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 due to taking 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 scars from when humans exploited the countryside for its land, with the difference between the old-growth forest and the secondary growth forest growing 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.

IMG_1489
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.

IMG_2599
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.

Article: Description of Arundel Clay ornithomimosaur material and a reinterpretation of Nedcolbertia justinhofmanni as an “Ostrich Dinosaur”: biogeographic implications

Hi there everyone! My article on ornithomimosaur remains from the Arundel Formation of Maryland was published today at the journal PeerJ. If you have time and are interested in Cretaceous dinosaurs from eastern North America, please check it out here. That’s all for now.

P.S. I have been very busy with several things lately, but I hope to write a few new blog posts in the coming weeks. Thanks again for reading.

A Woman to be Inspired by: Mignon Talbot

Happy International Women’s Day everyone! Today, we are reminded of the struggles women have faced and still face around the globe as well as the countless contributions women have made and continue to make today to our world. I thus wanted to highlight one woman who contributed to paleontology in the eastern United States.

Mignon Talbot was born four years after the end of the Civil War in Iowa City, Iowa (Elder, 1982) Receiving her undergraduate education at Ohio State University, Talbot would go on to Yale to receive her doctorate in 1904 and would be appointed as an instructor of geology at Mt. Holyoke the same year (Elder, 1982). Dr. Talbot quickly ascended the ranks to become the chairman of the Geology department in 1908, and in 1929 would become chairman of both the Geology and Geography departments (Elder, 1982).

Over the course of her career, Dr. Talbot would greatly expand the Triassic ichnofossil and mineral collection at Mt. Holyoke, continuing to passionately do so even after a fire in 1916 would destroy most of the collection (Elder, 1982).

She would also publish a review of crinoids from the early Devonian (Helderbergian) strata of the state of New York (Talbot, 1905). This work would be part of her dissertation, for which she would have the trilobite researcher Dr. Charles Emerson Beecher as a supervisor (Talbot, 1905).

Perhaps her most notable discovery, however, was that of the coelophysoid dinosaur Podokesaurus holyokensis. Dr. Talbot would discover the partial skeleton of this dinosaur encased in cracked bolder near the college in 1910, becoming the first woman to name a non-avian dinosaur species the following year (Talbot, 1911; Turner, Burek & Moody, 2010). Dr. Talbot would remark on the chance of the find in the American Journal of Science in June of 1911 (Albino, accessed March 8, 2015). She would name Podokesaurus from the greek word for swift-footed, referencing the name of the university for which she worked in the specific epithet (Talbot, 1911).

IMG_2158
Cast of the holotype of Podokesaurus on display at the Peabody Museum. Photo by the author, 2015.

Unfortunately, the skeleton of Dr. Talbot’s dinosaur would be destroyed in the 1916 fire that burned down Williston Hall (Albino, accessed March 8, 2015). Talbot would notably remark that she wished the specimen to go on exhibition at Yale or in Washington in the June 1911 issue of the American Journal of Science mentioned previously (Albino, accessed March 8, 2015). Nevertheless, Talbot was largely responsible for the growth of the Holyoke collection after the fire (Elder, 1982). She said to have been actively interested in the profession of paleontology to her death in 1950 (Elder, 1982).

Her contributions to paleontology in the eastern United States are invaluable. The specimen she discovered and described, though now destroyed, is one of the only skeletons of a dinosaur known from the east coast. She will forever remain the first woman to name one of the marvelous lizards.

For more on Podokesaurus, see this post.

References.

Elder E. 1982. Women in Early Geology. Journal of Geological Education 30(5): 287–293.

Talbot M. 1905. Revision of the New York Helderbergian crinoids. American Journal of Science (Series 4) 20(115): 17-34.

Talbot M. 1911. Podokesaurus holyokensis, a new dinosaur of the Connecticut Valley. American Journal of Science 31: 469-479

Turner S, Burek C & Moody RT. 2010. Forgotten women in an extinct Saurian ‘mans’ World. In Moody RT, Buffetaut E, Martill D, Naish D, eds: Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. The Geological Society of London Special Publication 343: 111-153.

Albino D. Lost Dinosaur. URL:  http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~dalbino/books/lester/dinosaur.html. Accessed March 8, 2017.

 

 

Preprint Published: Ornithomimosaurs from the Arundel Formation

Hi everyone! I’ve been researching for a bunch of manuscripts all this past spring. Check out this new preprint on the ornithomimosaur materials from the Arundel Formation:

https://peerj.com/preprints/2308/

Additionally, I regard the Utah taxon Nedcolbertia justinhofmanni as an intermediate non-ornithomimid/deinocheirid ornithomimosaur. It shares a single flexor fossa on its pedal unguals and anteroposteriorly short phalanges from pedal digit IV with ornithomimosaurs (Brownstein, 2016) (listed as synapomorphies of the group by Choiniere, Foster & De Klerk (2012)). It also has metatarsals more elongate in form than tyrannosaurs and a proximally pinched metatarsal III.

What’s interesting to me is that the shape of metatarsal III of the Arundel form suggests that it had a more derived metatarsus condition than Nedcolbertia. I use this and a temporal comparison of the formations in which Nedcolbertia, the Arundel taxon, and what I believe to be its close relative (Kinnareemimus) to support my theory that ornithomimosaurs with different metatarsus conditions coexisted in North America (Brownstein, 2016). Unfortunately, the paucity of decent North American ornithomimosaur material from the Early Cretaceous of North America makes any analysis of possible ecological interactions between ornithomimosaur lineages ill-informed (Brownstein, 2016). It is interesting to note, however, that Nedcolbertia can be differentiated by many ornithomimosaurs by its manal morphology and simplistic and pneumatic dorsal vertebra (Kirkland et al., 1998).

All in all, the Arundel dinosaur fauna is in serious need of more research. If there’s any dinosaur researcher out there looking for something to study, the Early Cretaceous dinosaurs of Maryland are just another opportunity to be found in the eastern United States and Canada.

EDIT: Just fixed some reference formats and added a figure showing the metatarsals. Oh well. New version will be out soon.

References.

  1. Brownstein CD. 2016. Redescription of Arundel formation Ornithomimosaur material and a reinterpretation of Nedcolbertia justinhofmanni as an “Ostrich Dinosaur”: Biogeographic implications. PeerJ Preprints 4:e2308v1. 
  2. Choiniere JN, Forster CA & De Klerk WJ. 2012. New information on Nqwebasaurus thwazi, a coelurosaurian theropod from the Early Cretaceous Kirkwood Formation in South Africa. Journal of African Earth Sciences 71–72: 1–17.

  3. Kirkland JI, Whittle CH, Britt BB, Madsen S, Burge D. 1998. A Small Theropod from the Basal Cedar Mountain Formation (Lower Cretaceous, Barremian) of Eastern Utah. In Lucas SG, Kirkland JI & Estep JW, eds:Lower and Middle Cretaceous Terrestrial Ecosystems. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 14: 239-248.

Antediluvian Beasts of the East: Daeodon leidyanus

Antediluvian Beasts of the East: Daeodon leidyanus

Draining from the early Miocene Appalachian mountains are the streams and creeks which flow through the woodlands of New Jersey until they reach the blue Atlantic. Fed by mountain lakes and aquifers, these meandering waterways provide a much-needed source of liquid to the parched lowlands of the summer. Flowers and grasses shoot up through the cracked ground as the fluid product of the rainy season in the mountains turns the earth the deep brown and the tree leaves a healthier color. Though the temperature still peaks at over 32° Celsius (90° Fahrenheit), many large herbivores can be found in these coastal forests. Gigantic two-horned semiaquatic rhinoceros settle down into the waterholes of clearings. Three-toed horses race through the woods and munch on tree leaves as peccaries squabble over roots and burrow sites. Extinct distant relatives of modern mouse deer with two horns at the back of their skulls and a branching one at the front of their snouts compete for mates and territory, wearily checking the surrounding trees every few minutes for signs of danger. In the seas, multiple species of gargantuan sharks vie for chow with ancient relatives of sperm whales with gargantuan teeth an jaws as  other species of whales bask and play near the surface, their calls heard for miles. Mollusks scavenge on the sea floor as fish schools swim along.

Back on land, a group of peccaries jog through their favorite mud hole through an open patch of grass and flowers. The size of modern javelinas, these herbivorous mammals are often left to their devices by predators and other herbivores weary of sustaining an injury from the peccaries’ large front tusks. Even the rhinoceros, the largest animals to roam these forests, are weary of the smaller mammals. 

As the peccaries cross the opening in the forest unaware, a huge predator stalks them. The gleaming eyes of this colossus give off the faintest light on the predator’s distorted muzzle. Covered with scars, cuts and the occasional protuberance, it would appear that this creature is of another nature from the other mammals of early Miocene New Jersey. However, it is nonetheless the largest mammalian predator to stalk this forest. This is an entelodont, a relative of the group of mammals which includes hippopotami and whales. However, the grizzly, misleadingly hog-like appearance and terrifying predatory behavior of this odd mammal has given it the more ominous name of “terminator pig”. The massive front teeth of this humongous beast are rooted into its robust, meter-long skull. Its large body, built with powerful shoulder muscles and powerful, hoofed limbs to overpower its quarries, slopes down into a small tail tipped with fur. 

From the bushes, the terminator pig charges at the peccary group, which scatter in fear. However, the large carnivore has outplayed the smaller tusked mammals, and has snagged the belly of one peccary on its canines. As blood loss takes its toll, the panicked ensnared peccary tries at its large attacker with its front teeth, scraping the terminator pig’s chin. The counterattacks are of no help to the peccary, who soon dies in the jaws of the larger mammal. With a single bite, the entelodont devours a large portion of the peccary’s gut, though it will stash away the rest of its kill in a hole created by the roots of a fallen tree which the carnivore inhabits. 

Though the Miocene exposures of the east coast of the United States are more famous for their marine fossils, like those of the gigantic shark C. megalodon and the toothed whale Squalodon, a variety of equally incredible animals roamed the land. Unfortunately, these incredible animals, some of which among the largest predators North America would ever see, have not gotten the attention which they deserve.

One such carnivore, a mammal known as an entelodont, left its fossil mark in Farmingdale, New Jersey in the form of a left premolar and molar named Ammodon leidyanum by the famous paleontologist Othneil Charles Marsh (Marsh, 1893). Though another famous paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, speculated that the teeth came from a pig-like creature, more finds in the northwest United States would be needed to reveal the animal’s true identity (Gallagher, 1997).

In the end, the mystery of Marsh’s Ammodon leidyanum was solved. The mammal, now known to be an entelodont, was a large, gruesome predator with large teeth and the occasional bony protuberance off of its lower jaw to create a distinctive-looking skull. These big slashing teeth would have been able to rip into the flesh of the large mammals of early Miocene New Jersey, feeding the meat to the entelodont’s premolars and molars, which would start to grind and crush whatever the predator decided to swallow. Their long muzzles would have connected to a large, robust body supported by relatively thin, hoofed limbs. Among the classic features of the entelodonts were two bony lumps which extended from the skull.

More recent additions to the scientific literature had discussed whether Ammodon was truly a valid genus name for the Farmingdale entelodont teeth. In 1998, a remarkable conclusion as to the identity of the teeth was reached. It would seem that the teeth actually belong to a species of the western North American entelodont genus Daeodon, the largest known genus of entelodont (Lucas, Emry & Foss, 1998). Large individuals of this genus could have the shoulder height the height of a man. The holotype tooth of the Farmingdale creature is slightly larger and longer than the same element in western Daeodon (Lucas, Emry & Foss, 1998), which may suggest that the New Jersey animal was either larger than its relative from the American West or had larger teeth.

IMG_1636
The approximately one meter long skull of a western Daeodon at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Note the large front teeth. Photo by the author, 2014. 

The entelodonts as a group had evolved to pursue and attack the large mammals which benefited off of the plants of the plains and forests of North America, though they would occasionally chow on tubers and roots to supplement their primarily carnivorous diet. Like modern large mammalian predators, entelodonts were opportunistic, scavenging carcasses on occasion. In New Jersey, Daeodon leidyanum would have been a part of the Farmingdale local fauna of the basal Kirkwood Formation of coastal New Jersey (Tedford & Hunter, 1984; Gallagher et. al., 1995). This assemblage of mammals has yielded the remains of the three-toed horse Anchitherium, the rhinoceroses Diceratherium matutinum and Menoceras, the protoceratid Prosynthetoceras, and the peccary Hesperohyus antiquus (Tedford & Hunter, 1984; Gallagher, 1997), and is likely Arikareean in age (Lucas, Emry & Foss, 1998).

IMG_1635
Daeodon full body model at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Photo by the author, 2014. 

The relations of the entelodonts have been reflected on by many researchers, and in among the most recent additions to the literature, and the researchers involved found that the pig-like appearance of the entelodonts from which they get their popular nicknames (i.e., “terminator pig”) is rather misleading. Rather, the entelodonts seem to be more closely related to whales and hippopotami in a group termed the cetancodontamorpha (Spaulding, O’Leary & Gatesy, 2009).

In life, Daeodon leidyanum would have been a truly horrific sight as it hunted down fleeing mammals in the coastal forests of New Jersey. This ancient king of the forest was part of a great dynasty of carnivorous beasts which would only fall to extinction after many millions of years of success. Daeodon shows how wrong the belief is that extinction must mean some sort of evolutionary failure. Rather, the entelodonts were a success story, though like all species were unfit for some changing condition or conditions in their ecosystem, leaving only their devilish skulls and ancient skeletons behind for future creatures to observe.

IMG_0682
Daeodon leidyanus by the author. Pencils on paper, 2016. 

For more on large mammalian predators of the eastern United States, see:

Antediluvian Beasts of the East: Pliocyon robustus

References.

Marsh OC. 1893. Description of Miocene Mammalia. American Journal of Science 46(275): 407-412.

Gallagher WB. 1997. When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. pp. 142.

Lucas SG, Emry RJ & Foss SE. 1998.Taxonomy and distribution of Daeodon, an Oligocene-Miocene entelodont (Mammalia: Artiodactyla) from North America. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 111(2): 425-435.

Tedford RH & Hunter ME. 1984. Miocene marine-nonmarine correlations, Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains, North America. Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology 47: 129-151.

Gallagher WB, Gilmore EJ, Parris DC, Grandstaff BS. 1995. Miocene mammals from the Kirkwood Formation of Monmouth County, N. J. In Baker JEB, ed: Contributions to the paleontology of New Jersey. Geological Association of New Jersey 12: 254-268.

Spaulding M, O’Leary MA & Gatesy J. 2009. Farke, AA ed. Relationships of Cetacea (Artiodactyla) Among Mammals: Increased Taxon Sampling Alters Interpretations of Key Fossils and Character Evolution. PLoS ONE 4(9): e7062.