STL Science Center

STL Science Center

30 March 2017

A Famous Archosaur

Lagosuchus is well known throughout the paleontology and throughout the popular dinosaur and fossil enthusiast circles. The general public may have heard the name of the archosaur, but not as regularly as any other fossil and less than many more. Despite this unsteady popularity Lagosuchus has appeared in a number of different popular streams, books, and cartoons. These include a brief appearance in the original The Land Before Time, though it appears as an announced and non-descript small reptile running around the sauropod next in the opening scenes, but is radically out of temporal context. This version of the reptile is also a victim of the 1980's illustrative process that made most dinosaurs look emaciated and a terrible green color. Lagosuchus has also appeared in a number of texts and popular paintings. Possibly one of the most well-known paintings is one by Douglas Henderson that still looks very lizard-like. This painting is shared on Henderson's website, though it has also leaked onto the internet elsewhere, unfortunately.

29 March 2017

Incomplete Remains

The known remains that are still attributed to Lagosuchus are comprised of a single hind leg, a few vertebrae, and a scapula. The hindleg is gracile and slender, indicating that the basal archosaur was lightly built and possibly well adapted for a running life. The vertebrae and scapula are not as indicative in the life history as the hindleg appears to be, but are important in describing the animal. These elements when analyzed together indicate that Lagosuchus was actually capable of running bipedally for short periods of time only, being a facultative biped. Quadrupedality appears to have been the most basic form of locomotion for basal archosaurs, making Lagosuchus a typical early archosaur.

28 March 2017

Descriptions and Opinions

Lagosuchus remains, questionable and otherwise, have been described and analyzed many times over. Due to the controversial nature of the remains and phylogeny of Lagosuchus there are not many articles on the animal aside from descriptions of the original materials. These are not hosted online in easily accessible ways because they are slightly older documents from the early 1970's. New material descriptions are available online however, allowing us to look at the known materials and understand how much Lagosuchus material is known to science. There are a lot of papers that use Lagosuchus and the family that was named after it (Lagosuchidae) to describe and discuss archosaur phylogeny. Key in these papers are articles discussing the ankle joint and whether or not there is even any consensus on what the ankle and the accepted basal archosaur tree mean to overall archosaur phylogeny.

26 March 2017

Quick Lists of Facts

Lagosuchus, dubious name or not, has a lot of pages dedicated to it online describing the animal or relaying short lists of facts. Today I will simply share a video that summarizes what many of these pages summarize over and over again. It is a somewhat less exciting video than we might normally share for facts, but it does discuss a lot about what we know of Lagosuchus.

25 March 2017

Early Archosaurs of the Triassic

Pavel.Riha.CB at the English language Wikipedia
Lagosuchus talampayensis is an early archosaur recovered from the Triassic rocks of Argentina. The Chañares Formation represents the Middle Triassic (230 MA) and, barring recent publications until their results can be independently verified, the some of the earliest remains of archosaurs representing the earliest dinosaurs. Discovered in the 1970's and initially described by Romer in 1971, it has been described by many as a nomen dubium by many. A second species was reassigned in 1994, making the description and known material to be even more questionable. That material is somewhat minuscule in nature as well, which does not help. Instead, we will look at what is known about Lagosuchus, its relatives and what its relationships mean for the current phylogeny of archosaurs.

24 March 2017

Everyone's Arkansaurus

There are only a very few widely circulated recreations and illustrations of the little known dinosaur Arkansaurus. The majority of these are variations on a dinosaur that looks very much like the Gallimimus that ran around in the original Jurassic Park movie. A more modern version of the illustrations by Brian Engh does exist that not only updates the general look of Arkansaurus but also adds feathering and a little weight.

20 March 2017

Short News Piece Day

Movie Monday is not going to have a movie or a documentary today. Arkansaurus was not, and is not, famous enough to have influenced any documentaries or movies despite its status as a symbol for a state. The only videos about the dinosaur are news coverage of the state's legislative debate over adopting the symbol. There was not a lot of debate actually, but it is a nice little news piece to watch.

19 March 2017

Arkansas Geological Survey Facts

The Arkansas Geological Survey (AGS) has a large number of publications and fact sheets describing the state dinosaur and other geological wonders of the state. As a somewhat obscure dinosaur, there are few references online that are more popular. However, aside from sites like Cool Dino Facts and the AGS there are also Arkansas based sites that discuss Arkansaurus. These include Paleoaerie, an evolution and education resource site based in Arkansas (AERIE = Arkansas Educational Resource Initiative for Evolution). Another important site hosting a nice post about Arkansaurus today is Arkansas Life Magazine.

18 March 2017

Legislative Dinosaurs

Photo provided to Arkansas Geological Society by ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster
In the past few months there have been a lot of dinosaur stories circulating in the popular news and one of the most relevant to the middle of the United States is the announcement of a new state dinosaur. That dinosaur is named Arkansaurus fridayi and is known from a few bones found by a farmer searching for a cow. In 1972 a man named J. B. Friday was searching his farm in southwest Arkansas and stumbled, almost literally, over a fossil dinosaur foot in the remains of a road cut, which is problematic. Any remaining fossil material may have been destroyed in the construction efforts, by water flow before or after burial, or scavenging prior to burial. The remains were initially described by members of the 1973 SVP meeting as an Ornithomimus which would represent the oldest member  of the species ever recovered. The animal remained informally named Arkansaurus fridayi for 30 years before it was re-described by ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster (published as an abstract under her maiden name; ReBecca K. Hunt). Considering this is the only publication of any type describing these dinosaur remains we will refer to the animal this week with italics rather than quotations; a difference typically separating formally described and accepted genera and species from those used informally. This remains a controversial name, but in defiance (or disregarding the informal nature of the name) the state of Arkansas recently passed a bill making the only dinosaur material known from the state the state's official dinosaur fossil. There is more significance than just naming Arkansaurus the state dinosaur; Arkansaurus is now the 25th official state symbol and Arkansas was the 25th state admitted to the United States.

17 March 2017

Too Much Titanoboa

©Jason Bourque
To finish out the past week we need to look at some of the beautiful paintings and sculptures of Titanoboa. The artistic interpretations and scientific recreations of the snake show the animal in typical snake postures and some are stunningly detailed. One of the more tame interpretations of the snake actually shows Titanoboa participating in one of the most common behaviors of snakes or any other animal: casually sunning itself or possibly moving from one place to another. A large dryosaur and turtle help populate the background of this painting and dryosaurs actually figure into more than one Titanoboa representation. The most well known sculpture, the Titanoboa featured in the Smithsonian exhibit for the giant snake, shows a Titanoboa in the process of swallowing a dryosaur. The dryosaur's distinctive tail is sticking out of the snake's mouth as it aligns itself perpendicular to the ground. This seems odd for two reasons: 1) the post hoc knowledge that the hypothesized diet of Titanoboa is composed of fish almost entirely and 2) lifting an animal as large as a dryosaur vertically into the air to swallow it would, it seems, be extremely taxing and difficult even for an enormous snake like this.
Photo by Ryan Quick

16 March 2017

The Charmer Snake

Through no mistake has Titanoboa become a popular fossil snake. The sheer size alone is enough to make people ooh and ahh over the giant reptile and the popularity that followed is entirely expected. This popularity can be seen in the number of sites online hosting facts and images of the snake as well as the fact that the snake had a one hour documentary dedicated entirely to the single taxon. In the vein of many internet speculation sites, the Smithsonian's work on Titanoboa even allowed for the fairly ludicrous time traveling fight between a Tyrannosaurus and Titanoboa, giving into the popularity of online forums that pose "what if" encounters between apex predators. We now hypothesize that Titanoboa was piscivorous and not really an apex predator, so many of these sensationalist popular views can be thrown out anyhow. thankfully, without linking a lot of books, we have other popular outlets. The most visible of these is video games and, again, ARK manages to include more fossil animals in the game. ARK tends to err on the side of intrigue ever so slightly when re-creating fossil animals and with Titanoboa the designers managed to find something, even on a snake, to indulge their creativity and the fantasy of the game. The snake looks surly and vicious and manages to do so sporting an almost hairy looking frill:

15 March 2017

The Long Remains

Jonathon Bloch with Titanoboa and Anaconda vertebrae. ©Natural History Magazine
The finding of Titanoboa was significant for vertebrate, South American, and herpetological paleontology to name just a few areas and disciplines that benefited greatly from the discovery. Climate studies were another area that has been mentioned a great deal here in the last few days. To truly understand how large the snake is though requires a significant amount of knowledge of extant snakes and how their morphology relates to the size of their overall body. In order to estimate size and weight of extinct snake biologists need to know how the bones and bodies of living snakes are related and then apply the resulting ratios and formulae to the recovered extinct material. Vertebrae, such as those shown from Titanoboa and a 17 foot Anaconda, are often useful in estimating length and weight of fossil animals. Titanoboa was found with a significant number of these vertebrae, which can be rare for snakes. What made estimating the size of Titanoboa easier was not the number and completeness of vertebrae, bones of the spinal column that can make estimating length a bit easier, but the recovery of the skull of the snake. A snake's skull is rarely recovered in extant animal remains, let alone in fossil remains. The reason for this is that snakes are animals with extremely mobile heads. Their heads are capable of moving to extreme degrees and they do so by having very interesting connections between the bones of the skull that are not so much loose as they are workable and even supple. This often leads to the skulls of snakes simply falling apart as the flesh, muscles, ligaments, and tendons decompose and water, wind, and animals scurry about moving the bones. The skull alone is, therefore, a very intriguing find. That makes a very intriguing snake with a very rare skull and an immense body that has captivated millions; not a bad find in a Colombian coal mine.

14 March 2017

Titanoboa on Paper

Titanoboa has been the subject of many different sorts of articles from pure description to interesting paleoclimate discussions. The hypotheses concerning life history of the snake are also of particular interest to scientists that want to better understand the enormous boid. The most important papers are those concerning climate. These studies have revealed important aspects of past climates and their changes in addition to revealing clues about how cyclic weather patterns can be used to predict future climate patterns. Weather enthusiasts and snake enthusiasts alike should enjoy these two articles tonite and have plenty to investigate about their favorite topics.

13 March 2017

The Monster Snake

Titanoboa generated a lot of interest when it was first described and the illustrations and recreations were first unleashed on the world. In 2012 the Smithsonian Channel released a documentary about the giant snake. The 90 minute documentary still airs, now and again, on the Smithsonian Channel and the schedule is kept up to date on a website for the channel's shows. The Titanoboa page also contains teaser trailers for the show, random clips, and even a game. There are numerous other videos and, were we able to link a free version of the documentary, we could watch that today. Renting it online costs $2, which is not awful, and it is entirely worth the price.

12 March 2017

Snake Facts

Everyone loves good facts about fossil snakes. The evolutionary history of snakes is actually coming to light in recent years and recent studies which is of great importance to what we know of both fossil and extant snakes. We actually have a great deal of information about Titanoboa, which is not entirely rare for a given snake, but is less often an occurrence than we typically see in many dinosaurs or fossil mammals. The number of websites hosting facts about Titanoboa are extremely numerous; most are filled with only scientific fact, but there are so many that fact checking all of them would be nearly impossible. Websites we use here a lot, like About (About's dinosaur pages now reroute to a site called ThoughtCo) and Prehistoric Wildlife. New sites that we have used sparingly so far like New Dinosaurs also have facts on the giant snake, despite Titanoboa not being a dinosaur. Dedicated snake websites also share facts about the giant boid like the aptly named Snake Facts site. There are also numerous videos that share information, facts, and animated recreations of the snake that are of great educational value; however, some of these will be saved for Monday.

11 March 2017

The Gigantic Snake

The Titanic Boa is not necessarily a clever basis for a name, but Titanoboa cerrejonensis (specifically named for the Cerrejón Formation from which it was recovered) is exactly what its name implies: a titanic boa. The largest known snake (fossil or extant) was recovered from the coal mines of the Colombian region of La Guajira, a peninsula in the extreme northeastern portion of the country. An estimated 12.8 m (42 ft), Titanoboa was thought to weigh approximately 1,135 kg (2,500 lb); the largest extant snake is the Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) has an average length of 3.7 m (12 ft) and average weight of approximately 30.8 kg (68 lb). Titanoboa is hypothesized to have been largely piscivorous which would be unique among all boids, fossil and extant. As a boid, Titanoboa would have wrapped itself around its prey and killed using mechanical constriction. As an enormous snake, it would have been coiling itself around its prey to constrict it, meaning that the fish it was constricting must have been equally large, perhaps even titanic (could not resist, sorry).
©Vlad Konstantinov

10 March 2017

Quality Tapir-like Fire Beasts

Robert Bruce Horsfall, 1913
There are surprisingly a lot of images of reconstructions and interpretations of Pyrotherium posted online. As one of those fossil mammals that is slightly less popular, it is fairly interesting that the illustrations are as numerous as they are. There are illustrations like the first one that represent the truly old guard of illustration; a time that was powered as much by fantasy as it was by scientific interpretation. We can admit that the scientific interpretation of the day was not quite up to the same standards as modern scientific interpretations are. More current illustrations and interpretations have appeared here numerous times this week and have looked quite dynamic and plausible. Horsfall's illustration is not entirely unrealistic, but compared to the modern illustrations it is a little off from something we could accept as a real live animal. In contrast, and I admit the surroundings of this image help its realistic plausibility significantly, Roman Uchytel's version of Pyrotherium standing in a calm river bank patch of grass looks much more like an animal we might happen upon while walking in a somewhat wild area of the modern world.

08 March 2017

Pyrotherium's Head

The head of Pyrotherium is illustrated with a short trunk or a long nose, depending on one's particular definition of the word trunk. That appendage is not preserved on any of the known skulls of course, but the skulls do tell us a lot about the life history of the animal and its cranial ornamentation. The most prominent feature of the skull are the mandibular and maxillary incisors. Two pairs of maxillary incisors and a pair of mandibular incisors are enlarged and elongated as tusks similar in shape to those of a warthog. These give the appearance of the skull tapering and looking fairly sinister, which may have been the intention of such amazing teeth. Additionally, the teeth could have been used to root and dig for preferred food items or to signal health and well being to potential mates.
©Richard Haddad, Beneski Museum of Natural History

07 March 2017

Pyrotherium on Paper

The number of articles on Pyrotherium is actually impressive considering the small amount of attention it has garnered online and in the general populace. Description of new species and important revisitations of the skulls have proven immensely important to the knowledge base of Pyrotherium. There is an absolute wealth of information beyond these two papers of course. The entire list of papers is far too long to even bother linking the Google Scholar search list. There are old lectures and a number of "initial" descriptions.

06 March 2017

The Statue Videos

Not much of an actual fiery beast, Pyrotherium is lackluster in both video appearances and popular knowledge of the animal. This unknown factor of course inhibits video appearances in most fossil animals and the circle unfortunate circumstances continues from there. However, there is apparently some statuary depicting Pyrotherium in a fossil animal park/garden of statues and this interpretation has been posted online. This statue also roars, apparently, and it is described as "life-like roaring". I will let the viewer be the judge on this. This video of the statue comes from before it was placed in the park:

05 March 2017

Fire Beast Cometh

Fun facts abound today that describe and illustrate the life of the stock mammal Pyrotherium romeri. Its name means "Fire beast" and the discovery of its remains in volcanic deposits makes the name relevant, though not in a way that is bizarre or science-fiction like. Somewhat resembling a rhinoceros in stature and a tapir or small elephant in shape, Pyrotherium is a South American ungulate found in Early Oligocene deposits. As with many mammals, the teeth and skull of Pyrotherium are extremely well known and many specimens have been discovered and studied. We know that the incisors of the animal developed into tusks in both the upper and lower jaws. Two pairs of tusks were found in the upper jaw, and one pair were found in the lower jaw. Illustrations and interpretations of the animal bear this out and the teeth are described on sites like Prehistoric Wildlife and Dinopedia (despite the animal being a mammal).
©Nobu Tamura

03 March 2017

A Beautiful Parakeet

There are a lot of illustrations and models of Carolina parakeets all over North America in museums and hanging on walls. The internet has even more copies of both the illustrations and the models posted all over the place. Deciding what the best image of Conuropsis is online could take ages and, unlike some of the images we have posted in the past for dinosaurs and other fossil animals, there are none that stand out automatically because they are overly dynamic or show excessive action. One of the few very illustrations that draws the viewer in with action and movement is Michael Rothman's 1984 and 2010 paintings of groups of parakeets flitting about some non-descript trees. One of the more "cute" illustrations Kristina Knowski's watercolor Carolina parakeets nuzzling one another. Possibly my favorite painting of Carolina parakeets is Walton's Ford reimagination of the classic painting the "Death of General Wolfe". If you have not seen the original, please look it over, but  either way, enjoy Ford's interpretation:
©Walton Ford

01 March 2017

Eradication or Extermination

Scientific studies of Conuropsis were never conducted or published. However, occupying the forests of the middle third of North America was a medium sized parrot weighing approximately 3.5 ounces, about a foot long with a wingspan approaching two feet. Their green bodies and yellow and red heads could be seen bouncing and flying through the tree tops of deciduous forests of North America, a somewhat abnormal depiction of parrots as we often think of them as rainforest dwelling birds that we see in cartoons and movies. Like most parrots, Carolina parakeets ate seeds, making them a small nuisance for farms. How small a nuisance? Carolina parakeets, at the height of their population, were estimated to have had a population density of up to 2 birds per square kilometer with an estimate of their Florida population numbering in the hundreds of thousands. A farm of 100 square kilometers could have had anywhere between 50 and 200 Carolina parakeets foraging seeds and decimating crops at any given time; the higher number would have been more likely given the supposedly gregarious nature of the birds. Farmers turned to the easiest solution they could find to lower the animal's numbers: destruction of the forest and en masse killing of the seed-stealing culprits. The hunting was not only undertaken to lower the numbers of parakeets foraging in farmland, but also to enhance women's hats. Many birds once suffered this fate, but few have become completely extinct because of fashion.