In a press release roundly denounced by the interwebs, the usually respectable American Chemical Society writes that “advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe.”
Um what? While our BS detectors just started blinking bright red, this press release is really a perverse kind of genius. When was the last time the science media lit up with a very technical paper on the origins of homochirality? (Before we get back to “advanced” dinosaurs, chirality refers to molecules that can exist in left- and right-handed forms; some organic molecules like DNA and proteins tend to be made of molecules only in one form. Why is that? This is an interesting question. It also has nothing to do with dinosaurs.)
Now the press release writer didn’t exactly pull the dinosaur reference out of nowhere, but the author of the paper did. After suggesting that early meteorites may have seeded a pre-life earth with chiral amino acids, Dr. Robert Breslow ends this paper with this flight of fancy:
An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α‐methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.
A decaying dinosaur’s increasingly contorted neck
What’s wrong with your neck, dinosaur fossil? That looks kind of uncomfortable…
Paleontologists have long wondered by so many fossilized dinosaurs have their necks contorted into painful-looking positions—the phenomenon even has a name: opisthotonus. Various hypotheses have suggested the dinosaurs died in pain, or that their unusual posture is from rigor mortis.
Could be, though, it’s just what floppy necks do in water, according to a recent study involving chicken carcasses. Scientists recruited study subjects from among the dinosaurs’ extant relatives at a local butcher’s, plunged them underwater, and witnessed some startling acrobatics. The New York Times reports:
Stegoceras “Steel Skull” validum
It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves, watching nature “red in tooth and claw”: Which animal, in all evolution’s bounty, would win in a head-butting fight?
We don’t have to wonder anymore. In a new study, researchers have rounded up the likely contenders for head-butting champ, living or dead, ranging from long-extinct domeheaded dinosaurs to modern-day musk oxen. Since some animals had an obvious advantage, what with being currently alive, the scientists settled for a virtual throwdown. They used CT scans to suss out the precise shape and size of each creature’s noggin, then relied on computer models to see how they’d hold up when the animals went head to head.
Mutant turtles, we might have guessed, but Canadian drainage crews have found something else in Edmonton sewers: dinosaur bones. Experts from the Royal Tyrrell Museum are now working to confirm the bones’ donors but suspect that the uncovered limb and tooth bones once belonged to T. rex cousin Albertosaurus (pictured below) and duck-faced Edmontosaurus.
Andy Neuman, executive director of the museum, told the BBC he was impressed that the crews acted as “good stewards” and reported the bones found while digging a new tunnel. Workers will now try to uncover other bones from the sewer tunnel walls.
As the dinosaurs’ names suggest, finding such fossils in the province of Alberta and its capital city, Edmonton, isn’t all that rare–but Neuman says this is the first time the city itself has found the bones. Leanna Mohan, the museum’s marketing coordinator, told the BBC that when it comes to finding dinosaur bones, not every find is significant:
“I can go out on a hike on a Sunday and find a dinosaur bone.”
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Discoblog: What You Get When You Name a New Dinosaur Over Beers: Mojoceratops
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Image: Wikimedia / Matt Martyniuk
Meet Mojoceratops, the newly discovered dinosaur with the best head stylings of the Late Cretaceous. A lover–scientists suspect he used his flamboyant frill to attract mates–Mojoceratops lived 75 million years ago, about 10 million years earlier than his more conservatively coiffed cousin, Triceratops.
Mojoceratops owes his name to a few beers. As described in a Yale University press release, Yale post-doc Nicholas Longrich blurted it out one night while throwing a few back with fellow paleontologists:
“It was just a joke, but then everyone stopped and looked at each other and said, ‘Wait–that actually sounds cool’…. I tried to come up with serious names after that, but Mojoceratops just sort of stuck.”
Seventy-five million years ago, mammals couldn’t compare to the big boy reptiles ruling the earth. Still, that didn’t stop one spunky, prehistoric squirrel-like creature. He wasn’t hungry for meat, but he needed his minerals. He eyed a dino bone, the equivalent of modern-day vitamin shop, and wrapped his teeth around it, his very own corn-on-the-cob-osaurus.
Yesterday, researchers published a paper in Palentology on these exploits. They claim to have found the oldest known mammal bite marks.
The researchers found the bones bites in two Canadian, Late Cretaceous-period dinosaur bone collections–and also on additional bones during fieldwork in Alberta. They suspect the marks were made by multituberculates, extinct rodent-like creatures, and they first found them on the femur bone of Champsosaurus, a swamp-dweller that looked a bit like an crocodile.
The researchers say that the form of the bite marks indicate that they were made by opposing pairs of teeth, a tell-tale sign of mammal chompers (think rats). And the fact that they came from paired upper and lower incisors points to multituberculates. Though these early mammals didn’t have the bite power that modern day rodents developed, their marks look similar.
Nicholas Longrich, lead author on the paper, says in a Yale press release:
“The marks stood out for me because I remember seeing the gnaw marks on the antlers of a deer my father brought home when I was young,” he said. “So when I saw it in the fossils, it was something I paid attention to.”
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Is it a “chickenosaurus,” or a “dinochicken?” Famed paleontologist Jack Horner says that if you want to grow a dinosaur, you have to start with a chicken egg. As descendants of dinos, chickens carry some of the same DNA. So if chicken embryos have their genes reversed-engineered for every trait that they share with dinosaurs— like long tails, teeth, and three-fingered hands— you can grow living animals with dinosaur traits.
Previously, paleontologists thought they would be able to extract DNA from amber and then use it to clone dinosaurs, just as Michael Crichton detailed in his novel. But the real life experiments repeatedly failed and the idea appears to be possible only in fiction.
Horner (who was an inspiration for the character Dr. Alan Grant) thinks “the better route is to start with a descendant and work backwards. By taking a bird and manipulating four or five of its genes, you can grow a long tail instead of wings.” Then you can manipulate other traits to produce a complete dinosaur.
A British paleobiologist thinks he’s found traces of the oldest spider web on record.
Millimeter-thin strands of the presumed web have remained trapped, Jurassic Park-style, in fossilized tree resin (better known as amber) for eons. An amateur fossil hunter stumbled upon the chunk of archaic amber on a beach in southern England.
Martin Brasier, the Oxford University scientist who examined the specimen under a microscope, estimates the encapsulated web dates back some 140 million years to the Cretaceous period. That’s in the heyday of the dinosaurs, well before they went extinct about 65 million years ago. Though not a full web, the preserved strands still form a circular pattern that resembles the orbs spun by modern-day arachnids the world over.
Was it too good to be true? Recently, we discussed the findings of University of Utah researchers, who claimed to have discovered a mother lode of dinosaur tracks in the desert on the Arizona-Utah border. The announcement stoked the public’s fantasy of a “dinosaur dance floor,” a prehistoric get-together that left a dense and varied collection of dinosaur footprints and tail drags.
Now, some skeptical paleontologists who examined the site after the announcement have added to the already-lingering doubts: They think the “dinosaur dance floor” is just a bunch of unusual potholes formed from erosion.
One of the skeptics, Brent Breithaupt, director of the University of Wyoming’s Geological Museum, put it bluntly in a press release: “There simply are no tracks or real track-like features at this site.” Ouch.
In Jurassic times, dinosaurs of every stripe gathered at an oasis surrounded by high sand dunes to drink and perhaps, show off their moves. Geologists from the University of Utah say they’ve identified thousands of dinosaur footprints in an area of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument on the Arizona-Utah border. What was once thought to be a field of strange potholes is now being dubbed a “dinosaur dance floor.”
In a new study [subscription required] published in the paleontology journal Palaios, the researchers argue that the tracks were formed by large animals, not by erosion as previously thought (and some still think). About 190 million years ago, before the continents broke from Pangaea, the site was probably a watering hole in the middle of long stretches of desert that attracted large groups of thirsty dinosaurs. Later, shifting sand dunes covered the area and preserved the prints in sandstone.