Tuesday, March 3, 2015

It's #SciArt week on Twitter!

I think we often downplay or take for granted the role that art plays in science. High quality art is obviously a hugely important aspect of public science communication. A paper describing a new species of dinosaur will have much more impact on the public if it's accompanied by an excellent life restoration of that dinosaur. Astronomers and their spacey kin use illustrations to show us satellites, the solar system, and far-off planets we can't photograph. Biologists dealing with the very small need illustrators to show us the cells in our bodies, what's inside those cells, what DNA looks like and how it works – the list is endless.

But the #SciArt tweet storm happening this week got me thinking again about the role that art plays in my own daily scientific activities. While I don't consider myself an artist, I was always drawing while I was growing up (for a while I entertained the idea of becoming an animator!). And I'm still drawing! Every time I go to a museum, I draw pretty much everything I look at. Why draw when I've got easy access to digital photography? Well, I take tons of photos, too, but drawing makes me LOOK at the specimen. 


Sketching slows me down, in a good way. What's that weird texture in this part of the bone, how far does this groove extend, what's with this unusual hole in this spot? Is there symmetry? Asymmetry? What's missing, and what's been filled in with plaster? What exactly was I measuring when I say 'length' or 'width'? I've filled many notebooks with drawings, stream-of-consciousness-style notes, measurements, and other bits of data. Mostly I use regular ol' pencils, but I also really like coloured pens and usually travel with a set for annotating my pencil drawings. I would love to be the kind of person that could do watercolour sketching, or proper graphite drawings.

These are some of my earliest notes from my MSc research, from a 2007 visit to the Royal Ontario Museum.

I think, as scientists, we do ourselves a disservice by not teaching students more about art skills and visual design. Being able to quickly and confidently sketch something in front of you is a useful skill to have! And understanding some of the principles of visual design – lines, shapes, negative space, colour combinations, and the like – can only make you a better communicator of science, especially in scientific papers. In addition to just being personally rewarding, drawing makes me a better scientist!

If you're a Twitterer, you should really check out the #SciArt hashtag this week (and into the future), to see the variety of techniques and approaches people take to science art. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Animal, mineral, or vegetable?

Today is World Pangolin Day! And given my fondness for armoured animals, I would be remiss in not sharing at least a little bit of information about pangolins today. I think it's a shame that many people have never heard about pangolins. It's weird they don't show up in more kids books about mammals and animals in general – I recall my first encounter with them was in a high school biology textbook, where there was a little two-tone illustration of one on a page about mammal diversity. Who knew there were scaly mammals?

Imagine my delight when I found out that the zoology collection at the University of Alberta included a pangolin skin (and mounted skeleton!). Pangolins really look like giant walking pinecones. Their hairs are modified into tough, overlapping scales. They have massively strong arms and claws, which they use to rip open termite mounds (at least for ground pangolins). This makes their genus name, Manis (hand) appropriate, although I'm surprised they weren't named after their scales! The pinecone pangolin I'm holding is either a ground pangolin or a giant pangolin, but there are also tree pangolins that climb and have prehensile tails. In total, there are 4 species of pangolin in Africa and 4 in Asia.

Pangolins are the closest mammalian analogues to dinosaurs I think we've got – ground pangolins walk on their hind feet with their tail stretched out behind them, and tuck their front legs up, maybe using them to balance occasionally as they trundle along. (In a sense, they walk like we do when we're pretending to be velociraptors. This is a thing other people do, right?) They can also roll up into a ball. They are basically the best animal ever.

They are pretty neat little creatures, but their populations are at risk due to habitat loss, the bushmeat trade, and the pet trade. I would dearly love to see a living pangolin during my lifetime. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Great Canadian Dinosaur Hunt

Dino Hunt Canada is almost here! Starting this Friday, History Channel Canada will be airing a series of hour-long documentaries devoted to dinosaur expeditions all across Canada - and not just in the famous badlands of Alberta! The production crew visited field localities in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, multiple places around Alberta, and British Columbia. It's going to be a real who's who and where's where of Canadian palaeontology.

I'll be in the second episode featuring work in Dinosaur Provincial Park, which we filmed in 2013. It was a fun if somewhat unusual experience to have such a large film crew with us, and I'm looking forward to seeing the whole shebang!

What was the crew filming in DPP? Tune in to find out!

There's also a really excellent website to accompany the show. You can learn more about some of the dinosaurs featured in the series (including wonderful new artwork by Danielle Dufault!), see interviews with some of the palaeontologists, and submit ideas for a nickname for a new dinosaur excavated during the show by the Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project. You can even submit questions and maybe have my weirdo face answer them via Skype! All in all, it's looking really good so far and I'm so happy to see the huge variety of dinosaur research being conducted across Canada by so many talented and hardworking people.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Edmontosaurus in Edmonton

Happy 2015, readers! So many exciting things are happening right now – the Dino Hunt Canada website launched a few weeks ago and the documentary will air on History Channel Canada later this month, things are chugging away here in North Carolina, and the Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed special issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences was published just before Christmas. There's already been lots of great coverage of the special issue, but I wanted to share a few thoughts here as well.

Please enjoy these very fine Edmontosaurus bones!

The special issue on this bonebed came about when Mike Burns and I got to talking about how the Albertosaurus Bonebed special issue had been such a good motivation for the lab to do some collaborative projects, and given that the PALEO 400 fieldschool students needed to develop research projects on the bonebed, wouldn't it make sense to try to polish those into publishable form as well? This was back in 2012, and at that point there'd been 6 years of really good fieldschool students who had come up with a variety of interesting small-scale independent research projects. We put out a call to current and former students to see if anyone would be interested in expanding their project and contributing it to the volume, and also invited some of our colleagues who were working on hadrosaurs and/or bonebeds in some way to see if they would be interested in working on the material as well. Not all of the former students contributed papers, but I was really pleased by the number who did – it's a big job to get a paper through peer-review, and I'm really proud of all the first-time papers in this issue!

Albertosaurus tooth!

It's also been really rewarding to watch our volunteer fossil prep program grow over the years I was at the UofA – we started with a few volunteers here and there, but in recent years we've had as many as 8-12 people working in the lab on a weekday evening. We run two shifts of volunteers – an evening program from 5-7pm on some combination of Mondays to Thursdays, depending on the schedules of the grad students who supervise the volunteers, and a daytime program by appointment in our larger basement laboratory with the larger and more challenging projects. Most people start in our evening lab programs, and many of the bones prepared during those hours were from the Danek bonebed. The Danek material is amazingly good for volunteers – with a bit of soaking, the surrounding shaley matrix flakes off the relatively durable bones. We would never have gotten through all of that material so quickly without the dedicated help of a very large crew of volunteers! If you're reading this from Edmonton and are interested in volunteering in the DinoLab, follow our Facebookpage for up-to-date contact information and hours.

Ian is a shoveling machine!

Although I haven't gone out to the bonebed for the full 3 weeks each year, I've tried to get out at least a little bit each year, even if it's only for 'overburden removal' days. It's amazing how much dirt we've moved since my first year there in 2007! Because the bonebed is located in a nature preserve, we need to be a bit careful with how we handle the overburden – we can't let too much sediment get into the creek, and we also can't just cover up existing plants. What we've taken to doing is removing the topsoil from a 'meadow' nearby, evenly spreading the relatively sterile Quaternary sands/gravels in the clearing, and then 'replanting' the topsoil overtop and sprinkling with local plant seeds. We dig in the early spring, and by July the area is so green you'd never even know we had disturbed it. The bonebed is a beautiful place to work - we see lots of interesting wildlife because of the stream nearby, the matrix surrounding the bones is soft and incredibly easy to work with, and the bones are plentiful.

Clearing the 'meadow'.

Sometimes it's cold in April in Edmonton!

One of the things we mentioned in the press materials for the special volume is the presence of other dinosaur fossils throughout Edmonton and the surrounding areas. I have a hunch that if you dig pretty much anywhere in Edmonton, you're probably going to hit a dinosaur bone at some point. There've been dinosaurs in the sewers and dinosaurs in the pipelines, and dinosaur bones pop up along the North Saskatchewan River with relative frequency. If you think you've found a dinosaur bone in Edmonton, make sure you understand the laws protecting fossils in Alberta – you need a permit to dig up fossils in Alberta, and fossils should be stored in accredited facilities like the Royal Tyrrell Museum of the University of Alberta Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology. But if you find something, tell the University of Alberta about it! Take a picture of what you found, and if you have the ability to mark the latitude and longitude with a GPS or your phone, do that too. You can get in touch with us via the DinoLab Facebook page. Maybe you will be the next person to stumble across a dinosaur in your city!

Not in Edmonton? The Danek Bonebed is where much of the taphonomy and fieldwork lesson for Dino101 was filmed! The 4th session of Dino101 started today, so go have a look if you're interested in learning more about the bonebed.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Body for Terrible Hands

It was a whirlwind year for dinosaur palaeontology, yet again. This week I'm writing about what I consider the most important news in my science field for 2014, for the Science Borealis blog carnival. There are so many great stories to choose from! Kulindadromeus and feather-like structures in ornithischians? The bizarro new reconstruction of a short-legged Spinosaurus? Both of those stories were pretty interesting, but my choice has to be the description of multiple skeletons of the Mongolian ornithomimosaur Deinocheirus.

If you like dinosaurs, there's a good chance you've heard about Deinocheirus before, even if it's not quite a household name like Stegosaurus or Triceratops. Deinocheirus (which means "Terrible Hands") was found during the Polish-Mongolian expeditions in the 1960s, and up until very recently has only been known by this single specimen, a pair of tremendous arms. And I do mean tremendous!

Me, in 2007, mimicking the 'zombie arms' of Deinocheirus, rather convincingly if I do say so myself.

A few years ago, the quarry for this holotype specimen was relocated and some gastralia (belly ribs) were found and described, but besides that this has been it. What on earth did the rest of this dinosaur look like? Was it a carnivore, herbivore, or something else? Where did it fit in the Cretaceous Gobi ecosystem?

While the exact evolutionary relationships of Deinocheirus have been enigmatic, there's been a general consensus that it was some kind of ornithomimosaur, or ostrich-mimic dinosaur. Even if you're not a dino-buff, you'll recognize ornithomimids as the stampeding dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – Gallimimus was the one 'flocking this way', and, conveniently, Gallimimus is a commonly encountered fossil in the Upper Cretaceous rocks of the Gobi Desert and would have lived alongside Deinocheirus. Where Gallimimus is an elegant, sprightly kind of dinosaur, Deinocheirus, it turns out, is not at all, not even a little bit.

It turns out that Deinocheirus is even more surprising than we would have ever guessed; the giant arms are nothing compared to the weirdness of the rest of its skeleton. Deinocheirus looks like a cross between a therizinosaur and a hadrosaur. It's a big, broad-bellied ornithomimosaur with a 'sail' of heightened neural spines on its vertebrae, and a widened, shovel-like snout with a deep jaw and tiny eyes. It looks like it was adapted for eating vegetation and had gastroliths preserved in its stomach region, but also had fish scales in there as well, prompting the authors to describe it as a megaomnivore, which is among my new favourite words of the year. Given that its close relatives the ornithomimids are known to have had feathers, as well as many other theropod dinosaurs, it is most likely that Deinocheirus had at least some feathers.

Deinocheirus, by the always-incredible Michael Skrepnick.

I will forever be jealous of my colleague Derek Larson, who was on the 2009 Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project expedition that found the new skeletons of Deinocheirus (I was there just a year later, and it was a great year...but no Deinocheirus). I'm so thrilled that I've been able to see the original bones in person, and they really are quite something to see – I hope that the specimen will eventually be mounted and put on display so everyone can see it for themselves, too!

The "Canadian contingent" (which actually includes at least one American and one Australian, but let's not be too picky) at the 2013 Hwaseong International Dinosaurs Expedition Symposium last December, gawking away at Deinocheirus.

Deinocheirus is also an important reminder that Mongolian fossils are under threat. Sadly, many probably excellent skeletons are removed illegally from Mongolia every year – no fossils are allowed to leave the country without a permit, and none can be sold, so any fossils from "Central Asia" on the auction blocks are almost certainly stolen goods. The Deinocheirus skull had made its way out of Mongolia some years ago, and was, thankfully, repatriated to Mongolia when word of the new skeletons began to circulate throughout the palaeontological community. Incredibly, the skull actually belonged to one of the newly collected skeletons! This is a story that could have ended very differently – we might not have known about the strange skull of Deinocheirus because of fossil poaching.

Poached fossils make everybody sad! Here Phil Currie is showing the remains of a tyrannosaur skull that was improperly collected by poachers and destroyed in the process.

So why choose Deinocheirus over Kulindadromeus or Spinosaurus? Like I said, all three are top contenders for the most surprising finds of 2014. In some ways, the fuzz of Kulindadromeus is less surprising, and its significance lies in the fact that it lends support to the hypothesis that fuzz was present in most dinosaurian clades. Spinosaurus has also long been considered a specialist in aquatic foods, so while the new skeletal revision is certainly weird, it's not quite a fundamental re-envisioning of this beast. But Deinocheirus is way beyond what anyone would have ever predicted the rest of the skeleton would have looked like, and just goes to show that there are surprises waiting around every corner for us when it comes to dinosaur diversity. And, in my opinion, Deinocheirus leads to even more questions than it answered: what was it doing with that sail; why is its jaw so deep and its eyes so small; what kind of environment produces a megaomnivore like that; are any of the bits and pieces of what we thought was Gallimimus actually parts of juvenile Deinocheirus? I could go on and on.

Congratulations to my colleagues in Korea and Mongolia for organizing the Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project expeditions – I'm sure this is just the first of many wonderful projects that will result from those years of fieldwork.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Know Your Ankylosaurs: Mongolia Edition!

After a whirlwind couple of weeks with a bunch of international travel, I've finally had a chance to sit down and write about my most recent paper on the ankylosaurs of the Baruungoyot and Nemegt formations of Mongolia. I've been interested in these ankylosaurs for a long time now, both because of their interesting cranial anatomy and their relationships to the ankylosaurs of North America (especially Alberta). So, here's a plain-language summary of some complicated taxonomy! Hooray!

Part the first: Dyoplosaurus giganteus

A toe!

We need to start here because Dyoplosaurus giganteus is the first of the ankylosaurs in this manuscript to have been named. Based on a fragmentary postcranium, Dyoplosaurus giganteus was considered similar to the North American Dyoplosaurus acutosquameus (pre-dating the synonymy of Dyoplosaurus with Euoplocephalus), but larger. Unfortunately, the holotype lacks any diagnostic characters that can differentiate it from specimens discovered since its original description, and so D. giganteus must be considered a nomen dubium. Which is important because...

Part the second: Tarchia
...it was partly synonymized with the newly-named genus Tarchia, based on similarities between the osteoderms, which then included Tarchia gigantea and Tarchia kielanae. Most people picture the beautifully preserved skull in the PIN collections as 'the' Tarchia, but in fact it is not the holotype of either D. giganteus or Tarchia kielanae. T. kielanae's holotype is a partial skull roof. Later, Tarchia kielanae was considered a junior synonym of Tarchia gigantea because it's quite fragmentary and there weren't any obvious differences between the two skulls. But here's the catch: the holotype skull of Tarchia kielanae does indeed preserve a diagnostic character that is not present in the PIN 'Tarchia' skull – a weird little ossification that sits on/in front of the squamosal horn, but isn't the squamosal horn. This feature is found only in one other described specimen – the holotype of Minotaurasaurus ramachandrani.

On the left, a sketch of T. kielanae's holotype from Maryanska's 1977 paper; on the right, a cast of the holotype of Minotaurasaurus.

The end result is that:
1.  Tarchia kielanae is valid
2. Minotaurasaurus is a junior synonym of T. kielanae
3. There are no diagnostic features in D. giganteus and no reason to refer the PIN skull to Tarchia, so T. gigantea is redundant.
4.  I'm sorry other ankylosaur workers, this really messes things up.

The Minotaurasaurus holotype is much more complete than the T. kielanae holotype and provides most of the anatomical information for Tarchia kielanae. Tarchia kielanae has extremely narrow squamosal horns, a prominent prefrontal caputegulum, four internarial caputegulum, a huge mandibular caputegulum, and that distinctive ossification above the squamosal horn.

Part the third: What about Saichania?

The Museum of Evolution in Warsaw has a cast of Saichania with the elements in situ.

Saichania is safe! This is an easily diagnosed taxon based on a GREAT holotype which includes a skull and front half of the postcrania and osteoderms that were articulated at the time of discovery (a cast of the in situ specimen shows the original arrangement). But, Saichania is probably not what you think it is – most people (well, at least those who think about such things) will probably visualize the mounted skeleton found in several museums/traveling exhibits. In one of my previous papers I argued that this skeleton should not be referred to Saichania based on several differences of the postcranial anatomy, and its provenance from the Djadokhta Formation rather than the Baruungoyot Formation. (The skull on this mounted skeleton is a cast of the holotype Saichania skull, and so unfortunately there isn't a lot of overlapping material.) Instead, that skeleton is possibly a relatively mature Pinacosaurus, or something different entirely.

Not Saichania, unfortunately! (Except for the head.) But maybe a big Pinacosaurus?

What about the PIN 'Tarchia' skull? 

So amazing!

Although it has a few small differences compared to the holotype Saichania skull, my best assessment right now is that this skull should also be referred to Saichania, not Tarchia. Both skulls have robust squamosal horns compared to the rediagnosed Tarchia, a small prefrontal caputegulum and large loreal caputeglae, and only a single internarial caputegulum. Eventually, as more specimens are found and described, it might be worth creating a new species of Saichania for the PIN skull, especially given that it was found in the Nemegt Formation and the holotype of S. chulsanensis is from the Baruungoyot Formation. Alternately, there might just be a single species of Saichania in both formations – a better understanding of the dinosaur biostratigraphy of Mongolia is much needed!

Part the fourth: A new kid on the block!

Meet Zaraapelta nomadis, a new ankylosaurid from the Baruungoyot Formation! This specimen was collected during the 2000 Dinosaurs of the Gobi expedition organized by Phil Currie and Nomadic Expeditions. 

Please enjoy this beautiful life restoration of Zaraapelta by my lovely and talented friend Danielle Dufault!

Zaraapelta has some features that indicate it's relatively closely related to Tarchia, including prominent prefrontal ornamentation. However, it has a couple of unique features that show that it is distinct – the squamosal horns are deep, like in Saichania, and there is extensive ornamentation behind the orbit. The squamosal horn also has a weird double-layered texture that I haven't encountered in any other ankylosaurid. At the moment we only have a skull for Zaraapelta, but I'm hoping that with the revision of ankylosaurid taxa I've proposed in this manuscript, future workers will be able to identify more specimens for these taxa as well!

And many thanks to Jessica Tansey, who did the technical illustrations of the skull for me while she was an undergrad at the UofA!

Part the fifth: Tail club conundrums

A cast of the ZPAL MgD I/113 tail club in the UALVP collections.

One really neat thing that I've mentioned in a couple of previous papers is that one specimen collected by the Polish-Mongolian expeditions in the 70s has a weird and unique tail club morphology. In pretty much all ankylosaurids, the tail club handle vertebrae look like a nested series of Vs in dorsal view, and the angle formed by the point is about 20-22 degrees. Ankylosaurus is the odd one out because it has distinctive U-shaped vertebrae. And ZPAL MgD I/113 has a morphology that's in between these two – not quite U-shaped, but not as sharply pointed as the V-shaped morphology in other ankylosaurids. There are also specimens from Mongolia with the V-shaped morphology, so we've got at least two species represented by tail club handles. But here's the problem: although we've got some really great skulls, partial skeletons, and skeletons with in situ osteoderms, there actually aren't any skeletons with both a skull and a tail club from these formations in Mongolia! Do either of the tail club morphotypes belong to the named species from Mongolia? Or does the unusual tail club handle represent a new species in the Nemegt Formation? We'll only be able to figure this out if we find a skull and tail club in the same specimen, but it would be pretty exciting if we were able to name another new ankylosaur from the Gobi.

So, that's a brief overview of the taxonomic stuff from the new paper. But before we finish, I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge one of my coauthors who couldn't see the paper in its final published form. Very sadly, our friend Badam passed away suddenly last December, which came as a shock to those of us who've benefited from her kindness and generosity while we've visited Mongolia. I wish I had had more time to spend with Badam, but I'm extremely grateful for the times I got to spend with her in Mongolia and when she visited Edmonton a few years ago. She is a presence that will be missed.

Miriam, Badam and I at Nemegt in 2007. A happy time. We miss you, Badam.

I'm glad to see this paper finally published - it was another one of those multi-year projects to visit lots of museums in order to see all of the necessary specimens - and it was a nice send-off for my time at the University of Alberta. Last weekend I moved down to Raleigh, North Carolina to begin a postdoc with Lindsay Zanno at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences/North Carolina State University. I had an amazing time in Edmonton and I'm sure that's not the last Alberta will see of me, and I'm hoping to accomplish some fun things here in Raleigh. To new adventures!

If you want to learn more about Zaraapelta and friends, try:

Arbour VM, Currie PJ, Badamgarav D. 2014. The ankylosaurid dinosaurs of the Upper Cretaceous Baruungoyot and Nemegt formations of Mongolia. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 172:631-652.

Watch my awkward face on Global TV! (Also with footage from the Discovering Dinosaurs exhibit!)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Meeting the Urvogel

Greetings from Deutschland! I've returned from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting in Berlin. Here's a couple of snapshots from the Museum fur Naturkunde, where the welcome reception was held last week. Giraffatitan (nee Brachiosaurus) brancai supervised the shenanigans in the main entrance hall.

The dinosaur gallery is dominated by animals from the Tendaguru Formation in Tanzania, which was pretty neat. Most of us in North America are pretty familiar with the animals from the Morrison Formation, so it was neat to see some of their African doppelgangers, like Dysalotosaurus (American counterpart: Dryosaurus).

Elaphrosaurus, a ceratosaurian, was a new theropod for me.

And here's Kentrosaurus (American counterpart: Stegosaurus), with some excellent parascapular osteoderms. 

SVP is probably the only place where Archaeopteryx would have a lineup akin to someone meeting a rock star, but it IS a rock star in the palaeontological world.

It was pretty special to be able to see this famous fossil in the fossilized flesh. Archaeopteryx is sometimes called the Urvogel, or 'original bird' in German, and even though many new discoveries show that Archaeopteryx is not the only feathered dinosaur out there, it will always have an important place in the history of evolutionary study. 

Elsewhere in the museum, there were many fun treasures to be found, like this hippo skeleton.

The wet collections were spectacular and overwhelming.

Hey look, a Wall of Stuff! I love Walls of Stuff!

Walls of Stuff often reward close inspection. I learned about a new kind of large amphibian, the amphiuma! (The amphiuma's the one with the highly reduced legs; I've now forgotten what the other big salamander was!)

I was excited to see a quagga in the biodiversity gallery!

And a thylacine!!

This comparison of aquatically-adapted skeletons was a great way to show homologies and convergences in skeletons. One half of the body was a fleshed-out model, and the other was a skeleton (all were scaled to about the same length). In this photo you can see a sea turtle, seal or sea lion, dolphin, fish, and ichthyosaur, and there was also a penguin, hesperornithid, and plesiosaur in the case as well. 

That's all for Berlin for now, and I'm hoping to share some more information about Mongolian ankylsoaurs and some other exciting news in the next week or so! Until next time!