Dinosaurs and Barbarians

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Morrolepis

The Morrison Formation of the western United States is one of the most famous deposits of late Jurassic strata anywhere in the world. It is here that dinosaur fossils from famous species like Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and others were discovered and continue to be uncovered by paleontologists to this day. While the Morrison Formation is world-renowned for its superb dinosaur fossils, this landscape was home to many other species that dwelt here 150 million years ago. In addition to dinosaurs, fossils of pterosaurs, crocodiles, lizards, turtles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates have also been uncovered.

As you can see from the above list, there are many aquatic or semi-aquatic animals that are mentioned. This may sound bizarre because, as anyone who has even a vague knowledge of the Morrison Formation knows, this landscape was arid and dry for much of the year during the late Jurassic; click here for a video that talks about this. However, since fossilization is most likely to occur in areas that are prone to flooding, it would make sense that many of the fossils that we find come from creatures that made their homes in and around the water.

One of those creatures was Morrolepis, one of the fish species that lived in western North America during the Late Jurassic. Morrolepis belonged to a group of primitive fish called the palaeoniscoids, which superficially resemble something that you’d find in the deep ocean – very large eyes, short snout, big mouth, big snaggly teeth, and a general appearance that can be best described as “prehistoric”. The creature was officially named Morrolepis schaefferi in 1998 by Jim Kirkland, although there are other species of this genus that have been found elsewhere, notably in Europe. This creature only measured eight inches long, far larger than its contemporary, the minnow-sized Hulettia, but at the same time it was far smaller than its other major contemporary, the three-foot-long lungfish Ceratodus. By the way, lungfish were the most common fish found in the Morrison Formation. Being able to breathe when you’re out of water is very helpful if you live in a landscape that has a long dry season and is prone to droughts.

We know quite a bit about Morrolepis’ anatomy based upon the fossils that have been uncovered, but how would it have lived? We know from geology that Morrolepis’ remains were found inland. Therefore, it was not a marine species, but was instead a freshwater species. The Morrison Formation was, as said before, a largely dry area, but there were a few places where there were permanent sources of fresh water. The landscape was mostly flat, and rivers that flow through flat terrain usually flow very slowly because the incline of the land is barely noticeable. Moreover, flat-land rivers tend to be very wide but very shallow, unless they happen to be cutting through a gorge or ravine. So, it appears that Morrolepis was at home in standing or slow-moving water, such as ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers. Water bodies that are standing or slow-moving usually have a lot of aquatic vegetation. This is because seeds and spores of aquatic plants have a better chance of taking root and growing because the current won’t sweep them away, like in faster-moving streams and rivers. Therefore, in water bodies such as this, there is a sufficient amount of aquatic plants and algae. In some circumstances, the water might appear to be green due to the heavy concentration of algae (visit Kissena Park in Queens, New York if you don’t believe me; the lake there looks like pea soup). So, what we have so far is a slow-moving river that is wide but shallow, and probably has a fair amount of aquatic vegetation in it – ambush country.

Predatory fish that live in this type of environment are almost exclusively ambush predators, waiting under cover for prey to pass by too close, and then suddenly lunging forward and gobbling them up. Morrolepis had large eyes set close to the front of the head, ideal for spotting its prey. Also, if the water was indeed so thick with algae that it appeared to be dyed green, visibility would be very low. Large eyes would compensate for the murky water. A large mouth lined with noticeably long spiky teeth would seem to be a good go-to method for swallowing down small prey in water that had low visibility. With a gaping maw like that, even if your aim was not 100% accurate, you still stood a fair chance of catching your victim anyway. Unlike other palaeoniscoid fish, Morrolepis is distinctive for having large fins (most palaeoniscoids have small fins in proportion to body size), with the dorsal fin and the anal fin set back much closer towards the tail than in its relatives. Morrolepis’ tail was asymmetrical, resembling the tail of a sturgeon or a shark. In fact, the whole animal sort of resembles a modern deep sea shark in terms of its general body plan. Morrolepis appears to have had the body plan of a hoverer or a slow cruiser, being able to use its large tail for a powerful forward thrust. This is a feature of ambush predators like pikes and gars.

Due to the environment that it lived in, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine that Morrolepis was patterned in blotches or wavy stripes, and presumably would have been colored in various shades of tan, brown, and green to camouflage it in the murky muddy water and match the surrounding submerged vegetation.

I like to imagine Morrolepis as an ambush predator with good eyesight, and was likely covered in stripy or blotchy brown/green camouflage, which inhabited standing or slow-moving bodies of water. Below is a drawing that I have made of this creature. This illustration was made after consulting numerous photographs and scientific illustrations of Morrolepis fossils and comparing them with fossils of other palaeoniscoid fish. The drawing was made with a fine-tip black marker and colored pencils. Please provide any commentary or feedback below.

Harpactognathus

This is Harpactognathus, a rhamphorhynchid pterosaur from the Morrison Formation of the late Jurassic Period. It was one of the largest, if not THE largest, pterosaurs that called the Morrison Formation home. Although it is only known from fragmentary remains, including a large chunk of its upper jaw, paleontologists believe that Harpactognathus had an 8-foot wingspan, making it the size of an eagle. As to how long it would be, that’s uncertain. Rhamphorhynchids are known for having long tails, often ending in diamond-shaped or kite-shaped fins, which were likely brightly colored. Unfortunately, no remains of Harpactongathus’ tail have been found yet. Based upon the appearance of its skull, with long interlocking teeth resembling a Venus fly trap, it is almost certain that Harpactognathus was a fish-eater.

There have been numerous comparisons made over the years between Late Jurassic North America and the modern-day African savanna. Therefore, I decided to portray Harpactognathus with a color scheme similar to the African Fishing Eagle. This drawing was made with a combination of No. 2 pencil, No. 3 pencil, colored pencils, and markers.

Liopleurodon

The middle to late 19th Century can arguably be seen as the glory days of paleontology. While this time frame is often associated with the discovery of dinosaurs and the so-called “Bone Wars” of the American West, discoveries were also being made elsewhere during this time and concerning the remains of prehistoric life other than those creatures that inhabit every child’s fantasies.

Europeans had known about the fossilized remains of prehistoric marine life ever since the Middle Ages. In the superstitious societies of those times, shells of prehistoric mollusks were often believed to be the nails and horns of devils. During the late 18th Century, grander discoveries were made, notably by the English paleontologist Mary Anning. Due to the impressive finds made by her and others, creatures like ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs made their entrance into our collective knowledge of life.

During the middle 1800s, some isolated teeth were discovered in northern France. In 1873, these teeth were ascribed the name Liopleurodon, meaning “smooth-sided tooth” by the French paleontologist and biologist Henri Émile Sauvage. It was evident that the teeth belonged to a large prehistoric marine reptile, and it was established that this creature belonged to a group known as the pliosaurs, which had been named by Sir Richard Owen in the 1840s. The pliosaurs were close relatives of their more famous long-necked plesiosaur cousins; in fact, pliosaurs are sometimes referred to as “short-necked plesiosaurs”. The pliosaurs had the same general body plan as their plesiosaur relatives – a rounded stocky body with four large flippers and a short tail – but they had short muscular necks and long crocodile-like heads which were very large in proportion with their bodies. The pliosaurs seem to have emerged during the early Jurassic Period, and quickly rose to be apex predators of their environment. Some species, such as the eponymous Pliosaurus and its cousin Kronosaurus grew to be some of the largest marine reptiles in Earth’s history, with their size commonly stated to be 40 feet long, just as big as Tyrannosaurus rex.

The remains of Liopleurodon have been found in Britain, France, and Germany within rocks dated to the middle Jurassic/late Jurassic boundary, approximately 165-155 million years ago. Phylogenic analysis suggests that it was an advanced member of the pliosaur family. However, it was only half the size of its gargantuan relatives. Only partial remains of this animal have been discovered so far, so it is difficult to gauge an accurate size. However, the most common size estimates for Liopleurodon are between 20 to 25 feet in length. Even though it wasn’t as big as Pliosaurus or Kronosaurus, Liopleurodon was likely the top predator in the shallow sea that once covered Europe during the Jurassic Period.

Liopleurodon first came to my attention in 1994 when it was featured in issue #85 of Dinosaurs! magazine. In the article, it was mistakenly stated that it grew to be 39 feet (12 meters) long, a much larger size than the one it was likely in life. It was also portrayed, remarkably, as being mostly toothless except for a crescent of curved fangs extending from the front of both jaws.

Liopleurodon afterwards came to mass public attention in 1999 when it was featured in Episode 3 of the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs. In this TV show, the creature bears only a general resemblance to the real animal. Firstly, there was a drastic difference in size. As said earlier, many paleontologists think that Liopleurodon had a maximum size of 25 feet. However, in Walking With Dinosaurs, Liopleurodon was portrayed as being three times larger, measuring 80 feet long, a truly gargantuan size indeed! This inflated size estimate was based upon a single fragmentary specimen uncovered in Mexico which was attributed to Liopleurodon and was believed to represent a gigantic individual. Although the evidence was flimsy, the producers took this as a cue and exaggerated Liopleurodon’s size to absurd proportions, claiming that it was the largest marine reptile that ever lived – it wasn’t. Secondly, the head was the wrong shape, with it being given a much more curvaceous high-arched skull. In reality, the skull was much lower and flatter. Thirdly, the body proportions were incorrect. It was stated in the episode that Liopleurodon’s head measured one-fourth the total length of its body. However, an article from 2003 stated that it was likely that the head measured one-fifth the total length of its body. This would have made its head seem somewhat smaller in relation to its body.

A reconstructed Liopleurodon skeleton can be seen in the Museum of Paleontology in Tübingen, Germany – you can see a photo of it here. Granted, much of the skeleton is fictitious, since only partial remains of Liopleurodon have been found in Europe, so the blank spaces were filled in with reconstructions based upon what we know about pliosaur anatomy. The first thing that one is struck by is that it is obviously much, much smaller than the size given in Walking With Dinosaurs. The skull is also much flatter than you would expect. This might be due to compression caused by the fossilization process rather than being an accurate portrayal of its natural appearance. However, there are other pliosaur species that have flat crocodilian-like skulls, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. The front teeth in both jaws are enormous, while the majority of teeth that line its mouth were only one-half or one-third the size of the front teeth, and most of them are missing. This is probably the reason why Liopleurodon was portrayed as having only front teeth in a largely toothless mouth in the Dinosaurs! article. The front end of the lower jaw is noticeably spoon or scoop-shaped – it is pronounced in relation to the rest of the dentary bone, and it has an obvious upward swoop. Like the 2003 article states, the head isn’t as large in proportion with the rest of the body as the BBC series showed. The neck is longer, and it has a much more pot-bellied barrel chest. All in all, this looks very little like its representation in Walking With Dinosaurs. Given the character’s well-known imagery from that show, you might be forgiven in thinking that the specimen on display in the museum was actually a completely different species.

Finally comes the issue of color. Ever since its appearance on Walking With Dinosaurs, reconstructions of Liopleurodon, either two-dimensional images or rendered into three-dimensional sculptures and toys, have portrayed it with a piebald black-and-white color pattern. While the repeated use of this color scheme may seem to be becoming over-used to the point of being trite, there may be scientific foundation to it, since it was claimed in a scientific study that prehistoric marine reptiles were probably darkly-colored in order to absorb as much heat as possible. Furthermore, this color pattern has become widely recognizable as the most identifiable and therefore definitive Liopleurodon appearance, and this motif is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Seeing this reconstructed skeleton left an impression on me, and I decided to make a series of illustrations of what Liopleurodon would have looked like in real life. In contrast to my usual style, which is highly detailed and would take me weeks or even months to finish, I decided to knock out a few quick black-and-white line drawings made with an ordinary black ballpoint pen.

First is a basic line drawing showing how Liopleurodon would look as it swam through the Jurassic ocean.

Second is another line drawing showing the iconic Walking With Dinosaurs color pattern, rendered to look like something that you’d see in a coloring book.

Finally is a colorized portrayal showing the classic black-and-white piebald color pattern.

I realize that these pictures may not be what you’d expect, especially given our engrained perceptions of what we think Liopleurodon ought to look like based upon its appearance in WWD, but holy heck, look at the size of those front choppers!!! It looks like something out of a nightmarish Wayne Barlowe painting! I hope you enjoy these pictures. Please like and leave any comments below.

August 3 – “Woe to the Vanquished”

On August 3, 390 BC, the unthinkable happened – the city of Rome fell to the barbarians. But first, some background information…

After a ten year long civil war, the Roman Republic was officially created in 499 BC. Ever since then, the Romans had been fighting a series of wars in central Italy against their Latin, Italic, and Etruscan neighbors. However, in the summer of 390 BC, they faced off against an enemy that they had never encountered before – the Celts.

The Celts were a collection of tribes that appear to have originated in what is now Austria. By the early 4th Century BC, they had spread and had become the dominant culture throughout much of western and central Europe. They had even crossed the Alps and had occupied all of the territory north of the Po River.

The Etruscan city-state of Clusium, which lay a hundred miles north of Rome, was under threat from the Celts. Although the Etruscans and Romans had been enemies for many years, the Etruscans feared these northern newcomers far more than the Romans, and so they decided to send a message to Rome asking for help.

However, the Republic was wary. They were still very conscious that they had formerly been under Etruscan rule and that the Etruscans had a century earlier assisted the monarchist forces during Rome’s civil war to overthrow the Tarquin Dynasty. Furthermore, Rome had been fighting wars against the various Etruscan city-states for many years, and had only recently emerged victorious in one such conflict. They were not going to suddenly change direction and extend the hand of friendship to their enemy. However, the officials in Rome were curious about who these strange northerners were, so they sent a delegation to Clusium to see if a peaceful settlement could be brokered between the warring sides, and also to gather as much intelligence on these foreigners as they could.

When the Roman envoys arrived, it soon became clear that the Celts had no interest in negotiating. Scarcely had the meeting began when they demanded to the Romans that land in central Italy should be handed over to them or else face the consequences. The emissaries were taken aback by this – nobody made demands to the Roman Republic. Things quickly turned ugly. An argument ensued which rapidly became heated, and in a flush of rage, one of the Roman envoys struck one of the Celtic warriors with a blow so hard that it killed him. Realizing that their own lives were now in danger, the envoys raced back to Rome.

Chief Brennus, the leader of the Celts, sent a message to the Senate demanding that the murderer should be delivered up to them to be punished, but the Senate refused. Fueled by anger and indignation, the Celts raced southwards with the cry “To Rome! To Rome!”

The Republic hastily cobbled together an army with the goal of intercepting and defeating the Celtic horde before it got close to the city. However, the majority of the troops that were called up were not professionally-trained veteran soldiers, but were instead hastily-trained draftees. Some of them hadn’t even done weapon drills yet when they marched out.

On July 18, 390 BC, the two sides met just eleven miles north of Rome along the banks of the Allia River. The Celtic and Roman forces were more-or-less evenly matched in size, but the Romans force was mostly made of new poorly-trained recruits while the Celtic force was made up of battle-hardened warriors. The Romans took up a defensive position, but they didn’t bother to build defensive barricades, and they also spread their forces out in a long thin line to protect against being out-flanked. However, this made them very susceptible to a heavy-scale head-on charge, especially if such a frontal attack was directed at just one spot on that thin line of men.

At the Battle of the Allia River, the Romans fought their first battle against the Celts and lost. The battle itself was a chaotic mess, and the army of the Roman Republic was thoroughly crushed and routed by Chief Brennus’ Gallic warriors. Some of the survivors fled back to Rome, others fled to the nearby town of Veii, while the remainder of the survivors hunkered down in a nearby forest for the next three days. The Celts eventually gave up hunting for the refugees and turned their full attention upon Rome itself.

When the fleeing troops that returned to Rome reported the disaster, the people were gripped with panic and terror. The Celts were following them, and they would be arriving outside the city within a matter of hours. They realized that they did not have enough strength to adequately defend the whole city, so it was decided to make a stand at the city’s central defensive position – the citadel located atop the Capitoline Hill. Other people simply abandoned Rome entirely and fled elsewhere, believing that the city was doomed to fall to the barbarians regardless of whatever defenses may be mustered against them.

By the evening of the 18th, the Celts arrived outside the city. However, the decided to wait until the following morning to launch their attack. On the 19th, the Celts advanced. The gate was open and unguarded, and they cautiously advanced through the city’s wards. Resistance was miniscule, and the Celts went on a looting rampage, plundering the people’s houses and then setting them on fire. Still, the Celts did not attack the fortified center of the city. For the next two weeks, the Celts besieged the citadel with little success.

Meanwhile, the Roman troops who had fled to Veii after the disaster at the Allia River began to rally together to form a counter-attack. However, this force was delayed in striking the Celtic rear because they had to contend with the Etruscans once again. Veii had once been an Etruscan town, and now that the Romans were weakened, the Etruscans saw this as an opportunity to strike and take the town back. This attack failed, but it did delay the Roman reinforcements. A messenger was dispatched to Rome to let the Senate know that reinforcements were coming. This person knew a secret way to scale up the steep cliffs that formed one side of the Capitoline’s citadel. Unfortunately, this method of accessing the citadel was discovered soon afterwards by the Celts.

On August 3, after laying siege to the citadel for two weeks, the Celts ascended the cliff under the cover of darkness. The guards who had been posted did not notice their approach, and the watch dogs were all asleep. However, a flock of geese which were present sounded the alarm by loudly honking, and this is what alerted the Romans to the enemy presence. The defenders rushed to repel the attackers, who were driven off with great force.

However, this last-minute victory was short-lived. By now, people on both sides were suffering from hunger, disease, and heat sickness, and a ceasefire was called. Representatives from the two sides met to discuss the surrender terms for the city’s defenses. Chief Brennus demanded that the Romans pay him 2,000 pounds-weight of gold in order to encourage his warriors to leave. A set of giant scales was set up in the open, but the Gauls cheated by using heavier weights. When the Romans protested at this, saying that he was violating the terms of the agreement by making the Romans pay more money than what they had agreed to, he answered this simply by adding even more weight onto the scale, in this case by dropping his own sword onto the balance. With this, Chief Brennus uttered the Latin words “Vae victis”, which means “Woe to the vanquished”.

It would turn out that Brennus could not bask in his glory for long. Word soon arrived that his lands were under attack by neighboring tribes, and his warriors had to return home. To the Romans, the fall of their city was a crushing gut-check moment, and it would be forever scared not only onto their history but also onto their psyche. From that moment on, the northern barbarian was their most hated and feared enemy.

In later years, the events which occurred on the night of August 3 were marked by a macabre ritual enacted by the Romans on the third of August for years afterwards: the Supplicia Canum, which means “the Begging of the Dogs”. As a punishment for allowing the Gauls to enter the city because they were not being attentive enough, the Romans would take all of the stray dogs that they found in the city, crucify them alive, and carry them in a solemn procession through the streets. The name refers to the idea that as the unfortunate animals howled and shrieked in pain as they were cursed at by the Roman people lining the sides of the roads, they were actually begging for forgiveness for falling asleep on guard duty rather than protecting their masters. Perhaps the unearthly sound also conjured up something of the melancholy wailing of the souls in the Underworld who perished at the Gauls’ hands. Meanwhile, the holy geese who did raise the alarm cry were carried around on a golden litter draped with purple, and were praised and honored by all who saw them.