Friday, 30 December 2011

2011 Reviewed

2010 was an astonishingly busy year in the world of palaeontology and was often referred to as the year of the ceratopsians. 2011 has also been an amazing year and, looking back, it’s hard to think of declaring it as the year of anything in particular but, if I had to, I would declare 2011 the year of that most iconic of animals, Archaeopteryx. Here are some things that caught my eyes and ears during this most fascinating of years.

In January we were treated to the announcement of Teratophoneus curriei, yet another tyrannosaurid from the Carr and Williamson stable, presented as the most basal tyrannosaurine known from North America. “Currie’s monster murderer” provides further evidence of regional endemism in the American southwest.

Also, in January, there was another suggestion that dinosaurs may have survived the KT impact by as much as 700,000 years after a group of scientists, led by Larry Heaman of the University of Alberta, dated a hadrosaur femur using U-Pb (uranium lead) dating technology to 64.8 million years old. The researchers believe that if more recovered material is dated accordingly then the extinction date of the dinosaurs will almost certainly have to be revised.

February was fairly quiet although it was good to see Mike Taylor featuring in the New York Times, who briefly looked at his career in the wake of the announcement of Brontomerus mcintoshi. March, however, saw Greg Paul stir up the proverbial hornet’s nest by suggesting, albeit in a roundabout way, that his style of artistic restoration i.e. the “Greg Paul Look” is more or less his own copyrighted style and that permission should be sort before “his style” is utilised by other artists. He also appeared to criticise other artists for daring to sell images, in “his style”, at prices less than other well established artists would charge!

I am a huge admirer of Greg Paul, both as a palaeontologist and artist, but this did seem to be a little disingenuous and rightly provoked a huge response and outcry in the palaeoworld and the arguments that followed proved both fascinating and enduring. Just where this will end up in the future is anyone’s guess.
March also saw the announcement that a motion picture of Walking with Dinosaurs in 3D would be hitting the cinemas in 2013. With a budget in the region of 65 million dollars the film promises to use ground breaking 3D and LIDAR technology to make it the ultimate dinosaurian encounter. Of course, whether we can expect some science in the film is anyone’s guess but we all remain ever hopeful.

Another tyrannosaur made the news in March – this one being Zhuchengtyrannus magnus, brought to us by Dave Hone et al. Identified from an associated maxilla and dentary, Zhuchengtyrannus is yet another interesting tyrannosaurine and comparable in size to both Tarbosaurus and Tyrannosaurus.

April was a personal triumph for me as I found my first partially articulated plesiosaur in the Oxford Clay. The animal appears to be a juvenile and remains unidentified but it is slowly being prepared and this provides yet more detail as we proceed. We may be little closer to identifying the animal now after we compared some elements with multiple examples of plesiosaurs in the Leeds collection at the Natural History Museum in London last week – but  a degree of certainty remains elusive.

Back to tyrannosaurs and a superb paper describing the skull of a juvenile Tarbosaurus was published in May in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology by Tsuihiji et al. I said at the time that I thought this was the paper of the year for me and I still do. The description of the cranial osteology of the specimen is an excellent and lucid account and the paper is set out spot on in my humble opinion. Read it now if you have not already done so.

Premiering in June, Dino Gangs was a documentary on the Discovery Channel featuring Phil Currie’s assertion that the tyrannosaurine, Tarbosaurus, hunted in packs. This was reviewed at multiple sites and blogs and met with a mixed reaction which, in the end, probably came out on the positive side of things. I felt that it was, overall, a good programme but that the assertion that tyrannosaurs hunted something akin to mammalian pack hunters of today was a little fanciful but at least the opposite view was fairly represented, albeit only briefly.

2011 was the 150th anniversary of the discovery of Archaeopteryx and the celebrations were launched, in earnest, during June. The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin launched a special exhibition which not only displayed the Berlin specimen in all its glory, but also the counter slab for the first time, and also the original fossil feather that was first designated as Archaeopteryx.

The monograph describing Scipionyx samniticus was published to what appeared to be universal acclaim by the palaeoworld and huge praise was lavished upon the authors, Cristiano Dal Sasso and Simone Maganuco. It is unusual for such a monograph to be so well received and the authors are to be congratulated for producing such a fine (and important) publication and contribution.

July saw the news that Jurassic Park 4 was definitely going to be made – again. Steven Spielberg made the announcement in San Diego at Comic-Con 2011 and met with, yet again, a mixed reaction from fans and the palaeoworld alike. I suggest we wait until the film actually goes into production before anything else since there are no guarantees that it will ever get made in the first place.

Also during July was the assertion that Archaeopteryx was more likely to be a basal dromaeosaur as opposed to being a basal bird. A new paper by Xu et al describe a new theropod from China that suggests that features found in Archaeopteryx, thought to be diagnostic of Avialae, are actually characteristic of Paraves.  As you can imagine, this invoked huge discussion in the palaeoworld and was to take yet another direction later in the year.

In August it was announced that scientists had successfully created chicken embryos that grew crocodile-like snouts instead of beaks. By adjusting their DNA to resemble alligator genes, the beak development was halted and snouts developed instead. Genetic signalling such as this is becoming better understood with every passing year and Jack Horner’s “Chickenosaurus” is almost certainly just around the corner, if it has not already been done.

The suggestion that plesiosaurs may have given live birth is nothing new but evidence provided by F.R. O’Keefe and Luis Chiappe in August certainly was. Mentioned a couple of times in this blog, a specimen of Polycotylus latippinus clearly displays an embryo within the body cavity of the adult and suggests that these plesiosaurs may have given birth to a single well developed newborn that was possibly dependent on the adult for care.  

September was a bumper month for dinosaur television with Dinosaur Revolution, Planet Dinosaur and Terra Nova all premiering. Both Dinosaur Revolution and Planet Dinosaur were generally well received by the palaeoworld with both having strengths and weaknesses although, having seen both series, I feel that Planet Dinosaur was the more superior product from the scientific view point. They were both, however, a significant improvement on previous attempts at portraying the prehistoric world. After a slow start, Terra Nova slowly improved and it seems likely that a second series will now go ahead although we will probably have to wait until May for confirmation of that.

Also in September, Nick Longrich et al presented evidence that demonstrated that Late Maastrichtian birds were flourishing and diversifying right up to the moment that the K-T extinction occurred. The team identified 17 species that all failed to survive into the Paleogene and included birds of various sizes across a range of groups. This is the first evidence that contradicts the  suggestion that  archaic birds were gradually becoming extinct throughout the Late Cretaceous and then disappeared at the same time as the Chicxulub asteroid strike.

Other items of interest in September include the first possible preservation of dinosaurian feathers preserved in 79 million year old amber from southern Alberta in Canada. Some of the preservation is outstanding and displays exquisite filaments and, amazingly, remains of pigment which has all sorts of implications as the search to reveal the colours of dinosaurs hots up.  A new troodontid was also announced in September, Talos sampsoni, and is the first troodontid to be named in North America for the best part of 75 years and the Hadrosaur Symposium took place at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta to much acclaim and there was some significant work presented regarding these wonderful animals. The volume of papers that will follow is sure to be in great demand and will greatly add to our knowledge of these fascinating creatures.

In October, a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, lowered the bar for a so-called scientific paper by suggesting that not only did a giant kraken-sized squid prey on giant ichthyosaurs (for which there is no evidence) but also rearranged their bones in nice patterns to form a self-portrait! No need to say anymore about this really except that it has been universally condemned by all in the palaeoworld but it is unfortunate that it managed to get so much air time and press.

New images of a stunningly preserved theropod hit the wires in October and caused quite a stir. What a magnificent specimen it is and is 98% complete. Unusually, the paper and name of this animal are still to be released and, hopefully, Oliver Rauhut and his team won’t keep us in suspense for too much longer.

Earlier I mentioned how Archaeopteryx was now possibly a basal dromaeosaur but in October he was back to being a bird again as Michael Lee of the South Australian Museum performed a much more rigorous phylogenetic analysis using a superior and sophisticated statistical methodology. This dragged Archaeopteryx back from dromaeosaurs and nestled the animal quite happily back amongst the birds and highlights the fine line between what is a bird and what is a dinosaur – although, of course, they are one and the same thing. Still with Archaeopteryx and the London specimen (BMNH 37001) was finally designated the neotype by the ICZN since the original holotype was a feather and could not be designated to Archaeopteryx alone since there were almost certainly other feathered animals that shared the  same environment.

In November, it was suggested that the plumage of Archaeopteryx was likely to be black in colour after Ryan Carney and his co-authors discovered that the melanosomes identified on an Archaeopteryx feather were most likely to be black. These were identified using scanning electron microscopy and then comparing them with similar feathers from 87 extant bird species.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting took place in Las Vegas and was one of the biggest meetings ever held. There were a multitude of presentations and posters that have been covered extensively on this blog and I covered only a fraction of the data that was presented. Finally, in November, tyrannosaur aficionados were interested by tyrannosaur remains reported from the Turonian of Uzbekistan. Authors Alexander Averianov and Hans-Dieter Sues suggest that the remains represent a non-tyrannosaurid tyrannosauroid more basal than the Campanian tyrannosaurids Bistahieversor and Appalachiosaurus.

There was still no let up in December as the new ceratopsian Spinops sternbergorum was announced, Alamosaurus was designated as the biggest North American sauropod – comparable to Argentinosaurus in size, and Nedoceratops became the latest casualty in the continuing synonymising of chasmosaurines, turning out to be an ontogenetic stage between Triceratops and the “Torosaurus” morphology. The mind boggles.....

This time last year, like the previous year, I was wondering if 2011 could possibly live up to the previous year but it has. As we go into 2012 I find myself wondering the same and yet the world of palaeontology has become a fast moving breathing object that has spread out across the globe and encompasses so many wonderful people who share the passion – some I am lucky to call both friend and colleague. I have no doubt that 2012 will be another fascinating year for all of us. Happy new year to you all.     


Anonymous said...

"The monograph describing Scypionyx samniticus was published..."

A little typo. Scypionyx instead of Scipionyx.

Anyway, thank you for this post. Here we're hoping 2012 will be at least as good as 2011 was regarding Paleontology.

Mark Wildman said...

Thanks Henrique - corrected now. I go through the posts as thoroughly as I can but there is always the odd one or two that get through!

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