Monday, March 31, 2008

The Most Epic of All Dinosaur Battles...

My travels around Youtube have born fruit before, but this really takes the top prize. Above is a scene from the movie "1 Million Years BC." Considering this sequence was made around 30 years before I was born, I'm pretty impressed. The animation is really smooth, and it's just... well... cool!

Popcorn recommended!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

How to Leak Information Like a Sieve...

Hey fossil fans,

Well, I don't have time to finish any of my awesome, work-in-progress posts before I go to my "real" job in 15 minutes, so I'll tantalize you with some new info about the future. Drumroll, please...

I am pleased to announce that the Trilobite Blog will be moving to it's own domain. The domain will remain undisclosed for the near future, but rest assured, the web design has begun. In fact, I wasted all my time on it today, hence the lack of a proper post.

I'll keep you all posted! Needless to say, I'm very excited to get the new domain started, and take Trilobite Blog to the next level!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

PaleoProfile: Sam Gon III

Well, I've been promising some great new material for a while now, and this is the centerpiece.

I am pleased to announce a new feature on Trilobite Blog, PaleoProfile! The idea in to conduct a blog interview (bloggerview) with someone (preferably famous!) involved in paleontology every second week.

This week, for the very first edition of PaleoProfile, we present Sam Gon III. If you have ever looked up trilobites online, you have likely found his seminal work, A Guide to the Orders of Trilobites. The website has been listed as a web resource by Universities (Harvard, Manchester), and Libraries (Smithsonian, Cornell). In short, no better resource for trilobites exists online. Beyond trilobites, Mr. Gon is a highly respected Hawaiian ecologist. So, without Further ado.

PaleoProfile: Sam Gon III

I always like to hear how people got interested in things. There aren't any trilobites to be found in Hawaii. So what was it that got you interested in the first place? I know for me, it was seeing the amazing specimens from Morocco that first piqued my interest.

I am a biologist, so living things have always fascinated me. Moreover, their relationships to each other, and therefore the course of the evolution of life on earth. Arthropods are amazing creatures, and trilobites are an amazingly diverse group of ancient arthropods. When I realized just how diverse trilobites were, I wanted to know a bit more about them, and when I found there were (at the time) 8 orders of trilobites, I wanted to know on what basis you could place any given trilobite into its proper order. I found it was not a straightforward thing at all! So my curiosity piqued, I dove deeply into trilobite systematics, and in learning more about them, found I was amassing information that should be shared on the web. Thus the Guide to the Orders of Trilobites was born, as well as my unflagging interest in this group.

In condensing and organizing a great deal of material into "A Guide to the Orders of Trilobites," you have created what I consider to be the best resource available online for trilobite information. Apparently I'm not alone either. The site receives hundreds of hits a day. That's a lot of trilobite fans! What do you think it is about trilobites that fascinates so many people?

I think I said it well enough on the website, but between their amazing diversity of form, their extreme old age (anything half a billion years old and still recognizable as a once-living thing is mind-boggling!), and the fact that just about anyone can own one and hold such an exceptional fossil in one hand, how can trilobites NOT be fascinating?

Trilobites were an extremely large group. The sheer number of species (over 17,000 described), as well as the truly massive number of specimens unearthed every year, make the study of trilobites somewhat broader than the study of smaller groups. We have such an incredible wealth of evidence and knowledge about them, and yet even so, there is a great deal unknown. If you could discover the answer to one trilobite mystery, what would it be?

That's a hard question, since there are so many questions to ask - if there could be a clear and definitive answer to the relationships and origins of all of the orders, so we could readily trace the origins of the trilobite radiations from their explosive origins in the Cambrian, that would be amazing to me.

How about a favourite trilobite? If there a particular group that really interests you, or even a favourite specimen you have that you really like?

I confess an interest in the bumpy order Lichida, but one of my favorite specimens was given by a friend, it is a nearly perfectly round specimen of Nobiliasaphus nobilis, for all the world like a coin stamped with a trilobite. You can see its image here:

In addition to "A Guide to the Orders of Trilobites," You also run "The Anomalocaris Homepage," which describes the Anomalocarid group. These are creatures close to my heart, because of my close proximity to the Burgess Shale formation. Should we expect to see this page expand as new research on this group is revealed?

Yes, though it seems that there have not been any breakthrough articles on the group since the turn of the millennium! If you know of any, please let me know and I'll add the new information and citations in a flash!

You've been deeply involved in Hawaiian ecology for several decades, and you're a member of the Nature Conservatory of Hawaii. But you've also done cultural work, including study of Hawaiian chant and hula. People often mentally separate the areas of natural history and human cultural history, and study only one or the other. Based on your work, do you think these two areas should be separate, or studied as aspects of the same common history?

Although there are major overlaps between western science and Hawaiian traditional knowledge, there are also fundamental differences, and I find it is good stimulation for the brain and spirit to jump across channels of thought and epistemology and enjoy both the similarities and differences.

As an ecologist, as well as an amateur paleontologist, does it ever seem strange to jump back and forth between trying to preserve environments before they're lost, and trying to rediscover environments that were lost millions of years ago?

The key connection between my paleontological interests and my conservation biology interests is celebration of diversity of life. Both fields force you to appreciate changing worlds, and while we can't do anything about the extinction of trilobites, there is an obligation to preserve and protect the diversity of life we have today.

Is there anything else you'd like to add? Any big new projects that you'd like to announce, or things you'd like to advertise?

The latest development in my hardcopy adaptation of the trilobite website is that it is now available in electronic form as a pdf. You can find the link to it here: Also, the full archive of the Trilobites of the Month, for the past 7 years, is now available on Just go there and search all photos for Nobiliasaphus, and you'll find my favorite trilobite specimen image, and then see the link to "Sam Gon's Trilos" thanks to a colleague on flickr. Nothing else major brewing, but an ongoing invitation to anyone who is interested in trilobites, paleontology and evolution of life on earth to feel free to contact me at any time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ask and Ye Shall Receive... on Yahoo Answers

I don't know how many of you have checked out Yahoo Answers, but there is a thriving science section there. Now, one could point out quite correctly that a great deal of this is lame high school students taking the easy road on their homework, but there are also some more interesting questions.

In my constant quest to learn more about the stuff I blog about, I've taken to hanging around Yahoo Answers. I actually much prefer to answer questions, sometimes even taking the time to look up answers I don't know. See, I learn! I'm a level 2 user, and apparently I've answered 77 questions. Pretty awsome.

Of course, not everything asked on Yahoo answers is so great. I don't know whether this is a poorer reflection on the student trying to cheat on her homework, or the curriculum that calls for a "rap about soil erosion." What are schools coming to?

But have no fear. I took matters into my own hands!

But anyway, if any of you are ever on Yahoo answers, my username is Trilobite, and you can find me haunting the science sections!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

There's More Than Oil in Them Sands...

Who would have thought that the Alberta tar sands would provide anything but a fast-track to global warming? Well, apparently, they have. Paleontologists have recently described a 2.6 metre plesiosaur, discovered in the Syncrude Canada Inc mine in 1994. Apparently the speciment was uncovered with the delicate excavation technique so often demonstrated by the 100 ton shovels employed at the mine.

The plesiosaur, names Nichollsia borealis after the late Betty Nicholls, former curator of marine reptiles at the Royal Tyrrel Museum, and expert in the field in general.

Read it all over at

Monday, March 24, 2008

National Geographic: Forty Plus Years... On My Shelf...

Hey fossil fans,

One thing I've neglected to mention before is the rather large collection of National Geographic magazines. The collection goes back to roughly 1965, and continues basically unbroken until the present.

It amazes me that I've never thought about the collection before, as a historical source. I can look at the last four decades of articles to see the progression of knowledge in various areas. In the near future, I am working on articles about early man, and the last ice age, two topics that seem to be richly covered by NG over the last few decades.

And yes, in case you were wondering, I do have the National Geographic from the moon landing. It's pretty cool to think that when this issue arrived on someones (I think my grandfather's) doorstep, the moon landing had just happened.

So anyway, expect some new articles in the future, as I start to delve deeply into the resource I've discovered. And these articles aren't the only cool thing coming in the next week to this blog. I don't want to give all the secrets away right now, so stay tuned over the next few days, and the secrets will be revealed. Yeah, that's a cliffhanger right there, now you have to come back for another visit!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Respice Prospice: Why I Write About the History of Science

When I'm not posting humorous YouTube videos, or talking about by wonderful, excellent store, Trilobite Clothing, I usually post about the history of science. Why, you might ask, do I write about the history of science, as opposed to simply science?

Firstly, I am not a scientist. Therefore, my posts will never be as good as the myriad of other science bloggers who actually practice what they preach. I'm not saying that there isn't room for another good paleontology blog, but I am saying that it would be best left to a paleontologist.

Secondly, completely outside my interest in science, I'm a total history nut. When I dig around for blog posts to write, I tend to gravitate, perhaps subconsciously, to stories involving history. My three part series on avian evolution (located here, here, and here) is a good example of what tends to happen when my two passions collide. Long posts are produced, and the writing just flows. So I let it.

Now, this isn't to say that I don't blog about the latest discoveries, I actually do that a fair bit. But I hate being just another blog regurgitating content from ScienceDaily. If I was a true expert and able to expand on the article, I would, and that would be great, but like I said, I'm not actually a scientist. And actually, even some scientists agree with me! Darren over at Tetrapod Zoology has a post called Tiny pterosaurs and pac-man frogs from hell, which deals with the exact subject.

So, I think I'll stick with my odd hybrid of Science and History, and hope that there are at least a few people who it will interest.

"Sciences and history, Livin' in perfect harmony*"
* I considered using this for the title of the story, but it is way, way too hokey.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Jack Horner: Paleontology Legend

Hey fossil fans,

Dinosaur fans need no introduction to Jack Horner, one of the most famous dinosaur paleontologists around today. I've dug up an interview with him on youtube, so enjoy!

Eventually, I'll get around to writing a proper biography, to outline Horner's work. This is a cool video though. "How long will you keep doing this?" "Til I keel over!"

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Paleontology Will be Twitterized...

Hey Fossil Fans,

Most of you probably don't know it, but I'm on Twitter. Twitter's a great way to waste time and stay connected with people, but I've been finding it hard to find people with similar interests to mine. I guess the majority of Twitterites aren't madly live-twittering the latest paleontology news.

Anyway, if any of you, my dear readership, are on Twitter, my username is Trilobitten, and I would be happy to add you to my "followed" list. Right now, I chat it up with online marketers, coffee drinkers, etc.

So join me on Twitter, and we'll have meaningful, deep conversations about paleontology... in 140 characters or less.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Brief History of Death (Cuvier and Catastrophism)

"All of these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to me to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe. " ~ Georges Cuvier

One could easily imagine that it came as a nasty shock to the public when Georges Cuvier presented his paper on living and fossilized elephants in 1796. The paper demonstrated that woolly mammoths constituted a distinct, and indeed extinct, species, rather than the preserved remains of African or Indian elephants that had migrated to the tropics because of cooling climate.

This hardly jived with the thinking of the day, that God's creation was perfect, and that no species could ever go extinct. But apparently, Cuvier was not satisfied with the damage he had already done. He became increasingly convinced that most of the fossils he studied where of extinct creatures.

Cuvier contended that earth had gone through a number of periods, characterized by different faunas, and separated by a series of cataclysmic natural disasters. He postulated that, since a great number of species would be wiped out by an extinction, or "revolution," as he referred to them, a creation event must follow each extinction.

This view rose out of his opposition to the evolutionary theory proposed by his colleague at the Académie des Sciences, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His view was later championed by Richard Owen, of the British Museum of Natural History, after Darwin published Origin of Species.

Anti-evolution views aside, Cuvier is notable for first asserting that extinction existed as a phenomena, and thus virtually founding the modern study of paleontology. He also suggested that there had been a time when reptiles were the dominant group on earth, an idea confirmed by the discoveries of the next century.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Trouble with the Internet...

... is that no matter what you do, someone has done it before you, and done it better. This is a followup to my Megalosaurus post from yesterday. Firstly, I have a youtube video. This video, "Tribute to Megalosaurus," shows a lot more reconstructions than I did, even including some I was never able to find online. It's a cool vid, and is a nice expansion on the points I made in my post.

Next, I should probably mention that me and Brian over at Laelaps seem to think in a similar way. He was posting about avian evolution at the same time as my three-part post, and right after I did my bit on Megalosaurus, I found out he'd been blogging about it too.

His post goes over some of the problems with the Megalosaurus genus, rising from the fact that Megalosaurus is only known by a few bone fragments. Give it a look at Laelaps, cool stuff!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Evolution of PaleoArt Part II: Megalosaurus

Hey Fossil Fans,

I did a post a while ago about how PaleoArt has evolved over time, as our understanding of ancient creatures has improved. I used a great example, Iguanodon to illustrate this point. This post will explore the Megalosaurus in the same way.

Conveniently, a statue of Megalosaurus was created at the same time, and for the same purpose, as the Iguanodon statue I started with last time. Notice the four-legged gait. We will see just how wrong this is in a bit.

Getting a little warmer in this lithograph, circa 1905. Here there seems to be at least an attempt at getting the anatomical aspect of the creature right. Not great, but at least it's not an iguana with a different head.

Well, I couldn't find any other "transitional" reconstructions of Megalosaurus, so here we've moved up to the most modern form, circa 2002. I don't think I have to say much about how wrong the early depictions were!

But there are reasons why early depictions were so strange. Firstly, and especially in the case of Megalosaurus, only fragments of the skeleton were found. Benjamin W. Hawkins was going off almost nothing in his sculpture. In fact, not enough full skeletons had been found to give any real idea of what the dinosaur body looked like. Therefore, Hawkins made the assumption that that they were simply glorified lizards.

It's hard to imagine a time when so little was known, but in the early days, paleoartists were literally flying blind.

Monday, March 17, 2008

"Cultural Depictions of Dinosaurs," I should have known.

Hey Fossil Fans,

A while ago I did an article about paleoart, and how depictions of various creatures have changed with our understanding of dinosaurs and to a certain extent our culture.

Well, I should have known that, where I go, Wikipedia has already been. For people who were interested in my little piece, check out Cultural depictions of dinosaurs at Wikipedia.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Life Strikes Again...

Hey Fossil Fans,

Sorry about the lack of an update yesterday. Life once again interfered in my affairs, and I didn't have time to write anything worth posting. Heck, I couldn't even find a decent youtube video.

Anyway, I've got some housekeeping to do today, so let's get on with it!

First, I'd like to share some blogs, which are much more popular than I am, but if you happen to have never seen them, have a look! Eventually I'll get a real live blogroll going, but for now, here are my top 5, in no particular order:

So there you have it, the cream of the crop. If you actually found my blog before these ones... wow.

And by the way, I have some bigger articles and other exciting things coming to this blog in the near future, so stay tuned!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dinosaur Provincial Park, A Happy Place

We happy residents of Canada have a great many really cool places we can go to see a variety of different, reasonably untouched areas of nature. One such place in Dinosaur Provincial Park.

Located in southern Alberta in the Red Deer river valley, Dinosaur Provincial Park, a World Heritage Site, is one of the richest fossil beds in the world. The 39 species of dinosaurs that have been found in the park are a remarkably diverse group, including Dromeosaurs, Hadrosaurs, Ankylosaurs, and many more.

And of course, I've camped there, in the campsite run by Alberta Parks. It is one of the best campsites I've ever visited, so if you're in the area, or can get to the area, I would highly recommend staying there.

And while you're at it, visit the Royal Tyrrel Museum, which I have posted about many times before.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fossil Preparation

Here is a great video showing the preparation of a really stunning Moroccan trilobite. Probably not the most exciting video for non-fossil fans, but it does show the amount of work that goes into revealing the details of fossils.

Speaking of such things, lately I've been considering starting my own modest collection of trilobite specimens. Alas, fossils are not cheap!

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Special Announcement!

Hey Fossil Fans,

As most of you know all too well, I run Trilobite Clothing, over at I like to put in a plug for myself every once in a while on my blog. In fact, you may have noticed that the very URL I chose is a plug for my store.

But tonight I am unveiling a project I've been working on for some time. It is being unveiled here before anywhere else, the online equivalent of a world premiere!

Ladies and Gentleman, I am pleased to announce, the "Making News" campaign!

A few months ago, I got in touch with Roger Smith, the owner of, a really wonderful webzine, that features all the latest and greatest Paleontology news. Roger runs Dinosaurnews completely nonprofit, and I started wondering what I could do to help. We started throwing around the idea of a fundraiser, to help support Dinosaurnews, and help it to reach an even broader audience.

Thus, "Making News" was born. I designed the logo you see above, which is meant to reflect the exciting pace of new discoveries in the field of Paleontology. Profits from the articles of clothing in the Making News section will be donated to!

So why not pick up a high quality shirt, and help of spread the news? And if you support the cause, why not post about it in your blog? Together, we can raise awareness about paleontology!

What are you waiting for? Visit

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Wherefore Art Thou, PaleoArtist?

Duria Antiquior, By Henry De le Beche

As long as there has been paleontology (or maybe longer), there have been artistic interpretations. Naturally, these have evolved with our knowledge of the creatures of the past.

Actually, artistic depictions are a great way to trace our understanding of various creatures. On that note, one example stands out.

First up, Iguanodon, first discovered in 1822. We can use various works of art to trace the progression of not only our understanding of Iguanodon, but also the progression of our understanding of Paleontology in general. early depictions of Iguanodon were basically Iguanas blown up to massive proportions. Here is a set of statues that stand today on Sydenham Hill, but were commissioned for the Crystal Palace, and unveiled in 1854.

by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins

Moving Forward to the 1895, we can see that a great deal has changed in the depiction of Iguanodon. In this depiction, it is far more upright, and less Iguana-like.

by Alice B. Woodward

Now we'll jump forward about sixty years, and see how far we've come. Iguanodon is more refined than before, and the anatomy is understood better.

by Neave Parker

Now we'll move to a recent picture. Look at the huge difference from the early depictions!

by Chris Srnka and Jeff Poling

So let this be a lesson to PaleoArtists, myself included. Don't get too attached to the current "incarnation" of any dinosaur!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Announcing... Avian Evolution!

Hey Fossil Fans,

I actually meant to add this to the end of Part 3 of the avian evolution series, but I couldn't bear to make the post even longer. The idea for this one came while writing the series, and is based partly on the famous human evolution design. But you'll notice that the dinosaurs seem pretty keen on squabbling with each other. In fact, the little bird at the end seems a little ticked off about the whole thing, and is averting his eyes. Check out the design at Trilobite Clothing.

Ostrom, Deinonychus, and the Dinosaurs of Yixian (Part 3 of 3)

Even if you despise science, and hate palaeontology with special fervour, you have probably noticed that these days, pretty much everyone accepts that birds descended from dinosaurs. You may have also noticed that a large number of theropods are now regularly depicted with feathers. You probably looked at your calendar realized that it wasn’t April Fools Day, and wondered what was going on. How did this epiphany come about?

In the last post, I went over the Thecodont hypothesis, its inherent weakness as a scientific theory, and its wide and unquestioned acceptance. Well, in science, the status quo is never safe forever. Enter John H. Ostrom.

Ostrom was a paleontologist working at Yale University. In 1969, he published a groundbreaking description of Deinonychus antirrhopus (Osteology of Deinonychus antirrhopus, an unusual theropod from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana ), a Cretaceous dromeosaur first discovered in Montana in 1931. In Osteology of Deinonychus, Ostrom noted 22 similarities between Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx, the “first bird.” This served to re-ignite the debate on bird origins, and Ostrom followed up his work with several more publications during the 1970’s, culminating in another major work in 1976 (Archaeopteryx and the origin of birds).

There were other theories emerging at the same time to challenge Ostrom’s hypothesis. In 1972, Alick Walker, published an article proposing the crocodylomorph hypothesis (New light on the origin of birds and crocodiles) , connecting birds with Crocodylomorphs, a group of crocodiles and reptiles closely related to them. However, Walker was only ever able to find 15-20 similarities between Crocodylomorphs and birds, compared to an eventual 70 or more similarities with theropod dinosaurs.

The road to acceptance of the newly re-emerging theory of bird origins proved to be rocky. In 1985, Astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle claimed that the discovery of Archaeopteryx in Germany had actually been an elaborate hoax, with feathers having been imprinted in the rock around real reptilian skeletons after their discovery. However, further discoveries and testing of the Berlin and London specimens proved Hoyle’s claim groundless.

The floodgates having been opened, research into the connection between birds and dinosaurs began. In 1986, Jacques Gauthier, a curator of the Peabody museum at Yale, published a detailed cladistic analysis of theropod dinosaurs. His results upheld John Ostrom’s earlier work. He concluded that, while crocodiles were the closest living relative of birds, extinct theropod dinosaurs were, in fact, much more closely related. This helped sink Alick Walker’s Crocodylomorph hypothesis.

Although evidence for the bird dinosaur link was mounting, it was not until the mid to late 1990’s that acceptance of the hypothesis became widespread in the public. In 1996, rumours began to spread about a dinosaur named sinosauropteryx, discovered in the Yixian fossil formation, in northeastern China. Then, at the 1996 meeting of Vertebrate Palaeontologists at the American Museum of Natural History, the secret was revealed.

Sinosauropteryx wasn’t actually on the agenda, but Phil Currie, then of the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller Alberta, had brought pictures. The palaeontology community was on fire. In 1998, Ji Qiang, Phil Currie, Mark Norrell and Ji Shu-An published their findings in Two feathered dinosaurs from northeastern China. Phil Currie called the China finds “the most important dinosaur discovery of this century," and continued, "the credibility of the dinosaur-to-birds theory takes a gigantic leap ahead with these specimens."

As the flow of new specimens from Yixian continued, other research further reinforced the dinosaur-bird connection. In 1999, a group of researchers published a paper (Beta-keratin specific immunological reactivity in feather-like structures of the Cretaceous Alvarezsaurid, Shuvuuia deserti) announcing that, through chemical analysis, they had determined that the feather-like structures on Shuvuuia deserti, a Cretaceous theropod, were similar in composition to the feathers of modern birds. They had found the decay products of the protein Beta-Keratin, a major component of modern feathers, in the fossilized feathers of Shuvuuia deserti. Further strengthening the find was the lack of Alpha-Keratin, found in reptile skin, but not in the feathers of modern birds.

In 2005, Mary Higby Schweitzer of North Carolina State University announced that she and her team had recovered preserved soft tissue from the femur of a Tyrannosaurus recovered from the Hell Creek formation in Montana. In 2007 Schweitzer‘s team announced that they had sequenced a protein from the soft tissue. Analysis showed that it most closely resembled chicken collagen, followed by proteins found in frogs and newts. The team also found medullary tissue, grown inside the bones of female birds as a source of calcium for eggshell production.

The theory that birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs is now widely accepted in the world of palaeontology. That isn’t to say that there is no dissent. Alan Feduccia, a paleornithologist from the University of North Carolina. Feduccia claims that birds and theropods evolved from the same, common ancestor. One particular element of dinosaur-bird evolution he is critical of is the ground-up development of flight.

However, let us reflect back for a moment on the evidence we have seem supporting the hypothesis. The inherent similarities between birds and theropods are backed up by a growing mountain of physical and chemical evidence. The debate on bird origins is not really over, but perhaps somewhere, a fat lady is warming up for an upcoming performance.

This is part two of a three part series on the history of research into the link between birds and theropod dinosaurs. This is by far the longest section, dealing with the re-emergence of the theropod origin hypothesis.


Dino-Birds - The Evolution of Birds from Dinosaurs -
Yale Bulletin -
The origin and evolution of birds -
Wikipedia: Tyrannosaurus -
Wikipedia: Alick Walker -
The Life of Birds -
Welcome to Dinotopia -
NYT: Reptiles’ Link to Birds May be Settled -
Wikipedia: Jacques Gauthier -
T.Rex Soft Tissue Preserved -
Review of Ostrom’s Studies of Archaeopteryx -
Wikipedia: Shuvuuia -
Wikipedia: Feathered Dinosaurs -
Did Birds Evolve from Dinosaurs? -
John H. Ostrom, Influential Paleontologist, Is Dead at 77 -
EvoWiki: J. Alan Feduccia -

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dinosaurs Aren’t Birds, Clavicles Don't Lie! (Part 2 of 3)

Even if you despise science, and hate palaeontology with special fervour, you have probably noticed that these days, pretty much everyone accepts that birds descended from dinosaurs. You may have also noticed that a large number of theropods are now regularly depicted with feathers. You probably looked at your calendar realized that it wasn’t April Fools Day, and wondered what was going on. How did this epiphany come about?

We ended part one with Thomas Huxley crushing Richard Owen’s reputation, and riding high with his cohorts on a wave of dinosaur-bird theories. However, trouble was appearing on the horizon, in the form of Gerhard Heilmann, a Danish doctor-turned-artist-turned-palaeontologist.

Heilmann became interested in birds, and between 1913 and 1916, published a series of articles on the evolution of birds in Dansk Ornitologisk Forenings Tidskrift (Journal of the Danish Ornithological Society). These were collected, and Vor Nuværende Viden om Fuglenes Afstamning was published in 1916. In 1926, an English version was published, under the name Origin of Birds.

Heilmann agreed with earlier work that demonstrated striking similarities between theropods and modern birds, but threw the proverbial wrench into the works. He asserted (incorrectly), that theropods did not have clavicles, the bones that fuse together in birds to form the wishbone. Since earlier reptiles had possessed clavicles, Heilmann assumed that theropods had lost them through evolution, and, according to Dollo’s Law, would not be able to re-evolve them.

Therefore, he concluded, birds must have evolved from earlier reptiles. He declared them descendants of Thecodont reptiles, a “Wastebasket Taxon” that existed mainly for reptiles that didn’t fit neatly into any of the categories palaeontologists had established. For Heilmann, it was clavicles or bust. The number of striking similarities between birds and theropods were chalked up to evolutionary convergence.

Scientists loved Heilmann’s work. It was detailed, and methodical. The hypothesis laid out in Origin of Birds formed the basis of the next five decades of thought on the origin of birds. This period was apparently not the height of scientific thought. For instance, the discovery in 1936 of clavicles on Segisaurus, a theropod, didn’t put a dent in the Thecodont hypothesis.

In fact, no compelling evidence existed for the Thecodont hypothesis, but it was very difficult to disprove, because of the nature of the Thecodont group. Because it is a “Wastebasket Taxon,” its members are not bound together by a set of similarities, but simply by the fact that they don’t fit into any other group. Therefore, there are no reasonable criteria to use in comparing modern birds and Thecondonts.

This made the Thecodont hypothesis a good fallback as soon as any doubts were raised about a different, more testable, theory. It was a very safe position to have, and for almost fifty years, palaeontologists largely stuck with it.

This is part two of a three part series on the history of research into the link between birds and theropod dinosaurs. Part three will be posted tomorrow.


Wikipedia: Dollo’s Law -'s_law
Dino-Bird Relationships -
The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds -
Wikipedia: Thecodont -

Good Gracious, My Meal is a Theropod! (Part 1 of 3)

Even if you despise science, and hate palaeontology with special fervour, you have probably noticed that these days, pretty much everyone accepts that birds descended from dinosaurs. You may have also noticed that a large number of theropods are now regularly depicted with feathers. You probably looked at your calendar realized that it wasn’t April Fools Day, and wondered what was going on. How did this epiphany come about?

Our story starts very close to Darwin, as these stories have a nasty habit of doing. It starts with Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s famous “Bulldog,” who, after a long day of puzzling over a strange dinosaur bone (located under the tibia), went home to a dinner of tender, delectable quail.

Take a moment to imagine his shock when he noticed that his repast had the same, strange bone underneath the tibia as the dinosaur he’d been studying, which turned out to be the anklebone. Huxley then theorized that birds descended from dinosaurs.

It is a great story, but like most great stories, it probably isn’t true. Archaeopteryx, the famous “first bird,” was discovered in 1861, and was immediately suspected to be a link between birds and dinosaurs. However, it was purchased in 1862 by the British Museum of Natural History. Richard Owen, superintendent of the museum, and fervent opponent of evolution, was keen to get his hands on it and put his own, anti-Darwinist spin on the find. He concluded it was simply an “ancient, long-tailed bird.”

Thomas Huxley, however, wasn’t convinced. Between 1862 and 1867, he researched living birds, and published, in 1867, a complete reclassification of birds, which alleged a reptile-bird link (On the Classification of Birds; and on the Taxonomic Value of the Modifications of Certain of the Cranial Bones Observable in That Class). We don’t know when (or if) the “quail” incident actually happened. But, it’s nice to think that the lowly quail had at least something to do with it.

What is clear is that, later on in 1867, Huxley was shown the misidentified hip bone of a Megalosaurus, and, upon correctly placing it, was struck by its similarities with living birds that he had studied. Any doubt about the tenuous connections he had drawn in On the Classification of Birds was washed away.

In 1868 Huxley gave a lecture at the Royal Institution about archaeopteryx. In a single talk, he demonstrated the link between dinosaurs and birds, and tore Richard Owen’s “ancient bird” theory to shreds.

It should be noted that Huxley was not alone in supporting this theory. Othniel Marsh, of Bone Wars fame, was also an early proponent of the dinosaur-bird connection. Marsh also was one of the earliest American intellectuals to adopt the theory of evolution. In fact, Marsh and Huxley were quite close and in writing an obituary of Huxley, Marsh described him as “a guide, philosopher, and friend.” Another supporter was Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, an Albanian Baron and palaeontologist.

This is part one of a three part series on the history of research into the link between birds and theropod dinosaurs. Look for parts two and three, to be posted tomorrow and the day after.


Wikipedia: Franz Nopcsa -
Wikipedia: Origin of Birds -
Huxley’s Bibliography -
Dinosaurs and Birds -
Dino-Birds - The Evolution of Birds from Dinosaurs -
Wikipedia: Thomas Huxley -
Wikipedia: Othniel Marsh -

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Deus Ex... What?

After careful study of the ending of the original (and arguably the only good) Jurassic Park movie, I have decided that slapping it on the wrist by labelling it an obvious Deus Ex Machina is simply not enough. That velociraptor is in the air, when the massive T.Rex snatches it cleanly in mid-flight. Where the lumbering beast came from we aren't sure. I guess without glasses of water handy, nobody can feel its approach.

Anyways, I pronounce this scene a Deus Ex Tyrannosaur, which I think better describes the situation. As a general rule, in reality, T.Rexs don't appear inside buildings to snatch velociraptors mid leap, saving the heroes.

Needless to say though, it makes for compelling entertainment.

Trilobites and Me...

Hey Fossil Fans,

For those of you who are perhaps not as enamoured with trilobites as I am, it may seem odd that I run a blog and a clothing store about a creature that went extinct several million years ago. Well, I think it's really several things.

The first thing to understand is that I'm a paleontology nut in general, and I have been since a very young age. A lot of your probably wanted to be a movie star, or an astronaut, or something like that when you were young. For me, the first career I ever wanted was paleontology. Ironically, that's not really were I'm headed in life, but the fascination has remained.

So I'm a fossil nut in general, but what got me zoomed in on trilobites? Well, a few things. I had started Trilobite Clothing before I became really interested in Trilobites. I was checking out the features of, and I needed a logo and a name for my store. I have absolutely no memory of why I chose the trilobite as my mascot. I'd always thought trilobites were cool, but maybe it was a deep subconcious longing that lead me to the name Trilobite Clothing.

Anyways, after setting up a free Cafepress store, I abandoned it for over a year, as I simplyy couldn't get my head around the marketing of it. Anyways, during the summer of 2007, I visited the Royal Tyrrel Museum in Drumheller Alberta. Everything in the Museum is stunning, but the most impressive thing I saw was a new display of stunning trilobite specimens, mainly from Morocco. This really got me interested, and as I evolved quickly into a rabid trilobite fan, I remembered my old store, Trilobite Clothing, just sitting there, ready to go.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Just as a note though, I marvel quite frequently at the level to which my love of trilobites is connected to my store. Running the store keeps me connected with like-minded people, and up on the latest news. You wouldn't really think that a business would define a person so much, but in my case, it has.

Long live the Trilobite!