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Champsosaurus: The Croc-Lizard of the Cretaceous

When most people hear the words “aquatic reptile”, they usually think of two things: turtles and crocodilians. Some clever people might mention sea snakes, and others might mention marine iguanas. Those who are keen on impressing you may bring up some obscure species like the water monitor, the basilisk lizard, and other species of snakes which venture into water.

In prehistoric times, the list of options that you could choose from was much more expansive. In fact, there were animals around then which aren’t around today which fit into this category. One such group of prehistoric water-going reptiles was known as the “choristoderans” (pronounced as Kore-RISS-toe-DEER-rans).

The choristoderans were a group of semi-aquatic reptiles which lived during the Mesozoic Era. Although not as well-known as other non-dinosaurian reptiles of the Mesozoic such as pterosaurs and ichthyosaurs, they nevertheless shared their environments with dinosaurs for a span of approximately 110 million years and even survived the dinosaur extinction. Choristoderans first appeared during the middle of the Jurassic Period about 175 MYA. The oldest-known genus which is recognizably a choristoderan was Cteniogenys, which measured just one and a half feet long and was very lizard-like in appearance. In life, it probably resembled a small monitor lizard and it likely filled a similar ecological niche. However, the heyday for the choristoderans occurred during the early Cretaceous Period from about 144 to 100 MYA, after which they went into decline. They were fortunate to survive the K-T Extinction, but they were always second fiddle to their crocodile neighbors. Most of the surviving species went extinct about 50 MYA, with the remainder just barely hanging on. The last of the choristoderans completely went extinct around 20 MYA.

The choristoderans belonged to a group of vertebrates called the “diapsids”, meaning that they had two holes in their skull behind each eye socket. Lizards, snakes, crocodilians, pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and birds are all classified as diapsids.

At first glance, choristoderans might be mistaken for crocodiles. However, despite their crocodile-like appearance, they are more closely related to lizards than to crocodiles, at least according to a study made by Mike Lee in 2013 (“Turtle origins: insights from phylogenetic retrofitting and molecular scaffolds”). Their placement in the reptile tree is primarily based upon the structure and arrangement of their ear bones, which is more advanced than those seen in lizards but not as advanced as those seen in crocodilians and birds. Also, the skulls of choristoderans are structurally more lizard-like than crocodilian.

The order Choristodera is divided into four families: Champsosauridae, Hyphalosauridae, Monjurosuchidae, and Simoedosauridae. The more primitive the species, the more lizard-like it is in form. The more derived, then the more crocodilian it is in appearance. The most primitive choristoderans were the monjurosuchids, which looked similar to the modern-day Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator). Even at this early stage in their development, there is fossil evidence that some species like Monjurosuchus possessed webbed fingers and toes. Already, they were adapted to living a semi-aquatic lifestyle.


Skeleton of Monjurosuchus splendens, a primitive choristoderan from China. Photograph by Jonathan Chen (June 13, 2019). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monjurosuchus-Beijing_Museum_of_Natural_History.jpg

Even more advanced were the hyphalosaurids, which bear a remarkable resemblance to the earlier nothosaurs and thalattosaurs of the Triassic Period. Form tends to follow function in evolution, and these creatures almost certainly led a similar lifestyle. The act of species from completely different groups evolving into more-or-less the same shape is called “convergent evolution”.

The champsosaurids and the simoedosaurids are the most crocodile-like in appearance, and together they form the super-family Neochoristodera. Like crocodiles, these creatures were almost certainly living as shallow-water ambush predators, fitted with long slender jaws lined with small conical teeth. Like modern-day gharials, they may have been primarily or even exclusively fish-eaters.

Probably the most famous choristoderan genus was Champsosaurus (pronounced as CHAMP-so-SORE-us). It first appeared about 90 MYA during the Turonian Stage of the late Cretaceous Period, persisted through the K-T Extinction, and finally went extinct during the Paleocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period about 56 MYA. Impressive. Most genera don’t last that long.

Champsosaurus was named by the famed paleontologist Edward D. Cope in the year 1877. Despite not having an easily-recognizable name (most members of the general public have likely never heard of it), it has been rigorously studied by paleontologists ever since then. For example, three academic articles were published about it just in the year 2010, and another article was recently published in April 2020. So, from an academic standpoint, interest in this animal has been pretty consistent.

There are seven species which have been ascribed to the genus Champsosaurus. Most of them measured 5 feet long or thereabouts, but the largest, which was appropriately named Champsosaurus gigas, reached 10 feet long. Most Champsosaurus fossils have been found in south-central Canada and the north-central United States within rocks dated to the late Cretaceous Period from 90 to 66 MYA, but a few have also been found in Belgium and northern France in rocks dated to the Tertiary Period.

Champsosaurus skeleton from Montana, USA on display in the Royal Ontario Museum. Photograph by Daderot (November 21, 2011). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Champsosaurus_sp.,_Montana,_USA,_Late_Cretaceous_-_Royal_Ontario_Museum_-_DSC00088.JPG.

 

Upper jaw of Champsosaurus, above view (left) and underside view (right). The skull’s length measures about 13 inches. Illustration by Samuel W. Williston. From The Osteology of the Reptiles (1925). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Osteology_of_the_Reptiles_p76.png.

Champsosaurus appears to have been able to tolerate both freshwater and saltwater environments. Fossils of a species called Champsosaurus laramiensis have been found in rocks from the Fox Hills Formation, a geological layer which represents a coastal or estuary environment on the edge of the Western Interior Sea. Fossils of mosasaurs and dinosaurs including Tyrannosaurus have also been found in these rocks.

Preserved skin impressions show that, unlike many lizards, choristoderans like Champsosaurus did NOT have overlapping scales. Instead, the skin consisted of tiny non-overlapping scales, with no crocodile-like dorsal scutes, giving it a very smooth-skinned appearance when seen from a distance.

Unlike crocodiles, which have their nostrils on the top of their upper jaw, Champsosaurus had its nostrils on the front tip of its upper jaw. Perhaps they would use their long nose like a snorkel, sticking just the tip out of the water’s surface in order to stay as concealed as possible.

Champsosaurus had a pair of long thin gharial-like jaws lined with tiny conical teeth. Because of its close affinity towards lizards than to crocodiles, it is highly likely that Champsosaurus had lips and a fully enclosed mouth. But that’s just speculation based upon phylogenic relationships to other reptiles. In terms of hard physical evidence, the teeth themselves are quite small, and are inset from the edge of the jawline rather than standing on the rim of the jaw like a crocodile. This suggests that Champsosaurus had lips covering its teeth like a lizard, unlike crocodiles which don’t have lips.

Compared with crocodilians, the eye sockets of choristoderans are positioned much further forwards on the skull, located halfway or two-thirds of the way back from the tip of the snout. This provides more space for jaw muscles, and the temporal fenestrae (the holes in the back of the skull that accommodate the jaw muscles) were very large in proportion with skull size. Champsosaurus, in particular, had very large temporal fenestrae, which indicates that it had strong jaw muscles and could quickly snap its mouth shut within a fraction of a second – an important adaptation if your diet consists primarily of small fish.

Unlike lizards, Champsosaurus might not have had external ears. Analysis of its skull structure shows that Champsosaurus had internal ears, similar to turtles. This is an important adaptation if you are spending much of your life in the water. Therefore, you would not have seen a pair of ear holes on a Champsosaurus head. Instead, there likely just would have been a slight depression (or maybe not even that) on the side of the head marking where the tympanum (the part of the ear that vibrates in order to make a sound) would have been.

If you spend much of your life in the water, walking really isn’t an issue. Therefore, the limbs of choristoderans are not well-developed. In fact, the more “advanced” the species, the weaker its limb bones appear to be. Champsosaurus is no exception to this – its legs are downright puny in comparison with its body. The bones that make up the arms and legs are short and stumpy, and the hands and feet are small, although the feet are noticeably bigger than the hands. The fingers and toes are thin and end with very tiny claws. This was an animal that would have had a hard time pushing itself onto land. However, there is some evidence that females had more robustly-built limbs than the males due to the need to haul themselves onto land in order to lay their eggs.

The tail of Champsosaurus was flattened, and looked more like that of a crocodile or even a mosasaur than to a lizard. Even so, this animal was definitely not a power-swimmer. If it was, then one would expect the tail to be both longer and broader. Instead, the tail seems to be peculiarly under-developed. Keep in mind, though, that this was likely not an animal that was actively chasing after its prey. If all it was doing was hunkering down on the bottom of a lake or river and waiting motionless for fish to carelessly swim by, then it doesn’t need a well-built tail that’s designed for plowing through the water.

Skeleton of Champsosaurus laramiensis. From “The Osteology of Champsosaurus”, by Barnum Brown (1905). Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, volume 9, part 1. Public domain image. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Large_williston_champsosaurus.jpg.

Below is a drawing made of Champsosaurus laramiensis drifting about in a murky pond or stream somewhere in Montana during the late Cretaceous Period. This five-foot-long piscivore would have shared this environment with alligators, crocodiles, turtles, large freshwater fish like gars, sturgeons, and bowfins, and of course dinosaurs like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus. The drawing was made with No.2 pencil on printer paper.

Anyways, keep your pencils sharp.

Evidence of Therizinosaurs in North America during the Late Cretaceous Period

Introduction

For many years, paleontologists have known about the presence of therizinosaurs (formerly classified as segnosaurs) in Asia, especially within what’s now Mongolia and China. However, Asia and North America were linked during a considerable portion of the Cretaceous Period, and this resulted in an interchange of faunas between the two continents, notably ceratopsians, pachycephalosaurs, tyrannosaurs, and maniraptorans. Could therizinosaurs, which had hitherto been exclusively Asian, have lived in North America as well?

A pair of Tarbosaurus attacking a herd of Therizinosaurus somewhere in Mongolia, approximately 80 million years ago. © Gregory S. Paul (1988). Image used with permission.

 

During the early 2000s, that question was answered with a definitive “yes”. Two genera of therizinosaurs have been described from North America, named Falcarius and Nothronychus. Falcarius represents possibly the earliest stage in therizinosaur evolution, dated to the early Cretaceous Period, while Nothronychus is much larger and more advanced and is dated to the middle Cretaceous. The presence of these two creatures clearly shows that therizinosaurs existed in North America, but so far they have only been found in rocks dated to the early and middle parts of the Cretaceous Period. One wonders if therizinosaurs managed to stay in North America right up until the end of the Mesozoic, 66 million years ago. Would they have kept evolving, becoming larger and more advanced? Would they have lived alongside Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus? (1)

It just so happens that there are a few pieces of evidence here and there which suggest that therizinosaurs did survive past the middle Cretaceous within North America, and that they kept living in North America up to the end of the Cretaceous Period.

 

The Evidence

The idea that there were therizinosaurs in late Cretaceous North America was first proposed by the German paleontologist Hans Sues in 1978. Specifically, he was writing about a particular specimen that had been uncovered in the Dinosaur Park Formation, located in Alberta, Canada, in rocks dated to the Campanian Stage of the Cretaceous Period. The specimen in question was a single “frontal” bone, which forms part of the skull. Today, this specimen is in the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, categorized as “CMN 12355” (NOT 12349 as you’ll sometimes see in internet searches). In his paper, Sues thought that this frontal bone belonged to a “raptor” dinosaur, and listed it as “gen. et sp. indet.”, which is an abbreviated Latin way of saying “genus and species undetermined” (2).

“CMN 12355”: A frontal bone which may belong to a therizinosaur. Left top: ventral view. Right top: dorsal view. Left bottom: lateral view. Right bottom: medial view. © Tracy Ford. Image from Paleofile.com. Used with permission. http://www.paleofile.com/Dinosaurs/Theropods/Segnosaurincertae.asp

 

Saying that this bone belonged to a raptor is understandable, since the dromaeosaurs and the therizinosaurs are related to each other. Both groups are located in a clade called the “maniraptorans”, which includes the ornithomimids, the oviraptorosaurs, the therizinosaurs, and famously, the dromaeosaurs and troodontids – the so-called “raptors” with their famous killing claws.

The second piece of evidence came in the early to mid 1980s. A single bone called an “astragalus”, which forms part of the ankle, was found in the Hell Creek Formation in rocks dated to the very end of the Cretaceous Period. In 1984, the Canadian paleontologist Dale Russell listed this single peculiar find in a long list of specimens uncovered in the Hell Creek Formation during the middle 1980s. However, this particular specimen has never been analyzed or described in a publication exclusively devoted to this bone. It is simply listed as “therizinosaurid indet.”. In 1992, Kenneth Carpenter looked at this bone, and concluded that it actually belonged to Tyrannosaurus, not a therizinosaur (3).

In 1987, the Canadian paleontologist Philip Currie, who is widely acknowledged as the world’s expert on meat-eating dinosaurs, took a second look at the frontal bone which Sues had examined in the late 1970s, and concluded that Hans Sues had made a mistake. It wasn’t a raptor, but was instead a “segnosaur”, which was the way therizinosaurs were called back then. Currie stated that the bone looked similar to the frontal bone of an Asian therizinosaur called Erlikosaurus, and so he reclassified the bone as “cf. Erlikosaurus” (4).

In 1992, Philip Currie did a more thorough examination of possible therizinosaur finds in Canada. He again wrote about the frontal bone which was initially described in 1978, but he also added two more specimens to the discussion table, both of which were housed in the collection of the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology (RTMP). These specimens were given the identification codes “RTMP 81.16.231” (again, Currie classified this specimen as “cf. Erlikosaurus”) and “RTMP 79.15.1” (a “pedal ungual”, or foot claw, which was classified as “cf. therizinosaurid”) (5).

“RTMP 79.15.1”: A foot claw which may belong to a therizinosaur. © Tracy Ford. Image from Paleofile.com. Used with permission. http://www.paleofile.com/Dinosaurs/Theropods/Segnosaurincertae.asp

 

In 2001, Michael Ryan and Anthony Russell conducted their own analysis of North American therizinosaur finds. They confirmed Currie’s claim that the frontal bone found in 1978 did indeed come from a therizinosaur. They also wrote about a neck vertebra found in the Scollard Formation (specimen identification code is “RTMP 86.207.17”), which dates to the very end of the Cretaceous Period, and which they classified as “Therizinosauridae indet.” (6).

Body fossils of therizinosaurs may be rare in North America, but footprints which may belong to therizinosaurs are more abundant. The first footprints were discovered in the 1990s in the Harebell Formation of northwestern Wyoming. According to an article published in 1996, these footprints were unique because they looked like theropod prints except that they had four toes instead of three – unique among theropods, therizinosaurs have four main toes. The authors postulated that the footprints belonged to an animal whose physical remains had not yet been discovered (7).

In 2011, a single therizinosaur footprint was discovered in Denali National Park, Alaska. The rock that the footprint was found in was part of the Cantwell Formation, which spans 80-65 MYA, and the footprint was placed in a layer dated to about 71-69 MYA. Depending upon which source that you read concerning geological dating, this date of 71-69 MYA either marks the boundary between the where the Campanian Stage ends and the Maastrichtian Stage begins, or else it is the earliest phase of the Maastrichtian Stage. In 2012, Anthony R. Fiorillo of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science (located in Dallas, Texas) published an article concerning this peculiar footprint (8). You can see a photo of it here.

In 2013 and 2014, Anthony R. Fiorillo and a team of other researchers returned to the site in Denali National Park and found a total of thirty-one therizinosaur footprints, along with numerous hadrosaur footprints as well. Like the first footprint that had been found in 2011, all of the other footprints were in rock dated to 71-69 MYA. The fact that footprint trackways of both hadrosaurs and therizinosaurs were found together might indicate that these animals traveled together, possibly for mutual protection. An article was published in August 2018 detailing these discoveries (9).

 

Species Identification

As we have seen in the previous section, there is some evidence in the way of footprints and a handful of isolated bones which suggests that therizinosaurs inhabited North America during the late Campanian or early Maastrichtian Stages of the Cretaceous Period. However, is there any way that we can identify which particular genus or species that these fossils belong to?

The subject of identification has been especially contentious concerning the footprints that were found in Wyoming and Alaska. So far, footprints form the majority of finds that are attributed to late Cretaceous therizinosaurs within North America. The problem is that it is difficult to identify a particular genus or species based solely on footprints, unless the shape of the footprint is extremely distinctive. Another problem is that while footprints are abundant, very few body fossils have been found, and none of them are highly diagnostic. Most researchers who examined them determined vaguely that the creature was a therizinosaur, but they couldn’t be more specific than that, with the exception of Philip Currie who proposed that they might belong to Erlikosaurus or a creature very similar to it.

Because it is so difficult to match a footprint with a particular animal, paleontologists often ascribe footprints their own genus and species names. This is what is referred to as an “ichnogenus”, which is a genus of animal known only from trace fossils, such as footprints, rather than actual physical body fossils.

In the 1996 article which discussed the unusual footprints found in Wyoming, the footprints were ascribed to the ichnogenus Exallopus (pronounced as Ex-ALLO-pus, meaning “from different foot” due to its unusual shape) and its species name was given as Exallopus lovei. The type specimen is identified as “DMNH 5989”, and it was identified as a coelurosaur. According to the website Fossilworks, “Its type locality is Whetstone Creek tracksite, which is in a Maastrichtian terrestrial sandstone in the Harebell Formation of Wyoming” (10). The following year in 1997, the genus name was changed from Exallopus to Saurexallopus (SORE-ex-ALLO-pus), because the name Exallopus was already taken by a species of marine worm (11). Another species, Saurexallopus zerbsti, was named in a 2003 article. The type specimen is identified as “CUMWC 224.2”. According to Fossilworks, “Its type locality is Zerbst Ranch Tracksite, which is in a Lancian fluvial sandstone/sandstone in the Lance Formation of Wyoming” (12). In 2014, a third species was named called Saurexallopus cordata based upon a single footprint fount in British Columbia, Canada, and dated to the Wapiti Formation of the late Cretaceous Period (13).

While all of the scientific articles concerning Saurexallopus identify it as a theropod, there has been some dispute as to what particular type of theropod it is. The original article which was written in 1996 identified it as a coelurosaur. In 2012, Anthony Fiorillo and Thomas Adams identified Saurexallopus as a therizinosaur (14). In an article written in 2015, Saurexallopus was identified as an oviraptorid (15). In an article written in 2018, Saurexallopus was simply identified as a theropod without any specific affinity (16). The website Fossilworks identifies Saurexallopus as a therizinosaur (17).

 

Reconstructing Saurexallopus

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Philip Currie made comparisons between the various finds in North America with the Asian species Erlikosaurus. According to a phylogenic analysis of therizinosaur genera which was conducted in 2019, Erlikosaurus was closely related to Nothronychus, a therizinosaur which lived in North America during the middle Cretaceous Period. Since Saurexallopus is believed to be physically similar to Erlikosaurus, it is likely that it was genetically related as well, and as such would have been genetically related to Nothronychus. It is therefore quite possible that Erlikosaurus, Nothronychus, and Saurexallopus would have been similar in appearance (18).

Erlikosaurus skull and foot.jpg

Upper jaw and right foot of the Asian therizinosaur Erlikosaurus. Saurexallopus was probably similar in appearance to this genus. Illustration from Rinchen Barsbold and Altangerel Perle (1980) “Segnosauria, a new infraorder of carnivorous dinosaurs”. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 25 (2): pages 187-195. https://www.app.pan.pl/article/item/app25-187.html. Creative Commons Attribution License.

 

We can guess that Saurexallopus reached a similar length to Erlikosaurus, measuring about fifteen to twenty feet long (Holtz claims that Erlikosaurus was smaller than other authors do, although his estimate of Nothronychus is in fitting with the size bracket mentioned above) (19). Unlike the eponymous Therizinosaurus, which possessed long scythe-like finger claws (hence its name, which translates to “scythe lizard”), Nothronychus possessed shorter hook-shaped claws, which looked very similar to the stereotypical talons that are seen on carnivorous dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Torvosaurus. These claws were only one-third the size of the claws of Therizinosaurus, but they were well-suited for pulling down branches, for digging (if they could pronate their hands, but that’s a whole other argument), and for smacking the daylights out of any would-be predator. Thomas R. Holtz Jr. has compared therizinosaurs to the large ground sloths of the Cenozoic Era, and the analogy has some merit (20). Saurexallopus and other therizinosaurs likely lived a similar lifestyle and occupied a similar ecological niche, with the possible exception of Falcarius, which may have had a more cursorial lifestyle similar to early coelurosaurs like Ornitholestes.

Based upon their place within the dinosaur family tree, as well as from fossil finds, we are fairly certain that therizinosaurs were feathered. Therefore, it is almost certain that Saurexallopus would have had some form of feather covering as well, although whether it was over the entire body or only partially cannot be determined.

Below is a drawing that I made of Saurexallopus, based upon Erlikosaurus and Nothronychus. The erect mane running down the middle of its neck, back, and tail are just artistic conjecture.

Saurexallopus. © Jason R. Abdale. May 7, 2020.

 

Conclusions

So where does all of this information lead us? So far, there is some evidence which suggests that therizinosaurs were living in Alberta, Canada and Alaska, USA during the late Campanian Stage or early Maastrichtian Stage of the late Cretaceous Period up until about 70 MYA or thereabouts. As such, they would have lived side-by-side with creatures such as Albertosaurus, Edmontosaurus, and Hypacrosaurus. There is only one piece of evidence, a single neck vertebra, which suggests that therizinosaurs existed in North America during the Maastrichtian Stage of the Late Cretaceous. However, no specimens that can be definitely and unquestionably identified as belonging to a therizinosaur have been found in the Hell Creek Formation. Therefore, as far as our current evidence goes, it is unlikely that therizinosaurs lived side-by-side with Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus. However, this may change in the future if more body fossils are discovered.

 

Sources

  1. Utah’s Dino Graveyard; When Dinosaurs Roamed America.
  2. Lindsay Elizabeth Zanno. A Taxonomic and Phylogenetic Reevaluation of Therizinosauria (Dinosauria: Theropoda): Implications for the Evolution of Maniraptora. PhD dissertation, submitted to the University of Utah. December 2008. Page 172.
  3. Lindsay Elizabeth Zanno. A Taxonomic and Phylogenetic Reevaluation of Therizinosauria (Dinosauria: Theropoda): Implications for the Evolution of Maniraptora. PhD dissertation, submitted to the University of Utah. December 2008. Page 172; Dinosaur Mailing List. “Re: Yet even more questions (and I’m sure there’ll be more…)”, by Mickey Mortimer (June 22, 2002). http://dml.cmnh.org/2002Jun/msg00369.html; Theropod Database. “Therizinosauroidea”. http://theropoddatabase.com/Therizinosauroidea.htm.
  4. Lindsay Elizabeth Zanno. A Taxonomic and Phylogenetic Reevaluation of Therizinosauria (Dinosauria: Theropoda): Implications for the Evolution of Maniraptora. PhD dissertation, submitted to the University of Utah. December 2008. Page 172.
  5. Lindsay Elizabeth Zanno. A Taxonomic and Phylogenetic Reevaluation of Therizinosauria (Dinosauria: Theropoda): Implications for the Evolution of Maniraptora. PhD dissertation, submitted to the University of Utah. December 2008. Page 172; Dinosaur Mailing List. “Re: Yet even more questions (and I’m sure there’ll be more…)”, by Mickey Mortimer (June 22, 2002). http://dml.cmnh.org/2002Jun/msg00369.html.
  6. Lindsay Elizabeth Zanno. A Taxonomic and Phylogenetic Reevaluation of Therizinosauria (Dinosauria: Theropoda): Implications for the Evolution of Maniraptora. PhD dissertation, submitted to the University of Utah. December 2008. Page 172.
  7. J. D. Harris, K. R. Johnson, J. Hicks and L. Tauxe (1996). “Four-toed theropod footprints and a paleomagnetic age from the Whetstone Falls Member of the Harebell Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Maastrichtian), northwestern Wyoming”. Cretaceous Research, 17: 381-401.
  8. Anthony R. Fiorello and Thomas L. Adams (2012). “A therizinosaur track from the Lower Cantwell Formation (Upper Cretaceous) of Denali National Park, Alaska”. Palaios, 27: 395-400.
  9. Anthony R. Fiorello and Thomas L. Adams (2012). “A therizinosaur track from the Lower Cantwell Formation (Upper Cretaceous) of Denali National Park, Alaska”. Palaios, 27: 395-400; “The Lower Cantwell Formation and Its Fossils”; “Therizinosaur: prehistoric predator set standard for ‘weird’ in Alaska”; “First North American co-occurrence of Hadrosaur and Therizinosaur tracks found in Alaska”.
  10. Fossilworks. “Saurexallopus lovei”. http://fossilworks.org/bridge.pl?a=taxonInfo&taxon_no=65844.
  11. J. D. Harris, K. R. Johnson, J. Hicks and L. Tauxe (1996). “Four-toed theropod footprints and a paleomagnetic age from the Whetstone Falls Member of the Harebell Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Maastrichtian), northwestern Wyoming”. Cretaceous Research, 17: 381-401; J. D. Harris (1997). “Four-toed theropod footprints and a paleomagnetic age from the Whetstone Falls Member of the Harebell Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Maastrichtian), northwestern Wyoming: a correction”. Cretaceous Research, 18: 139.
  12. Martin G. Lockley, G. Nadon, and Philip J. Currie. (2003). “A diverse dinosaur-bird footprint assemblage from the Lance Formation, Upper Cretaceous, eastern Wyoming; implications for ichnotaxonomy”. Ichnos, 11: 229-249; Fossilworks. “Saurexallopus zerbsti”. http://fossilworks.org/bridge.pl?a=taxonInfo&taxon_no=81011.
  13. R. T. McCrea, L. G. Buckley, A. G. Plint, Philip J. Currie, J. W. Haggart, C. W. Helm, and S. G. Pemberton (2014). “A review of vertebrate track-bearing formations from the Mesozoic and earliest Cenozoic of western Canada with a description of a new theropod ichnospecies and reassignment of an avian ichnogenus”. In Lockley Martin G.; Lucas, Spencer G., eds. New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. Bulletin 62: Fossil Footprints of Western North America. Albuquerque: New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, 2014. Page 87.
  14. Anthony R. Fiorello and Thomas L. Adams (2012). “A therizinosaur track from the Lower Cantwell Formation (Upper Cretaceous) of Denali National Park, Alaska”. Palaios, 27: 395-400.
  15. R. T. McCrea, D. H. Tanke, L. G. Buckley, M. G. Lockley, J. O. Farlow, L. Xing, N. A. Matthews, C. W. Helm, S. G. Pemberton and B. H. Breithaupt (2015). “Vertebrate ichnopathology: pathologies inferred from dinosaur tracks and trackways from the Mesozoic”. Ichnos, 22 (3–4): 235-260.
  16. Martin Lockley, Gerard Gierlinski, Lidia Adach, Bruce Schumacher, and Ken Cart (2018). “Newly Discovered Tetrapod Ichnotaxa from the Upper Cretaceous Blackhawk Formation, Utah”. In Spencer G. Lucas and Robert M. Sullivan, eds. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Fossil Record 6, Volume 2: Bulletin 79. Albuquerque: New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, 2018. Pages 469-480.
  17. Fossilworks. “Saurexallopus”. http://fossilworks.org/bridge.pl?a=taxonInfo&taxon_no=65843.
  18. Scott Hartman, Mickey Mortimer, William R. Wahl, Dean R. Lomax, Jessica Lippincott, and David M. Lovelace (2019). “A new paravian dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of North America supports a late acquisition of avian flight”. PeerJ, 7: e7247. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6626525/.
  19. David Lambert, The Dinosaur Data Book (New York: Avon Books, 1990), page 61; Don Lessem and Donald F. Glut, The Dinosaur Society Dinosaur Encyclopedia (New York: Random House, 1993), page 184; Peter Dodson, The Age of Dinosaurs (Lincolnwood: Publications International Ltd., 1993), page 142; Thomas R. Holtz Jr, Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-To-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages (New York: Random House, 2007), page 382.
  20. Thomas R. Holtz Jr, Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-To-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages (New York: Random House, 2007), page 147.

 

Bibliography

Books:

  • Dodson, Peter. The Age of Dinosaurs. Lincolnwood: Publications International Ltd., 1993.
  • Holtz Jr., Thomas R. Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-To-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages. New York: Random House, 2007.
  • Lambert, David. The Dinosaur Data Book. New York: Avon Books, 1990.
  • Lessem, Don; Glut, Donald F. The Dinosaur Society Dinosaur Encyclopedia. New York: Random House, 1993.

Articles:

  • Fiorello Anthony R.; Adams Thomas L. (2012). “A therizinosaur track from the Lower Cantwell Formation (Upper Cretaceous) of Denali National Park, Alaska”. Palaios, 27: 395-400.
  • Fiorillo, Anthony R.; McCarthy, Paul J.; Kobayashi, Yoshitsugu; Tomsich, Carla S.; Tykoski, Ronald S.; Lee, Yuong-Nam; Tanaka, Tomonori; Noto Christopher R. (August 3, 2018). “An unusual association of hadrosaur and therizinosaur tracks within Late Cretaceous rocks of Denali National Park, Alaska”. Scientific Reports, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-30110-8. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-30110-8.
  • Harris, J. D.; Johnson, K. R.; Hicks, J.; Tauxe; L. (1996). “Four-toed theropod footprints and a paleomagnetic age from the Whetstone Falls Member of the Harebell Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Maastrichtian), northwestern Wyoming”. Cretaceous Research, 17: 381-401.
  • Harris, J. D. (1997). “Four-toed theropod footprints and a paleomagnetic age from the Whetstone Falls Member of the Harebell Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Maastrichtian), northwestern Wyoming: a correction”. Cretaceous Research, 18: 139.
  • Hartman, Scott; Mortimer, Mickey; Wahl, William R.; Lomax, Dean R.; Lippincott, Jessica; Lovelace, David M. (2019). “A new paravian dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of North America supports a late acquisition of avian flight”. PeerJ, 7: e7247. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6626525/.
  • Lockley, Martin G.; Nadon, G.; Currie, Philip J. (2003). “A diverse dinosaur-bird footprint assemblage from the Lance Formation, Upper Cretaceous, eastern Wyoming; implications for ichnotaxonomy”. Ichnos, 11: 229-249.
  • Lockley, Martin; Gierlinski, Gerard; Adach, Lidia; Schumacher, Bruce; Cart, Ken (2018). “Newly Discovered Tetrapod Ichnotaxa from the Upper Cretaceous Blackhawk Formation, Utah”. In Spencer G. Lucas and Robert M. Sullivan, eds. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Fossil Record 6, Volume 2: Bulletin 79. Albuquerque: New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, 2018. Pages 469-480.
  • McCrea, R. T.; Buckley, L. G.; Plint, A. G.; Currie, Philip J.; Haggart, J. W.; Helm, C. W.; Pemberton, S. G. (2014). “A review of vertebrate track-bearing formations from the Mesozoic and earliest Cenozoic of western Canada with a description of a new theropod ichnospecies and reassignment of an avian ichnogenus”. In Lockley Martin G.; Lucas, Spencer G., eds. New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. Bulletin 62: Fossil Footprints of Western North America. Albuquerque: New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, 2014. Pages 5-94.
  • McCrea, R. T.; Tanke, D. H.; Buckley, L. G.; Lockley, Martin G.; Farlow, James O.; Xing, L.; Matthews, N. A.; Helm, C. W.; Pemberton, S. G.; Breithaupt, B. H. (2015). “Vertebrate ichnopathology: pathologies inferred from dinosaur tracks and trackways from the Mesozoic”. Ichnos, 22 (3–4): 235-260.
  • Zanno, Lindsay Elizabeth. A Taxonomic and Phylogenetic Reevaluation of Therizinosauria (Dinosauria: Theropoda): Implications for the Evolution of Maniraptora. PhD dissertation, submitted to the University of Utah. December 2008.

Websites:

Videos:

  • Utah’s Dino Graveyard. The Discovery Channel, 2005.
  • When Dinosaurs Roamed America. The Discovery Channel, 2001.

 

Tyrannosaurus rex juvenile, two years old

Hello everyone. This is  drawing which I made of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, two years old. The anatomy is based upon the skeletons of juvenile Tarbosaurus (a tyrannosaur from Asia which is closely related to Tyrannosaurus) as well as from bones found in North America which may/may not belong to T. rex. There is a theory that the young were covered in a full or partial coating of feathery fuzz, and gradually lost it as they aged. Therefore, I have shown this 2 year old T. rex with a mottled camouflage coloring similar to that seen on wild boar piglets and some species of birds. This drawing was made with No. 2 pencil on printer paper.

Habrosaurus, a Late Cretaceous siren amphibian from the Hell Creek Formation

The Hell Creek Formation of the north-central United States is famous for its dinosaur fossils, notably those of Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and others whose names are well-known to children and adults. However, this fossilized environment was home to more than just dinosaurs. The Hell Creek Formation was home to a wide range of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. One of the animals that called this landscape home during the late Cretaceous was Habrosaurus.

Despite its name, Habrosaurus was not a dinosaur, and it wasn’t even a reptile. It was, in fact, an amphibian, and a large one at that. Habrosaurus dilatus was a three-foot long siren, a type of salamander that bears more of a resemblance to an eel than the lizard-like forms that we associate salamanders with. Unlike most salamanders, sirens are fully-aquatic amphibians that retain gills throughout their whole lives, unlike other amphibian species that possess gills only in the early development stages of their lives. Sirens also possess small rudimentary lungs, and are able to breath air. There are four species of sirens that are alive today, and all of them are found within North America. Depending upon the species, they can have one to three gill slits on each side of the head. They have completely lost their hind limbs, and their front limbs have shrunk considerably, with three or four short stubby fingers on each hand. Sirens have tiny eyes and no eyelids, and possess a long tail reminiscent of an eel or a sea snake – ideal for swimming. Sirens prefer to live in slow-moving or static bodies of water with lots of underwater vegetation and muddy bottoms. They might occasionally come onto land during the night if the ground is wet or if it’s raining.

Habrosaurus is, to date, the oldest-known siren genus. So far, there are two species known: H. prodilatus, which was found in Alberta, Canada in rocks dating to the Campanian Phase (83-70 MYA) of the late Cretaceous, and H. dilatus, which is much more widespread in the western United States, being found in Montana and Wyoming (with more specimens being found in Wyoming) and dating to the Maastrichtian Stage (70-65 MYA) of the late Cretaceous, as well as being found in the early Paleocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period. This means that H. dilatus was one of several species to survive the K-T Extinction, if only for a short while. It may be possible that H. dilatus is simply the evolved form of H. prodilatus.

Habrosaurus dilatus was named by the eminent paleontologist Charles W. Gilmore in 1928. To my knowledge, six specimens have been found of this animal, and all of them have been found in stream channel deposits. The presence of this type of animal, as well as its impressive size of three feet in length, indicates the presence of large bodies of fresh water, such as slow-moving rivers or ponds. However, the possibility of a dry year was ever-present, and for a fully-aquatic or mostly-aquatic animal like Habrosaurus, that could spell doom. During dry periods or droughts, modern-day sirens are able to dig burrows into the mud and encase themselves in a cocoon, like a lungfish, and Habrosaurus might have adopted the same strategy.

Habrosaurus had rows of blunt teeth arranged in the roof of its upper jaw, which indicates that these jaws were designed for crushing rather than grabbing. Presumably, it fed upon tiny mollusks and arthropods, such as snails and shrimp. Modern-day sirens feed mainly upon worms, aquatic snails, shrimp, and occasionally algae. Like fish, sirens possess lateral lines to find prey by indicating differences in water pressure and underwater vibrations.

An appropriate modern-day analog for the three-foot long Habrosaurus dilatus is the Greater Siren (Siren lacertina), which also grows to three feet long and is the largest siren species in the world today.

Below is a simple drawing of a Habrosaurus that I made with a felt-tipped marker. This style is a considerable departure from my usual style of highly-detailed pencil drawings, but I wanted to do some artistic experimenting.

Head-Butting, Face-Biting, and Tail-Whacking: Dinosaur Intra-Species Combat

The image of Nature “red in tooth and claw” is a compelling vision which appeals to the popular imagination. Time and again, paleo-art illustrations depict dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals actively engaged in fighting, hunting, and killing. It’s a well-known fact that violence sells, and it’s also a well-known fact that the animal kingdom can sometimes be very brutal. But was the Mesozoic world really a landscape of perpetual violence and bloodshed with animals constantly engaged in the savage business of survival?

Most naturalists, biologists, and animal behaviorists today would say “probably not”. Animals do not engage in a perpetual brawl-fest with each other. Even so, animals do have violent interactions, not only among different species (inter-species combat), but also within the same species (intra-species combat). The dinosaurs were no exception to this, and we have many pieces of evidence that individuals within certain dinosaur species engaged in violent behavior towards each other.

Before I get into the particulars of the paleontological evidence, it’s important to establish some ground rules as to the sort of intra-species combat that animals engage in today, and what the dinosaurs likely engaged in during the past. Physical combat between individuals or at least physical harm inflicted by one individual upon another is typically rooted in either social or environmental causes. Animals hurt each other for a variety of reasons, but seldom is it done purely for the hell of it – only people do that. Social reasons for intra-species combat include violence associated with mating and with mate selection. Bighorn sheep rival males cranially collide with each other until one contestant or another gives up. Other individuals within numerous animal species fight each other in order to assert their right to mate. Mating-based violence can also include some very rough love – some males within certain shark species will actually bite the females in order to assert their power over the female. Speaking of this, asserting dominance is also one of the main causes for intra-species violence, regardless of whether or not mating is involved. This involves dominance within a hierarchy system, such as a lion pride or a wolf pack. Other reasons for intra-species combat are environmental, and are usually tied to the availability of food and other resources. Territorial defense in a strong motivator in this behavior, and this is strongly tied to yet another reason, which is competition of food.

Now that we have established some of the motivating factors behind why modern animals hurt each other, let’s examine the sort of intra-species combat that dinosaurs would have engaged in. For instance, many animals will kick either out of aggression, self-defense, or purely to express annoyance. One dinosaur that possibly engaged in combative kicking was the late Cretaceous ornithopod Parksosaurus. This small speedy herbivore possessed unusually long scythe-like claws on its feet. One may hypothesize that Parksosaurus engaged in kicking contests like in cockfights, or like the modern-day Australian cassowary bird. Then again, Parksosaurus could have also used these long claws for better traction when running, like the cleats on a runner’s shoes, or could have used them like digging tools to scratch into the dirt to search for food or water.

Of course, when people imagine kicking dinosaurs, the first thing that likely pops into their minds are the “raptor” dinosaurs, such as Deinonychus, Velociraptor, and Troodon. Did raptor dinosaurs, with their killing claws, do the same? The large hook-shaped toe claws were certainly used for a specific function, either ripping prey open or pinning it to the ground. I can easily imagine two bird-like raptors squabbling with each other and kicking out with their feet, like a pair of roosters, but this is purely speculative as there is no hard evidence for raptors engaging in kicking each other.

Acheroraptor. © Jason R. Abdale. July 16, 2014.

Years ago, it was proposed that another meat-eater, the late Jurassic carnivore Ceratosaurus, could momentarily balance itself on its thick tail like a kangaroo and kick out. However, this idea has since been disproven. In order for this kicking behavior to work, the tail has to be very thick and muscular and at the same time be very flexible. Ceratosaurus’ tail was deep, but thin in cross-section, more like a crocodile’s tail than a kangaroo’s. Furthermore, it only had limited up-down flexibility. For the most part, the tail was held stiff for balance, and its range of flexibility was largely confined to side-to-side motion, not up-and-down.

Ceratosaurus. © Jason R. Abdale. April 23, 2012.

Ceratosaurus is famous for having a prominent horn on the end of its nose, hence its name. However, the horn was very thin and blade-like in form, and was certainly used for display rather than offensive action. However, there were dinosaurs and other animals in the past that likely used their heads as weapons. “Head-butting”, when animals engage in combat by using their heads as hammers, possibly occurred in earlier animals, such as the dinocephalians of the Permian Period. They had thick flattened skulls, and either pressed and shoved against one another or might have collided cranium against cranium. The dinosaurs which are most associated with head-butting are the marginocephalians, “the wide skulls”, the group that includes pachycephalosaurs and ceratopsians. At first glance, their skulls seem to have been specially designed for head-on physical combat. The eponymous Pachycephalosaurus had a rounded skull that was a solid foot thick, and many scientists have automatically assumed that such skulls were used in head-butting contests, like with modern-day bighorn sheep. A recent study by the University of Wisconsin has found that 20% of pachycephalosaur skulls exhibit head trauma, suggesting with some certainty that the pachycephalosaurs did indeed engage in head-butting behavior.

Pachycephalosaurus. © Jason R. Abdale. October 19, 2013.

But what about the other members of the marginocephalians? The ceratopsians, “the horned faces”, which include the likes of Triceratops and Styracosaurus, have also been assumed to have been highly combative animals, with their spikes, horns, and frills. In recent years, the idea of these horned behemoths duking it out with each other or impaling predators on their sharpened horns has come under intense criticism. Many of their frills are dominated by wide holes which served to lighten the weight but also made them practically useless for protection. Some scientists think that the frills and horns were primarily there for display and species recognition, and their use in defense was only an afterthought.

Chasmosaurus. © Jason R. Abdale. March 31, 2016.

As you’ve probably seen by now, most of the animals which have physical features that can be used in combat are herbivores. Why? Because they sometimes have to physically fight in order to stay alive and avoid being eaten by carnivores. Aside from teeth and claws, the meat-eating theropod dinosaurs don’t seem to have much in the way of special features that would be involved in fighting, not just eating. Ceratosaurus’ nasal horn was too thin and flimsy for attacking something, and so too were the eyebrow horns of its larger contemporary Allosaurus. However, another carnivore did possess eyebrow horns which very well might have been used in fighting – Carnotaurus, one of my personal favorites. Ever since its discovery in the 1970s, paleontologists and paleo-artists have imagined this dinosaurian toro engaged in head-butting clashes with other members of its kind. However, based upon the build of the skull, it seems more likely that it was engaged in cranial “shoving matches”, in which both competitors would press their skulls against one another (hence the Velcro-like arrangement of bumps and nodules on the top of their heads in between the horns) and proceed to push and shove in a demonstration of pure muscular strength until one side or another decided that their opponent was too strong, and retreated.

While predators might not necessarily have physically struck each other with their skulls, they could have used their heads in another way that is far more common among carnivorous animals of all sorts today – face-biting. Face-biting is a way to assert dominance among individuals, especially in communal or pack-hunting societies. Several modern carnivorous animals, such as lions, foxes, and wolves, engage in this behavior. The infamous creature known as “Jane”, who might be either a Nanotyrannus or a juvenile Tyrannosaurus (to this day, nobody is exactly sure), has evidence of face-biting. Since many animals today who engage in face biting do so in order to assert their position of dominance in a pack society, this could be further evidence that this animal was itself a pack hunter, at least as a juvenile. At least one specimen of a juvenile Daspletosaurus also has evidence of face-biting. Sue the T. rex possesses marks on the jaw which were previously thought to have been the result of bites, but were later proven to have actually been caused by a bone infection.

Predators aren’t the only animals today that engage in face-biting, so there may have been herbivorous dinosaurs that engaged in the same behavior. The most likely candidate for this is the small African herbivore Heterodontosaurus. The tusks on this creature could have been wielded in actual biting, or they could have been used for fang-bearing contests like modern baboons. Many animals bear their fangs or canines when aggressive, and Heterodontosaurus possibly did this to intimidate rivals and scare off predators. Another animal that can be compared with Heterodontosaurus is the musk deer. However, their long saber-like canine teeth are grown for display, not combat. Musk deer grow huge teeth instead of growing antlers in order to over-awe rival males and to impress females.

Another possibility for serious dinosaur fights was among the sauropods. With their massive builds, any hit, no matter how light, likely would have caused some kind of damage. One modern long-necked animal that uses its body in sheer brute force is the giraffe – a rather placid-looking animal, but don’t make it angry. During the mating season, male giraffes will proceed to whack each other, swinging their long stiffened necks around like baseball bats, with the short stumpy horns on the tops of their heads inflicting some serious pounds-per-square-inch. Some sauropods, like Apatosaurus, had very massive thick necks in proportion with their body size. This leads some to speculate that Apatosaurus and its ilk used their bruiser builds to inflict bruises on others.

Apatosaurus louisae. © Jason R. Abdale. May 11, 2020.

But what about the opposite end of a sauropod? For many of them, the tail was just as long, or longer, than the neck. Tails can be effective weapons. Crocodilians and monitor lizards engage in tail whacking as a way to ward off threats. Many sauropods had thick tails, but others, like Diplodocus, have very long thin tails, and some believe that these long whip-like tails were indeed used like whips. A sharp crack across the side would make any Allosaurus wary.

Diplodocus carnegii. © Jason R. Abdale. May 11, 2020.

Of course, there are dinosaurs that almost certainly used their tails specifically for combat: the stegosaurs and the ankylosaurs. Evidence has been found for injuries inflicted by these animals upon predators, but I’m not certain if any evidence exists for stegosaur spikes or ankylosaur clubs being used upon members of their own kind. However, I can’t imagine it NOT happening.

Well, if you don’t have any biological weaponry on your side, like fangs, horns, spikes, clubs, or whatever, then raw physical force is your go-to option. There is evidence that predator species tangled with prey. The famous fossil find of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops perpetually locked in a mutual mortal combat proves this. But this is likely an example of an attack-gone-wrong. Did dinosaurs of the same species physically grab onto and grapple with each other? Did dinosaurs wrestle, the way that some lizard species do today? Monitor lizards are a prime example of this, when two males will attack each other by essentially doing reptilian ju jitsu. Did dinosaurs wrestle? I’m not sure, but I’m leaning towards no, especially for the larger ones. Many small dinosaurs had thin delicate bones that could be easily broken, and many of the larger dinosaurs simply did not have the arm dexterity to do rough-and-tumble wrestling maneuvers the way that you see monitor lizards doing today. Furthermore, with their large size, being body-slammed to the ground would have done a lot of damage. As they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Many dinosaurs show signs of physical trauma, including broken bones. Many led a very brutal life, with some skeletons being covered with injuries. For those reasons, I would say that most dinosaurs wanted to avoid intense physical combat.

Sometimes, the violence goes to its absolute extreme, and animals deliberately kill each other. Like intra-species fighting, intra-species killing has several motivating factors, both environmental and social. Animals kill each other to either reduce or totally eliminate competition over limited resources. Animals will also kill rivals to increase their own chances for mating, as well as killing the offspring of rivals to increase their own offspring’s chances for survival. As an example, new male lions that take over an existing pride will often kill all of the pride’s cubs in order to completely eliminate the legacy of the preceding male leader.

The most extreme form of intra-species combat is killing followed by cannibalism. Although it is largely taken for granted that prehistoric carnivorous animals ate their own kind under certain circumstances, there is little evidence to support this hypothesis. Some animals will kill and eat the young of other individuals in order to improve the chances of survival for their own young. Others may kill and eat their own kind out of starvation. Still others, like alligators, may view other members of their own kind as a legitimate food source, no different than any other prey item, and actively hunt, kill, and eat each other.

For a long time, it was believed with the firmest dogmatic conviction that the late Triassic dinosaur Coelophysis practiced cannibalism. However, this long-held belief has come into question upon closer examination of the famous Ghost Ranch specimens. It now appears that many of the bones which were previously believed to be inside the ribcages of others were actually lying underneath the ribcages. Furthermore, some of the bones previously identified as juvenile specimens have recently been re-identified as belonging to other reptile species. For the record, I am not stating that Coelophysis never engaged in cannibalism. I am stating that the evidence for cannibalism in this species is not as clear-cut as once believed and needs to be taken with a certain degree of doubt. If the study of paleontology has taught me anything, it’s that there is no such thing as dogma.

Coelophysis. © Jason R. Abdale. April 26, 2015.

Although there’s questionable evidence for cannibalism in Coelophysis, there is more compelling evidence in another dinosaur from the opposite end of the Mesozoic spectrum – Majungasaurus, an abelisaurid from Madagascar who lived at the very end of the Cretaceous Period. In 2007, scientists published findings that tooth marks discovered on some Majungasaurus bones matched the teeth in Majungasaurus’ jaws. So far, this is the only conclusive proof that a theropod species killed and/or ate the flesh of its own kind. I would like to say one thing, though: just because there’s evidence that an animal was cannibalized, that doesn’t necessarily mean that this individual was killed by the animal feeding off of it. As said before, scavengers will sometimes eat the dead bodies of their own kind. To them, meat is meat, no matter where it comes from. Others will not usually eat their own kind, but will do it if they’re desperate enough and cannot find other sources of food. As an example, most humans who have engaged in cannibalism do it out of necessity, not out of habit.

In conclusion, animals will hurt each other and kill each other for a variety of reasons, not only between species but also within species. Competition for mates, competition for food and territory, and establishing your position within the social hierarchy are all seen within the modern animal kingdom, and it’s highly likely that dinosaurs did the same.

Ornitholestes with feathers

Greetings all. Every child with a rough grasp of what life was like in Late Jurassic North America probably knows the Morrison Formation’s main characters. If such a child were to be asked to name the meat-eaters from that formation, the name Ornitholestes would definitely pop up, likely somewhere around third or fourth place.

Ornitholestes was a 6-foot long coelurosaurid theropod dinosaur that lived in western North America during the late Jurassic Period, 155-145 MYA. It is commonly depicted scampering about in the forest, or along the edge of the forest, or sneakily hiding in the shadows out of sight of the larger predators. With the likes of Allosaurus and Torvosaurus stomping around, it’s easy to see why paleo-artists have relegated little Ornitholestes to a bit-part on the Jurassic stage.

But I like to think that Ornitholestes‘ part was much bigger in the never-ending drama of Mesozoic life. Let’s look at its body. I’ve already stated that it was 6 feet long and was therefore about 2 feet tall – large enough to bite you on the knee. It likely weighed a hundred pounds or a smidge less than that – certainly not more. Its skull is worth looking at. Contrary to what has been commonly portrayed, it DID NOT have a little Ceratosaurus-like crest on the end of its nose. That mistake was made when a dislocated bone was mis-identified as a nasal crest. The skull was thin and deep, like a battle axe, and based upon its structure and that of its neck, it likely had a very strong bite. The teeth are small, but they are rather thick in cross-section. A powerful bite and thick teeth? This makes Ornitholestes sound like a precursor to the tyrannosaurs, and no wonder, because the tyrannosaurs are, in fact, highly-evolved coelurosaurs – the same group that Ornitholestes belonged to. The eye sockets on this baby were huge, so it is likely that Ornitholestes was a nocturnal hunter. As for its body, it was a bit on the muscular stocky side, so it was physically strong. It was equipped with long arms ending in three hook-like claws on each hand, and it had a long tail. We can also be fairly sure that Ornitholestes had a coat of thin whispy fur-like feathers on its body since other coelurosaurids that were more primitive and more advanced that Ornitholestes had feathers.

So what can we determine? It was strong for its size, its jaws could crack through eggshells and small bones, it could run, and it could grapple. In short, Ornitholestes was the hyena of the Jurassic savannah.

Hyenas are nothing to laugh at (I’m sorry, that was bad). Hyenas have a reputation for being scavengers, likely because they are commonly seen picking at the leftovers of the lions’ dinner, and because their jaws are the strongest jaws pound-for-pound of any meat-eating animal on the African plains – good for cracking through thick bones of carcasses. But in reality, hyenas are effective hunters as well. They are pack hunters, like lions or wolves, and it’s not unusual to see a gaggle of them, panting and bare-teethed, running down a zebra or a wildebeest.

Was Ornitholestes the same way? Unfortunately, fossils rarely provide evidence for animal behavior. The fact that Ornitholestes fossils are so rare doesn’t help matters. But I dare say that these carnivorous critters were a serious threat to dinosaur mothers who had eggs to protect, they likely did significant damage to hatchlings, they preyed upon smaller animals like thick-boned mammals, and assuredly were seen scavenging carcasses left by other larger meat-eating dinosaurs.

A while back, I drew a picture of Ornitholestes and posted it to this blog. However, it was an “old school” picture portraying Ornitholestes covered in scales. I have recently made an updated version, and I’m posting that image below.

ornitholestes-with-feathers

In addition to the feathers, I’ve also slightly altered the shape of the skull to be a little more accurate. I always try to improve my work, and I dare say that a few years from now after my skills have improved further, I’ll make a drawing of this guy that’s even better than the one you see here.

Keep your pencils sharp, people.

Tyrannosaurus rex with scales

Tyrannosaurus full body with scales

Behold my masterpiece.

This is the fifth T. rex drawing that I’ve posted to this blog, and it is the hardest drawing that I have ever had to make. Every individual scale was done by hand, one by one. This drawing took me months to finish. To give you a better idea about the utterly insane amount of detail, the actual drawing of the dinosaur itself from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail measures precisely 24 inches. Most of the drawn scales measure at only one millimeter in diameter.

As you can see, it is done in the same pose as my previous two full-body T. rex drawings, but I made some noteable improvements:

  1. Slightly changing the shape of the skull – my original one looked a little too much like Tarbosaurus rather than Tyrannosaurus.
  2. Not making the face as shrink-wrapped as the original head drawing was.
  3. Making the neck more detailed and fuller.
  4. Changing the position of the hands to be more anatomically correct.
  5. Making its body fatter – the original was too skinny.
  6. Making the tail thicker and fatter to properly counter-balance the now-heavier front half of the body.
  7. Changing the shape of the feet.

This drawing was made on several sheets of 8.5 x 11 printer paper, with just an ordinary No. 2 pencil…and a whole lot of patience.

Dinosaur Day 2015 at the Garvies Point Museum

GP Museum 1

Well, it was that time of year again! Every April or so, at around the time of Easter, the Garvies Point Museum and Preserve, located in Glen Cove, Nassau County, New York, holds it annual “Dinosaur Day”. This is one of the days that I really look foward to for a few reasons. First, I get to work at a place that I absolutely love and meet with some good friends. Secondly, I get to be out of NYC for a little while, which is something that I ALWAYS look foward to. Third, I get to talk about a subject that has fascinated me since my earliest days – paleontology.

Veronica, the museum’s de facto head of administration, did a wonderful job along with other members of the museum staff of setting up the classroom where the day’s major activities would be taking place. Recently, the museum’s library was substantially increased. The Sands Point Museum and Preserve had closed down its library a short while ago, and all of the books and papers were sent to the GPM. I should state, though, that almost all of these documents were originally part of the GPM collections anyway, and they just got them back, that’s all. However, Louis (one of the workers at the Garvies Point Museum, but works primarily at the Old Bethpage Village – another place that I really love) has been working hard to re-catalogue all of these books and papers back into the museum’s database.

The name of the event was somewhat misleading, as it concerned all prehistoric life, not just dinosaurs. We had exhibits on primitive mammal-like-reptiles, dinosaurs, and prehistoric mammals.

Here are some pictures of what the room looked like both during and after the hoards of kids showed up.

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Most of the really young children gravitated immediately towards the dino toy area and the fossil digsite. The older children and a lot of the adults were interested in the information that I and others were giving. They were especially interested in Dimetrodon, the famous sail-backed pelycosaur from the early Permian Period. I don’t think that I have ever had to say the name”Dimetrodon” so many times within the course of a single day! It seemed to be the only thing that many of them wanted to talk about!

Some of the major topics of interest on this day were: the Permian Mass Extinction, which occured about 251 million years ago, when an estimate 95% of all life was wiped out; of course, T. rex was a favorite; as too was Allosaurus, who competed with its larger relative for attention from the crowds. This was helped in no small part to the fact that we had a lot of Allosaurus “stuff” arrayed for them: a picture of the skull, a hand model, bone casts, a model, and my drawing which you might recognize from an earlier post on this blog.

Finally, here’s a picture of me, “the Dinosaur Man” as several members of the museum staff call me, dressed up as an amateur paleontologist. In addition to my olive drab Garvies Point Museum shirt, I also wore a khaki utility vest, because apparently ALL paleontologists wear khaki utility vests! I thought that wearing it would help to enhance my ethos with the audience, and by my reckoning, it worked.

Picture 099

 

 

News: “Nanook of the North”? New tyrannosaur species from Alaska

Paleontologists have recently announced the discovery and naming of a new tyrannosaur species from Alaska. They have called it Nanuqsaurus hoglundi.

The discovery was made by a team of paleontologists working for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, located in Dallas, Texas; the team was led by Prof. Anthony R. Fiorillo. The fossils were found at the Prince Creek Formation in Alaska in 2006 when the team was hunting for ceratopsians (that’s “horned-faced” dinos, like Triceratops and Styracosaurus). They consist of the front portion of the lower jaw (the bone is called the “dentary” because that’s the bone in the lower jaw that has the teeth in it) and two small pieces of the upper jaw. The pieces were collected, and then gathered dust for a while until Prof. Fiorillo and his associate Dr. Ronald Tykoski re-examined them.

Admitedly, it’s not that much to go on, but apparently, it was enough to create not only a new species, but a new genus. That doesn’t surprise me at all, as paleontologists are well known to be afflicted with what I call “neogenitis” – “the new genus disease”. They just can’t resist making up new names for things. The name Nanuqsaurus derives from the Inupiak word nanuq, meaning “polar bear”, and the ancient Greek word sauros, “lizard”. The species name is in honor of the philanthropist Forrest Hoglund.

The fossils date to 70 million years ago. It appears to be closely related to both Tyrannosaurus rex and a close relative called Tarbosaurus bataar which lived in Mongolia (some paleontologists consider Tarbosaurus bataar merely to be an Asian species of Tyrannosaurus – personally, I don’t buy it for a few reasons, but I won’t get into them here). Based upon the size of the remains, limited though they may be, Nanuqsaurus may have been only half the size of T. rex.

Professor Fiorillo suspects that the animal’s small size might be a reference to a limited food supply up in the Great un-White North of the late Cretaceous. Although only three small pieces were recovered, it is strongly plausible that a northern tyrannosaur like Nanuqsaurus would be covered in an insulating layer of feathery fuzz.

Tyrannosaurus rex – IN COLOR!

Ever since I put my “Tyrannosaurus rex head” and “Tyrannosaurus rex body” drawings on this website months ago, visitors to this blog have always been looking at them. I know that because I regularly view my visitor stats when I log on, and I am always pleased to see that these two posts are always clicked on. Obviously all of you out there in web-world like them. Thank you. It makes me feel good to know that my work is appreciated.

In keeping with the popularity of these posts on the king tyrant lizard, I have decided to add another one. This one is a color pencil version of my T. rex body drawing, which I posted earlier. I used a combination of Crayola and Prismacolor colored pencils. I chose to make it in a striped green color with a pale tan underside and with black lower legs just to add some eye-catching color contrasts. This color pattern was unusual for me, since I mostly associate Tyrannosaurus with a sort of reddish-brown color. I should point out that we have absolutely no idea whatsoever what color T. rex was. However, since it is hypothesized with some credibile evidence that T. rex lived in forested environments, this color pattern seemed logical.

Hope you enjoy.

Tyrannosaurus rex body color