Tag Archives: dinosaurs

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…

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)

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: Highlight Tour

Ammonite at the National Museum of Natural History

One of the perks of living in the DC area is the free access to the Smithsonians, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) being one of my favorites. I am obsessed with Natural History museums, aquarium and zoos anywhere. While I lived in Florida, I visited the Georgia Aquarium at the neighboring state no less than three times and I still miss my weekly volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium. So last week I decided to take advantage of events offered by the NMNH, so I stopped by for a Highlight Tour.

Experiencing the museum on a Friday feels completely different  – I’ve been there a few times already, during the summer and always on weekends. This time there was no crowds (perhaps only the occasional tourist). There was plenty of room to walk and photograph, and silence to take it all in.

Highlight Tour at the Sant Ocean Hall

I got there a little earlier, so I decide to go to the Sant Ocean Hall exhibit and photograph ammonites (crazy pre-historic shelled invertebrates!) while I waited. Suddenly I see a gathering of about ten people, guided by a museum volunteer, entering the Hall. She was a very energetic lady (wearing red in the pictures), so I  immediately abandoned the ammonite and tagged along.

The first part of the tour focused on the new Sant Ocean Hall, which is their largest exhibit, and was created in a partnership with NOAA (National Oceanic and atmospheric administration) and a must see, according to my supervisor at the Seattle Aquarium. We were shown to an ammonite fossil; megalodon teeth (the dinosaur equivalent of a shark); an Architeuthis, or, giant squid, specimen; and a model of a Right Whale. I plan to talk about all of those in future posts. In the second part of the tour, we were taken to the Dinosaur Hall, where our guide talked to us about their Triceratops fossil and how to assemble dinosaurs for display. The last part of the tour was upstairs, in the geology section, specifically about the Hope Diamond.

Sant Ocean Hall and the Right Whale model

It was about two hours that flew by, and barely covered half of the museum. I am definitely coming back for more tours. I hope I can catch the one on Human Origins and on Ice Age Mammals.

Highlight Tour