrated teeth (these ziphodont teeth are typical, but not necessarily required), and thin walled hollow bones. The arrangement of toes and fingers is also important in theropod dinosaurs. In dromaeosaurs the second claw of the foot is the well-known sickle shaped foot claw. This claw in Dakotaraptor equals approximately 29% the length of the femur. That means that the sickle claw of Dakotaraptor was nearly 16.2 cm long in the holotype individual (femur length is 55.8 cm). Feathers, furculae, and pneumatized bone are all avian characteristics that are shared by Dakotaraptor and other dromaeosaurs and birds. Dakotaraptor shares more traits with its smaller cousins than did the equally large dromaeosaur Utahraptor, most notably its lighter built and more agile frame, lending itself to inferences of pursuit predation as opposed to the Utahraptor hypothesis of ambush or short burst predation capabilities. Imagine a dinosaur nearly the size of Utahraptor that looks like a dinosaur, but also like a bird (living dinosaurs of course) staring you down and ready to chase you for miles, providing you can outrun it. This is not a scenario I would welcome.
Possibly an "uncool" amalgamation of unattributed work I found in a number of places.
(C) Emily Willoughby (again) for certain though.

09 February 2016

Fluffy Kerfuffle

Anyone that reads this blog with a background in any of the "hard" sciences is probably aware of the fact that in the general news of the field lately there has been a lot of discussion of the peer review process. There has also been a lot of back and forth concerning open access journals and the way that these journals are published. This overlaps the peer review discussion in many important ways and both discussions are igniting derisive comments about the world of blogs and the internet in general. In regard to what we discuss here, we are generally on the periphery of the argument as this blog does little more than attempt to distill the peer reviewed literature as concisely as possible and present the pertinent facts and learning tools needed to understand and learn more about dinosaurs when the reader has not heard of a certain dinosaur. I personally think peer review is important and that the opinions of blog writers, while valid as their own opinions, should always be taken with a grain (or truckload, at times) of salt as writings such as this are not vetted by anyone. In part, that is why I like to go back over very old topics and write about them all over some times. More news and more knowledge on my part make the entries better, but the information imparted here is still not vetted by my peers. I welcome their comments and corrections because the purpose of this, as I noted, is to convey easily accessible and concise information about dinosaurs to people that love dinosaurs, but do not necessarily want to become paleontologists (career paleontologists are welcome here of course though).

In the vein of making the literature more accessible to all, there are a few papers that need to be discussed concerning Dakotaraptor. The initial description of Dakotaraptor was published little more than a year ago and may hold the distinction of not only describing the first large dromaeosaur from the Hell Creek formation but it may also be the final publication which Larry Martin contributed to prior to his passing. The systematic description of the fossil is kept to a minimum in the published material but is extremely detailed despite being concise (for a description of individual elements). These descriptions are augmented with detailed figures showing positions of bones and comparison among other taxa; both are quality uses of the fossil material in showing how it is unique. The paper is a long paper, though shorter than many descriptions because much of the description is concise, so be prepared for a long read. Comparison to Utahraptor, another large North American dromaeosaur, is kept to a minimum, but the ecological role of Dakotaraptor is contemplated in the discussion and there are a number of dietary and behavioral inferences detailed here that we have mentioned already this week.

There is an article about the furcula of Dakotaraptor that analyzes their association with the holotype skeleton. The furcula is an important characteristic of the avian skeleton as it acts as a spring in many ways to conserve energy during flight. The presence of the furcula in Dakotaraptor lends itself to comparisons with birds and discussions about the evolution of the avian skeleton. This article compares the furcula to a fossil turtle plastron which appears to be morphologically similar to the (as Arbour, et. al state) "purported" furcula. In the end, the article argues that the furculae belong to a turtle, and not the dromaeosaur. I leave reading the middle information to the readers so that they may form their own opinion.

08 February 2016

Videos Everywhere

Videos are a staple in modern news. Paleontology is no exception to the news and video melding in the world. Dakotaraptor, being a new discovery on a continent obsessed with dromaeosuars and all other predatory dinosaurs, is a good example of the rule that paleontology and society at large interact best when videos of one kind or another are involved. Dakotaraptor's description and release to the public in general was much heralded by the media and dinosaur enthusiasts everywhere. The videos include entries like yesterday's fact video,

A somewhat Ben Stein-like narrative:
A more enthusiastic discussion:

And a kind of armchair-paleo presentation of the dinosaur by a young man from Europe:

The interest pieces from the media have basically dried up and disappeared by now, it appears. However, the print news stories still exist if one is so inclined to look for it.

07 February 2016

Super Facts

The Super Bowl is underway in the United States. I stopped watching it because I simply was not that entertained. It looks like it is an okay game anyhow though.

Dakotaraptor is new enough to science that there are not a lot of websites devoted to the dinosaur or fact files about it. About has a page for Dakotaraptor, of course, but they always do, so unfortunately it is expected that they would (the level of expectation means we could only really be disappointed if there was not one). Regardless, it exists and we can all be happy that it does. Additionally, there is a nice little animated short with facts interspersed which may be just as useful, but a little more fun, than simply reading the facts online.

06 February 2016

Being Raptorial

(C) Emily Willoughby
There are a number of papers in publicationon the hunting methods employed by extant raptorial species. Falcons are neck biters; that is to say they tend to known their prey out of the sky (they are often bird eaters) or subdue their quarry in other means and they then break the necks of their prey with the beak and its rigid tomial tooth. Hawks are known asphyxiaters; they stand on their subdued prey's chest to slowly suffocate if they are too large to eat in a single bite or swallow. Dakotaraptor was considerably large, even as far as the largest dromaeosaurs were concerned. Possessing the ability to hunt alone, but also possibly in packs, Dakotaraptor was capable of bringing down large prey items with its large hindclaws, but would have had difficulty subduing animals with its lightly built skull. The teeth of dromaeosaurs are typically well suited to tearing flesh, but are not built for strength in terms of holding prey down. A popular hypothesis that has arisen in the past year concerning Dakotaraptor is that the dinosaur acted more like a hawk than it did like a falcon in regards to killing prey it chased down and incapacitated. That means that in this hypothetical situation Dakotaraptor would have chased down its prey, potentially eviscerated it but certainly took it off its feet, and is now standing on its thoracic area in an effort to suffocate it prior to eating it. We can see that this particular animal has definitely taken a few feathers off of the dinosaur it has captured and started to feed. To continue the analogy, a hawk-like Dakotaraptor may actually be plucking its prey in this image. The behavior has been heavily documented, and I can add my personal observations to this, in Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks, among many other species of birding hawks. The fact that this kind of behavior is heavily witnessed in extant species that kill their prey in a hypothesized manner used by an extinct species does not necessarily mean the hypothesis is correct or that the extinct species also exhibited other behaviors of the extant species. However, if the parallels drawn are correct, then we may just know an awful lot more about Dakotaraptor than we know about quite a large number of other dinosaurs that have been known to science an awful lot longer.

05 February 2016

Thieving Dakota

Emily Willoughby
Recently, as recent as 2015, a new dromaeosaur was described by DePalma, et al. after its discovery and retrieval from South Dakota in 2005. Estimated sizes range from 5 to 6 meters for the large dromaeosaur Dakotaraptor steini. The existing animal consists of vertebral, forelimb, and hindlimb remains, including a number of the large foot claws that are diagnostic of the dromaeosaur family in general. The large dinosaur has many unique attributes and includes pneumatized trabecular bones. This dinosaur was built for many purposes and the most important attribute of the whole organism was the fact that the dinosaur was built for speed and absolute carnage, as a carnivorous dinosaur. Additionally though, dromaeosaurs are often considered to have had pack mentalities and the capacity for pack-like parenting skills. All of these skeletal characteristics and unknown but hypothesized behavioral traits will be of great importance throughout the week as we paint a more complete picture of Dakotaraptor.

04 February 2016

Famous in Error

Serendipaceratops is not necessarily a tragic tale of errors and mistakes, but it could be said to be a cautionary tale on both sides of the debate about the validity of the taxon. There are far better examples (e.g. named dinosaur genera such as Triceratops and Nannotyrannus) but the message is the same regardless. That message is, to put it in the most basic terms, take paleontology and fossils with a healthy level of skepticism. Fossils are difficult to describe and at times are very hard to diagnose and place within genera, let alone species. I have personal experience with the description of fossils (a publication that I have unjustly put on the back burner for the moment) and I promise that fragmentary evidence is simultaneously exciting and frustrating. The excitement of fragments, like the ulna of Serendipaceratops, lies in the fact that one is holding a small percentage of a dinosaur and attempting to use the collective knowledge of many paleontologists, plus their own expertise in the case of well-traveled scientists like Rich and Vickers-Rich, and attempting to suss out what that fragment of animal represents as a whole organism. The frustration actually stems from the exact same source; sussing out such things from fragments can be horrendous. The fame of Serendipaceratops is deeply embedded in the mystery and intrigue of its description and missing  anatomy. Enjoy Serendipaceratops for what it really is: a fossil with uncertain origins that is in debate but certainly has a storied past that makes more and more people want to know more about paleontology and its history.

03 February 2016

Throwing Elbows

The ulna forms the pointy bit of our elbow as the olecranon process rotates about the trochlea. The olecranon of Serendipaceratops is broken and completely absent from the solitary ulna that was recovered. Due to the fact that the olecranon is missing our hypotheses about the shape of the elbow as a whole unit are somewhat lacking. The hypotheses that have been made are based on the olecranons of other neoceratopsians like Leptoceratops of Canada. Some of the subsequent studies mentioned yesterday have refuted this comparison as well however.

02 February 2016

A Scholarly Serendipaceratops

I skipped yesterday's post ignominiously. I was not pleased with the idea that I was about to post something that had no content; there are no movies or documentaries that discuss Serendipaceratops online and, as far as I can tell, there may not be anything, even news, that broadcast the discovery or details about the dinosaur ever. The questionable nature of the dinosaur's validity makes this make a lot of sense. However, the debatable nature of the dinosaur lends itself really well to Tuesday and the discussion of papers that are available on the dinosaur. After 10 years of being excavated, shelved, and described the announcing publication for Serendipaceratops was made available in Records of the Queen Victoria Museum. It did not take long for the collaborative description (Dale Russell was consulted as well) to be questioned and thrown out by other researchers. In 2010 Agnolin,et al. analyzed the fossil and determined that the dinosaur was nomen dubium. Presently the last word rests with Rich et al. who, in 2014,  team admitted that the dinosaur was enigmatic at best when they named the new genus. However, the team re-examined the fossil and determined that the holotype was distinctively different from other known ulnae and distinctive enough to be diagnostic as a holotype for the named genus. This argument may be long from over and more fossils may be discovered eventually, but it has been 16 years, so no one is waiting with baited breath at the moment. The fact that the argument is not simply cladistic/taxonomic lumpers and splitters arguing about the position of a fossil is promising regardless. Typically the debates of lumping and splitting taxa have a potential risk of becoming ugly and bitter. This debate, as yet, does not appear to have turned that corner.