Friday, October 26, 2018

SVP 2018

Another year, another SVP! This time, we convened in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Just like in 2016, I was on the authorship of two posters presented at SVP. As before, one of these posters was about scientific outreach using the internet. My co-authors (Meig Dickson, Austin Deans, Henry Thomas, Blaire Voss, and Maya Jade McCallum) and I described our experience in running an informal online course about dinosaur paleontology earlier this year, and evaluated whether our methods of teaching were effective (spoiler alert: for most part, they were!). Meig presented our poster on the first day of the conference and will probably write up her own report about it in due course.

One of the star attractions of this year's SVP was this model of Utahraptor made by TRX Dinosaurs.

The welcome reception this year was held at (where else?) the New Mexico Museum of Nature and Science. My one regret is that I apparently didn't get any photos of the temporary paleoart exhibit Picturing the Past. (Check out this Twitter thread by Brian Engh for a selection of the impressive works on display!)

In the main hall of the museum, conference attendees were welcomed by a cast of the Tyrannosaurus specimen "Stan".

The museum's Triassic gallery was particularly impressive, as might be expected. Here are some fossils (and a partial life restoration) of an erythrosuchid. It's quite a large animal!

A block of Coelophysis specimens!

A wall of phytosaurs.

A Placerias realizes it has come within striking range of a Redondasaurus.

In the Jurassic hall, a Stegosaurus looks out on a confrontation between a Saurophaganax and a Diplodocus ("Seismosaurus").

Moving onward to the Cretaceous, here is a skull of Pentaceratops.

I was pleased to see that museum signage correctly marked dinosaurs as having survived the K-Pg extinction (so much so that I hadn't even noticed they were using the outdated term "Tertiary").

A few live gar were on display, presumably to represent a lineage of animals that supposedly hasn't changed much since the Cretaceous.

A highlight was the fact that the museum had concentrated their most impressive local fossil specimens in a temporary exhibition area. Here is a very complete specimen of the aetosaur Typothorax.

The tyrannosaurid Bistahieversor.

A partial skull of Parasaurolophus.

The early synapsid Sphenacodon.

On the second evening of SVP, many bird paleontologists gathered together for a "bird dinner", an event that had also occurred last year and seems poised to become a new SVP tradition. There were some snags with the logistics of getting everyone to the dining venue, but it appeared that much fun was had by all who attended. I ended up sitting next to Mike Habib, who regaled everyone at the table with facts about soaring animals and tales about his experiences testifying as an expert witness for crime trials.

It was also nice to have a University of Maryland reunion lunch on the third day (Friday) with my former instructors Thomas Holtz and John Merck and fellow alumni Benn Breeden, Susan Drymala, and Eugenia Gold, which hadn't been possible last year as several of us had not been in attendance.

Friday was also the day that I was scheduled to present my other poster, focusing on my own PhD research. I'd already presented this work earlier in the year during ProgPal and IPC, but (as expected) SVP provided me with the most substantial and diverse feedback on it. Thanks to Jordan Bestwick, Michael Hanson, Christian Kammerer, Mike Keesey, Dan Ksepka, David Marjanović, John Merck, Grace Musser, James Nassif, James Proffitt, and many others for stopping by to chat. I got the impression that I left an overall positive impression, and I'm excited to wrap this project up and ready it for publication. As for those of you who haven't seen me present this research at ProgPal, IPC, or SVP, I'm afraid I'll have to make you wait just a little longer...

This is all I can show of my poster for now, sorry!

Meig had invited several friends (myself included) to her Shabbat dinner for Friday night. This, too, ran into some logistical issues (namely that the dinner was scheduled to start before the poster session ended...), but fortunately enough food was still left by the time I made my way there. Afterward, we were all also able to return to the conference in time for the auction, so it all worked out in the end.

This year's live auction theme was Doctor Who. The auction was entertaining as always, though I feel that I had a bit more fun at last year's auction by a small margin. This may have been partly because I was more familiar with last year's source material (the Guardians of the Galaxy films), but I suspect that the inclusion of a very inappropriate shirt in the preceding silent auction soured things for many attendees. Here's hoping that the discussion sparked by this kerfuffle leads to the implementation of more effective society policies moving forward.

I realize that those of you who have read this far are probably tired of hearing about who I had dinner with each night, and I still haven't listed my favorite talks of the conference yet, so I will do so now:
  • Mickey Mortimer's talk (presented by David Marjanović) on reevaluating Ornithoscelida
  • Viktor Radermacher's talk on the ornithischian respiratory apparatus
  • Emily Lessner's talk on identifying osteological correlates for crocodylian-style facial sensors
  • Tetsuto Miyashita's talk on the ontogeny of Paleozoic stem-lampreys (this year's Romer Prize winner)
  • David Grossnickle's talk on the adaptive radiation of therian mammals
  • Scott Hartman's talk on the origin of avian flight
  • Alida Bailleul's talk on a new enantiornithine preserved with unusual mineralized tissue
  • Greg Erickson's talk on the ontogeny of Ugrunaaluk
  • Eric Snively's talk on turning abilities in tyrannosaurids (which did a good job of keeping the audience attentive considering it was an 8:00 AM talk on the last day!)
  • Pete Makovicky's talk (presented by Eric Gorscak) on a new specimen of Tianyuraptor (yes, it's this specimen that's been circulating on the internet for some time)
  • Adam Pritchard's talk on forelimb function in Drepanosaurus
  • Savannah Olroyd's talk on chameleons as a possible analogue for hearing in non-mammalian therapsids
  • Roger Smith's talk on ecosystem collapse during the Permian mass extinction, which dropped the major bombshell that we now know of Lystrosaurus skin impressions!
Unfortunately, the one talk on alvarezsaurs (apparently reporting on a new species from the Hell Creek Formation) was cancelled, which I was quite disappointed by. However, Boban Filipović's model of a Hell Creek alvarezsaurid won the 3D art category for the Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize competition, so alvarezsaurs made at least one high-profile appearance at the conference.

On the whole, SVP was a rollercoaster ride of fun (for most part) from start to finish, as it typically is. This was the year that I was struck by just how many people in the community I know now, to the point where the entire conference went by without me having run into some of them! There was lamentably little chance to exchange more than a few words even with many of those who I did meet. Perhaps not coincidentally, this year's SVP was the biggest to date, numbering over 1300 attendees. (A bit of fun trivia: as far as I'm aware, Dougal Dixon and myself were the only individuals to have attended both TetZooCon and SVP this year.)

Not only was this the biggest SVP so far, it also hosted the largest gathering of members from my Palaeo-Tumblr friend group. Individuals represented are Tristan Stock (Leaellynasaura), myself (Albertonykus), Meig Dickson (Kulindadromeus), Tyler Young (Cryolophosaurus), Bobby Ebelhar (Triceratops), John D'Angelo (Ornithopsis), Sam Stanton (Deinonychus), Henry Thomas (Zhejiangopterus), Austin Deans (Machairasaurus), and Kevin Sievers ("Diplotomodon").

Several attendees have joked that next year's SVP (which will take place in Brisbane, Australia) is likely going to be the smallest SVP to date. I, for one, would certainly like to go, but I suppose we'll see.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

TetZooCon 2018

This year's TetZooCon was the biggest so far, spanning two days instead of one. I suspect that many attendees would agree with me that it was also the best one so far. It was probably the most fun I've had a zoological gathering, and that's saying something!

Mark Witton was gracious enough to indulge my request for an alvarezsaur sketch when he signed my copy of The Palaeoartist's Handbook, despite admitting that it'd been a while since he'd drawn one. I ended up pulling up Scott Hartman's Mononykus skeletal for him to use as a reference, which felt like the least I could do.

For starters, there were some truly brilliant talks (though this is par for the course for TetZooCon). Some of my favorite presentations from the first day include Jennifer Jackson's talk on mysticete evolution, Lucy Cooke's talk on her book The Truth About Animals (so many laugh-out-loud moments!), and Katrina van Grouw's defense of domestic animals as scientifically important subjects of study. In addition, Fiona Taylor's talk on music in nature documentaries ranks among the most interesting talks I've ever heard at an event of this sort, shedding much insight on a subject that many (myself included) had been subconsciously aware of but rarely think about in detail. (Additional commentary on Taylor's talk, along with some music clips used in the presentation, can be found on SV-POW.)

This year's TetZooCon was the first to have a themed session of presentations. This was the bird session on the second day, including my talk. (Oh, right, I got to give a talk this year!) However, Darren Naish had also invited us bird speakers to partake in a panel discussion on the afternoon of the first day, and so it was such that I found myself answering questions about bird evolution onstage alongside Caitlin Kight, Hanneke Meijer, Robyn Womack, and Glyn Young. As a lowly second-year PhD student, being in such esteemed company made me feel woefully inadequate! I probably fidgeted and tripped over my words a lot, but my quip that hummingbirds are "dinosaurs trying to be butterflies" apparently struck a chord with many people, so everything seemed to work out in the end. It was also nice to see one of the points I tried to make during the panel later reaffirmed by herpetologist Mark O'Shea in his talk. (The point was that advances in molecular biology should not supplant a detailed understanding of morphology in extant taxa.)

Unfortunately, the bird panel coincided with the paleoart workshop (this was also the first TetZooCon with parallel sessions), so I was unable to experience the latter firsthand. From what I saw, the workshop was productive, with attendees being encouraged to create pieces using "unconventional" styles of paleoart (rather than standard photorealism).

Speaking of the paleoart workshop, this year's TetZooCon banner was illustrated with drawings produced by last year's attendees. I drew the Sharovipteryx above "2018" and the small mammaliaform overlapping the bottom of the "C" (camouflaged among crocodyliform osteoderms).

With the morning of the second day, it came time for the bird talks themselves to be presented. My fellow speakers all did an excellent job, and between us we covered a diverse and fascinating array of subjects in ornithology. Robyn Womack started the session off by discussing the circadian rhythms of birds, Caitlin Kight talked about the effects of noise pollution on birds, Hanneke Meijer presented on fossil birds of Southeast Asia, and Glyn Young looked at Southern Hemisphere ducks and why they're commonly perceived to be boring. I went second (after Robyn—a tough act to follow!), talking about ongoing controversies surrounding the early evolution of crown-group birds (some of which my PhD research is meant to address). I've received some queries about how I was even able to get a talk slot at TetZooCon to begin with, and honestly all I did was ask Darren if I could.

I've always liked the custom avatars John Conway draws for TetZooCon speakers. I appear to be depicted as a paleognath, or maybe an alvarezsaur whose tail is hidden by perspective.

Luckily, it seems that I had not bitten off more than I could chew. Overall audience response to my talk was (as far as I know) very positive, a recurring compliment being the clarity with which I'd explained the contents of my presentation. Indeed, I got quite flustered at just how high some of the praise I received was. It was a pleasure to see the various sketches Sara Otterstätter had drawn based on my talk (as she had done for most of the presentations). My use of a "this is fine" meme gained some traction, and some also appreciated my Infinity War reference. Here's hoping that this year's talks will be put online so that everyone else can judge for themselves. Apparently, though, at least one attendee had come away with the mistaken impression that I was supportive of the idea that songbirds and parrots had originated in the Cretaceous (whereas I'd meant to imply that I thought such ancient dates resulted from analytical artifacts). I'll need to work on making that clearer next time I present on this subject.

People seemed to like this slide. Credit really goes to Luigi Gaskell for coming with the joke in the first place; I simply capitalized on its relevance to my talk.

Yet another one of many personal highlights was that I got to meet skeptic activist and science communicator Aron Ra. I found Aron's Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism and Falsifying Phylogeny video series very informative when I was younger, and I still enjoy his videos on a regular basis. (I particularly recommend his ongoing Systematic Classification of Life series.) What floored me the most, however, was that Aron had been looking forward to meeting me, too! This was because he'd known about me from the intermittent assistance I'd been lending to his Phylogeny Explorer Project (PEP), an ambitious attempt to present the complete tree of life in a digital format. (Truth be told, all I've really done is refine and flesh out the maniraptor parts of the PEP somewhat, but it's good to hear that my minor input is valued regardless.) Aron would later present on the PEP during the afternoon of the second day, concluding his talk by inviting all TetZooCon attendees to contribute to the project. Besides Aron, I also met PEP manager Steve Owen, consultant Renato Santos, and benefactor Charles Buchan. Meeting Renato was particularly memorable, as I've known him through the internet for many years. As Steve has written in his own report about the convention, this has been the greatest number of people involved in the PEP assembled in one room to date.

Aron's talk was followed by another panel discussion, this time with Gert van Dijk and Dougal Dixon talking about speculative biology. Many great quotes were spoken, my favorite being Dixon's proclamation that humanoid aliens are a "great example of evolution". One really got a sense of how much thought and creativity goes into their elaborate spec bio projects. The final talk of the convention was by Darren himself, talking about the making of Dinosaurs in the Wild. It was extremely impressive to hear about the numerous details incorporated into the experience, not all of which I'd noticed on my own visit. Unfortunately, the sound system at the venue broke down by this point for unknown reasons, preventing Darren from using video clips to full effect (though hearing him provide his own sound effects was quite entertaining). Nonetheless, the fact that that was the worst thing to go wrong at the convention (as far as I could tell) meant a job well done to all involved.

At the past two TetZooCons, I'd come in second place on the TetZooCon quiz. With the greater number of people in attendance this time around, I'd assumed that it would be statistically unlikely for me to perform as well again. However, contrary to my expectations, I came in first place! (It was also amusing to discover that listing the membership of a specific neoavian clade was one of the questions on the quiz, as I'd joked about that being the case during my talk.) I was permitted to pick two out of a selection of potential prizes, ultimately walking away with a Fauna Figures bichir figurine and a Dinosaurs in the Wild Dakotaraptor plush (which has inaccurate wings, but the "pick the maniraptor thing!" part of my brain was yelling).

Another of my slides, this time showing the major groups of neoavian birds. I'd joked that though I wouldn't be quizzing the audience on any of these after the talk, Darren might. As it turns out, he did. I'll leave it up to readers to guess which group was the subject of the quiz question (unless Darren or a fellow attendee sees fit to reveal the answer).

Although this was the longest TetZooCon yet, it still felt like it was over far too soon! I'd gained several new contacts and caught up with many old friends, but I can still think of individuals who I would've liked to talk to and didn't get the chance. Even so, from my perspective as an attendee and speaker, the first two-day TetZooCon was an evident success. Watching the Tet Zoo community blossom and grow over the years has been an exciting experience, and it's been a real pleasure and an honor to have been a small part of it all.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Favorite Maniraptor of 2017 Results

Longtime readers will notice that this post comes at an unusual time of the year. I hadn't planned on retiring more than one of my few annual traditions on here, but thanks to external circumstances outside of my control, it looks like I might have to.

A few months ago, Blogger got rid of its poll widget, bringing my ongoing poll on newly-named maniraptors of 2017 to a premature close. Probably needless to say, this will also prevent me from hosting these polls in future years. There are plenty of other sites that allow for poll creation, but I suspect the voter base would greatly diminish if the polls weren't hosted on the blog itself. And though embedding a third-party poll on the blog by editing the HTML is a possibility, it sounds like too much work to spend on a bit of frivolity.

Without further ado, presenting the results of perhaps the last ever annual favorite maniraptor poll on Raptormaniacs...

Unsurprisingly, the unusual, possibly semi-aquatic dromaeosaurid Halszkaraptor took the lead by a long shot. Coming in second was the large troodont Latenivenatrix, and third place went to the well-preserved anchiornithid Serikornis. I was somewhat disappointed to see that no one picked Cruralispennia, despite it being the subject of one of my most popular blog posts. This was particularly jarring given that even Junornis (a bog-standard enantiornithine by comparison) got one vote, though I will admit that its holotype looks spectacular. More astounding was the fact that Corythoraptor, a tall-crested oviraptorid, also failed to gain any votes.

As it happens, 2017 also saw the publication of several new maniraptors that took some time to filter into the online paleontology community and thus did not make it into my poll. These new taxa include:
  • Awengkere: A large diving duck from the Miocene of Australia.
  • Deliaphaps: A pigeon from the Miocene of New Zealand, likely closely related to the Nicobar pigeon and the dodo.
  • Microenantiornis: A small enantiornithine (shocker!) from the Early Cretaceous of China.
  • Miocariama: A seriema from the Miocene of Argentina. The holotype was formerly referred to Noriegavis, which the describers reevaluate as a synonym of the falcon Thegornis.
  • Pampagyps: A condor from the Pleistocene-Holocene of Argentina.
Among these, Microenantiornis escaped notice by having been published in an obscure Chinese journal. The others were named in a printed volume, the conference proceedings of the 9th SAPE meeting (held in 2016). Even now, the description of Miocariama has to my knowledge yet to appear in digital format.

Friday, August 31, 2018

On the Road to All Thumbs: Bannykus and Xiyunykus

Out of all the weird and wonderful forms that maniraptors have taken, it will probably surprise no one to hear that it is the alvarezsaurids that fascinate me the most. The most noticeable anatomical curiosities of these theropods are their forelimbs: the arms of alvarezsaurids were very short and their hands were composed almost entirely of an enlarged thumb, with the second and third fingers highly reduced or (in at least one species) lost.

Their limited reach, stiffened elbow and wrist joints, and possession of only a single functional finger would have made alvarezsaurid forelimbs little good for grasping. However, despite their small size, those arms almost certainly had a practical use. The humerus (upper arm bone) had a very large deltopectoral crest and the ulna (the larger bone in the lower arm) had a large olecranon process (the point projecting towards the elbow). These features, combined with the well-developed sternum (breastbone), are generally found in animals that need to make powerful forelimb motions, more specifically pulling the forelimbs towards the body and straightening the elbow joint. In the case of alvarezsaurids, such specializations most commonly interpreted as adaptations for breaking into insect nests or wood.

Reconstructed skeleton of the alvarezsaurid Patagonykus, photographed by "Kabacchi", under CC BY 2.0. Note that the vestigial second and third fingers are not included in this mount.

When alvarezsaurids were first recognized in the 1990s, they were commonly thought to be strange flightless avialans more closely related to modern birds than was Archaeopteryx. They did indeed have skeletal similarities to modern birds, particularly in the skull and limbs. However, later analyses have recovered alvarezsaurids as non-eumaniraptoran maniraptors, suggesting that their similarities to birds were the result of convergent evolution. (In addition, a few studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s argued that they were even more distant relatives of birds, being closer to ornithomimosaurs.)

In 2010, the description of Haplocheirus from the Late Jurassic Shishugou Formation of China (older than any alvarezsaurid) lent support to the non-avialan status of alvarezsaurs. Considered a non-alvarezsaurid alvarezsaur, Haplocheirus looked much like a "standard", non-paravian coelurosaurian theropod; it was an "alvarezsaur that looked normal". However, it shared with alvarezsaurids a slightly enlarged thumb relative to the other fingers, as well as details of the skull and hindlimbs. Subsequent studies have largely supported its alvarezsaurian affinities (though at least one analysis found it to be an early ornithomimiosaur instead).

Haplocheirus shed a good amount of light on alvarezsaurid origins, but there remained a noticeable gap in the picture. All known alvarezsaurids with their specialized forelimb morphology lived during the Late Cretaceous, whereas Haplocheirus with its incipient forelimb specializations lived in the Late Jurassic, leaving the Early Cretaceous history of alvarezsaurs unknown... until now. In a recently-published paper, Xu Xing and colleagues describe two new alvarezsaur species recovered from Early Cretaceous deposits in China.

First of all, it's about damn time. The last newly-named dinosaur to be described as an alvarezsaur was Alnashetri, which was published back in 2012. But more than simply increasing our knowledge of alvarezsaur diversity, the new species described by Xu et al. are significant in what they reveal about alvarezsaur evolutionary history.

One of the new alvarezsaurs, Xiyunykus pengi, was found in the Tugulu Group of northwestern China. The holotype specimen is fairly complete, though it lacks much of the skull, the pelvis, and a complete forelimb. Enough of the forelimb is preserved, however, to show that Xiyunykus had a typical coelurosaurian humerus while also having a well-developed olecranon process on the ulna. Thus, Xiyunykus exhibits an intermediate forelimb morphology between ancestral coelurosaurs and alvarezsaurids.

Skeletal and select elements of Xiyunykus, from Xu et al. (in press). Preserved bones are shown in gray on the skeletal.
Restoration of Xiynykus with human for scale, by Tom Parker, under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Possibly an even more dramatic intermediate condition is represented by the other new alvarezsaur, Bannykus wulatensis. Bannykus was found in the Bayin-Gobi Formation of northern China and was slightly larger than Xiyunykus. (Both new alvarezsaurs are known from roughly coyote- or rhea-sized subadult specimens, making them larger than most alvarezsaurids.) The holotype of Bannykus is again quite complete, also lacking much of the skull but this time including a nearly complete forelimb. Its arms were shorter relative to its body size than those of Haplocheirus, and its second and third fingers were also reduced. Its olecranon process was further developed still compared to Xiyunykus. However, none of these features reached the extremes seen in alvarezsaurids. If one were to try and infer how the forelimb of an ancestral coelurosaur was evolutionarily transformed into the very unusual alvarezsaurid forelimb, the forelimb anatomy of Bannykus would probably fit the halfway point of that transformation almost perfectly. Indeed, Bannykus translates to "half claw", a reference to its transitional characteristics.

Skeletal and select elements of Bannykus, from Xu et al. (in press). Preserved bones are shown in gray on the skeletal.
Restoration of Bannykus with human for scale, by Tom Parker, under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Interestingly, whereas the second and third fingers of alvarezsaurids were so highly reduced that they likely served no practical purpose, there are hints that the second finger of Bannykus had a specialized function. The joints between the bones of the second finger appear to have been exceptionally flexible. In particular, the claw of the second finger could not only curl toward and extend away from the palm in a wide arc, but may have also been capable of some side-to-side movements and even rotation. Xu et al. suggest that this level of flexibility is consistent with a probing function. Bannykus may have used its second finger to flush out prey from crevices, maybe after it had already broken into their hideout using its robust thumb!

This is not the first time that a probing function has been attributed to dinosaur fingers. A similar foraging method has also been suggested for scansoriopterygids (involving the use of their third finger) and the oviraptorosaur Chirostenotes (involving the use of its second finger). However, both of these previous ideas have been questioned. Being a pennaraptoran, Chirostenotes likely bore large feathers on its second finger, which would have prevented it from using its finger as a probing tool, and the discovery of Yi opens up the possibility that the third finger of scansoriopterygids was mainly used to support a membranous wing structure. Notably, the idea that these dinosaurs probed with their fingers was based primarily on the fact that their fingers were elongate, with no evidence that they were unusually flexible. In any case, regardless of how well the probing hypothesis for Bannykus holds up in the future, the contrast with the vestigial second finger of alvarezsaurids is a good illustration that organisms that we consider morphologically transitional in hindsight can simultaneously have their own unique specializations, and are not simply "waiting around to evolve into something else".

From top to bottom: the forelimbs of Guanlong (a tyrannosauroid, representing the ancestral coelurosaur condition), Haplocheirus (a Late Jurassic alvarezsaur), Bannykus (an Early Cretaceous alvarezsaur), and Shuvuuia (an alvarezsaurid), from Xu et al. (in press). All are scaled relative to respective femur length. Note the successive decrease in relative arm length, increase in prominence of projections on the humerus and ulna, increase in robusticity of the thumb, and reduction of the other fingers.

In addition to their unusual forelimbs, alvarezsaurids (especially the subgroup known as parvicursorines) also had quite specialized hindlimbs, with very long feet and short toes (likely adaptations for running). The hindlimbs of both Xiyunykus and Bannykus possessed some similarities to those of alvarezsaurids, but were otherwise fairly typical of coelurosaurs. Evidently, alvarezsaurs started doing whatever it is they were doing with their forelimbs before they were selected for specialized locomotion.

The phylogenetic analysis in Xu et al.'s study has some surprises. As expected, Haplocheirus, Xiyunykus, and Bannykus are found to be successively more closely related to alvarezsaurids. What is more curious is that Aorun and Tugulusaurus, previously considered basal coelurosaurs or basal maniraptoromorphs, are also found to be alvarezsaurs! Aorun (known from a partial juvenile specimen from the Shishugou Formation) is recovered as the oldest and basalmost known alvarezsaur, whereas Tugulusaurus (known from a fragmentary skeleton from the Tugulu Group) is recovered as a close relative of Xiyunykus. As has been a recurring element of our knowledge about alvarezsaur evolution, the thumb might tell the tale: the most obvious features that Aorun and Tugulusaurus shared with more definite alvarezsaurs are features of the thumb. It would be interesting to see if these results are supported by future studies.

The phylogeny of alvarezsaurs recovered by Xu et al. (in press), from their study.

With these new discoveries, alvarezsaurs have gone from being one of the most enigmatic groups of maniraptors to one of the most completely understood in terms of their evolutionary history. That six-year gap between now and the description of Alnashetri has been worth the wait.

Speaking of Alnashetri, it is potentially the oldest known alvarezsaurid proper. It sure would be nice to have some more complete specimens of it... ;)

Reference: Xu, X., J. Choiniere, Q. Tan, R.B.J. Benson, J. Clark, C. Sullivan, Q. Zhao, F. Han, Q. Ma, Y. He, S. Wang, H. Xing, and L. Tan. In press. Two Early Cretaceous fossils document transitional stages in alvarezsaurian dinosaur evolution. Current Biology in press. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.07.057

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Dinosaurs in the Wild

Having heard many good things about the "immersive experience" Dinosaurs in the Wild, I figured that I should pay it a visit before it closes in London on September 2. I had largely neglected photography during the trip (and the few pictures I took didn't turn out great), so this post will be illustrated with images borrowed from the Dinosaurs in the Wild website.

For those who are unfamiliar with the experience, the conceit of Dinosaurs in the Wild is that time travel has been developed by the fictional company Chronotex, who have set up a research station in the Maastrichtian of western North America that is now open to visitors. Upon arrival, visitors are "transported" into the past and then "driven" to the research station. Along the way, they get their first look at the fauna of the Late Cretaceous (portrayed by photorealistic animation on 3D screens). As has been discussed at length by scientific consultant Darren Naish, the depictions of the animals are heavily informed by science, incorporating elements of both recent research and plausible All-Yesterdays-style speculation.

At the research station itself, visitors are first given a tour of the labs. Others have rightly praised the attention to detail presented by Dinosaurs in the Wild, and it is particularly prominent during this segment of the experience. The tables and cabinets are filled with "biological samples" taken from the "field", far too many for a visitor to completely take in on a single trip, but all inspired by real-world scientific research. Highlights include an Alamosaurus heart (which can be stimulated to beat), dinosaur fecal matter, and a preserved specimen of a stem-primate in a jar. I paid particular attention to the tray of feathers on one of the tables, which included not only "standard" pennaceous feathers but also speculative monofilaments from Pachycephalosaurus, as well as samples for which the source species had not been confidently identified (adding to the authenticity of the laboratory setting).

Continuing on, we were treated to an autopsy of a recently deceased Pachycephalosaurus (again, incorporating many recent findings about dinosaur anatomy) and then to a dinosaur hatchery. The eggs of different dinosaur species are shown to require different incubation strategies (also based on fossil evidence), and we were given the opportunity to meet a newly-hatched Dakotaraptor (portrayed by an animatronic).

Among the maniraptors depicted at Dinosaurs in the Wild, the recently-described large dromaeosaurid Dakotaraptor was the most prominently featured.

The next couple of rooms showcased "captive specimens" of Cretaceous animals (portrayed by more animatronics) being kept in the research station. I especially liked the "night room" dedicated to (speculatively) nocturnal species such as Didelphodon, Acheroraptor, and Leptoceratops. A nice touch was the "revelation" that the Leptoceratops had color patterns only visible under ultraviolet light.

But the best was naturally saved for last: having seen the inner workings of the research station, visitors are taken to an observation deck where four giant "windows" allow them to observe what's going on in the ecosystem "outside". It is impossible to keep track of all four windows at once, so one will inevitably miss some sequences, but any amount of attention given is sure to be rewarded by the sight of interesting (and believable) behaviors exhibited by the animals. A Prognathodon launches an attack on an unsuspecting dinosaur on a riverbank. A breeding colony of Dakotaraptor doesn't take kindly to an Alamosaurus wandering through their nesting ground. A group of Thescelosaurus repels a marauding Dakotaraptor by pelting it with sand, but lose one of their young to some Quetzalcoatlus. (Keen-eyed visitors will likely notice that some of these events are foreshadowed early in the tour: for example, one report shown at the beginning of the experience mentions that the Thescelosaurus appear to be unaccustomed to dealing with attacks from the Quetzalcoatlus.)

Despite Chronotex's apparent success, one gets the increasing impression during the tour that they still face some challenges that need to be ironed out, from contagious diseases that they're unprepared for to implied dinosaur escapes. When the tour eventually comes to an end, it is because the visitors are forced to evacuate. This is a good time for me to give props to the on-site staff I encountered, all of whom did an excellent job at staying in-character throughout. All of their words and actions, down to their conversations among themselves, were presented as organic reactions to the simulated events around them, even when they weren't the centerpiece of a given segment.

Notice the attendant enantiornithines perched on this Triceratops (also present on the Tyrannosaurus in the first image of this post). Unfortunately, I didn't notice any enantiornithines rendered in animated form at the actual experience (though it's possible they were simply overshadowed by larger animals), but their existence was certainly alluded to: they are included on observatory signage and samples of their feathers are on display at the lab.

Having already read glowing reviews of Dinosaurs in the Wild by Mark Witton and Marc Vincent (not to mention the positive insider's perspective of Darren Naish), I didn't exactly need any convincing of its overall merit. Indeed, my review offers little beyond adding to the chorus of positive reactions to it. However, being able to confirm its quality for myself was certainly a worthwhile experience.

What's more, the attraction seems to have been well received by the general public as well. At a time when many paleontologists frequently lament how mainstream media rarely reflects their latest research, Dinosaurs in the Wild appears to be an effective and successful means of exhibiting our current paleontological understanding to a broader audience.

Is there anything about Dinosaurs in the Wild that I would modify if I had the power to do so? It's easy to desire even bigger and better things. (More paleoenvironments! More dinosaurs!) However, in its current iteration, there's probably not much I'd change, to be honest. Okay... I suppose it needed more references to alvarezsaurids. (I didn't see any.)

Dinosaurs in the Wild is open in London until September 2, with future locations yet to be announced at the time of writing. If you are a paleontology enthusiast who is in reach of southern England during the next week or so, I would recommend a visit!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes

As mentioned in my previous post, I did not get to visit the Ménagerie at Jardin des plantes during the third day of IPC 2018. So on the fourth day of the conference, my labmate Juan Benito Moreno and I decided to skip out on the early afternoon talk sessions to see it. The Ménagerie is quite a small zoo; one can easily see all the exhibits in the space of two hours. (Though I went on a second solo visit on the fifth day after the conference concluded, just so I could obtain better images of some animals. This post contains photos from both trips.)

The Ménagerie is one of the oldest public zoos in the world. Being so small, exhibit space is accordingly restricted. To its credit, the Ménagerie mostly lacks very large-bodied animals, instead focusing on smaller and medium-sized species that can live more comfortably in the enclosures. In many cases, these species are relatively rare in captivity and have successfully bred at the zoo, so I would still consider the Ménagerie worth a visit despite its small size. There were nonetheless a few exhibits that I felt were too small for the inhabitants, with the primate and parrot enclosures being the main offenders.

On both visits I got good views of this red panda lying high up on its climbing frame.

Some lowland anoa. Bovid diversity was one of the highlights at the Ménagerie (though not being a bovid fan in particular, I didn't go to lengths to photograph all of them).

A white-naped crane.

A white-fronted woodpecker.

A snow leopard.

This Malayan tapir had one of the more spacious exhibits in the zoo.

Probably the greatest highlight to me personally was seeing these MacQueen's bustards. We got to see one of the males perform its unusual courtship display!

Above the bustards perched a European roller and a Eurasian hoopoe. Picocoracians unite!

Next door was the zoo nursery, in which the only inhabitant I could see was this young white-naped crane.

In the same building as the nursery was an exhibit for tree kangaroos and brush-tailed bettongs, though the tree kangaroos chose not to show themselves. I did see a bettong sleeping in a corner, but it wouldn't have made for a particularly photogenic shot. (You may be able to spot it in the photograph below if your eyes are keen.) Quite a few mice scurried about, probably taking advantage of the food and hiding spots available.

A pair of blue cranes.

Some bharal (also known as blue sheep), including a kid.

A great green macaw.

A palm-nut vulture. Unusually for a bird of prey, a large proportion of its diet consists of fruits.

A king vulture.

A red-headed vulture, one of several Asian vulture species experiencing alarming population declines, threatened by the use of the veterinary drug diclofenac.

A red-vented cockatoo.

A palm cockatoo.

A southern cassowary.

Some yellow-throated martens. These mustelids hunt in pairs and sometimes in small groups, allowing them to hunt relatively large prey such as young deer. The glare on the glass was strong that day...

Some great gray owls.

A tawny frogmouth. As you might infer from my IPC poster, this species is of particular interest to me...

Some yaks.

In a large walkthrough aviary there was this pair of demoiselle cranes. (One individual is partly concealed behind foliage here.)

Another inhabitant of the aviary, a red-billed blue magpie.

Another European roller. I feel that the oddity of coraciiforms is frequently understated. They are rainbow-colored predatory dinosaurs that nest in burrows.

A violet turaco, in honor of the recent discovery that the Eocene bird Foro was a stem-turaco.

A red-legged seriema. It shared its enclosure with squirrel monkeys. In paleontology circles, seriemas are known for having a retractable second toe (similar to dromaeosaurids) and for being the closest living relatives of phorusrhacids (terror birds).

The layout of the vivariums was particularly vintage-looking (though this is perhaps not apparent from my photos). One vivarium denizen was this Schneider's toad.

A garden fruit chafer.

A Nile crocodile.

A Weber's sailfin lizard, the smallest of the genus Hydrosaurus. (Still good-sized for a lizard.)

A red-breasted goose, which shared this exhibit with other anseriforms as well as with flamingos.

Some yellow mongooses.

An agouti.

Some Indian crested porcupines.

Some West Caucasian turs, an endangered species of wild goat.

A rock squirrel. I've seen this species in the wild back in the United States, but this is the first time I've seen a black individual.