Monday, 31 December 2012

2012 in Review

So another year in the palaeoworld draws to an end and, unlike the last couple of years, I found it to be relatively quiet by current standards. For example, 2010 was the year of the ceratopsians, last year I thought was the year of Archaeopteryx but this year there has been nothing that has really caught my eye to warrant such an epithet. Be that as it may, there was still plenty to keep us all occupied and here are some bits and bobs that caught my eye in 2012.
The year started on a very sad note with the passing of talented palaeoartist Dan Varner after a battle with a long illness. Dan was an accomplished landscape and wildlife painter but it was the prehistoric world that really fired his imagination and he produced copious amounts of paintings – in particular he was renowned for his depictions of the marine life in the Niobrara chalk seas of Kansas. Dan was also a noted field palaeontologist in his own right and had a solid knowledge of stratigraphy. For a superb gallery of some of Dan’s work, I urge you to head over to Mike Everhart’s superb Oceans of Kansas website and take a look. Dan will be sadly missed.
We also found out in January that Terra Nova had already been cancelled after only one series. I had mixed feelings about Terra Nova and would probably have liked the series to have been given the opportunity of a second series to see how it would have developed. But it was not to be and the series can be consigned to televisual history as an expensive failure. A shame.
One thing that came out of the blue was Jack Horner’s decision to marry 19 year old undergraduate Vanessa Shiann Weaver. This caused a little ripple throughout the paleontological world mainly due to the 46 year age difference between the two. In the end it is nobody else’s business whether we think it right or wrong or, indeed, question the ethics involved. It takes two to agree to get married and I hope that they are very happy together and have a long and successful marriage.
I confess that although I could not designate 2012 as the “year of” for anything in particular there was one subject that was perpetually in the headlines and that was the origins of Tyrannosauroidea. In February, Steve Brusatte and Roger Benson renamed some tyrannosauroid material from England as Juratyrant. They had been reassessing Late Jurassic elements and phylogenetic analysis revealed that this material, which had initially been diagnosed as Stokesosaurus sp., was sufficiently different to warrant the erection of a new taxon – Juratyrant. This places another cog in the continuingly turning wheels of the intricate understanding of tyrannosauroid evolution.
Also in February, and perhaps not totally unexpected, was the announcement by scientists from both the Universities of Liverpool and Manchester that Tyrannosaurus rex had the most powerful bite of any known land animal. I know that the team has actually put the science behind the statement but I could not help but think that this was proving something that was already generally accepted – Greg Erickson had proved this many years before. Still, as I say, the team has put the numbers in the column that reinforces the hypothesis some more and, in the end, it is still important.
Nick Longrich and Dan Field did their bit to keep the Torosaurus/Triceratops synonymy issue simmering along nicely. Using a combination of ontogenetic and taxonomic methods (amongst others) the authors state their belief that the two chasmosaurines are indeed separate taxa. This, of course, prompted yet more debate (some of it heated) on the issue but I am happy that there is always going to be scientists out there who challenge what can easily be perceived as a generally accepted hypothesis. There were further discussions on the issue at SVP so, if you have not already done so, go and check out the ceratopsian review.
Not a lot happened in March but the one stand out item, for me, was the publication of the Alioramus altai monograph by Brusatte and all. I wrote a pretty comprehensive review of this monograph but I will state again that, not only was this the paper of the year for me, but it raises the bar to a level for all other monographs to aim for. A superb descriptive narrative backed up by some of the best photographic images that you will see in any paper. I know that I am probably a little bias since it involves a tyrannosaurid but it really is that good and I learnt so much about tyrannosaurid anatomy. Read it now if you have not already done so but be warned – at nearly 200 pages long it is a BIG read but well worth it. Well done to the authors.
Probably the silliest story of the year appeared in April and involved a Professor Brian J. Ford and his aquatic dinosaur theory. If you did miss this (how?) Ford suggests that dinosaurs were so big that they could not possibly support their own body weight without the aid of water. He does not mean just sauropods either but all large dinosaurs. Unfortunately the story gained attention at a national level but there were enough of us to make sure that the story received the rebuttal it deserved. However, I understand we can expect further revelations from Ford about his aquatic dinosaurs in the not too distant future – I can hardly wait.
Yutyrannus arrived with a bang in April and the feathered tyrannosauroid ruffled more than a few feathers as it became apparent that 30 foot tyrannosaurs could indeed be feathered which of course led to yet more speculation that T. rex itself may have been feathered. My thoughts on this are well known and there is no need to go over them again and Yutyrannus is an awesome animal regardless but there is still a chance that it may not actually be a tyrannosauroid. I will know more in 2013 and, if I am permitted, then I will let you know.
In May, energy businessman David H. Koch of Koch Industries Inc. made a stunning $35 million donation to the Smithsonian NMNH to renovate its dinosaur hall. The new hall, on completion, will be named after Koch and I believe that this is only fair. Koch has made previous donations to the Smithsonian including one of $15 million to create its Hall of Human Origins. Other beneficiaries of Koch’s generosity also include the American Museum of Natural History where he donated $20 million to create the Koch Dinosaur Wing. Some people may question his ethics but you cannot question the fact that his donations and commitment are real and these institutions can consider themselves fortunate to be patronised by such an individual.
Another very popular paper was published in May and this was a phylogeny of Tetanurae by Messrs Carrano, Benson and Sampson. Another superb publication and an updated baseline for all those into their tetanurans. Great stuff.
It was also May that the ugly spectre of illegal smuggling form Mongolia was brought very much into the public eye with the now infamous Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton that was auctioned at Heritage Auctions for over $1 million. Fortunately the sale was blocked and ever since then there has been a long drawn out process to return the specimen to Mongolia and see that justice is done. More on this later.  
In June came the announcement of a new theropod called Bicentenaria argentina. This 2.5 to 3 metre long animal is represented by 130 bones recovered from 90 million year old deposits in Rio Negro in Patagonia and is on display in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately this is yet another taxon that has been released in public before the paper has been published and, as a result, very little is known about this enigmatic beast. I understand that sometimes sponsors or public events may dictate that a public announcement is required of some description but it would be nice if some reasonable data was made available at the same time – even if it was just an abstract or short communication.  Something would be better than nothing.
Another taxon that was similarly treated was the astonishingly well preserved Sciurimimus which was finally published in July by Rauhut et al. The “squirrel mimic” has turned out to be a juvenile megalosauroid and has yet further ramifications on the origins of feathers in dinosaurs and, indeed, about the distribution of feathers within Dinosauria as a whole.
Another story that tends to catch the eye, but for all the wrong reasons, is mindless vandalism of fossils in situ. This was brought home by the destruction of a hadrosaur specimen in Grand Prairie in Alberta which, incidentally, was one of several examples in Alberta this year. What on earth possesses these idiots to do such things? I cannot quite get my head around it and I urge you, wherever you are in the world, because this happens on a worldwide scale, to keep alert and inform the correct authorities if you know who may be responsible for such stupidity.
Dog Finds Dinosaur” is not a headline you expect to see but this actually happened during August. The dog did not locate the specimen of course and it is not a dinosaur but it is quite a remarkable specimen. The Keating family were out walking their dog in Nova Scotia when they stumbled across the remains of what was described as a sail-baked synapsid from the Late Carboniferous/Early Permian – circa 290 to 305 million years old. It turns out that the specimen is actually a temnospondyl – specifically Dendrerpeton arcadianum. There are certain characters that are particularly not found in synapsids. For example this specimen displays a sclerotic ring which is unknown in synapsids.
Another specimen of Mei long was announced in September and this specimen was also found in the “soundly sleeping dragon” position – just like the holotype. Whilst this in itself is not enough to confirm any behavioural implication, it does add to the growing belief that this is a stereotypical life position for these little dinosaurs.
SVP took place in October in Raleigh, North Carolina to universal acclaim that it was one of the best meetings in recent years. Being lucky enough to attend this year I can confirm that it was just brilliant and I look forward to the next meeting. Not such good news this month was that the Isle of Wight Council have decided to sell the building that constitutes the Dinosaur Isle Museum off to the highest bidder despite the fact it had been built using National Lottery funding. Backers of the museum have been trying to stop this and see the future of the building and museum as a trust and we wish them well in their endeavours.
Another big story broke in October and that was the discovery of ornithomimids with feathers. The fossils were recovered from Upper Cretaceous deposits in Alberta. These are superb specimens and again broaden the evolutionary scope of feathers within Dinosauria and are especially important since they reveal that this kind of plumage evolved relatively early in non-maniraptoran theropods.
Also in October, another new theropod taxon was announced by fellow blogger Andrea Cau and colleagues as they introduced us to Sauroniops pachytholus. This carcharodontosaurid looks a real bruiser with his heavily built and thickened skull and it will be fascinating to see more of this animal as and when more material is uncovered.    
There was still enough ceratopsian research throughout 2012 to keep us all on our toes and in November we welcomed Xenoceratops foremostensis to the fold. This interesting specimen came from Upper Cretaceous deposits of the Foremost Formation and is diagnosed as a new taxon due to characteristics in the squamosal and parietal. Xenoceratops comes out as the most basalmost centrosaurine known after an updated phylogenetic analysis.
And finally, in December, we see in the news that Eric Prokopi, the man responsible for smuggling in the illegally collected T. bataar specimen into the US, has indeed been found guilty of smuggling and other counts of misappropriation. The tyrannosaur skeleton will be returned to Mongolia whilst other substantial dinosaur remains have been forfeited to the court in an attempt to gain leniency from a sentence that could be as long as 17 years in jail.
Whilst I do not condone what Prokopi has done, I feel we must be very careful not to be jingoistic about the situation. Prokopi has got what he deserved for sure but there are many others who are equally as guilty and very likely on a much bigger scale. I prefer to be optimistic about the situation and hope that this is a landmark case which will lead to further prosecutions in the future and, ultimately, a change in the law which will see all illegally imported fossils returned to their country of origin, regardless of how they obtained entry into the US.
And Finally
2012 has been a big year for me in a number of ways. It is the year when I decided to make a mark in the world of palaeontology and I became proactive in establishing a research group which is slowly coming together and I hope will develop into something special. Certainly things have been going very well and we count in our small number a couple of established (and very well known) palaeontologists, three vertebrate preparators as well as other significant specialists.
It is regretful that I am presently unable to reveal any detail since the project is currently under a publicity embargo that prevents any disclosure until we are permitted. Whilst this may seem draconian I can assure you that this is absolutely necessary and we accept this restriction without question. Ultimately the groups’ aims are to the benefit of all students and palaeontologists worldwide and I assure you that any specimens involved will always end up in the correct accredited depositories and will always be available to researchers.
The palaeontological blogosphere has certainly blossomed in 2012 with several new blogs making their bow. We are quite the force for good these days and we all make a definite contribution to the promotion of our science. Social networking via Facebook, Twitter and others make the dissemination of information almost instant and the power we wield when we get together is not to be sniffed at – we can and do make a difference. Here’s to all my fellow bloggers and more power to you all.
At this point I would make a point of thanking a few names but there has been so many people this year who have helped that to single out a few would seem mean spirited but you know who you are – especially those of you at SVP who have offered help and advice with regards to the group. Thank you all.
And to you, my dear readers, my most humblest of thanks for continuing to peruse my blog. It really makes everything worthwhile and I really am very grateful for your presence.
All that remains to say is that I wish you all the happiest of New Year’s in 2013 and that all of your hopes and aspirations come true.





Hadiaz said...

"The “squirrel mimic” has turned out to be a juvenile megalosauroid and has yet further ramifications on the origins of feathers in dinosaurs and, indeed, about the distribution of feathers within Dinosauria as a whole."

Not necessarily ("But Cau found this as a basal coelurosaur, and his analysis included more coelurosaur species, so I'd tend to put more stock in that one": ). I know I've mentioned this b-4, but I thought your original statement was too broad a generalization (No offense).

-Herman Diaz

Mark Wildman said...

No offence taken. My review is exactly that - just a quick look back with a a little detail. These sort of genera are always going to be a little erratic phylogentically anyhow. One mans megalosaur is always going to be another mans coelurosaur - that's the nature of the game.

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