Antediluvian Realms of the East: the Tar Heel and Coachman Formations

Morning, and the orange and beige of a celestial titan rising through slivers of cloud coat the swampy landscape with a buzzing, ochre light. Gently sloping mountains in the far distance, each decorated in a single shade of green trees, are the first to grasp at the brightest rays of light from the sun. Giant azhdarchid pterosaurs, drowsy and chilled by the morning air, launch off of their craggy towers in the highlands to search for food in the swamps and marshes. Within a few minutes, they reach the sky above the lowlands and sink down towards waterways beckoning with a biological buffet. The loud morning calls of ancient insects, amphibians, reptiles, and birds illuminate a scene exclusive to the Campanian. The azhdarchids land by the side of a waterhole, already taking notice of some of their company in these marshes. Nearby, a small, rough-skinned leptoceratopsid rips off leaves from some low foliage as it grunts at a small lizard picking up droppings from the dinosaur’s morning feast. This sturdy dinosaur is related to the massive ceratopsids of the west, though here it lies in the shadows of other dinosaur species. The grey and aquamarine leptoceratopsid, taking notice of the azhdarchids, sniffs and scurries into the underbrush. 

Nearby, a flock of ornithomimosaurs stops to drink in the early morning sun. Brilliantly adorned in gleaming black, blue, and grey feathers, the ostrich-mimic dinosaurs huddle close together as they hydrate for the day ahead. Two males, both decked out in feathers designed to impress the females of the crowd, start to kick and peck at each other while displaying the brilliant patterns that spur from their forelimbs. Both males are soon driven off when a mixed heard of Lophorhothon and Hadrosaurus arrive by the side of the waterhole. At 8-9 meters in length, these are all medium-sized hadrosaurs, the Lophorhothon representing a more ancient lineage of duckbills than their Hadrosaurus companions. As the large herbivores lower their heads to drink, Saurornitholestes dromaeosaurs scamper out from their feet. These small predators would do well to mind the size and temper of the hadrosaurs. 

On the opposite side of the waterhole, a herd of true giants triumphantly marches out from the surrounding swamps and bayous. These are Hypsibema crassicauda, 15 meters long and 15 tons in weight, the largest animals of these lands. The herd of hadrosaurs, thirteen strong, lumbers toward the edge of the waterhole to drink. The massive skulls of the titans slowly gulp up the water as smaller dinosaurs and crocodylomorphs flee the scene. A large female Dryptosaurus, 9 meters from head to tail, is also deterred from a quick stop for water by the Hypsibema herd. Several fresh water turtles push themselves back into the murky water. 

Back on the other side of the waterhole, a disturbance spooks the hadrosaurs. Suddenly, an ornithomimosaur is pulled underneath the water. Just off of shore, the head a giant Deinosuchus crocodyliform emerges as the massive predator tries to gulp down the dead ornithomimosaur whole. The azhdarchids take off. They’ve had enough of the lowlands. 

For the majority of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Cretaceous animals of the Carolinas have remained obscure, with decades lacking in finds punctuated by tantalizing glimpses of Cretaceous Carolinian ecosystems by means of fragmentary specimens. Ebenezer Emmons, namer of the Adirondack mountains, described isolated teeth that would later be identified as those of the massive crocodylian Deinosuchus rugosus (e.g., Emmons, 1858; Schwimmer, 2002), an noted paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope designated hadrosaur remains from a marl pit in North Carolina as the type of Hypsibema crassicauda 11 years later (Cope, 1869).

However, the past forty years have seen revelations in our understanding of the Cretaceous species of these states, including the publication of several Cretaceous-age faunas from sites within them. New discoveries of terrestrial and aquatic vertebrates from the Carolinas have illuminated several biogeographic trends from the Cretaceous of North America, supporting the notion that Appalachia was a refugium for certain vertebrate groups like as non-tyrannosaurid tyrannosauroid and basal hadrosauroid dinosaurs.

In North Carolina, perhaps the most important (in terms of terrestrial fossils) site is Phoebus Landing, a tidal-estuarine deposit located near Elizabethtown (e.g., Miller, 1967; Baird and Horner, 1979; Weishampel and Young, 1996). This site, bearing sediments of the middle-late Campanian Tar Heel Formation (e.g., Baird and Horner, 1979; Weishampel and Young, 1996; Weishampel et al., 2004; Self-Trail et al., 2004; Schwimmer et al., 2015), has not only produced skeletal elements from at least four different dinosaur species, but has also preserved teeth and bones from the massive crocodylian Deinosuchus. Among the dinosaur remains discovered here are the morphologically odd (NB: distinct from adult H. foulkii) massively constructed vertebrae of the giant (12+ meter long) hadrosauroid Hypsibema crassicauda (e.g., Baird and Horner, 1979; Weishampel and Young, 1996). Additional evidence of supermassive hadrosauroids in the Tar Heel Formation ecosystem comes in the form of a massive partial humerus only outsized by that of Magnapaulia from Phoebus Landing (Baird and Horner, 1979). Unfortunately, the fragmentary nature of these specimens means that, for now, only tantalizing glimpses of the Cretaceous giants that must have once roamed the Carolinas have been afforded by the marls. Specimens comparable to the corresponding elements in Hadrosaurus foulkii have also been recovered from the sediments at Phoebus Landing (e.g., Baird and Horner, 1979; Weishampel and Young, 1996), and Miller (1967) suggested the presence of “Hadrosaurus minor” (a dubious species of New Jersey hadrosaur possibly representative of juveniles of indeterminate genera) in the fauna present at the site. Finally, specimens comparable to the hadrosauroid Lophorhothon atopus have been recovered (e.g., Baird and Horner, 1979; Weishampel and Young, 1996). From all of this, it seems safe to conclude that two to three species of hadrosaurid were present in the Tar Heel fauna at Phoebus Landing. Importantly, a partial jawbone from a site nearby Phoebus Landing was recently described as Appalachia’s first neoceratopsian (Longrich, 2016).

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Fossils from Phoebus Landing were probably deposited in a tidal or estuarine setting. Photo by the author, 2017. 

 

Theropods also left an important record at Phoebus Landing. Teeth and hindlimb elements possibly referable to Dryptosaurus aquilunguis have been recovered and described from the site, as have ornithomimosaur bones and dromaeosaurid teeth (e.g., Miller, 1967; Baird and Horner, 1979; Weishampel and Young, 1996; Kiernan and Schwimmer, 2004). Along with the data from ornithischian remains, the Tar Heel supported at least seven different dinosaur genera.

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Lophorhothon and other hadrosauroids from the Tar Heel Formation were probably similar in form to Claosaurus (above). Photo by the author, 2017. 

Of overlapping time and geographically adjacent to the Tar Heel Formation is Coachman Formation, which in South Carolina has recently been found to contain several species of dinosaur. Schwimmer et al. (2015), in their extensive review of several sites with Coachman Formation outcrops, described remains assignable to the tyrannosauroid Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, the dromaeosaurid Saurornitholestes langstoni, at least one additional dromaeosaurid represented by teeth, indeterminate ornithomimosaurs, indeterminate maniraptorans, specimens comparable to “hadrosaurines”, and indeterminate hadrosauroid and ornithischian material. In addition, many species of turtles, fish, and crocodylians (including Deinosuchus) were described by Schwimmer et al. (2015) from Coachman Formation sediments, further bettering our understanding of that ecosystem.

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The dromaeosaurid Saurornitholestes would have been similar to Velociraptor (skull imaged above). Photo by the author, 2015. 

 

The Tar Heel and Coachman Formations represent important glimpses of Cretaceous life in the Carolinas that are becoming clearer with new research into their faunas. The formations’ geographic location, sandwiched between the historically notable fossiliferous formations of New Jersey and Delaware and the more recently recognized ones of the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, and Georgia, mean the faunas of the Tar Heel and Coachman are essential to our understanding of the biogeography of vertebrates on Appalachia. What remains to be discovered in these deposits will certainly reveal more and more about the life forms of the obscure landmass that sat east of the Western Interior Seaway over 68 million years ago.

For more on some of the dinosaurs of the Tar Heel and Coachman Formations, see these previous posts:

Antediluvian Beasts of the East: Hypsibema crassicauda

Antediluvian Beasts of the East: Dryptosaurus aquilunguis 

PaleoNews #18

References.

Schwimmer DR. 2002. King of the Crocodylians: the Paleobiology of Deinosuchus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cope ED. 1869. Remarks on Eschrichtius polyporusHypsibema crassicaudaHadrosaurus tripos, and Polydectes biturgidusProceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 21:191-192.

Miller HW. 1967. Cretaceous Vertebrates from Phoebus Landing, North Carolina. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 119:219-239.

Baird D and Horner JR. 1979. Cretaceous dinosaurs of North Carolina. Brimleyana 2:1-28.

Weishampel DB and Young L. 1996. Dinosaurs of the East Coast. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Weishampel DB, Barrett PM, Coria RA, Loeuff JL, Xing X, Xijin Z, Sahni A, Gomani EMP, and Noto CR. 2004. Dinosaur Distribution. In: Weishampel DB, Dodson P, and Osmólska H, eds: The Dinosauria, 2nd Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 517-617.

Self-Trail JM, Christopher RA, Prowell D, and Weems RE. 2004. The Age of Dinosaur-Bearing Strata at Phoebus Landing, Cape Fear River, North Carolina. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 36(2):117.

Schwimmer DR, Sanders AE, Erickson BR, and Weems RE. 2015. A Late Cretaceous Dinosaur and Reptile Assemblage from South Carolina, USA. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 105(2):1-157.

Longrich NR. 2016. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of eastern North America, and implications for dinosaur biogeography. Cretaceous Research 57:199-207.

Kiernan K and Schwimmer DR. 2004. First record of a Velociraptorine theropod (Tetanurae, Dromaeosauridae) from the eastern Gulf Coastal United States. The Mosasaur 7:89-93.

 

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Preprint Published: Theropod Specimens from the Navesink Formation

Hi there everyone. I just wanted to note that my preprint on ornithomimosaur and tyrannosauroid hindlimb elements from the Maastrichtian Navesink Formation of Monmouth County, New Jersey, has been published. Recently, the taxon “Teihevenator” was erected by Yun (2017)(it’s a nomen nudum because the Zoobank LSID for the name wasn’t included in the paper and the paper doesn’t seem to publish copies)(for more discussion of this see my preprint on a tyrannosauroid from the Merchantville Formation of Delaware(1) and this post at the Theropod Database Blog). I was also working on these specimens during the time Yun (2017) was published describing AMNH 2550-2553 as a new genus, with myself describing them as a chimaera of ornithomimosaur and tyrannosauroid remains. As such, upon hearing of the publication of Yun (2017), I finished up my figures of the specimens and submitted it for publication as a preprint, which you can find here. I love hearing from all of you, so please don’t hesitate to leave comments on this post or on the preprint itself regarding the manuscript!

Thanks again for reading!

 

Refs-

Yun C. 2017. Teihivenator gen. nov., a new generic name for the tyrannosauroid dinosaur “Laelaps” macropus (Cope, 1868; preoccupied by Koch, 1836). Journal of Zoological and Bioscience Research 4(2):7-13.

 

Footnotes-

(1) The metatarsals II and IV are from Delaware. Though I only named the state of discovery of these specimens twice incorrectly in the manuscript, I made an error and for some odd reason thought the specimens were found several miles east of Summit Bridge. This error has been corrected in my working copy of the manuscript and I have addressed it by adding an erratum in the comments section of the manuscript.

 

 

Preprint Published: A Tyrannosauroid Metatarsus from the Merchantville Formation of Delaware increases the diversity of non-Tyrannosaurid Tyrannosauroids on Appalachia

Hello everyone. Recently, I have worked on describing several tyrannosaur specimens from the Cretaceous Formations of Atlantic Coastal Plain. One of the manuscripts I have written concerns a partial tyrannosaur metatarsus from the Merchantville Formation of Delaware. As of now, the preprint of this paper has been published, and you can find it here:

https://peerj.com/preprints/3097/

The metatarsus represents a distinct morphotype of tyrannosaur from Dryptosaurus or Appalachiosaurus, but nevertheless is too incomplete and lacking in distinguishing features to warrant the naming of a new specimen. Certainly, the diversity of tyrannosauroids on Appalachia has been underestimated.

 

An Interesting Encounter at Lunch: Chelydra serpentina

Hi everyone! This will be a short post, but one regarding an interesting sighting I had while having lunch at a local diner today. The diner, known aptly as the Lakeside Diner (info), sits on a lake that is frequented by many bird species. Besides the common grackle, blue jay, and house sparrows I saw today, another denizen of the water made an appearance. As a brown rat was getting ready to head back into the water, a large beak made a splash as it grabbed the poor rodent and dragged it into the lake. It was none other than the maw of a common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina.

This turtle, covered in knobs and scales, was around three or so feet in length. It was quite the lake resident. As it plunged back into the murky water, I was able to get some photos of its rugged back and tail. Here they are:

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It goes to show that even in the suburban setting of Stamford, Connecticut, truly incredible species may be found.

PaleoNews #22: Appalachian ceratopsians and more!

Hello and welcome to this shorter edition of PaleoNews. This spring, a few finds related to the landmass of Appalachia have been published on, and so here’s a look back at those.

NEW FINDINGS

Though the find was published on by the media this past summer (e.g., here), the first-ever record of a ceratopsid dinosaur from Appalachia has been published on in the journal PeerJ. In the paper “The first reported ceratopsid dinosaur from eastern North America (Owl Creek Formation, Upper Cretaceous, Mississippi, USA)” (Farke and Phillips, 2017), the discovery of a single tooth from the Maastrichtian Owl Creek Formation is discussed in the context of the biogeography of horned dinosaurs in North America during the Cretaceous. The paper also discusses the Maastrichtian-age deposit that is the Owl Creek Formation and its fauna in some detail, as well as giving a brief overview of the dinosaur clades which inhabited the landmass of Appalachia (Farke and Phillips, 2017).

In the paper, the authors conclude that a dispersal event of ceratopsid dinosaurs occurred in North America as the Western Interior Seaway retreated during the Maastrichtian, the last stage of the Cretaceous period (Farke and Phillips, 2017). Thus, the tooth is both significant for being the first report of a ceratopsid dinosaur from eastern North America as well as for suggesting a possible dispersal event during the Maastrichtian.

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The MS find belonged to the ceratopsidae, as did Triceratops horridus (skull pictured above). 

I also had an article published on ornithomimosaur remains from the Arundel Clay of Maryland (Brownstein, 2017). The finds I describe are important for representing two distinct morphotypes (and thus possibly two distinct species) of ornithomimosaur that existed in the Arundel ecosystem. These dinosaurs would have coexisted with the titanosauriform sauropod Astrodon, the dromaeosaur Deinonychus, the carcharodontosaur Acrocanthosaurus, possibly the ornithopod Tenontosaurus, an indeterminate neoceratopsian, and the obscure nodosaurid Priconodon (e.g. Weishampel, 2006). There is certainly much more material to be published on from the Arundel Clay, so it should be exciting to see how the Arundel’s dinosaurs come to light.

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Two of the pedal unguals representing one of the morphotypes of ornithomimosaur present in the Arundel. 

FEATURED FOSSIL 

Today, I feature the skull of the Aurochs (Bos primigenius), an extinct species of large bovine that inhabited the wilds of Europe, northern Africa, and Asia during the Pleistocene and into the Holocene. Julius Caesar, in book 6 of his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, writes on the fantastic size and power of these animals (Commentarii de Bello Gallico 6.28). I highly recommend you read his description, either in translation or the original latin, if you haven’t already, as it gives a seldom-attained glimpse of an extinct animal of a great awe-inspiring nature.

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Overall, this has been a productive spring for Appalachian discoveries. Let’s hope for an even better summer! Thanks for reading.

References

Farke, A.A., and Phillips, G.E. 2017. The first reported ceratopsid dinosaur from eastern North America (Owl Creek Formation, Upper Cretaceous, Mississippi, USA. PeerJ, 5:e3342. 

Brownstein, C.D. 2017. Description of Arundel Clay ornithomimosaur material and a reinterpretation of Nedcolbertia justinhofmanni as an “Ostrich Dinosaur”: biogeographic implicationsPeerJ, 5:e3110. 

Weishampel, D.B. 2006. Another look at the dinosaurs of the East Coast of North America, p. 129-168. In ‘Coletivo Arqueológico-Paleontológico Salense, (eds.), Actas III Jornadas Dinosaurios Entorno. Salas de los Infantes, Burgos, Spain.

 

Earth Day 2017: A Call to be Active in Conservation and Environmentalism

Ever since the end of 2016, I’ve been obsessively scrolling around the planet on Google Earth in my spare time. I’ve realized that I’m not doing this because I’m worried about what we might lose in the future, but because I’m nervous of what we have already lost today. Perhaps this notion of mine is because of my work and interest in paleontology. I’m liable to be looking to the past, not the present. Our current crisis, however, is too close for comfort for me, even in looking at it with a purely scientific perspective.

Late in the afternoon today, I took a hike in the Mianus River Gorge Preserve (their website is here), a beautiful stretch of land in New York that preserves an old growth forest of Hemlock trees that was not logged and turned into farmland because the hemlocks took up residence on the steep slopes of the gorge. This preserve was actually the first of the Nature Conservancy’s preserves and the first National Natural History Landmark in the United States , and walking through the gorge and old growth forest gave me a minute or two to think about conservation in general.

The land of the preserve bears biological stains from when humans exploited the countryside for its land, with the difference between the old-growth forest and the secondary growth forest growing on the slope above collapsed stone walls stark. Deforestation leaves its scars. As I read about the sudden uptick in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, the old rock walls which populate the forest floor around myself come to mind.

In previous years, I’ve written articles on this blog on Earth day in celebration. I’m not so sure I can today. Science and the environment are under heavy attack from powerful forces political and economic. It’s up to everyone to stand up for the planet, as many demonstrated today by marching at the March for Science and its sister marches across the globe. Though I couldn’t join them today, I’ve been for my part trying to contact my legislators as much as possible regarding conservation and other issues and donating to conservation organizations among others when I can. Yet the scariness of the moment doesn’t cease. All I can say is that I think it’s going to be a long few years ahead for science and conservation, but with a little luck and a lot of work things will turn out all right. Happy Earth Day.

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Photo by the author.

 

 

A New Theory on the Apex Predators of Appalachia

Hello everyone!  I’d like to share with you some recent developments regarding the study of dinosaurs from the eastern United States. Some new exciting research by Gotya et al. (2017) suggests that the apex predators of the continent were neither tyrannosauroids like Dryptosaurus aquilunguis nor huge crocodyliform taxa like Deinosuchus rugosus. 

Gotya et al. (2017) suggest, contrary to previous research, that Appalachia was in fact the home of large relatives of the pitcher plant genus Sarracenia. These plants, named Lythrophytum giganticum (“giant gore plant”), are thought by Gotya et al. (2017) to have grown in large groves, with each plant’s mouth heavily widened to ingest large prey. Through molecular studies of the fossils of this large pitcher plant, Gotya et al. (2017) concluded that the L. giganticum emitted a sweet smell to draw in medium-sized herbivorous dinosaurs and other large herbivores. Then, the action of the herbivores biting the flower would cause the plant to release a highly toxic substance that would paralyze the herbivore. Then, with the herbivore immobilized, the heat of the herbivore’s body would cause each of the flowers of the L. giganticum plants to turn towards the plant’s paralyzed prey, excreting an acidic solution to dissolve the body. Once dissolved, the nutrients of the herbivore would be absorbed by the plants. I have illustrated the proposed process below for better clarity.

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Completely Accurate Restoration. 

I’m very interested to see how work on these giant Mesozoic plants progresses into the future. For more information, click on the link to the paper below:

Gotya HA, Aprille FO, Ferst OLS. 2017. New fossils from the Late Cretaceous of the eastern United States provide evidence for carnivorous plants being the apex predators of Appalachia, or something. Journal of Creepy Creatures 24: 114-122.