STL Science Center

STL Science Center

31 August 2015

Monday at the Movies

Documentaries! I love being able to share documentaries. Their science is always to be taken with a slight grain of salt, as one should do their own reading and, not often possible, look at the fossils first hand, but they are good to have access to. This first video is actually a non-narrated journal of the creation of a Protostega model, which is awesome despite not conveying any facts. Seeing museum replicas fleshed out is really fantastic.
The second video is a short clip from the National Geographic's Sea Monsters special. They have a nice part devoted to Protostega and a longer version would be excellent, but what they do show is nice. The CGI looks a little low budget here, but sometimes that is acceptable.
The last video is a video journal from Triebold Paleontology. They go over the 2011 dig with Mike Everhart in a nice concise manner and show how the dig was conducted through narration and a slideshow. If one has never seen a specimen in a jacket, or has and has wondered how it got that way, the video is very nice and interesting. Remember that Triebold is a business, so the last 30 seconds or so is a sales pitch. A Protostega would make a good paperweight though...

30 August 2015

Back to Sunday

Missing days is awful, but there is usually a very good reason. However, more important is the idea that the information shared on Sundays is shared, regardless of the day on which it finally gets posted. Sundays still remain a day for families and friends to talk about fossil animals with the next generation of scientists and fossil enthusiasts. Sometimes the youth is learning, sometimes the youth is teaching, no matter which way that is happening the links and information sites are usually the same. The sites for Protostega are actually spread quite far across the internet; it turns out that giant turtles are quite interesting to a lot of people. There are sites developed with kids in mind (to a point) like About and National Geographic. There are sites that are more engineered toward fossil experts and casual scientists (of a more adult persuasion) like Oceans of Kansas also. There are also entertainment websites that keep some facts available. Adventure Aquarium, for example, posts facts about Protostega.

29 August 2015

The First Roof

Smithsonian displayed Protostega
Possessing a name that means "First Roof", it is not much wonder that Protostega had a completely enveloping shell. There are obviously some fenestrae in the plastron (ventral) and the carapace (dorsal). The fenestrae were likely covered with membranous elements and, externally, with dermal scutes that create the scale-like appearance of the shell and provide an appreciable amount of the protection of the shell. The bony elements are, of course, stronger and the main line of defense, but are limited in their size. This can be seen and has been mentioned, but the purpose of shell construction in this manner may not be straight forward. The purpose of fenestrations often is to allow space for muscles and other soft tissue constructions. In the turtles these purposes would have been likely, but also, spaces like these save weight in the turtle shell and are similar to the idea of pneumaticity in avian bones.

28 August 2015

Calm Seas

The calm movements of Plesiosaurus, if they were indeed calm, were not the only calm movements in the Mesozoic oceans. Even more calm, just as they are today for the most part, were the giant sea turtles that inhabited the same seas. One of the largest and most impressive specimens has been well represented across the United States by many finds. These finds were given a name in 1872 by E. D. Cope: Protostega gigas. At approximately 3m (9.8ft) from nose to tail, Protostega is the second largest known marine turtle (Archelon being the largest). The upper Cretaceous has many frightening predators, but most of them could not have cracked the shell of an adult sized Protostega so it was most likely safe from almost all harm once it reached an adult size. It had also had an extremely well built shell, as far as early turtles go, that allowed for flexibility in addition to remaining rigid.

27 August 2015


Plesiosaurus is popular in so many ways that we can easily defer to the massive might of Google and declare that even a cursory search there will turn up so many items that it would take one a millennium to go through it all. Some of that statement is a little hyperbolic, but not by much. The most depressing bit of Plesiosaurus knowledge that has massively impacted the general public, unfortunately, is the conjecture that the long famed and well known Loch Ness Monster is depicted, often, as an extant Plesiosaurus. The idea is equal parts farcical and intriguing, though, as a living group of plesiosaurs would be a great discovery, but is more than likely completely unfounded and unrealistic. In lieu of supporting and touting more mythologies about Plesiosaurus, however, let us say that the greatest contributions to the popular knowledge and love of Plesiosaurus comes in the form of art, books, and toys, particularly this little gem (perhaps not, but it makes me want to have the skills to make one):

26 August 2015

Streamlined Submarines

The long necks of Plesiosaurus made them slightly cumbersome at speed, but they were not truly built for speed and such a feat was probably reserved for escape or short bursts from below prey. The large robust bodies and smallish flippers of Plesiosaurus itself is actually quite ill suited to speedy activity, as it certainly was higher in drag than later short necked plesiosaurs with aerodynamic bodies.However, the triangular head of the animals must have allowed for some aerodynamic capabilities. The large round eyes and nostrils, situated near the eyes and high in the skull, did not create too much drag either it appears. A shortened tail did not aid in mobility and, again, was most well suited to reduce drag as it did not directly aid in mobility of the animal. It did, certainly, aid in the stabilization of the animal as it swam, which the flippers did as well in addition to moving the animal through the water. Almost penguin-esque, Plesiosaurus must have been quite agile and beautiful as it swam, if not powerful or terribly interesting.

25 August 2015

Writing It Down

Conybeare and other early Plesiosaurus scholars filled the libraries and scholarly journals, or annals of museums, with copious amounts of articles. Conybeare himself wrote a number of articles describing Plesiosaurus and comparing it to contemporary marine reptiles. Richard Owen also wrote a number of articles on marine reptiles, including Plesiosaurus, that are well known. Many of the earliest accounts come from England, in fact. Plesiosaurus, though, is a worldly reptile and has been discovered in areas as diverse as Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, and Germany. The papers here are more than enough to get a fairly good history of Plesiosaurus and a lot of quality descriptions of the genus.

24 August 2015

Cryptozoology Keeps Plesiosaurus Alive

The sheer number of plesiosaurs discovered across the globe has led to many, many documentaries, news reports, and tons of other television and movie spots (I am still a little sad that none of these wonderful animals made an appearance in Jurassic World). It has also led to a lot of sightings across the globe, some of which make Nessie look like a weak Plesiosaurus sighting. Therefore, for today, skipping the video shared yesterday, I will let this list of videos do the work for us:
For fun, though not a "paper dinosaur".

23 August 2015

Successful at Being Kid Friendly

Plesiosaurus was and is most definitely well loved by children of all ages.  There are bits of information everywhere on the internet, off the internet, and basically anywhere one could think to look for information on fossil animals. Unfortunately most of these sites online are dinosaur sites like KidsDigDinos, Dinosaur Jungle, and other dinosaur fact pages. There are also videos and copious amounts of black and white photos that can be used for coloring sheets. The video is probably the most entertaining thing online:

22 August 2015

Old Days

The original interpretation of Plesiosaurus involved what could arguably be called the most gracile neck in all of paleontology. Since that time the neck's ability to flex and stretch has been looked over many different times by many different people and the overall arc of movement has changed each time. That range of motion is less than it used to be, but we still have the wonderful illustrations of Knight, Williston, and a host of other illustrators to show us the strangeness of the original descriptions of Plesiosaurus necks. Sometimes the tail is also rather oddly illustrated as well. Check the images below. The images are almost all of Plesiosaurus but there are some Elasmosaurus interpretations masquerading as Plesiosaurus as well.
Image: Charles R. Knight

Image: Edward Riou

Image: Edward Riou

Note the tail on this version

Image: S.W. Williston; actually an Elasmosaurus
Image: Dmitry Bogdanov

21 August 2015

Taking Over the Ocean

After Ichthyosaurus and their kin "took over" the ocean from the largest sharks and fish it was really only a matter of time until a bigger and more fearsome animal came along. There was actually a two pronged assault on the apex predator title of the ocean; later it would become a three tine fork as mosasaurs began to populate the ocean. However, the first assault on that role by a second marine reptile taxon was seen in the form of animals like Plesiosaurus. Plesiosauria existed in two general bauplans: long neck and short neck variations. The short necked members of the group were fast, maneuverable, and mobile whereas the longer necked, more basal members, appear to have been slower and more cumbersome. The name-bearer for the group, Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus Conybeare 1824, is probably one of the most iconic marine reptiles in existence. In modern and archaic illustrations it is easily identifiable and beautiful.

20 August 2015

Popular Swimmers

There are often very popular fossil animals that capture the imagination of many and inspire documentaries and other television or movie screen appearances. Stenopterygius is a fossil animal nearing that tier of popularity. Toys (rare collectibles even!) have made an appearance claiming to be Stenopterygius as have books, though these typically only reference or briefly discuss this well known ichthyosaur. The animal is popular enough even that it has been stuffed and sold as a plush animal. It would make rather interesting throw pillow and probably be a conversation starter. Someday, hopefully, Stenopterygius will make more of an impact in documentaries or on the screen, but for now books, toys, and stuffed animals will have to do in the world of popular culture.

19 August 2015

Shape is Everything

Image by Charles R. Knight
The streamlined shape of ichthyosaurs is not a mistake of their evolution. Secondarily aquatic reptiles, meaning their ancestors were land dwelling reptiles, these masters of the ocean began to populate the marine environment heavily during the earlier Triassic. During the early Jurassic Stenopterygius began to swim about the oceans as an identifiable differentiated genus. Specimens of the animal, as we have noted, are plentiful and its populations of species (four: S. quadriscissus Quenstedt, 1856 (type species) S. triscissus Quenstedt, 1856; S. uniter von Huene, 1931; S. aaleniensis Maxwell et al., 2012) were commanding the oceans they lived in as they ranged up to 13 feet (4 meteres) in length and swam much like a dolphin, probably out maneuvering and chasing down prey. Assuming intelligence and any group behavior, the dolphin-like Stenopterygius may have even had the ability to coordinate with others to hunt larger prey items or groups of prey. The main weapon it would have used in either instance, aside from its speed, would have been the small conical teeth lining its jaws that were suited to grasping fish on the fly.

18 August 2015

Stenopterygian Studies

Image by Nobu Tamura
The history of Stenopterygius is extensive and difficult to fathom in some regards. Labs have tried to differentiate the species many times over and even revised the conclusions of others a number of times. Stenopterygius has been described in whole and in part. The parts are actually greater than the whole in many ways. The parts include descriptions of birth, analyses of the skull roof, and even a discussion of the forefins of these rather interesting and well known ichthyosaurs.The studies are not all German even. The Italian paleontologists have gotten into the mix on occassion while studying Stenopterygius.

17 August 2015

A Motionless Swimmer

Stenopterygius was a highly mobile marine reptile in its day. Unfortunately, though it would be beautiful to watch it swimming around now, and probably frightening because it was longer than an average human being, there are not many of the wonderful creatures swimming about on our screens (and of course none in our oceans). There is one that has been used to model swimming in the video shown here. Despite the very little swimming that it is doing here, the motions are accurate, as far as we can tell, and it is quite interesting to watch it swim around. If one has never seen a swimming ichthyosaur on television there is an acceptable version of that (though it is not considered Stenopterygius) in the Walking With Series.

16 August 2015

Stenopterygian Children's Links

From DK Eyewitness Books
One of the most popular marine reptiles in paleontology is Stenopterygius. It is not one of the most popular marine reptiles in the world of popular culture. Despite that fact, the ichthyosaur is well known, in part due to the fact that it has been discovered in the prime of motherhood. One of the most intriguing links describing this animal for the first time, to many people at least, is DK's online encyclopedia which shows an assortment of the creatures and highlights different aspects of their anatomy. There are also facts present in more ordinary sources like About and on the Bristol paleo page. The information from Bristol is not in depth, but they do provide a nice line drawing that could be used for coloring purposes.

15 August 2015

Life Aquatic

The derived ichthyopterygian Stenopterygius with one embryo in birth position and three in body cavity, reconstructed based on SMNS 6293 (Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde, Stüttgart, Germany). .
The most amazing fossils we have tend to have juveniles involved. The reason is not so much tied in with the fact that we are baby crazy (as a species we kind of are, one has to admit), bu more to do with the fact that these tiny little wonders are, sadly, frozen in time but identifiable as the young of a given species. The ability to study the motherhood of the species and the life histories (ontogeny) of the species are the most important scientific repercussions of finding juveniles, but we just like babies, we can admit that. Probably the biggest discovery within marine reptiles, not just Ichthyosauria, was the discovery of viviparity. The idea that a single pup was born alive and ready to swim was astounding enough, so the discovery of a Stenopterygius with a pup in the process of being born and three more "in the womb" must have been completely outrageous in the best possible way. This reconstruction, from Ryosuk, et al. 2014 shows what that specimen looks like in all of its awesome glory.

14 August 2015

Stints in the Ocean

One of the most populated oceans of the Mesozoic was situated over what is now the land area of present day Germany. As with many past oceanic environments Germany is filled with fine sediments and well preserved specimens. Some of those specimens are ocean-going animals tat are larger than a person; the majority of the oceanic fossils are actually much smaller, but we, as a community, are often most interested in the largest of animals. One of the well preserved large oceanic animals of the German fossil beds is the well represented genus Stenopterygius. This large squat aquatic lizard was actually rather aerodynamic and, as with all ichthyosaurs, very fish-like in its appearance and morphology. It is also one of a small handful of ichthyosaurs that have been discovered in the act of giving birth (meaning a mom and child mortality)

13 August 2015

No Toys Here

Thescelosaurus has been drawn and even made into a small plastic toy. The small plastic toy actually appears to be much more hadrosaur-like than Thescelosaurus-like, however, we have all seen much less accurate toys over the years here. There are casts of the toe claws available for sale; strangely not  much more of the skeleton beyond the toes are regularly found online for sale. Unfortunately, other than some small mentions in large tomes of knowledge, Thescelosaurus does not show up in many books only about itself.

12 August 2015

Stone Hearts

Image from Fisher, et al. (2000)
South Dakota in 1993. A fossil that would come to be known as Willo is unearthed. Seven years later, in 2000, Willo was scanned with computer tomography and the internal structures of the fossil were viewed in highly detailed images. These images revealed what appeared to be a four chambered heart preserved in the thoracic area of Willo. Very soon after the paper announcing the heart was published other papers were published stating that the heart was in fact actually nothing more than a fossilized concretion present in the chest. The resemblance to a heart is stunning, if seen from the correct angles and, therefore, makes the misconception quite understandable.

Fisher, P. E., Russell, D. A., Stoskopf, M. K., Barrick, R. E., Hammer, M., & Kuzmitz, A. A. (2000). Cardiovascular evidence for an intermediate or higher metabolic rate in an ornithischian dinosaur. Science, 288(5465), 503-505.

11 August 2015

Gilmore and A Small Dinosaur

Charles Gilmore originally described Thescelosaurus in 1913 from the well preserved original fossil material.This eventually led to his paper on the osteology of the dinosaur as well. Later, in the 1940's, CM Sternberg discussed the taxonomy of Thescelosaurus and Hypsilophodontidae, which was once considered to be the family of Thescelosaurus. More recently the dinosaur was assigned, through a number of studies on crania, postcranial anatomy, and, even general ornithopod taxonomy, to its own family, Thescelosauridae.

10 August 2015

Readings with Robots

The only Thescelosaurus video that discusses the dinosaur and is not a simple tribute video has a computer voice over. It is always a little odd when the voice over is not human, because it seems like it takes just as much effort to make sure the computer is pronouncing words correctly as it would for a person to actually read out the scripted words. Either way, this short video with the computer voice over details the information about the dinosaur that has already been discussed and adds a few very important tidbits of information to this previously presented knowledge as well. Having the information reintroduced in a second manner is sometimes very helpful. Therefore, even if you learn nothing new from the video that has not been discussed yet, it will help to have the facts restated or reinterpreted again. Plus, it is a fun short video to watch and will not take much of your time.

09 August 2015

Facts Everywhere

Aside from the misinterpreted facts about a hypothetical fossilized heart, there are a lot of facts out on the internet about the somewhat unheard of Thescelosaurus. KidsDinos has a good information on their dedicated page as does the New Zealand hosted site Science Kids. About also has a very well thought out site with good information on their page. They usually do have good fact pages as well, of course. There are also many black and white images that can be used as coloring pages. The most reliable source is, as usual, Enchanted Learning, though the dinosaurs are, also as usual, not extremely well illustrated.

08 August 2015

Sleepy Lizard of Wonder

Nobu Tamura
Thescelosaurus was a bipedal dinosaur. As it was with many other Ornithopod dinosaurs, this cursorial herbivore probably used its bipedal speed to escape threats more than any other characteristic of its anatomy. It does appear to have had grasping hands, but these were probably not of much use in grappling with attackers. They could probably had aided in wrestling with attackers, but not significantly. Thescelosaurus does not appear to have been extremely fast, however, and may have run in herds to offset its slower speeds. Alternatively, the small dinosaur may have run into the undergrowth and used obstacles to its advantage when avoiding predators. Many speculations like these can be made by observing the morphology of the available skeletons.

07 August 2015

A Marvelous Little Lizard

Photo by Ben Jacobson, Burpee Museum of Natural History
What a marvelous little lizard Thescelosaurus is. Discovered in the Cretaceous rocks of Alberta, Canada, then later in South Dakota, this small bipedal ornithopod was running around the forests that housed the largest ceratopsians and tyrannosaurs of the end of the age of dinosaurs. Its sturdy limbs and pointed nose were probably very good at rooting out food items in the underbrush and the grasses of the fields as well. Its history as a fossil as seen some rather odd happenings, including the supposed find of a fossilized heart. We can discuss that at a later time though. It has also been thought to have contained original integument fossilized with some of the original specimens that were described by Charles Gilmore in 1913 (as Thescelosaurus neglectus).

06 August 2015

Holding up the Tree

Image by Sterling Nesbitt
The allure of Asilisaurus is the fact that it is such a basic Middle Triassic early Dinosauriforme. Some trees have it sitting at the base of the Ornithodiran tree thereby including, potentially, Pterosauria. However, this tree, from lead author Sterling Nesbitt, places Asilisaurus outside the Pterosauria but at the base of all dinosaurs. Hopefully there is resolution with this tree. If not, it could, and probably is, actually in flux. Regardless, there is no popular culture life for Asilisaurus as yet, though it is a quite important fossil animal.

05 August 2015

Skeletons of the Ancestors

The ancestor lizard had a very basic body plan for Dinosauriformes. Many of the earliest lizard to dinosaur transitional groups and genera were obligated to quadrupedality or at least facultatively bipedal. That was not for any specific reason except that the earliest forms of these animals were holding on to vestiges of the earliest lizards, probably some amphibious traits, and maybe even some of the traits that had been seen in pelycosaurs and mammal-like reptiles. The history leading up to these first Dinosauriformes has been difficult to trace and to suss out exactly. We have very good ideas and very well documented tranisitional fossils, but these do not answer all the questions, such as the one asked here; why do early Dinosauriformes tend to walk on four legs? Regardless of the actual answer, Asilisaurus kongwe is very clearly at home on four feet.

04 August 2015

Solitary Press

Asilisaurus kongwe only really completely exists in a single paper. That paper, however, is the main describing paper that discusses the fossil and the inferred phylogenetic placement of the material on the tree of dinosaurs. The initial paper is not actually as deep and detailed as one would imagine; it appeared as a three page letter to Nature. Many papers these days do not describe animals in the same amount of detail as earlier papers did though, so a short paper, three pages being an acceptable average, describing a fossil has become the standard in fossil identification. Not everyone has the material and in depth description of a John Ostrom did with Deinonychus.

03 August 2015

News Everywhere

The videos for Asilisaurus are all news breaks on the naming and description of the new species. Sometimes, if the journalism is well thought out and the news story produced nicely, those short videos are very informative and worth watching. Often they are actually better than documentaries and almost always on par or better than feature length movies. Unfortunately, many, maybe even all, of the news stories related to the ancestor lizard have disappeared from the internet. The Quirks and Quarks program on CBC radio also did a short news story about the discovery as well. Sadly, this has also disappeared, though their short article corresponding to the program is still available.

02 August 2015

Basics for Tikes

The largest problem we run into with new-to-science fossil animals is that they take a while to gather followers in society. Asilisaurus has a few links here and there that describe the animal in a way that younger audiences could explore the near-dinosaur's history for themselves, but far fewer than most of the fossil animals that we explore here. The online dinosaur encyclopedia, or Dinopedia, includes references and quality information, but may be at a slightly higher reading level than our youngest fossil animal fans might be able to muster just yet. Mid-level readers should be fine with this page. They should also be able to easily read the About page dedicated to Asilisaurus. The top of that page is actually perfect for our youngest readers as well. Prehistoric Wildlife hosts probably the shortest page that I would consider "kid-friendly" and does not have as much information on it as the other two; however, it is still a useful tool for learning about the near-dinosaur and can be visited by younger readers. The animal in question has no coloring pages or fun little sites to visit, but these three pages should help start an interest in Asilisaurus for kids that are into dinosaurs and anything that looks like a dinosaur.

01 August 2015

Triassic Body Shapes

Triassic body shapes are generally very similar for all of the earliest Dinosauriformes. There is, as usual, a very good reason for that which is based on fossil evidence that is available.The fossil evidence, which was described in 2010, shows us a very gracile early Dinosauriforme that looks similar to its contemporary animals and near descendants like Coelophysis. Unlike these descendants, however, Asilisaurus was more likely quadrupedal regularly with the ability to act as a facultatively bipedal reptile. Additionally, like most other early Dinosauriformes, Asilisaurus was a rather small animal, as can be seen here. When anything dinosaur related ventures into the pet-sized area it is quite fantastic, and this is no exception.