Category Archives: Dinosaurs

A Paleontologist’s Critique of Jurassic World

I have written here before about being a professional paleontologist. As such, I have to say I was not enthusiastically looking forward to the newest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World. In fact, I expected to hate it.

From the previews the story line was hinted at: another park with dinosaurs, many unrealistic reconstructions of the fossil animals they were supposed to portray, a new genetically engineered dinosaur, and packs of raptors being led against the new bad dino by a motorcycle-riding hero (a paleontologist, we thought surely). Oh boy, we thought collectively. A “paleontologist” leading a pack of trained raptors against other dinosaurs to defend humanity. Proving to doubters that his rag-tag team of raptors could be led and become the heroes he knew them to be. What a cliché and a stinker of a movie this will be.

"Jurassic World poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Jurassic World">Fair use via Wikipedia.

Jurassic World poster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

But I went, as I knew I had to be culturally literate about what 10 year olds would be asking me for the next dozen years. Things like, what will it be like to be the alpha raptor?

And to my surprise, I didn’t hate the movie. I actually liked it. Here is why: there is not a single paleontologist in the entire thing!

This movie took strides to move away from the science of paleontology altogether. Sure, the park has big dinosaurs, but none of the dinosaurs they created were “real.” Even in the original park, they pointed out, all the dinosaurs had additional genetics to make them viable animals, so they were always facsimiles of dinosaurs anyway. And now in Jurassic World they are going all out and creating attractions, not reality.

In the past Jurassic Park movies to one degree or another there was an attempt to conform to current knowledge of dinosaur biology. And by walking the line between science and movie making they repeatedly failed to satisfy the picky scientists. “Velociraptor was not that big.” “Most of the dinosaurs are from the Cretaceous, not the Jurassic.” “The T. rex should have feathers, why didn’t they put feathers on them!”

But in Jurassic World they didn’t need a single cartoonish paleontologist character to advise them on how the animals looked or behaved (“She cannot see you if you don’t move.” Yeah, right), or espousing the latest dinosaur lore. It is as if the movie makers were saying “Get off our backs you paleontologists!”

chris-pratt-velociraptor-jurassic-worldThere is no real pretense to be scientific. Hybrid dinosaurs? We are just making them up as attractions, so no problem. Using packs of dinosaurs led by a human against other dinosaurs. Sure, why not. The evil characters were the marketers and the genetic engineers making things up for profit, and the ever-present corporation looking to weaponize something. No paleontologists needed.

And Chris Pratt’s character, Owen Grady, the one who looked suspiciously like the love child between Indiana Jones and, well, a paleontologist version of Indiana Jones…not a paleontologist. OK fine, he can train all the wild animals he wants to.

The franchise may never die, and now they can continue to make thrilling movies with spectacular special effects unrestricted by scientific sour grapes. They can concoct all the crazy, wild, mean, giant critters they want, and I for one will not get a professional (dinosaur) feather ruffled. Just don’t pretend that they represent real prehistoric critters.

Finally, paleontologists have been freed from “the Park.”

*I cannot help myself. Mosasaurs were not that big, and pterosaurs could not have carried off full grown women. There, I said it.

jurassic-world-trailer

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What’s the value of a fossil?

I have the privilege to work as a professional paleontologist. Many people are excited by fossils and beasts from the past, and the media loves to cover new discoveries. Periodically, a friend will ask if I had heard of the latest fossil find being discussed by the media, almost always touted as the latest, the greatest, the biggest, or the best example of whatever. With genuine enthusiasm my friend will ask how thrilled I am about it. While I really appreciate their eagerness for me and my profession, when the fossils were collected by someone hoping to sell them I have to say, no, I am not really excited about the find.

My friend will usually blink a few times, trying to understand how I could feel that way. How can I help them understand why academic paleontologists are not excited by such specimens? Why if I have dedicated my career to learning about life of the past would I not even be interested in seeing such fossils? Wouldn’t all scientists be falling over themselves with glee to see these treasures? No.

The latest example is the so-called Dueling Dinosaurs from Montana, and much has been written about them, a meat-eating and a plant-eating dinosaur found together, promoted as having died in mortal combat. But these fossils are simply the latest example in the long-standing conflict between science and the commercialization of fossils. The key to easily understanding this conflict is to understand the two very different ways of appraising the value of a fossil: commercial and scientific.

We are immersed in the commercial value of things. Everything has a price. All around us in everyday life we see prices placed on goods and services. We are so comfortable making judgments about the monetary value of items we even have game shows like the Price is Right where we compete with each other to do so.

Additionally, we are familiar with collectors of all types. Art collectors, people who collect baseball cards, or old bottles. We occasionally hear of a rare collectable item selling for high prices, and fossils seem like they could be in that same category of potentially valuable collectable items.

"Sues skeleton" by Connie Ma from Chicago, United States of America - Sue, the world's largest and most complete dinosaur skeleton.Uploaded by FunkMonk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sues_skeleton.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sues_skeleton.jpg

“Sues skeleton” by Connie Ma from Chicago, United States of America – Sue, the world’s largest and most complete dinosaur skeleton.Uploaded by FunkMonk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

High-profile fossils have occasionally been valued at very high market values. The Tyrannosaurus “Sue” sold at auction for over 8 million dollars. Recently another similar dinosaur was to be sold for over a million. The sellers of the Dueling Dinosaurs are reported to want 7 to 9 million. And the implication is clear—you can get rich on dinosaurs.

In our market-based society it is easy for non-scientists to think that market value must be the same as scientific value. High-dollar fossils must be worth more to science, right? This equivocation, however, is false.

To appraise the market value of a fossil you have to know what a willing buyer will pay a willing seller under current market conditions.

The scientific value of a fossil is very simply its ability to add to existing knowledge. To appraise the scientific value one needs to know about all the research that has taken place to date, all the specimens currently known to science, and an individual fossil’s potential to tell us something we didn’t already know.

The issue hinges on the fact that for a fossil to have high scientific value we must be extremely confident in the reliability of the information that accompanies it. The commercial collection of fossils is usually driven by other pressures, and unfortunately there are far too many examples where the information valued by scientists is not collected. Or worse, where the information is unreliable or even falsified. Too frequently people looking to sell fossils for large monetary gain collected the fossils illegally, or dishonestly, and then seek to hide those facts from buyers. The temptation of large payoffs is often too great.

From a scientific stand point the value of a fossil is significantly reduced if we do not know, or cannot rely on, certain basic information. Where did the fossil come from? Who collected it? Can we be sure it is one fossil or is it a composite of two or more fossils? Could it be a forgery? Do we have records of the fossil’s context with the surrounding rocks? What did the rocks tell us about the environment in which it was buried? What other fossils were found with it that would give clues to the environment in which it lived? What clues were with the fossil that may have gotten removed during the preparation of the fossil?

The primary “currency” of academic paleontologists is integrity—if our colleagues lose trust in our work and our word we have nothing. So, there is little incentive to deceive or falsify our data or claims, and in fact there is a great potential for career-ending consequences if one is caught being dishonest.

Unfortunately that is not the case for commercial collectors. In a climate where you can sell a fossil for millions of dollars you just need to do that once to be set for life. The integrity and motivations of commercial collectors is then suspect; there are just too many examples of theft, lies, and deceit.

I am not implying anything about the people involved in the Dueling Dinosaurs. Rather, I am saying that the general lack of academic enthusiasm for their fossils is because of past experience. The prices demanded are out of reach of museums and the risk of obtaining false data is just too great. When the next biggest, best, and rarest fossil comes around we must watch their sale with detached sadness, and hope for the best.

Perhaps the Dueling Dinosaurs will end up at a museum, and maybe any questions about the integrity of those fossils can be satisfactorily addressed. Perhaps those fossils will become a conversation piece in someone’s trophy room, and if so they will likely be lost forever to science and by extension to all of us.

Fortunately, the public lands of the United States are available to researchers, where the ownership of fossils is clearly established to be the public, and commercial value plays no role. There, and on private land generously made available by land owners, scientists and genuine amateur enthusiasts can collect, study, and learn about the past with fossils that can advance our knowledge.

For the landowners, field collectors, and the people involved in buying and selling fossils I guess I have to say I don’t blame you for your interest. Fossils are cool. And if you make a million dollars, I guess good for you. However, understand that the commercial collection and sale of fossils has virtually nothing to do with the science of paleontology. The only commonality between the two is the fossils, and whereas commercial fossils may have a high market value, their scientific value is severely compromised.

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Two dinosaurs become one

Earlier this year a paper was published (Scannella and Horner 2010) on one of the most well-known dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous, Triceratops, updating our understanding of not only this dinosaur species, but also maybe influencing our view of many other dinosaur species as well.

Triceratops

Triceratops as mounted at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Triceratops was first described in 1889 by O. C. Marsh, and has become one of the best represented dinosaur species in terms of numbers of fossils recovered. Their remains are very common in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana and the Dakotas. And, Triceratops has been known by practically every kid for the last 100 years, being well represented in dinosaur movies and dinosaur toys the world over.

Triceratops is best known for its three horns and neck frill of bone. Torosaurus, another dinosaur that is obviously related to Triceratops because of its similar appearance, was also first named by Marsh in 1891. It is found in the same geologic units in the same region, but is much less commonly found. Torosaurus was much larger than Triceratops, and had large openings in the neck frill, and its horns pointed more anteriorly.

So, for over 100 years paleontologists thought there were at least two species of horned dinosaurs in these beds. But scientific understanding makes progress. In the early “bone rush” days of the nineteenth century the game was naming new species. Today, there is a trend of relooking at those species to see if they are in fact different.

Torosaurus

"Torosaurus" mount at the Milwaulkee Museum, now should be called Triceratops.

This is where the new study comes in. The authors examined Triceratops and Torosaurus and questioned whether they might not be the same species, but at different life stages. It has become apparent that individuals of a species can change a great deal over their lifetimes. A newborn human does not look much like an adult in body proportions, for example. If past species also changed significantly over their lifetimes, the different stages could easily be mistaken as completely different species. And that seems to be the case here.

By looking closely at the trends of skull shape and indicators of maturity, Scannella and Horner believe that in fact Torosaurus individuals are older and more mature individuals of Triceratops. This means that later in their development individual Triceratops specimens changed significantly as they reached maturity, developing the large openings in the neck frill and increasing in overall size.

The implications for other dinosaur species are clear. If individuals can change dramatically during their lifetimes as they mature, perhaps there are many named dinosaurs that are not truly different and unique species, and we need to match youngsters with adults. No doubt this will keep paleontologists busy for the next 100 years.

And in case you are worried, the name Triceratops will remain, since it was the first name given to the species that we now realize includes those individuals that one were called “Torosaurus.” So, despite some headlines Triceratops did (and still does) exist!

Scannella, J. B., and J. R. Horner. 2010. Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(4):1157 – 1168.

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I am a paleontologist

I love the science of paleontology for many reasons. The science combines so many other areas of study into one bundle, such as geology, biology, functional morphology, evolution, stratigraphy, and systematics.

Not only that, dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are just fun! And being fun, paleontology is a great way to introduce people to science in an engaging way. How many young people start their interest in science by learning about dinosaurs, and say they want to be a paleontologist when they grow up–a bunch!

Well, someone shared this video with me and I love sharing it with you. Enjoy! (you may need to scroll down).

Related Posts: check them out.

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Why dinosaurs are not extinct

In the twenty plus years I have been involved in paleontology I have been witness to a revolution within science. The revolution has been quiet, not noticed by most of the public. Like any good revolution, the battles of this revolution took place between two camps, the “traditionalists” and the “radicals” who were out to change things. And this shift is illustrative of how science as a whole moves from one way of understanding to a brand new way of looking at the world. It is, in fact, a paradigm shift that has profoundly changed biology and paleontology forever.

At issue is how we explore and classify the relationships of all living things. The traditional view, the one that I was taught as a young student, was the classification of living things into the taxonomy originally begun by Carl Linnaeus. This system started with a group, and then sought to put things into the group. For example, one can make the observation that animals that look like “dogs” could be grouped together, so you would start with the idea of a dog-group and look for animals that should be included.

You might put foxes, wolves, domestic dogs into the group, and call it the dog family. You might also note that “cats” could likewise be grouped, and do the same thing, creating a cat family. In this view, the families were equal in rank—and there could be no overlap. An animal would be included in only one of the equal-ranked families. Any animal was included in only one class, for example Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, or Mammalia.

The equal-ranked heirarchy of classifications worked well enough when we mainly were concerned with modern animals. Clearly, birds look different than mammals and reptiles, so it seemed evident they belonged in their own class. But this classification scheme, however well it served us as a place to start, is myopic about how evolution actually operates—how organisms actually evolve. This is understandable since it was started 100 years before evolution as a theory was established.

In trying to shoehorn life into the system, we repeatedly ran into problems as we expanded our knowledge of the diversity of living things and our understanding that the history of life is a complex branching bush. We knew that early tetrapods (organisms with four limbs) gave rise to the early amphibians that crawled out on land, and that they in turn evolved into reptiles, mammals and birds. But despite this branching within tetrapods, the class ranks were forced to be exclusive, so somewhere in evolutionary history was an “amphibian” that had to become a “reptile,” and a “reptile” that had to become a “bird.”

The many transitional forms in the fossil record increasing became impossible to classify. These intermediate animals had to be forced into one class or another. Increasingly, it became evident that many times the criteria used to put an organism into one class were the whims of an individual scientist, and another equally qualified expert with different opinions might place the same animal in a different class with equal validity.

The origin of birds was for a long time a great mystery to paleontologists. Birds are a pretty unique and specialized group, and while we knew that they originated from reptiles somehow, exactly how and when was unclear. One early paleontologist noted that dinosaurs had many features in common with birds, but the early concepts of what dinosaurs were like distracted most scientists from comparing them too closely. After all, the common conception of dinosaurs was as big, lumbering, dim-witted, swamp-dwelling beasts. The bird ancestor must have been light, fast moving, and energetic.

However, dinosaur research over the last thirty years has completely changed our view of them. Evidence from many lines, including things like footprints and the cellular structure of the bones, all point to dinosaurs as being very dynamic creatures. With this new view, the notion that birds were linked to dinosaurs became clear too. Now, we have dinosaur fossils with feathers, and birds with teeth and dinosaur tails to attest to their close relationships. In fact, birds are most closely related to the meat-eating raptor-like dinosaurs of Jurassic Park fame.

To go along with the revolution in our view of dinosaurs was that revolution in science that I mentioned above–the emergence of a new way to understand the interrelationships of life on Earth. This new model accommodated the myriad branching events that life actually experienced in order to produce the great variety of living things. So, instead of starting with a conception of the group and looking for members, this new concept looked at the branching patterns evident in life, and then sought to apply names.

Below is an illustration of the branching pattern of selected tetrapods, those vertebrates with four well developed limbs. As the first tetrapods gave rise to new and different groups, the branches split off. An early tetrapod gave rise to amphibians and the other animals above it on the chart (mammals, turtles, etc.). A later tetrapod developed traits related to the production of eggs and young that we recognize as the Amniota. Some of those early amniotes went off on an evolutionary trajectory that we can recognize as being the early mammals, and all the diversity that resulted from them. And so it goes up along the branches.

Branching pattern of the tetrapods, mostly the land vertebrates

Branching pattern of the tetrapods, mostly the land vertebrates

We now explore the branches and can apply names to the groups that we find to be meaningful. For example, in the illustration below we can call everything in the box a reptile. Note that it includes things that used to be called reptiles, turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, and dinosaurs, but now also includes birds.

Group that includes all the reptiles

Group that includes all the reptiles

Likewise, if we draw a line around the dinosaurs, they also include the birds. This view of life tells a more complete evolutionary history and retains the branches, letting the animals “fall where they will.” We do not pull birds out of their relationships and give them special consideration. Instead of birds being equal in rank with reptiles, they are included among them. This upsets the tradition that being a bird is somehow equally important to being a reptile, but better reflects the reality of descent, without forcing nature into earlier human conventions of naming and grouping. Of course, birds are a group within their own right, and we could zoom in to explore their branching pattern, but it does not change the group to which they belong.

Group of dinosaurs

Group of dinosaurs

This leads to another startling statement. Below I have highlighted the groups that are extant (still around today).

Groups of tetrapods that are alive today (extant)

Groups of tetrapods that are alive today (extant)

Because of our grouping scheme, birds are included in the dinosaur group, so dinosaurs are not really extinct! They live among us today flitting about, singing their mating songs in the trees. It is funny how things can change in science. Twenty years ago scientists would have told you the dinosaurs were all extinct, and today we say the opposite. I love scientific progress–it can be so startling.

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