Friday, 28 September 2012

In the News

There have been some interesting news snippets over the last few weeks that make for interesting, amusing and sad reading.  Apparently James Cameron (above), the director of films such as Aliens, Titanic and Avatar, came close to making and directing Jurassic Park.
Cameron revealed at the Titanic Museum in Belfast earlier this month that he had, indeed, intended to acquire the film rights to the book but that Steven Spielberg had beaten him to the punch by a few hours. He admits, after seeing Jurassic Park that, in retrospect, Spielberg was the right director to make the film since he made it for the whole family to enjoy.
However, Cameron then describes that he would have made it much the same as Aliens – but with dinosaurs and that he would, and I quote, “…..I’d have gone further, nastier, much nastier”.  Can I just say how much I would have loved to have seen a James Cameron directed Jurassic Park? I mean – can you imagine it? Aliens with dinosaurs? Oh yes please!
Granted the wonder of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and the feel good factor about the whole film would be a miss but a Cameron-esque JP may have been just as spectacular. If they remake JP in the future (as is rumoured) perhaps Cameron could be considered as director? Well fingers crossed for that one but in the meantime we will have to continue with the wait for the much delayed Jurassic Park 4.
Wind turbines are continually in the news – especially in the UK. The current coalition government in the country is very keen on wind power and, despite mounting concern about maintaining subsidies and grants, continue to promote and permit an ever growing amount of these structures. Of course this is all very green but highly controversial. You need an enormous amount of wind turbines to generate even a modest amount of electricity and many people have no desire to see this continual upsurge in the amount of wind farms that are springing up everywhere – especially when areas of natural beauty are threatened.
One only has to look at the east coast of England to comprehend the scale of the project. These days you cannot look out to sea without seeing them emerge out of the gloom – huge ghostly structures that appear completely soul less with no obvious benefit other than to spoil the view. What does all this have to do with dinosaurs I hear you ask?
Well, interestingly, engineering giant Siemens have developed a series of upgrades to improve upon the standard propeller–shaped blades of currently installed wind turbines which produce a definite increase in efficiency and power output. And, amazingly, these are all based upon morphologies found in dinosaurs!
The first of these upgrades is called DinoTails and is based upon the staggered plate arrangement of Stegosaurus. This serrated profile increases the total wind surface area of the blade thus creating a superior blade uplift while at the same time, because the stegosaur inspired fins break up the resulting turbulence, reduce noise levels.
"DinoTails" mounted on blades
DinoShells are based upon the curve of a dinosaur egg and appear to be shaped like a snow shovel. These work by extending the length of the blade right down to the union between blade and turbine thus providing increased down force to the blade which also results in yet more efficiencies.
The third innovation is as yet unnamed but is known as a Vortex Generator. These are small fins that maintain air contact with the top of the blade for longer, thus increasing lift which in turn, provides yet another increase in efficiency.  Siemens have not actually divulged why they went back to the Mesozoic for their innovative ideas but it is a tribute to the dinosaurs that they did. Although these upgrades amount to what seems to be  a modest increase in efficiency, amounting to 1.5%, it has to be remembered that to a large wind farm this would provide enough additional  power to provide energy for an additional 2,500 homes – not to be sniffed at.  
Some sad news now and talented amateur geologist and palaeontologist Geoff Toye died recently at the age of 60 in his home village of Slinfold in West Sussex. Slinfold is in the very heart of the Weald and is close to the quarries that I have mentioned in this blog before including the Cuckoo’s Hole, Peacefield and the Bluff.
Indeed, Geoff’s most famous find was a superb specimen of Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis (formerly Iguanodon) that he found at the Bluff back in 2001. This superb specimen is probably the most complete example ever to be found on the mainland and featured in a palaeoenvironmental paper back in 2008 (detail available upon request).
Previously, in 1999, Geoff had found a new species of dragonfly in the Weald and the species was named Angloaeschnidium toyei in his honour. I had the privilege of meeting Geoff many times over the years during many field trips in the Weald and he always came across as an extremely pleasant man, very positive and really knew what he was talking about. He was a very talented fossil prospector as well and would often find material that others had missed.
I had only learned that Geoff was ill earlier this year but detail was hard to come by at that point and it is a very sad day that he has gone. I know I speak for many of us in sending our sympathies to his wife Gillian and know that he will be sadly missed by all of us who knew him.
Those of you who have frequented Dan Chure’s blog since 2010 will have followed the story of the dismantling and rebuilding of the new Quarry Visitor Centre at Dinosaur National Monument (DNM) which reopened in September 2011. Dan, as the palaeontologist for DNM for over 30 years, was well placed to guide us through the trials and tribulations of demolition and reconstruction whilst, at the same time, protecting the valuable fossil bones embedded but exposed in the quarry wall.
It is good to report that the $13 million spent and all the hard work was worthwhile since the number of visitors to DNM is up 47% in the first half of the year and long may the trend continue. DNM is high on my hit list of places to visit and I really intend to see it within the next few years. Incidentally, all of Dan’s posts about the Quarry Visitor Centre Project are still there to be seen and make for interesting reading and there are some great images too – go and check it out if you have not already done so.
Just to prove that the silly season lasts all year round these days, Australian mining magnate and billionaire Clive Palmer is in the news yet again. Palmer is the man who agreed in principle, during April this year, to a joint venture with the CSC Jinling Shipyard in China to construct a full size replica of the Titanic that he is hoping will be as close to the original as possible and be ready to sail during 2016.
Clive Palmer
Palmer also has a luxury resort in Coolum on the sunshine coast of Queensland in Australia and it is here that he is rumoured to be planning his own Jurassic Park – with real cloned dinosaurs! According to the rumour mill, Palmer has been discussing his plans for cloned dinosaurs with experts who were heavily involved with cloning Dolly the sheep all those years ago.  Although widely considered ridiculous, the story was apparently leaked from Palmer’s “inner circle”.
Depending on which newspaper you believe, Palmer is keeping quiet about his plans or, as seems more likely, is denying the rumour apparently stating that “It’s just a beat-up of a story and untrue” – according to the Gold Coast Bulletin. Either way, you have to laugh at the absurdity of the story although it has to be said that if billions of dollars are required to make it happen, then Palmer is your man *cough*!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

In Search of Pliosaur Pefection

I would imagine that the ultimate aim for any aspiring vertebrate field palaeontologist is to find a new species or perhaps find as perfect and articulated a specimen as could possibly be discovered. Of course, both are incredibly difficult to achieve but that does not mean that it is impossible and consistent sampling in the correct rocks should, on the face of it, eventually produce the goods and even the most heavily sampled formations in the world continue to throw up surprises.
The Morrison Formation of North America is just such a place and, even after nearly 140 years of field work, continues to produce and there are still new dinosaur taxa to be announced in the not too distant future. Other highly productive formations, such as the Hell Creek, Two Medicine and Dinosaur Park also, from time to time, throw up something new and throw a spanner into the sometime static dinosaurian status quo. Micropalaeontology also reveals that some formations have yet to yield many dinosaurian taxa since, although there are quite often teeth that are identifiable at the generic level, there is a distinct lack of skeletal remains to identify the specific owners of these teeth and there is the likelihood that some of these will be new to science.
Of course, formations such as these are not just restricted to North America and some are much closer to home. The Oxford Clay Formation in the UK is one of these and is one of the most heavily sampled and best known fossil lagerstätten in the world and yet even now new specimens are still occasionally described (Cruickshank et al 1996; Ketchum & Benson 2011) and those of us who work in the strata are continually surprised at what pops up from time to time.
There is no doubt, however, that workers today are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to new specimens being located. The golden age of discovery, such as when the Leeds brothers amassed their vast collections, was during the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. During this period house building was at its peak and demand for bricks was high and, since this was during the days before mechanisation, most clay was removed from the quarries by hand. This, of course, allowed for a far greater discovery of vertebrate fossils and many fine specimens were removed. Indeed, it was common practice for workers to be paid for every bucket of fossils they produced – a tactic used during the earliest days of fossil bone collecting. Mantell was one of the first and many others over the years have employed the same tactic.
The onset of mechanisation changed everything and the discovery of relatively complete articulated specimens began to drop off although new specimens were continually found throughout the 20th century. As mechanisation became more complex and the spectre of health and safety came to the fore during the 80’s and 90’s then the amount of specimens continually diminished with only a small proportion being recovered after being located by permitted visiting groups. The time of anyone asking to be allowed into a quarry to look for fossils as a hobby was over; this was also a loss, because several important specimens were located by these dedicated amateurs.
Today, there are hardly any quarries left and those that remain are heavily regulated and access is nearly always denied. However, the clay is still the same as it ever was and there must be many fine specimens still awaiting discovery. Chief amongst these, and the ultimate aim for somebody like me, are the pliosaurs – especially Liopleurodon. 
A big Liopleurodon tooth comes to light
Liopleurodon was one of the largest pliosaurs and is easily comparable to other well-known animals such as the Westbury Pliosaurus (Sassoon et al 2012), the as yet undescribed Dorset giant that made the news last year and the badly managed monster, the so called “Predator X”, from Svalbard within the Arctic Circle.
The skulls of these large pliosaurs are immense, approaching 3 metres in length, and are capable of producing an incredibly powerful bite force. This power was generated by enormous muscles and the muscle attachments on the lower jaw are massive and were coupled with a neck that was also heavily muscled. This massive head was propelled by an enormous and powerful body and this combination made these marine reptiles the super predators of their day.
Interestingly, however, preserved stomach contents for big pliosaurs are rare. One particular Liopleurodon specimen from the Oxford Clay was said to display fish scales and belemnite hooklets and little else – apart from a few stones - but this specimen was apparently a juvenile and may not reflect the actual dietary preferences of an adult.
However, it is pretty obvious that these macro predators were not content with merely munching on fish and squid. Approaching 15 metres in length and maybe more, large pliosaurs would have needed larger prey to sustain their large body size and their contemporaries in the oceans would have fitted the bill nicely. There are numerous bones from plesiosaurs and marine crocodiles that display predation marks including puncture wounds, scraping and evidence of chewing – and these quite clearly demonstrate morphologies indicating that large pliosaurs such as Liopleurodon were the most likely perpetrators.
It would be amazing to locate a big, fairly complete articulated pliosaur from the Oxford Clay – especially Liopleurodon. Just before Quarry 4 was closed, we were starting to find bits and pieces including teeth and a large vertebra from this pliosaur but we ran out of time and were unable to locate any more bone and, as you cans see from the photograph below, the quarry is slowly being returned to nature and gradually filling up with water. The Liopleurodon site is now buried forever which is a shame but one of those things.  
So a big articulated pliosaur with a complete skull loaded with teeth, around 30 feet long with every single bone in place - that would do nicely!  Ah – we can dream. Maybe one day……..


Cruickshank, Arthur R I, Martill, David M and Noè, Leslie; 1996; A pliosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia) exhibiting pachyostosis from the Middle Jurassic of England; Journal of the Geological Society of London; 153 pp.873-879
Ketchum, H.F. and R. B. J. Benson. 2011. A new pliosaurid (Sauropterygia, Plesiosauria) from the Oxford Clay Formation (Middle Jurassic, Callovian) of England: evidence for a gracile, longirostrine grade of Early-Middle Jurassic pliosaurids. Special Papers in Palaeontology 86:109-129
Sassoon, J., Noé, L. F. and Benton, M. J. (2012), Cranial anatomy, taxonomic implications and palaeopathology of an Upper Jurassic Pliosaur (Reptilia: Sauropterygia) from Westbury, Wiltshire, UK. Palaeontology, 55: 743–773. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2012.01151.x