A few cheetah-speed* notes

It is now  ~three weeks since I started this blog, and I thought I could give you some quick notes and some insights on what is to come:

  • This week I decided to skip the Terra Nova review. Apparently the dinosaur budget ran out and the last episode was all about littlegirlsaurus. For those still eager, the Bad Astronomer posted his Terra Nova review. In this case the focus is, obviously, on the astronomy depicted by the show (specifically the size of the moon and position of the stars).

  • This came in via James: Terra Nova drinking game. Take a drink when:

Someone leaves compound when they are not supposed to,
Blood and guts in the infirmary,
Teen boy acts put out,
Sixers face off with Novans,
Dinosaurs don’t die when shot with heavy weaponry,
Legless man shows up and says something pithy.

Die of alcohol poisoning.

(I am a health professional so I don’t endorse drinking a shot at each Terra Nova cliche. How about.. eating a vegetable instead?)

Iguana at the National Zoo, photo by the author

  • The Iguana above is not a dinosaur, but after I went to the Smithsonian National Zoo last Sunday, I have a lot to report. Coming up in future posts.

House episode - Transplant

  • This screen shot is a teaser for the review I am preparing of last week’s episode of House, named “Transplant”. I got so caught on the research that I decided to make into a larger post and interview a thoracic surgeon. My sister (the other, actually the first, Dr. Russo in the family) is also collaborating on this post.

  • I am compiling a list of Science, geek and sci-fi Halloween costumes. (Pixar lamp via Marina). It is growing a bit large and I might divide it into two parts. It might help whoever still lacks in ideas..

That’s it for now, coming back tomorrow with more.

*the cheetah is the fastest land animal and can run up to 75 mph!


Bavarian baby dino

I don’t mean to make this blog all about dinosaurs, but I saw this one on the news and couldn’t resist.

The image above was originally published by the german press on Der Spiegel, and later posted on the Nature News blog. It shows an almost complete fossil of a juvenile theropod (same subgroup of the T.rex but this species is still unknown) found by Oliver Rauhut  of Bavarian paleontological and ecological collections (BSPF) in Munich, Germany.

The paper describing this specimen has not been released yet, so the only information available comes from the press release above.  Apparently it was also presented as part of the conference IV Congresso Latinoamericano: Paleontologia de Vertebrados that took place in San Juan, Argentina, last month. Listed in the presentation schedule is the following talk: “Rauhut, I. & Foth, C. New information on Late Jurassic Theropod dinosaurs from Southern Germany”.

The Der Spiegle article mentions imprints of skin and protofeathers. (Curiosly, the international press divulged it as “fur”, from a german word incorrectly translated.) Many theropods are known to have had protofeathers, all belonging to the subgroup named coelurosaurs. If this specimen proves to be part of a different subgroup, it might imply the presence of feather-like structures in many other theropods. The identification of this species of theropod might prove tricky: in the past, many fossils that were named as new species turned out to be juvenile versions of previously known creatures.

Younger versions of many dinosaurs have been found, for example, a juvenile fossil of T-rex (nicknamed “Jane”) is much smaller than well known adult skeletons (such as “Sue”).

Model of T rex growth by Hutchinson et al (2011)

The image above comes from a paper by Hutchinson et al (2011),  where the authors study the muscular growth that accompanies a T. rex, based on known skeletons from Jane, Sue and others. Besides the taller stature, Sue has a much bulkier torso and thighs when compared to Jane.

Will the bavarian dinosaur prove to be a juvenile version of a known theropod – in which growth and size relationships can be speculated like the study above – or a completely new species?

It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s a Terra Nova Pterosaur

Quetzalcoatlus from paleoartist Mark Witton.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to watch Terra Nova. What a change: two weeks ago I was anxiously waiting for it in front of the TV; last night, however, husband and I debated watching House instead.

Even though I was willing to overlook the flaws on the first episode (read about the excitement here), the plot and the storyline keep getting worse. James Poniewozik accurately described it, for Time magazine, as being written by a 5-year old boy:  “I want to make a TV show about the future! It will have lasers and guns and computers and time travel! And but ALSO they are living in a jungle, and the bad people want to take them over! There’s an army guy and a policeman, and they catch the bad guys! AND!!! DINOSAURS!!!

So I will stick to what I like about this show, which is its collection of dinosaurs. Last week’s episode of Terra Nova seemed to be inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds and showed us a flock of pterosaurs terrorizing the colony.

Pterosaur from Terra Nova

It might sound counter intuitive, but pterosaurs are NOT dinosaurs.  Pterosaurs are flying reptiles from the Cretaceous period. (The dinosaur group includes reptiles with erect posture and birds). This image from the Smithsonian blog Dinosaur Tracking can better illustrate this relationship:

(by Brian Switek)

I would also like to quote Brian Switek when he says “A pterosaur is no more a dinosaur than a goldfish is a shark”. That being said, the pterosaur is the first vertebrate to achieve flight. This group also contain the largest flying animals on earth, such as the Quetzalcoatlus on top of this post. His neck alone was 10 feet long, and its wingspan was at least 40 feet (compare to an average human on Mark Witton’s illustration above).

Pteranodon by paleoartist Larry Felder

Perhaps the most well known species of pterosaurs is the Pterodactylus. This fossil skeleton was the first to be found and catalogued. Pteranodons like the illustration above starred in Jurassic Park, however, they had many inaccuracies. Pterosaurs in movies, like Jurassic Park, or the undiscovered species on Terra Nova, are usually portrayed with scaly, leathery wings as opposed to having a very muscular flying membrane covered in fur or feathers.

Other features are also misrepresented, such as presence of teeth (pteranodons lacked teeth). One of the most irritating inaccurate representation of pterosaurs is still the wing attachment. Even though there is some discussion in regards to the shape and attachment of wings, the main consensus is that they were attached to the animal’s ankles, due to grooves found in those bones.

Pterosaur wing shapes and attachment, image from Elgin et al. provided by Dave Hone.

Was anyone able to see how the wings were attached on the Terra Nova pterosaurs? Did they get it right? Given that these creatures are grey, gloomy, lizard-like versions of the fantastic and diverse group of pterosaurs, I’m not willing to bet on that…

Dogs on Ice

(Shakespeare the dog and team, Frank Hurley 1915)

“What’s with the dogs scanned from a newspaper?” asked my sister in regards to the header of this blog.  As it turns out, it is not a scanned picture from a newspaper but a very old photograph.

Dogs were taken to Antartica in the early 20th century expeditions. Antartica, being the last continent to be conquered, had inspired a race where many nations tried to reach latitude 90°S first. England and the Royal Geographical Society have sponsored many of those expeditions, one which was captained by Ernest Shackleton in the ship Endurance.

(Dr. Leonard Hussey and Samson, members of the Endurance expedition. Photo by Frank Hurley, 1915)

The expeditions were manned by a crew of of both sailors and scientists. Besides the political interests in reaching the south pole, the expeditions were also meant as scientific exploration. Biologists, geologists, zoologists and meteorologists were all aboard, and performed experiments in the antarctic waters, weather, and creatures. From the local fauna, the Endurance and other expeditions (such as Terra Nova, Captain Scott’s ship that sailed to Antarctica in 1914, and not the Spielberg show) studied Emperor Penguins, birds bigger than my german shepherd.

(Frank Hurley)

Among Endurance’s crew was photographer Frank Hurley, who documented the journey. His job was not purely scientific or journalistic, but also commercial: to obtain funds for the trip, Shackleton pre-sold the rights to books, films, photographs and advertisement. Hurley and the crew had to make sure sponsored products were photographed. One very amusing photograph, and my favorite from the Antarctica advertisements, was taken by Herbert Ponting on the Terra Nova (below, a little askew after I scanned it from Ponting’s book). Before the formula-1 jumpsuits covered in ads, there was Dr. Hooper and his can of heinz beans:

(Hooper photographed by Herbert Ponting in 1911 on the Terra Nova expedition)

Dogs were not the only animals brought to Antartica for transportation. Capitan Scott from Terra Nova and Captain Shackleton also took poneys (are ponies making a comeback?).

(Oates and ponies by Herbert Ponting, 1910-1912)

But… that didn’t work out so well. The poneys were sliding in the ice (imagine skater ponies), were easily spooked by seals, and had to be warmed up from the cold by drinking whyskey. (True story. Perhaps the Antarctica ponies deserve a blog post on its own). Scandinavian explorers (such as Roald Amundsen, the norweigian capitain who managed to reach the pole before the Englishman) already knew dogs were the most efficient on ice, and brought extra huskies.

(Crean and Bones the Pony, by Herbert Ponting, October 1911)

In both dog sled images above ( the one on the blog header and the one on the top of the post), the first dog  is named Shakespeare; the leader of that sled team. Next to Shakespeare is his brother Bob, and following is Rugby, Rufus, Sailor, Hackenschmidt, Noel, Jerry and Martin, one team out of many. My favorite Antartica dog photographs though is the one where sailor Crean holds an Antartica-born litter of puppies:

(Crean and puppies, Frank Hurley 1915)

I wish I was able to collect these growing up..

My Little Pony Alien, Predator and Cthulu. All and more by artist Mari Kasurinen, who also preferred sci-fi to Barbies.

(Pony links via Mike!)

Creating dinosaurs: why is Terra Nova reinventing the wheel?

Is there a Stargate in Terra Nova? And since when is building a Stargate, setting up a colony on the other end (consider shipping costs of sending materials and supplies through the wormhole), and operating it several times to send people over, cheaper than finding solutions to environmental problems?

If I can ignore that aspect, then yes, I can have a lot of fun watching Spielberg’s new TV show for FOX, Terra Nova. I’ve been waiting for a new source of sci-fi for a while. The adventurous, utopia kind, where the heroes run around with an orchestra soundtrack… We’ve been flooded with the chaotic-montrous-mutant-creature-hiding-in-bulkheads and I was ready for a change (nothing wrong with the horror type of sci-fi, it is actually one of my favorite genres; but I missed the pretty scenarios and rambunctious characters in shows such as Star Trek or Star Wars).

Besides, there are dinosaurs.

Watching animated dinosaurs is what makes me the most excited about this show, and let’s me forgive everything else. After all, the “stargate” is simply a trick to allow Spielberg to use dinosaurs again. I love to watch them running around, full of moving muscles and articulations – quite distant from assembled bones in a museum..

(Slasher from Terra Nova)

That said, Terra Nova has Brachiosaurus and Carnotaurus, but also.. “Slashers”. It is clear there was an attempt to recreate the gang of velociraptors (which were a giant sized and smart version of a deinonychus) from Jurassic park. Even the terrorizing sequence where children hide from velociraptors in the kitchen is payed homage (copied?) in Terra Nova, where kids are rattled around inside a car surrounded by slashers. It does pain me that the creators of the show had to design a completely fictional dinosaur, where so many interesting, curious and terrifying ones already exist. The slasher is a nickname for the (also fictitious) “Acceraptor”, outfitted with a bladed tail and a head crest of feathers..

Speaking of feathers…

Deinonychus model

… I would love to see a feathered dinosaur on TV. Since the 90’s, when fossils of feathered dinosaurs were found in China, it’s been a consensus that many theropods (like T-Rex or deinonychus) had feathers. The way I see a T-Rex is a like a giant chicken, as opposed to a godzilla-type reptile! Apparently Jurassic Park had the choice of using feathered arms on their velociraptors, but refused, afraid to disappoint the audience who expected giant lizards – not chickens.

But I digress. Is Terra Nova reinventing the wheel? Stargating its world, Avataring its military , Jurassic Parking its creatures – also, didn’t the first scene look like a pop version of the first scene in Inglorious Basterds?  – and creating brand new models of dinosaurs… It might, but what is left is still enough to keep me watching, one episode (erm, dinosaur) at a time.

Megalodon – the Dinosaur of Sharks

(Cris and Megalodon at the San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)

Sharks do not have a bony skeleton. The only trace of shark that survives a fossil to tell its story, is the shark’s teeth.

A shark’s skeleton is made of cartilage, the same material that forms our nose and ears. All of that soft material disintegrates with time, leaving not much to be fossilized. The only bone in a shark’s body is its teeth. Fossilized teeth have been found and constitute evidence of sharks existence for as far as 400 million years ago.

One type of tooth, as large as the palm of your hand, is a fossil of Carcharodon megalodon, sometimes dubbed the white shark of the pre-historic oceans. Because there is no other trace of Megalodon’s body, many museums assemble a model jaw, based on the size of the tooth.

(Megalodon jaw, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2005)

For scale, you can see how it measures up near the Smithsonian guide on the Highlight tour last week.

(Another Megalodon jaw, Smithsonian, 2011)

Considering the jaw size, the entire animal should measure up to one of our modern whales, perhaps 50 feet long and weighing 50 tons (the equivalent of ten elephants stacked, imagine that). Models have been created in several museums, including the one I photographed at the San Diego Natural History Museum a while ago.

(Megalodon at San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)

My favorite prop, while volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium, was a replica of a Megalodon tooth. I used it to bait (no pun intended) the children, who in turn would be fascinated by these enormous sea creatures. The kids named it “the dinosaur shark”, even though the Megalodon is much younger than dinosaurs: they swam our oceans 20 million years ago. Luckily to our surfers, they are extinct.. but they teeth persist to enthrall children and adults alike.

(Megalodon at San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)