STL Science Center

STL Science Center

30 November 2015

People Hate Television

People always have complaints about their favorite fossil animals on television. Documentaries, news reports; I have been critical in the past as well of these sorts of outlets. I have to say that in preparation for the clip I am going to put up here today. It is not terribly accurate, but it is good television, in terms of "hey that's a neat idea" not in terms of "hey that's entirely scientifically accurate". That being laid out there, try to enjoy this clip from the BBC series Primeval.

29 November 2015

Titanis in Motion

Titanis facts can be found littered about the internet. There are all kinds of reading levels represented ranging from the everyone friendly About to the literature-like Prehistoric Wildlife. Medium level pages can be found at Fossil Treasures of Florida and the Florida Museum of Natural History. I know some people are more interested in hearing from the scientists that love these fossil animals, or at least know them very well. To address those concerns, we can watch this Luis Chiappe interview about the Titanis that was featured in the BBC show Primeval (we can look that up tomorrow):

28 November 2015

Silhouetting Terror

(C) Tuomas Koivurinne
Throughout the course of this blog we have never been disappointed by the art of Tuomas Koivurinne. A bird like Titanis could be illustrated in either very magnificent poses or in some fairly stereotypically mundane poses. Combining the two (awesome bird and awesome artist) we get to see a view that is as magnificent as the skeletal remains indicate the bird to be. More often than not with birds the best illustrations draw on numerous versions of pigmentation hypotheses; featuring parrot-like terror birds that are almost more colorful than they are deadly. This illustration takes the worry of correct coloration and pigmentation away, for the most part, leaving us with a Titanis that could be anywhere between a crow-like jet black and perhaps a slightly lighter brown. Either way, of course, the sunset has hushed the tones of the feathers and the bird itself is silhouetted perfectly against the sky. It is not silhouetted so much that the important aspects of the terror inspiring of the bird have been subdued. The angry looking eyes, under their broad superorbital shelf of bone are plainly seen and they are looking angrily over the foreground and up at the sky. The broad bill and large feet are also clearly evident, though the feet are not particularly highlighted. The feet, mostly used for running, would have been used to crush and hold prey items under the weight of the bird as well as the power of the legs. The feet would have been quite a dual threat. The bill was most likely used as a hatchet (special thanks to Federico "Dino" Degrange for describing the Phorusrhacid bill at our meeting last week) to stun and kill prey. The wings of this bird were, as they are with many Phorusrhacids, atrophied and weak. Unlike those of ostriches, this running bird did not use its wings, it would appear, to balance as significantly while running at high speeds. A viable alternative hypothesis to this idea is that the smaller wings actually caused less drag than the large wings of an ostrich. However, it may just be that we have the wings incorrectly described in Titanis. My idea of drag could be completely incorrect also, but I will leave someone else to test that hypothesis or look up the literature on ostrich wing drag.

27 November 2015

Holiday Birds

(C) Amanda (Flickr user spakattacks)
In the United States the time between November and December is a very bird-oriented time frame. There are turkeys and geese as well as official bird counts spread throughout the calendar. To celebrate this avian rich space on the calendar we ought to celebrate the fossil record of birds as well. To begin that celebration of birds we first turn toward one of the largest birds known to have existed. Coming, unexpectedly, from the group of predominately South American birds known as Phorusrhacids, the North American bird Titanis walleri Brodkorb 1963 was a wonderfully large and agile bird and one of few members of the family known to inhabit North America. Living from the Pliocene into the Pleistocene, Titanis was approximately 2.5 m (8.2 ft) tall and was estimated to weigh approximately 150 kg (330 lbs). The musculature of the animal must have been significantly well developed and toned as the bird's top speed was estimated to top out around 65 km/h (40.3 m/h); a respectable speed for a bipedal animal of any kind. It was, in addition to its size, solidly built, making the case for significant musculature even more well developed.

24 November 2015

Why those Teeth?

What makes an animal develop the way it does is not as much of a mystery as it once seemed to be, but with an animal like Thylacosmilus there is still a healthy dose of skeptically looking at the teeth and thinking something like "Why would you possibly find that to be a beneficial morphology?" Plenty of researchers worldwide that are interested in either marsupials or carnivorans have asked many questions about the teeth of Thylacosmilus. The teeth of the morphologically similar saber-toothed cats are well studied and their extension beyond the mandible "makes sense" in comparison with that of Thylacosmilus. However, despite the clearly evident amazing morphology of these sabers, there are very few highly publicized papers on the dentition of these carnivores. That paper is actually an overview paper of many taxa, but it is still worth a read. Instead, research on the animal has focused on the brain, the ear (knowing how well a carnivore heard is integral to knowing aspects of their hunting ecology), and the postcranial skeleton. I admit that knowing the postcranial skeleton is very important for a variety of reasons (e.g. knowing that the animal was a marsupial, body shape), but there are a lot of different areas of this animal that continue to be very interesting. One of the best sources for today is, as most scientific books are, a relatively rare and harder to find text. The book is called Predators with Pouches and, while not a perfect source, covers Thylacosmilus quite well. Covering man extant animals, it also discusses extinct marsupial predators and does an acceptable job. Unfortunately, even the electronic book is over $140, which is normal for low volume scientific books. However, check out what can be seen online and try to enjoy it, even when a page you want to read is missing.

23 November 2015

Reconstruction of Skeletons

Videos on this popular felid-like marsupial are not often professionally created. That does not stop people from putting up videos of the animal, however. These videos are often quite badly done though, as a result, and are of the type that are often associated with terrible music choices where the volume has been left at the highest possible setting and the illustrations are not even always of the fossil animal in question. The best representation of Thylacosmilus that was available today was actually shown in a video of a skeletal display piece of the animal from Museo Municipal Punta Hermengo de Miramar. My knowledge of Argentinian town systems is awful, but it appears that this museum is in a town known as Miramar south of Buenos Aires in General Alvarado Partido (partido being a lower level administrative district of Buenos Aires). I like to learn about these kinds of things. Regardless, the museum put up this video of the display being prepared and set up and it is interesting to look at the entire skeletal display. The area in which the museum is located is an area in which fossils of Thylacosmilus have been found, making the display that much more poignant. The lateral view of the teeth and corresponding mandibular structures are not perfect in this display, but are rather interesting and beg the question of why such an arrangement would have come to exist.

22 November 2015

Facts About Thylacosmilus

(C) Angie Wilson
Amazingly Thylacosmilus is exceedingly popular on the internet, so much so that it has almost more pages dedicated to it than its more popular look-alike Smilodon. The pages dedicated to it range from encyclopedia type entries to much more open grouped facts compiled into short paragraph forms. The timeline for Thylacosmilus is presented in various forms, such as this one from Dinosaur Jungle (despite not being a dinosaur). The most interesting thing about Thylacosmilus is, of course, the teeth. The marsupial was smaller than Smilodon, but the teeth were similarly sized, but would have had to have been used in completely different ways. This will be discussed in much greater detail tomorrow and Tuesday, as there is a lot of different literature and movies showing those teeth. However, I encourage discussing this with kids over some interesting coloring pages, like these:

21 November 2015

Fur-bearing Finale

December will not start until after the next week begins. However, this is going to be the last No-shave November mammal week that we are going to have here this year. This week's animal is an interesting carnivore. In fact, it is one of the more popular carnivores that existed during the Cenozoic, though not the most famous of its family. We have previously discussed Smilodon, and this week we examine its cousin, the interestingly jawed Thylacosmilus. The name is not widely known, but the odd mandibles of Thylacosmilus atrox and its family (Thylacosmilidae) have been found for nearly a century and are well known. The Miocene to Pliocene cat-like animals inhabited South America and were, amazingly maybe, marsupials. Their resemblance to cats is actually quite a coincidence. Their gape is a rather interesting conundrum, considering their teeth, and their bite force is extremely weak for their size. This is going to be a week of examining the weak and discovering what makes a marsupial so very much like a cat. Look at that adorable little face:
Released into public domain by: ДиБгд

19 November 2015

Not So Popular Otters

Pretty much all of the evidence we saw this week pointed toward our lovely large otter Potamotherium being a rather large mustelid rather than a small basal pinniped. The fact that it is a mustelid may impact the popularity of the animal (seals and sea lions in particular are more popular than river otters) as may have the fact that it is a mammal. People tend to love mammals, but they seem to shy away from fossil mammals and turn to the reptiles of the past in terms of what they most often love and awe in paleontology. This is okay, but a bit strange. It also makes interesting furry animals like Potamotherium a lot less successful in the popular science domain than many other animals. The smaller size of Potamotherium makes it easier to disregard as well, though there is no evidence for this kind of trend existing. As a parting note for this week, here is an illustration that was shown earlier in the week with one of the animal's vertebrae. It is pretty spiffy.

18 November 2015

Skulls and Fur

Potamotherium valetoni saint gerand le puy Musee d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris
The idea of Potamotherium being covered in fur is directly related to the fact that it is defined as a mammal. The mammalian nature of the animal can be seen in its head, including the teeth, and otter-like body. The head is extremely otter-like. The fact that early pinnipeds had similarly shaped heads and bodies is the only reason that Potamotherium has been confused for a pinniped in the past. However, the skull of Potamotherium is equally, and I assume more appropriately, mustelid-like and has caused the animal to be categorized as a mustelid. In terms of looking like an otter we know that the skull is very similar to that of extant otter species. The resemblance would have been noticeable, though differences would have certainly been recognized as well. However, at 1.5m (5ft) long it was a very elongate version of the otter. Short nasal chambers have led to the inference that sense of smell in this animal must have been fairly weak. The eyes and ears, though, appear to be highly capable.

17 November 2015


As everyone not new here knows, I love a good old fashioned paper. The 1957 description of the anatomy of Potamotherium is not one of my all time favorites, but I do rather enjoy the thoroughness of a good anatomical description of an animal. Partially the allure is in the fact that Savage is painting a picture of animal that no one had seen at that time or had ever dreamed of seeing. This description and the fossil material would eventually enable other anatomists like Leonard Radinsky to study characteristics of the brains of these interesting mustelids (during Radinsky's time a pinniped influence in Potamotherium was not an issue). Potamotherium is a world traveler though. German scientists have discussed the animal as have the Italian journals and the Royal Society (one does not have to be European to publish in either of course).

16 November 2015

No Videos

There are literally zero videos about Potamotherium. Small mammals really get ignored by the media and documentary makers. Sometimes small mammals show up in animated movies, but Potamotherium has not shown up as yet. Instead of extolling this fact, I think it is important to look at a similar, but certainly different, semi-aquatic mammal that lived during a similar time-frame but in a different area. The animal in question is Puijila darwini, a definitively diagnosed basal seal capable of walking on land (not flopping about like a seal/sea lion). Enjoy learning about this animal in this video and see if you can take what we have learned about Potamotherium and compare it with Puijila!

15 November 2015

River Facts

The River Beast Potamotherium was an intriguing mammal, as extant River Otters and their cousins Sea Otters are as well. Its furry cuteness makes it an excellent animal to share and discuss today; it is kind of the opposite of the giant dinosaurs that kids like to learn about but is equally fantastic. The lesser known mammals of the Miocene have fewer fact pages associated with them typically, and despite its cuteness and popularity that we have seen so far, Potamotherium has very few fact pages as well. The Encyclopedia of Life has a few facts, but these are mostly simple classification and time frame facts. About's page has a more extensive fact page, but compared to most dinosaurs, this Potamotherium page is a bit sparse as well. However, Gregory Kvitko has produced a wonderful ink and paper, very otter-y, version of Potamotherium that can be colored while discussing the animal and the sparse facts:

14 November 2015

Fossil What?

An animal related to otters, other mustelids, or potentially related to pinnipeds (e.g. seals and sea lions) could have many overall forms. Thankfully, of course, we have quite a few good quality fossils that allow for educated morphological guesswork on the part of illustrators and reconstruction artists. The body plan that has been inferred from these fossils is heavily favoring a body that is much like that of the North American River Otter. River Otters, like Potamotherium, have sleek elongate bodies that are aerodynamic. This allows for swimming in freshwater loaded with current systems, such as rivers, and also allows the animal to be reasonably quick as, in the case of River Otters, they chase fish in the cool river waters. Aside from being mammals, the way River Otters stay warm in those cold waters is with heavy, oiled fur that traps warm air in their coat and waterproofs the fur. The similarity between Potamotherium and River Otters makes a lot of sense; Potamotherium means "River Beast."

13 November 2015

Giant Fossil Weasels

Technically we are not talking about a weasel or an otter (it is an otter-like creature though). This week we are discussing an extinct mustelid reminiscent of its descendants. These happen to be mustelids and/or pinnipeds, depending on the researcher that you ask. Potamotherium was a genus of carnivoran mustelids represented by the single species P. miocenium arising during the so-called "cat gap" of the Miocene. The "cat gap" is a part of the Miocene in which felids are noticeably absent. This era of time allowed other groups, like the mustelids, and Potamotherium, to assert themselves as more apex-like predators. Other large predators still roamed and kept mustelids in check, but the " cat gap" was a very important time in the evolutionary history of the mustelids and pinnipeds. Which group does Potamotherium belong to? We will examine the different opinions and findings that differentiate the placement of this large semiaquatic carnivore during the week. However, the fuzzy terror of other riverine, or maybe just freshwater fishes, was adorable at the same time as being scary and predatory.

12 November 2015

Know Your Proboscids

Elephants, mammoths, and mastodons are all closely related. Considering that mammoths and mastodons died off so relatively recently that our very near (geologically of course) ancestors hunted and lived alongside the giant herbivores. There have been taste tests of frozen mammoths, but not mastodons. The reason for that is partly the relative abundance of frozen mammoths compared to frozen mastodons that have been discovered. In fact, living more often in close proximity to forests and away from open ground, large open rivers, and crossing frozen lakes less often than their mammoth cousins has most likely led to this far lower number of mastodon flash freezes and subsequent frozen mastodon dinners. Mastodons also likely stayed away from the more likely freeze areas because they possessed far less shaggy coats than their woolly cousins, causing them to live in warmer areas and it is hypothesized that mastodons died out partly because they froze to death as a species. This does not mean we do not have very well preserved mastodons; instead of freezing whole they seemed to have a propensity for falling into the La Brea Tar Pits. These tar pit skeletons and the other North American finds have led to a great understanding of the animals and increased their popularity and face in the popular sciences that we see on television and movies. Mammoths remain far more popular among the majority of kids, but we can chalk this up to Ray Romano's Ice Age character more in the modern era than anything else (in my opinion). Mastodons, though, are still well known and still popular because they are, like mammoths and elephants, charismatic megafauna. Someone in Fort Wayne, Indiana loved mastodons. The Indiana-Purdue campus at Fort Wayne (there are a number of the IUPU hybrid campuses throughout the state) mascot is a mastodon; ignore his curved tusks!

11 November 2015

What is in Your Teeth?

The teeth of mammoths are composed of ribbon-like layers of enamel that create an interesting and highly effective grinding surface. Mastodons have very different teeth that are more well-suited to  shearing and tearing. Where mammoths have flatter surfaces with grinding ribbons inlaid into the enamel plates, mastodons possess multiple nearly conical cusps in their teeth that allow for plant materials to be caught between the cusps and torn, sheared really, by the chewing actions of the jaws. The dietary differences are briefly mentioned by Daniel Fisher in this video showing the different teeth. The second video shows the teeth isolated from the mandible. Watch each video and appreciate the differences! Also, a special thanks to Elizabeth Deering for sharing much more information about mammoth teeth than I could post here!

10 November 2015

Mastodon Science Is Wonderful

One of the best thing about the recently extinct is that we tend to have a record that is usually a bit more tenable and therefore easier to study. That means I can excitedly share papers that discuss topics as wide ranging as protein sequences, hunting of mastodons, bone formation, and even evidence of butchering. The level of knowledge we can obtain from mastodons is astounding. The fact that we can use so many different methods and studies to explore the world and anatomy of mastodons. My favorite articles, as I repeatedly mention, are the descriptions. There is no way to get the type description that I have found yet, unfortunately. That kind of thing happens though when the naming article was written in 1792. There is an 1895 article discussing the species named by Robert Kerr which discuss the naming briefly. We can deal with that though, given the wealth of information that is available in the modern era.

09 November 2015

Movies of Mastodons

Some days the movies find themselves and the post barely even needs any writing. Today, despite my knowledge of music, I had to be reminded that searching just "Mastodon" turns up a lot more music than animals in the first hits that come up. However, there are plenty of videos for the animal as well. Enough that, once the search was reconsidered, there were plenty of videos that came up. On the news front there are videos about mastodons that were dug up, fairly recently, in a Michigan yard. The find was a surprise to the owner, but he was pretty excited, as was the news. Prehistoric New York, aired on Discovery, featured an episode on mastodons living in what would become the city a mere 12,000 years later. There episode of the show was pretty interesting overall, but it is awfully high production (thankfully of course as concerns documentaries). It is a nice depiction, just about as nice as the Field Museum's display, shown and discussed in this video. Personally, I'm a fan of this video that mixes the initial search (music) with the animal search. Here is Troy Sanders (parental discretion certainly advised here):

08 November 2015

Coloring the Mastodon

While most of the United States is watching football I encourage, as I always do, discussing and reading about the fossil animal of the week (I have nothing against football; I'm watching a game while I type). In terms of reading for this week, I highly suggest 10 Facts About Mastodons (contributed by Bob Strauss), BBC's page on the American Mastodon, and the Prehistory page of facts. Richard Conniff's page on the mastodons on In addition to that reading, I would highly encourage taking a moment out of your day to color one of these great looking mastodon coloring sheets:

(C) Joseph A Garcia

07 November 2015

Know Your Comparisons

(C) Daniel Reed
The differences between mammoth and mastodon are numerous and easily noticeable when two individuals of the different genera are shown next to the other. The most noticeable is often the illustration's amount of woolly covering, with mammoths almost always covered in a great deal more fur. This is certainly important, but less important than the other differences that we can call out and notice. The tusks of mastodons are less curved than those of mammoths and their heads are more streamlined overall. The hump at the dorsal aspect of the mammoth skull contains some fat content, the same as the hump dorsal to their shoulders. This fat is more important to the cold tolerances of mammoths,which mastodons apparently did not need as immediately. We can assume that the lack of body warming fat humps in mastodons means that 1) they did not need to insulate as much and 2) they did not require a camel-like nutrient retention system. Another notable difference we can see here is the angle of the body. Mammoths have noticeably longer forelimbs than hindlimbs, making their body appear to slant upwards from their rear ends to their heads. Mastodons, on the other hand, appear to be almost entirely horizontally oriented, though their forelimbs are slightly longer than their hindlimbs. A difference not seen here is in the teeth of the animals. The differences in teeth reflect dietary differences and we will look at those in the days to come.

06 November 2015

The Less Woolly Cousin

(C) Charles R. Knight
This blog has covered many woolly mammals. We are going to continue discussing mammals, of course, because I said that November would be a mammal month. This makes some good friends of mine happy. Making them even happier, this week is going to be all about a Proboscidean. We have previously spent a week on Woolly Mammoths, but this week we will be talking about the less famous, but equally important genus Mammut. The genus Mammut includes four recognized species: M. americanum Kerr, 1972 (type specimen Elephas americanum was reassigned to Mammut); M. matthewi Osborn, 1921; M. raki Frick, 1933; and M. cosoensis Schultz, 1937. These species are all from the Late Miocene/Pliocene spanning to the Late Pleistocene and lived in North and Central America and are distantly related to elephants, at most. I hope this week we can get some professional communication from people that have studied mammoths and mastodons, because there are some important differences between the two and having a technical comparison would be a neat treat to say the least.

05 November 2015

Famous for A Cow

Saying a cow is famous sounds a little silly. However, when we consider that bovids like the Aurochs made such an impression on humans that they appeared in their cave art and have shown up in other forms like the videos, books, and even a toy or two like that below, it is difficult to say that Aurochs are not indeed famous.
Fame goes way beyond simply being popular. It is true that the Aurochs is a popular animal, so popular in fact that the great wild ox is being re-introduced to the wild. The active breeding program is still ongoing and rather than continuing to laud the many popular outlets I think we should end this week on a Tedx talk on "DeExtinction" about the precarious position of the potentially extinct giant ox:

04 November 2015

Paint it on the Cave

Lascaux Cave Art
Whenever an animal was an important enough to humans that it played an integral part in the diet, work, play, stories, or fears of humans those animals tend to make an appearance in their art. The cave art in Lascaux in southwestern France has a couple of very prominent Aurochs in one of the "panels". These Aurochs were not being hunted or working as far as we can tell from this image; however, their inclusion simply as wildlife that was encountered by the people that created the images reveals at least a part of their historical range. Strangely the one on the left looks kind of like a Far Side cow. Mixed into the panel we can pick out horses and bush-antlered deer. Documentation of the animals that lived in Southwestern France allows us to recreate not only the world in which these people lived, but also the fauna living alongside these wild oxen. The Aurochs themselves are enormous in this image, possibly depicting their actual size, but also probably giving the image some depth, which is quite an accomplishment for one of the earliest pieces of man-made (human-made if you prefer) art that we know of. Their unmistakable horns are also wonderfully huge. I just like everything about this piece of art.

03 November 2015

Writing About Cows

Many Aurochs related papers are heavily interested in genetics. There is a reason for that, of course, and the reason is that the most interesting Aurochs related questions are often tied in with the retro-breeding programs and genetics. Here and there is peppered an interesting history paper. These typically retrace the histories of Aurochs and human beings interacting, in part at least. The genetics studies, however, are often used to debate the origin of domesticated cattle, which is a very interesting debate given that the majority of sources tell us emphatically that the domestic cattle globally are originally from some group of Aurochs. These include points for, against, and on-the-fence studies that favor hybridization of lineages of cattle with Aurochs. There are even some that ignore the argument entirely and focus on the genetics of the animals. The results are good enough that some confidently attest to possessing an entire mitochondrial genome. That mitochondrial genome had to be discovered somewhere, so of course we have that study as well.

02 November 2015

Aurochs and Mountains

Europe, where the history comes from (as Eddie Izzard states), has been a bit of a battleground, as the other continents have been in their time, for conservation and wildlife "rights" for some time now. Granted there has been much turmoil in some parts of the continent in the past thirty years that has put wildlife on a backburner, but many conservation efforts appear to have taken root quite well (others not so much as yet). The initiative of key interest to the blog today, however, is the reintroduction of Aurochs to the wilds of Europe. The Tauros Programme is focused on retro-breeding Aurochs from domesticated cattle that were originally bred from the once prolific and prevalent wild oxen of Europe. As the third largest mammal of the "Ice Age" (behind Woolly Rhinos and Woolly Mammoths) it was an important food source (arguably it still is as all extant cattle breeds globally can be traced back to the Aurochs) and, after domestication and breeding efforts, an important work animal as well. Standing almost 2m tall it was an extremely large bovid and retro-breeding the animals and reintroducing them is a complex and potentially dangerous program. Recently, on 16th October of this year, a third herd was released into the wilderness of the Danube Delta of Romania. The two initial sites are located in Western Iberia (the Portugal/Spain border area) and the Velebit Mountains of Croatia. The retro-breeding site itself is in The Netherlands and the near-oxen are the pride of the Dutch cattle herders that are in charge of them. They are as genetically and anatomically close to the original stock as possible and the goal of all of this work is to re-establish the ecological role of the original animal. This begs the question, is it possible to re-engineer a wild animal from its domesticated descendants? This is what these wonderful animals look like today, I will let the audience decide if they think it is possible to repopulate the wild while they watch this (comments welcome):

01 November 2015

Sometimes Inaccuracy is Okay

While looking for fact pages and interactive websites to share with kids, I found quite a few interesting things. As usual there are numerous fact based websites that can be shared with kids such as About that we have used here before. Additionally, however, there are some interesting new sites like EBK for Kids, a British site I used to use when teaching history while I was a teacher; KidzSearch, an encyclopedia for kids; and Sheppard Software's online encyclopedia. One thing that came up that may be fun to watch, but is not at all scientifically accurate, is a Fox Searchlight film (i.e. semi-independent) called Beasts of the Southern Wild. An interview with one of the directors revealed this wonderful quote pertaining to the Aurochs shown in the film:

Right. They didn’t go extinct till the 17th century.

So we were factually inaccurate on multiple levels.

I honestly have no issue with this admission. The fact that the directors knew that the Aurochs in their film were not accurate (they used pot-bellied pigs wearing muskrat, or nutria, skins) makes the film a little more credible. The directors admit that they were going for their vision of the story and not scientific accuracy, which is respectable, but requires either an educated audience that will know the difference between science fact and interpreted fantasy or an audience that knows nothing about the animal and does not care. I enjoy movies for movies when I know that the accuracy is not supposed to be completely scientifically supported, and this movie certainly qualifies for that category. Try to enjoy it if you watch it this weekend.