Ornithomimus had wings...as an adult

Just a quick note, because today we got one of the cooler new papers on dinosaurs to have been published in quite a while, describing not one but three specimens of Ornithomimus with feathers.

And not only are there three specimens, but they are of different ages, and it turns out the feathers change as Ornithomimus grows up. In particular, the adults seem to have large wings with branching feathers on them, while the juveniles are covered only with the dinofuzz that we have become familiar with in the Chinese dinosaurs we have come to know and love.

This also pulls protowings further down the family tree - prior to this we only had definite wings in those wacky oviraptorids, deinonychosaurs (the various "raptor" dinosaurs), and those critters on the main bird line.

So for those of you who illustrate the fleet-footed ornithomimids, you may need to alter some of the images. It also brings up some interesting questions regarding what the feather condition is in alverasaurs (which may have been ant-eaters) and the bizarre therizinosaurs. Specimens of the basal therizinosaur Beipiaosaurus have been found covered in dinofuzz and non-branching plumes, but not with true branching feathers, so it was assumed that the origin of wing-like structures must have happened closer to birds. Now it appears that was wrong, and we will have to try and figure out whether therizinosaurs lost them at some point during their evolution, or if perhaps the Beipiaosaurus specimen might have been too young to have developed them.

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There will also be questions about what those feathers were doing in such animals, which clearly did not fly or live in trees (and equally clearly did not evolve from flying or tree-dwelling ancestors); alas that will have to be another post. In the mean time, there are a couple other fun implications to consider from this paper:

1) The Ornithomimus specimens are from fluvial deposits; for those non-geologists out there all you need to know is that most dinosaur deposits around the world are fluvial, so this discover means we will have a lot more museums taking a closer look at their specimens, rather than assuming that feathers can't be preserve outside of a few special depositional settings. In other words, there are going to be a lot more discoveries in the coming years now that more people know what to look for.

2) Along those lines, not all of the feathered dinosaurs are from China anymore. Having been to China and seen many of the specimens personally this never was a big deal to me, but for the couple of stragglers that simply didn't want to believe in feathered dinosaurs, this should end any sort of conspiracy theory.

3) Looking at the already-decided debate about whether birds are dinosaurs, I can't really say that this is the final nail in the coffin - realistically all of the nails were pounded into that coffin years ago. But this discovery makes sure there is a large concrete memorial placed on top of the coffin preventing it from ever being dug up again, and for those of you who lived through the original birds are dinosaurs wars that has to be comforting.

If you have any thoughts or questions be sure to leave them below. And for the paleoartists out there, go forth and illustrated winged adult ornithomimids. Here is a skeletal to get you started:

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Zelenitsky, D., Therrien, F., Erickson, G., DeBuhr, C., Kobayashi, Y., Eberth, D., Hadfield, F. 2012. Feathered non-avian dinosaurs from North American provide insight into wing origins. Science. 338, 510-514

Terrible Claw!

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I haven't been posting much lately, so I thought I'd at least put up this skeletal I finished over the weekend...

It's Deinonychus antirrhopus, the quintessential "bird-like" dinosaur that John Ostrom discovered in the 1960s. More than any other discovery. it is responsible for sparking the Dinosaur Renaissance of the 1960s and '70s. Bob Bakker's illustration of Deinonychus for Ostrom's monograph is probably the single most famous piece of paleo art ever produced (although it looks awfully cold in its featherless nudity!).

Deinonychus was my favorite dinosaur for a lengthy portion of my childhood, so it was a lot of fun working on this skeletal - the closest thing that technical illustration has to a stroll down memory lane (for me at least).

There are a couple of unpublished specimens floating around, but this skeletal is based almost entirely on the Yale Peabody Museum and AMNH specimens that compromised Ostrom's original papers. Happily there is enough overlap that I don't anticipate any large changes.

The two biggest questions I see are how retroverted the pubis is - I did not restore the pelvis with the more extreme Velociraptor-like backsweep seen in some reconstructions, but until an articulated pelvis is published we won't know the exact angle. Also, I'm not entirely sure whether the curve on the ventral margin of the jugal of YPM 5210 is natural, or due to being a bit squished.

Hopefully new specimens will clear those points up soon. The good news is those are fairly minor changes to make if necessary. In the mean time, I'm off to work on more skeletals, as well as preparing for my upcoming course on advanced creature design, which is now officially open to registration.

I'm teaching an online course on anatomy

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So it turns out I haven't vanished (and actually have a lot of new content to share) but I've been swamped working on several projects of late. One of them I'd like to share, for those of you who really like dinosaurs but actually have different job aspirations:

I'll be teaching a course for Visualarium, one of the leading educational resources for visual effects artists (and artists in training) that use Pixologic ZBrush. The class is Advanced Creature Anatomy, and rather than being on dinosaurs (although you'll see some of them!) it centers on learning enough comparative anatomy from living and extinct animals to develop your own mental toolkit of concepts you can apply when to design more plausible speculative anatomy for fictional creature design.

I'll do my best to keep it fun, so if ZBrush and 3D art is your thing, I invite you to check it out; we'll be conducting a free webinar this Thursday so people can get a taste of what the course will be like.

Yup, the OK Apatosaurus is freakin' huge!

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How big did Apatosaurus get? Well, that gray silhouette that is being dwarfed in terms of bulk there is Supersaurus vivianae. So yeah, that's one big honk'in sauropod...

The genesis of this post comes courtesy of a Matt Wedel post over at the excellent SV-POW! blog, where he was taking a look at the size of the partial Apatosaurus specimen preserved in Oklahoma, specimen OMNH 1670. Matt took a measuring tape to the OMNH specimen himself, and it measures up at a whopping 135 cm (for those of you who don't know the metric system, 135 centimeters is equal to one really big vertebra...).

But Matt really caught my attention when he stated:

...so the big Oklahoma Apatosaurus was probably in Supersaurus territory, mass-wise, and may have rivaled some of the big titanosaurs.

 

A younger me carving a pedal ungal. Look at that hair - what a hippy!

A younger me carving a pedal ungal. Look at that hair - what a hippy!

Supersaurus is an animal near and dear to my heart - it's an animal I've literally shed blood over. Yes really. In addition to working with my coauthors on a description of the second specimen of Supersaurusj and a reassessment of diplodocid phylogeny, we also had to produce a full mount of the animal under exceedingly tight time constraints. As with many small museums this meant we all had to pitch in, and that included learning how to sculpt missing bones. Near the very end of the project, while getting by on little more than 2 hours of sleep and coffee doses that would kill a small horse, I had a very small boo-boo with a carving knife (see photographic evidence at right). No stitches were necessary, and thankfully no sauropods where injured in the process.

The end result of our work was a mount that received top billing in a temporary exhibit in Japan in summer 2006. While the estimated length of 34 meters and mass estimate of 36-40 tonnes is smaller than some of the more sensational numbers that have been floated in popular books (and of course the internet), we suggested in our paper that many of those estimates were, shall we say... extravagant. Supersaurus appears to be close to the longest animal whose length can be reliably estimated (read: not counting Amphiceolias fragilimus), though it was lighter than the giant titanosaurs.

Given my personal stake here I wasn't about to take Matt's vicious maligning of Supersaurus  on faith. But - and this is the darndest thing about science - the facts are on his side. After scaling the fourth dorsal of Apatosaurus louisae up to the appropriate size, it turns out that the thing definitely is bulkier than Supersaurus.

 And if you try it with the other species of Apatosaurus (to whit: A. ajax and A. excelsus), it turns out just as bad - or worse in the case of A. ajax, who seems to have a proportionately shorter D4, which in turn leads to a larger animal when it's scaled to 135 cm.

Of course Supersaurus still looks to be longer by a fair amount, in large part due to the highly elongate neck. But when it comes to moving the dial on a scale, it's clear that Apatosaurus is just more sauropod than Supersaurus. Oh well Jimbo, we'll always have Japan...

Fishing at Dawn

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Unenlagia comahuensis looking for fish at dawn.

What can I say, it's been over a year since I tried my hand at something more artistic than a muscle or skeletal reconstruction. I did the sketch over a year ago, and had it ready to go (it's a digital painting in Photoshop), so I decided to give it a crack and it fell into place a lot faster than I'd expected (most of the time was spent painting water detail).

I've reconstructed Unenlagia as somewhat less ecologically specialized than it's relatives Buitreraptor and Austroraptor, but fishing nonetheless. I don't really have a lot more to say about it - we'll get back to more hard core skeletal stuff soon, I promise! If you have any questions about the process I used I'll do my best to answer in the comments section.

I.O.Yutyrannus

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Hey, it's not every day that a completely fuzzy, nearly 30-foot long meat-eating dinosaur is described, now is it? I'm afraid my current schedule won't allow for a full skeletal of this critter for several more weeks, so consider the skull a down payment.

First, I should say that I'm not going to retread much of the excellent writing that has already been done onYutyrannus. If you'd like more in depth coverage, I highly recommend David Hone's excellent write-up on his blog Archosaur Musings. For more coverage and some reasons to question whetherYutyrannus is a actually a tyrannosauroid, check out Darren Naish's coverage on his Scientific American TetZoo blog. I'd also be remiss to not mention Brian Switek's article over at the Smithsonian website.

Photograph by Roberto Appiani 

What I will cover are some of the difficulties I've already observed in restoring Yutyrannus. The reconstruction above is based on one of the beautifully preserved skulls (there are 3!); like everything else found in the Yixian Formation, the specimens have been squashed flat. Relatively robust bones like a femur hold up fairly well, but skulls really don't. They tend to be highly three-dimensional in shape, and are made out of relatively thin elements. In particular, on theropod skulls the top and rear of the skull tend to fold upward as the head undergoes the pancake treatment of diagenesis

.Small dinosaurs with larger eyes and brains (like the juvenile Scipionyx above seen at right) exaggerate the problem even more, and unsuspecting artists can restore the skulls as having huge domes over the eyes if they don't know better. In Yutyrannus I suspect we are seeing something similar, which probably exaggerates the apparent size of the nasals (especially as you move closer to the eyes), as well as the top of the skull at the back.

If you check out the beautiful photograph of the head of juvenile specimen ELDM V1001 in David Hone's blog (the same one I've restored above), you can probably see what I'm getting at.

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The skull restoration at the beginning of this article takes those things into account, attempting to return a 3-dimensional shape to the steam-rolled remains of the skull (by the way, the mandible is largely a place holder for now, the surangular is actually a fairly different shape). Below I've included a comparison of the the skull with and without those "corrections". Because there are three skulls, and because they have likely been subject to distortion from somewhat different angles, I should be able to double check this with greater precision once I get around to doing the full skeletal.

For those of you investing the time to study the comparison image, the top one is the restored version, while the bottom one treats the outline more literally. In both cases I've re-articulated the lacrimal (the bone in front of the eye) with the jugal (the bone underneath the orbit). In both cases the lower jaw is (as mentioned above) just a generic placeholder that is the correct size, but doesn't take the information from other specimens into account.

That's all the time I have to put into a new skeletal on my own whim for the moment. Until I get a chance to do the whole thing enjoy this Yutyrannus I.O.U.