Monday, December 19, 2011

Another Attempted Revolt Part II

The second half of the story.

Uh, yeah.

There's a perspective thing in the last panel that I didn't have room to fully establish. Ostrom is supposed to be in the extreme foreground, which is why he looks almost the same size as Ebeff.

Apologies for the frivolous nonsense. If it explains anything, this was originally intended for April Fools', but I managed to come up with something more sophisticated and decided to save this for later.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I get fanart!

No, I didn't believe it either. But really! Imagine my surprise when I found this in my messages on Deviant Art, titled "Raptormaniacs doodles".

For a moment I thought that someone else might have come up with another maniraptor-related project titled "Raptormaniacs" independently of mine. But when I clicked in to take a closer look, sure enough, those were my characters and there was a link to this blog in the artist's comments.

The piece of fanart itself is courtesy of Scott Potter, who goes by bOBsHMINKLE on Deviant Art. Fantastic work if I may say so myself, and not just because it's the first Raptormaniacs fanart I've ever seen. How good is it? The characters are almost exactly how I'd imagine them if they were drawn by a competent artist (in this case Scott). I'd be stoked to see Scott's renditions of the rest of the Raptormaniacs cast as well if he plans on doing them. Thanks and good job once again, Scott! I was already quite excited on the day I found this because I'd recently received a huge packet of papers on feathered dinosaurs through e-mail, but this was the icing on the cake.

Speaking of my comics, I know I haven't done any new ones for months, but I did give fair warning. Don't worry though, they're coming...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Planet Dinosaur: The Great Survivors

Here we go, the sixth and last episode of Planet Dinosaur. The show took a break from maniraptors in the fourth and fifth episodes. The fourth episode showcased large Jurassic predators, specifically the allosaurid Allosaurus and a yet undescribed pliosauroid, the first discovered specimen of which has been nicknamed "Predator X". The fifth episode on the other hand discussed the giant sauropods Argentinosaurus and Paralititan, as well as their respective potential predators, the carcharodontosaurids Mapusaurus and Carcharodontosaurus. Maniraptors return in this last episode, however. Spoilers ahead.

One of the less desirable characteristics of Planet Dinosaur is that it's very theropod centric. Plesiosaurs and sauropods get some spotlight in the fourth and fifth episodes respectively and the giant pterosaur Hatzegopteryx gets good airtime in this one, but by and large it's theropods that get the main roles. If (the broadcast version of) Dinosaur Revolution should have been called "Saurischian Revolution", Planet Dinosaur probably should have been called "Planet Theropod". But then, as a maniraptor fan myself I can't complain too much.

The first maniraptor to make an appearance is Bradycneme. This maniraptor is known only from fragmentary remains. It was first thought to be a giant owl, but nowadays a troodont or alvarezsaurid identification is more common, and the show depicts it as a troodont. Once again the model is unsatisfactory. It's something of a shame that troodonts get the most screentime out of all maniraptor groups in this show when the troodont models are the most inaccurate. It was amusing though to see Bradycneme being shown while the narration was discussing threats to the sauropod Magyarosaurus, only to have Bradycneme attack... a lizard. The real threat is then shown to be Hatzegopteryx. Bradycneme also gets some airtime toward the end of the episode when the show does its obligatory K-Pg sequence, as another continuation of the "troodonts were probably the last non-neornithine dinosaurs to die off" meme, I guess. It was interesting to see a K-Pg setting not at Hell Creek.

Next up is the therizinosaur Nothronychus, which is shown browsing and using its claws to fight off predators (in this case a group of an undescribed tyrannosauroid taxon, nicknamed "Zunityrannus" in the show), as therizinosaurs tend to be. Although it is depicted with protofeathers, I felt the feathers were a little too contour hugging. Feathers we know of on Beipiaosaurus (which, granted, was much smaller than Nothronychus and probably lived in a more temperate environment) were very long and shaggy. It would have been nice to see bristle-like EBFFs (known on Beipiaosaurus and possibly some undescribed basal coelurosaurs) as well. The show points out that Nothronychus was a herbivore that descended from carnivorous ancestors, another good effort to include recent research.

It goes on to mention another group of herbivorous and omnivorous maniraptors, the oviraptorosaurs, and the giant oviraptorosaur Gigantoraptor makes a return. A pair of Gigantoraptor brood their nest and defend it from smaller oviraptorids (that also appeared in the second episode; I've been told that the accompanying book for Planet Dinosaur calls these Oviraptor) as well as the tyrannosauroid Alectrosaurus. This sequence was arguably my favorite of this episode; the one nitpick (besides the usual wing feather attachment issue) I have to make is that the smaller oviraptorids do the weird digging with their wings thing again. The movements and behaviors of the Gigantoraptor though are very reminiscent of large ground birds, particularly the leaping attacks they make towards the Alectrosaurus. At the end of the segment the show talks about how oviraptorosaurs are often found having been buried alive on their nests...

Then we come to the K-Pg segment that I mentioned earlier. I don't have a whole lot to say about it, other than the fact that it contains an anomaly that may be my least favorite part of the entire series. As the show talks about how the K-Pg event impacted different animal groups (Wikipedia regulars keep an eye out during the sequence, by the way; some of the silhouettes they use will look very familiar), it claims that 100% of "dinosaurs" became extinct, while 95% of birds became extinct... wait, what? It's almost understandable if they'd wanted to avoid the birds are dinosaurs thing for the sake of brevity, but the funny thing is they do get this right in the second episode! So much for consistency! I know that the whole "actually some dinosaurs are still alive today" is something of a cliched ending for dinosaur documentaries these days, but given the fact that this important discovery has not yet fully entered public consciousness, I don't think it's cliched enough. Only until birds being dinosaurs becomes as common knowledge as bats and whales being mammals would I suggest that it's remotely "safe" to drop opportunities to hammer home this fact.

So there we have it. I liked this episode, other than the ending, and as far as science communication goes the series as a whole is very good. (Any dinosaur documentary that can teach Mickey Mortimer something new has to be.) If you want a dinosaur show that actually incorporates science (and isn't Dinosaur Train), then be sure to check this one out.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Planet Dinosaur: Last Killers

The third episode of Planet Dinosaur, this one deals predominantly with recent research on large predatory theropods from the end of the Late Cretaceous, namely the tyrannosaurid Daspletosaurus and the abelisaurid Majungasaurus. However, there is one maniraptor-centric segment featuring Troodon. Some spoilers ahead.

A flock of the Troodon are shown attacking the hadrosaur Edmontosaurus. Normally I'd complain, but this is actually one of the few situations where such a scenario would be acceptable: the Troodon are based on the giant Troodon teeth found in Alaska, and the Edmontosaurus is a juvenile, while an adult Edmontosaurus easily chases the Troodon off (though the juvenile still dies later on from its injuries). In fact, the reason the Troodon are in the episode is because they represent the top predators in a unique Late Cretaceous ecosystem that wasn't dominated by either tyrannosaurids or abelisaurids. Unfortunately, the plumage of the Troodon suffer from the same problems as that of the Saurornithoides in the second episode.

Another maniraptor, Rahonavis, makes a brief appearance in the Majungasaurus segment, though it doesn't do much except feed from a carcass. It uses the same model as Sinornithosaurus (from the second episode) and comes with the same strengths and flaws thereof.

Not that much to say for this one (at least regarding maniraptors). Still decent stuff.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Planet Dinosaur: Feathered Dragons

Besides Dinosaur Revolution, the other big dinosaur documentary that came out this year was Planet Dinosaur. Naturally, this invites comparisons between the two, but, aside from both being about dinosaurs, they are really very different shows.

Though with scientific basis (and for most part accurate dinosaur models), Dinosaur Revolution is an experiment in storytelling that was unfairly shoehorned into a documentary format. Planet Dinosaur, on the other hand, is a bona fide dinosaur documentary. And I mean bona fide dinosaur documentary! Instead of putting a lot of focus into story or unsupported speculation, the real highlights of Planet Dinosaur are the cutaway segments throughout each episode that (get this) explain the fossil evidence for the behaviors its animals are shown engaging in and the form and function of each animal based on actual scientific research. Science in a dinosaur documentary, people! Take note, this is how a dinosaur documentary should be done, or at least it's a step in the right direction.

It's not that Planet Dinosaur doesn't engage in the occasional wild speculation now and then. It does. It's not that it gets everything right. It doesn't. But the fact it uses science as a focal point instead of an occasional aside or a way to make itself resemble a documentary makes it worthy of being a true documentary.

The first episode of Planet Dinosaur, "Lost World", focuses on two giant African theropods, the spinosaurid Spinosaurus and the carcharodontosaurid Carcharodontosaurus. It was a good start to the series, but there were no maniraptors in it.

The second episode, on the other hand, showcases maniraptors almost exclusively, and this is the episode I'll review here. Some spoilers ahead, even though plot isn't a big deal in this show.

A recurring theme throughout Planet Dinosaur is that it discusses mostly very recent dinosaur discoveries (made within the last decade). This episode, titled "Feathered Dragons", covers the discovery that some non-avian dinosaurs had feathers. The episode is split up into several segments that each features a different maniraptor taxon and talks about a different function feathers may have served in these dinosaurs.

First up is the strange Epidexipteryx, a possible basal avialian. One of the first scansoriopterygids on TV! It is shown escaping from a juvenile Sinraptor by climbing into the trees and hunting for grubs using its long third finger and unique dentition. It also encounters a rival Epidexipteryx and engages in a threat display using its four long strange tail feathers. It looked to me as though the Epidexipteryx had pronated hands in a number of shots, and we see its eyeball swiveling in its socket as it hunts. Modern birds can't do this, and that's why they often need to cock their heads at weird angles, which, confusingly, the Epidexipteryx is also shown doing. Otherwise though I have very little to nitpick (I want to say "pun intended" here, but I'd be lying) about this segment, though that might be at least partly because there isn't much about scansoriopterygids that we can even be reasonably certain of at the moment.

Next we see a Saurornithoides brooding its nest. Not a fan of Saurornithoides model, which lacks pennaceous feathers entirely and has only a very thin covering of feathers on the body, plumage befitting of a compsognathid perhaps, but not of a maniraptor. When the Saurornithoides leaves its nest temporarily, the nest is raided by an oviraptorid (which isn't specifically named). Evidence for omnivory in oviraptorosaurs is brought up, though unfortunately the evidence they put forth for predation (the discovery of hatchling Byronosaurus skulls in a Citipati nest) may soon fall victim to science marching on. This is of no fault of the show, as this data is still unpublished and has only been mentioned in a DML post, but they might have had better luck had they used the lizard in the body cavity of Oviraptor. The generic oviraptorid engages in some strange behavior of digging the eggs from the nest using its wing claws, in spite of the long wing feathers attached to its hands (which it commendably has). Digging using the feet as in modern ground-dwelling birds might have been more plausible, and indeed there is evidence of such behavior in Mesozoic aviremigians. Another anomaly regarding the oviraptorid is that even though it has wing feathers, they attach to the third finger (instead of the second as they should be). In fact, this is the case for every aviremigian in this show (or at least the ones that are lucky enough to have been given wing feathers).

Either way, the Saurornithoides manages to chase off the oviraptorid, only to be eaten by a much larger oviraptorosaur, Gigantoraptor, and the spotlight shifts. The show explains that large maniraptors might have kept feathers for display purposes, which is something straight out of the Gigantoraptor description paper. It's interesting that both Dinosaur Revolution and Planet Dinosaur have a sequence on the speculative display behavior of Gigantoraptor. The different approaches the two shows have are readily apparent: the Dinosaur Revolution Gigantoraptor is extremely flashy and extravagant with heavily speculative soft tissue structures, while the Planet Dinosaur Gigantoraptor is altogether more conservative. Aside from the wrong wing feather attachment, I quite like the ostrich-like plumage of the Planet Dinosaur Gigantoraptor and I find it quite plausible.

Finally, we get a sequence featuring the Jehol biota. There's a bit of anachronism here. We see a Microraptor hunting the gliding lizard Xianglong, and then being hunted itself by a Sinornithosaurus. The problem is that Microraptor is known only from the Jiufotang Formation, which is slightly younger than the Yixian Formation that Xianglong and Sinornithosaurus come from. I won't hold this too much against the show, as it is a common mistake. (It's even been made in the technical literature before!) In fact, even knowing that Microraptor is from the Jiufotang, I still find it hard to disassociate it from the Yixian. The Microraptor and Sinornithosaurus models are excellent, and aside from the usual wing feather attachment issue are some of the best deinonychosaur models on television I've seen to date, at least in terms of plumage. The chase scene that unfolds as the Microraptor tries to escape shows off (one of) the (hypothesized) gliding posture of Microraptor well. The legs looked a little splayed to me, but the show appears to have been going for Dr. Xu Xing's hypothesis presented in "The Four-winged Dinosaur" on Nova, and in any case there appears to be some possible evidence that microraptorines could splay their legs slightly more than other dinosaurs can. The really strange part in this sequence is that Sinornithosaurus is also shown to be capable of gliding, which is one of the few baseless speculations this show indulges in. Gregory Paul would be proud, I assume, but it appears that the wings of Sinornithosaurus were not large enough for actually gliding with (which is why there's hardly been any technical papers discussing the flight of Sinornithosaurus, as there has for Microraptor).

The last part of the show also happens to be the worst science wise. It features a trio of Sinornithosaurus hunting a family of the ornithopod Jeholosaurus. That alone isn't anything bad, and they even get in some impressively up-to-date info, namely the sclerotic ring study (published earlier this year) that indicates Sinornithosaurus may have been cathemeral, being active at intervals both in the day and at night. Things go downhill though when the Sinornithosaurus bring down one of the Jeholosaurus... using venom. That's right, the dreaded venomous Sinornithosaurus hypothesis. Granted, the show does use cautious qualifiers when dealing with the idea, but the fact that the Sinornithosaurus are actually shown in a way that endorses the hypothesis will probably leave a greater impact on laypeople than the narrative language. Frankly, in my opinion such fringe hypotheses should preferably not make their way into these serious documentaries at all, or only be mentioned to be dismissed as fringe hypotheses.

The show concludes with the concept that some feathered dinosaurs are still with us today, which of course is always a good idea to reinforce. Besides the venomous Sinornithosaurus slip up, this was a decent episode. As a dinosaur enthusiast it's easy (and, to be honest, fun) to nitpick and criticize, but I'll bet that most of the information presented here will be new to the average viewer and will greatly help in bringing them up to speed with the many wonderful new dinosaur discoveries made in recent years.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dinosaur Revolution: End Game

The last episode of Dinosaur Revolution (for now) is End Game. Like the second episode, this episode focuses on a single storyline instead of multiple largely unrelated shorts. Obligatory spoiler warning!

This episode is the obligatory Maastrichtian North America story (set just a little while before the K-Pg, naturally) for this series. Although the first half of the story is about the tyrannosaurid Tyrannosaurus (again, naturally), there is one maniraptor taxon in the story, Troodon, which even gets the spotlight shifted to it during the second half of the episode after the K-Pg extinction happens (where it is depicted as being one of the last non-neornithine dinosaur species to die out).

I was very pleased with the portrayal of the Troodon. Dinosaur Revolution gets everything March of the Dinosaurs got right and more. The Troodon models are very good, very likely the best I've ever seen on screen. Paternal care, brooding, and (probably for the first time ever on TV) omnivory are shown. Also, no ridiculous hadrosaur hunting here either, they are instead shown feeding on insects, stealing eggs, and chasing juvenile pachycephalosaurs.

There's one running theme (that is present throughout the series) that bothers me, however. The familial structure of almost every single theropod taxon in the entire series is the same. Nearly all the theropods go around in mated pairs, and those that have young commonly have just one with them, even though most dinosaur clutches we know of have many eggs. This actually isn't a huge problem here because the show does depict many of the theropods as starting out with an entire clutch of eggs, most of which simply don't survive (which is fairly realistic). The monogamous pairs, however, are more curious. There's nothing (as far as I'm aware) inherently improbable about monogamous Mesozoic theropods, but there's no good evidence for such, while on the other hand there is some evidence (such as clutch size) that at least some Mesozoic theropods (such as Troodon) may have been polygamous. Not to mention many of the theropods have very pronounced sexual dimorphism, even though in modern animals extreme sexual dimorphism is generally an indicator of polygamy. In these cases it appears to me that this was for the sake of anthropomorphism and character identification. At the very least it would have been nice to see some variation in the reproductive behaviors of the theropods.

Regardless, I found that the dinosaurs in this episode in particular were on average the least anthropomorphic out of all the episodes, which was certainly a plus. In this respect (along with the general accuracy), I enjoyed this episode the most. In terms of story, however, I still prefer the second episode or even some of the shorts (notably the Protoceratops story from the third episode). I felt that the story of this episode crammed too much in and then it all had to be cut short to make room for the obligatory K-Pg extinction and its aftermath (and presumably the tacked on talking head segments). A main antagonist is set up before the opening sequence, but then he gets defeated and killed just a bit more than ten minutes into the episode. We see a juvenile Tyrannosaurus be the sole survivor of its brood and even make it past the extinction event... then he just falls off a cliff and dies anyway. We never really get to know any of the dinosaurs as characters that well, as nearly everyone dies halfway through the episode. The ending is very sad though, although its full impact and profundity is tarnished a bit by the suddenly comparatively poor CGI in the very last scenes. Also, I thought this episode suffered the most when it comes to the talking head segments, as a lot of the previews shown during those segments gave away upcoming plot points.

Still a good ending to the series though, and worth a watch. If or when this gets released in its original format, that will probably fix the spoiler and pacing problems somewhat.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I am on TV Tropes!

I don't mean that I read or edit TV Tropes, of course. You probably all know that already.

I mean that this blog actually has a TV Tropes page now, courtesy of Spinosegnosaurus77! Thanks a bunch!

I'll have to get around to creating some new pages for other works myself when I have more free time. If my not-very-good comic that I've only been drawing for less than two years and fail to update more than 80% of the time can get a page, anyone can, and I can think of many works out there that deserve it more than mine does.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dinosaur Revolution: Survival Tactics

Special thanks to Vrahno for locating a download link to the formerly elusive third episode of Dinosaur Revolution. Spoilers ahead.

Like the first episode (and unlike the second and last), "Survival Tactics" is a collection of short stories instead of being one long story. Unlike the first episode, there doesn't appear to be much of a running theme for this one, although they tried to shoehorn one in (namely the very vague and broad theme of "survival tactics"). Which doesn't come across as a surprise, as these these stories were originally intended to be presented chronologically, not thematically. More screwing around by the network I assume.

Compared to the first two episodes, this episode is quite maniraptor (specifically deinonychosaur) heavy. Three (out of six) stories feature maniraptors, and two of those have them in starring roles.

The first of those stories (in fact, the first story in the entire episode) is about the large deinonychosaur Utahraptor. We have two flocks of Utahraptor attacking a juvenile Cedarosaurus but ending up fighting each other. A crocodylomorph also joins in the fun when it tries to drag the juvenile Cedarosaurus into the water, only to get chased off by the Utahraptor. It gets its revenge when a herd of adult Cedarosaurus come back to (literally) kick some theropod butt and one of the Utahraptor is knocked into the water. Okay, so the Utahraptor got the worst out of that deal, but I appreciate the subversion of the "invincible 'raptor' pack" trope. All too often deinonychosaurs are shown killing impossibly huge prey, so seeing Utahraptor of all deinonychosaurs getting beat up was a treat. The fact that they're shown targeting the juvenile is also realistic behavior that deserves to be portrayed in documentaries more. The plumage the Utahraptor have isn't bad, certainly better than most other deinonychosaur depictions that have been on TV. (All the aviremigians in Dinosaur Revolution have remiges, for instance. It's about time!) Some things to keep an eye out for in this segment are references to Raptor Red and the accompanying illustration for the description of Brontomerus. (Speaking of Brontomerus, a quick note about theropod-sauropod encounters in this show. Let's just say that out of the many theropod-sauropod interactions, I can only think of two where the sauropod gets off worse, while I can think of a good number that would probably make SV-POW proud.) Not a bad start to the episode.

The second story also stars a maniraptor, but this time the much smaller unenlagiine Rahonavis. I've been looking forward to this one ever since I saw the storyboards for it (which were released on Youtube prior to the broadcast of the actual show). The lighting in the story is darker and gloomier in the final product than I expected (even though I knew it would be foggy), and the Rahonavis looks a little cuter in the storyboard than in the final product, probably because the final design has a noticeably featherless, scaly face. Incidentally, there is no evidence for scaly faces in any paravians, but otherwise the model for the Rahonavis is excellent. We get to see the Rahonavis performing its day to day activities, flying down from the trees, hitching a ride on a Rapetosaurus, feeding on insects and seeds, and escaping from two young Majungasaurus by using WAIR, all fairly plausible behaviors. One entirely speculative behavior shown for the Rahonavis is mimicking sounds, an ability it later uses to scare away the young Majungasaurus. It's interesting that it is shown to be an omnivore, a subtle Shout Out to the omnivorous ancestry of maniraptors. The portrayal of Seldom Seen Species, the simplistic but interesting and well rounded story, and the plausible behaviors shown in this segment give it a spot among my favorite Dinosaur Revolution stories.

The third maniraptor in the episode is Velociraptor. Unlike Rahonavis, it plays an antagonistic role, and the protagonist of its story is instead the ceratopsian Protoceratops. As it happens, this is the only ornithischian centric storyline in Dinosaur Revolution. (Others were planned, but ornithischians turned out to be too boring by sheer bad luck they were all cut from the final product.) Another special characteristic of this story is that the (tacked on) narrator only says one line of background information at the beginning and doesn't intrude at all for the rest of the segment, giving us a taste of what Dinosaur Revolution was meant to be like. I really liked that. The story itself being engaging and full of heart helped as well. There are things I could nitpick about, but (shock horror) I almost didn't care. Certainly one of the best of the stories in the show (at least out of those that actually ended up being broadcast). As with all the other stories of this episode, the story is short (in fact, I felt that it had slightly been rushed a bit, presumably because little bits of all the stories had been cut out to make room for the last-minute talking head segments), so the Velociraptor don't get to do that much, but for most part I liked what I saw. It is strange though that, immediately after making a kill, they're shown killing an adult Protoceratops and trying to catch a juvenile. Surplus killing? An interesting factoid is that the Velociraptor species shown is not the better known V. mongoliensis, but V. osmolskae, as the story features the Bayan Mandahu Formation.

All in all, the maniraptor segments in this episode were enjoyable. Strangely, I felt that all the stories that didn't feature maniraptors were the goofier stories in the episode. (For the record, the other stories in the episode include a story about two Guanlong, one about a young Shunosaurus, and one about a young Anhanguera.) Some are (intentionally) full blown Looney Tunes shorts but with realistic-looking animals. Your Mileage May Vary on whether that's a good thing.

Incidentally, there's been some (much desired) good news on Dinosaur Revolution. Discovery has postponed the DVD release until a product more worthy of the creative team's efforts can be produced. As mentioned in my review of the first episode, this show has been screwed over really hard by the network, so this sounds like a huge victory for the creative team. Exactly what this will result in is still unknown, but I hope that we'll finally get to see the show in its intended format (or at the very least something closer to its intended format than the broadcast version).

Saturday, October 1, 2011

San Diego Zoo Part V: Some Last-minute Exhibits

Unfortunately, not long after going through Elephant Odyssey, I had to cut the trip short. Here are some last-minute photos I got as I walked back towards the exit of the zoo.

Here's a takin, probably a relict of the old Horn and Hoof Mesa.

Some lion-tailed macaques.

A (melanistic) jaguar.

I think this is a Siamese fireback, but my memory is fuzzy.

And my memory is even fuzzier for this one. The fact that there isn't much to look at besides a bundle of feathers doesn't help. Reeve's pheasant?

Another one of the many types of hornbill that are at the zoo (and that I don't remember the exact name of).

A snow leopard. It kept moving around, so this is about the best photo I got (and besides, I was in more of a hurry than usual).

A squirrel monkey. Somewhere between here and the next photo I decided to go pay a visit to the zoo's kiwis. Unlike the other nocturnal animals at the zoo, the kiwis are kept in a nocturnal house. I'd never seen these interesting maniraptors, and the last time I came they were off exhibit.

Except... as it turned out they were off exhibit this time as well! What a let down.

Just outside the kiwi house was this lowland anoa. Another (comparatively) rarely seen creature as far as zoos go. Too bad it's a stinking synapsid.

Babirusa are neat as well. Still, stinking synapsids.

It's only proper to end with a maniraptor, so here's a wompoo fruit dove.

All in all, even with my two trips to this zoo so far combined, I still didn't quite get to visit the entire zoo. But there are only two major exhibition areas (Tiger River and the giant pandas) I haven't been to at least once, so I suppose I haven't done too badly. Might want to give it another go in the distant future. And I need to see some kiwis.

150 Years of Archaeopteryx

This year marks the 150th anniversary for the description of the iconic "first bird" (or not) Archaeopteryx.

First, a quick diversion. Filled with anachronisms and Misplaced Wildlife, but very catchy. Points for getting the term "Maniraptora" into a children's song!
Naturally, I've prepared a special presentation for this special occasion, this time brought to you by resident Archaeopteryx Savape!
Eh... so I really have to do this, don't I? I would argue that this is the equivalent of grabbing a human passing by on the street on the such and such anniversary of the description of Homo sapiens and asking it to talk all about the research done on its own species. But part of the joy of being a fictional character is that you come with all the knowledge your creator wishes to grant you, so I might as well proceed. You all know the story. A fossilized feather was unearthed in the Solnhofen Plattenkalk in Germany, described in 1861, and named Archaeopteryx lithographica.
The feather, photographed by H. Raab, from Wikipedia.
A couple of years later an actual skeleton of Archaeopteryx was described. It was preserved with feathers, so it was assumed that this was the type of animal the original feather belonged to, but this is less certain now. First feathered fossil to be discovered! Eat it, Yixian. These days they call this specimen the London Specimen. They really like to keep track of us Archaeopteryx specimens, and all published specimens have been given nicknames like that. These specimens are actually named after the museums they're held at and have nothing to do with where they were discovered. Names like Solnhofen Specimen I and Solnhofen Specimen II just don't stick. (One specimen is called the Solnhofen Specimen, actually. You'll see it later, if nothing has happened to it.)
The London Specimen, photographed by H. Zell, from Wikipedia.
The specimen that gets all the publicity though is the Berlin Specimen. This is the one you see depicted everywhere. Notice in this historical photo that the specimen preserves nice leg feathers and some long body feathers, but those were destroyed during prep. You never see those in modern photos of the specimen, nor in some of the more mediocre Archaeopteryx depictions.
Historical photo of the Berlin Specimen from Vogt, 1880.
As is quite common in paleontology, new names were given to new Archaeopteryx specimens left and right. Names like "Jurapteryx", "Archaeornis", Archaeopteryx "bavarica", Archaeopteryx "macrura", and others that almost no one uses anymore. One that you might still see occasionally is Wellnhoferia, and this is the Solnhofen Specimen mentioned earlier. For most part though, the only Archaeopteryx species still commonly in use is the original Archaeopteryx lithographica.
Wellnhoferia, or the Solnhofen Specimen, photographed by H. Raab, from Wikipedia.
Because Archaeopteryx was the first Mesozoic maniraptor fossil found with feathers, we played a big part in early studies on the evolution of birds. It was noted early on that we had many theropod dinosaur characteristics, and famously in the 1970s Dr. John Ostrom compared the skeletal features of Archaeopteryx and other theropods, providing evidence that birds are theropod dinosaurs.
Comparison between the hands of the dromaeosaurid Deinonychus (left) and Archaeopteryx (right) by John Conway, from Wikipedia. Not to scale.
Due to these significant impacts, Archaeopteryx is often thought of as a "special" fossil, a creature with both "reptile" and "bird" characteristics that shows how modern birds evolved. This concept has led to some awful, awful restorations that depict us as looking something like weird lizard-bird hybrids. But now in 2011, we really aren't that special anymore. It's now known that a lot of other maniraptors (including even things like Velociraptor) had the exact same combination of "reptilian" and "avian" features (feathers, wings, teeth, wing claws, long tail) that we do. As far as Mesozoic paravians go, we're really quite generic, not unusual looking at all. If it had been something like Sinornithosaurus, Microraptor, or Caudipteryx that had been discovered back in the 1800s, they'd have received the same special treatment we do today. But too late for them now.
Modern restoration of Velociraptor by Matt Martyniuk.
Even our traditionally held "first bird" status is no longer ours. Mind you, as far as known maniraptors go, 150 million years ago in the Late Jurassic is still quite old. But other paravians (including some probable avialians), such as scansoriopterygids, Pedopenna, Anchiornis, and Xiaotingia, are now known from even older parts of the Late Jurassic. As Archaeopteryx was known to have had feathers early on, when no feathered non-bird dinosaur fossils were known, it was assumed that we must have been avialians (i.e.: closer to modern birds than other types of theropods are). Up until recently, this was still widely considered to be true. But several recent analyses have suggested that we may actually be non-eumaniraptor paravians or even deinonychosaurs. It's worth saying that the latter result in particular only has weak statistic support, but suffice it to say that you guys really don't have any good idea what exactly type of basal paravian we are. Me, I'll enjoy observing the chaos in the next few years. Such confusion is only to be expected. As I hinted earlier, we don't really have that many modern bird traits, at least not much more than definite deinonychosaurs do. Study of one of the latest described Archaeopteryx specimens, the Thermopolis Specimen, even shows that we have a retractable second toe and a barely reversed first toe (contrary to the way many specimens are preserved), similar to definite deinonychosaurs but unlike modern birds. Studies of our forelimb motion and wing feathers suggest that there isn't even any evidence that we were any better at flying than were small definite deinonychosaurs such as Microraptor!
The Thermopolis Specimen, photographed by Stephan Schulz, from Wikipedia.
Other recent research has been done on Archaeopteryx, There have been studies of our brain structure, showing that we have a good sense of balance and spatial perception, which makes sense for small gliding and clambering animals like ourselves. Studies of our growth show that we grew slower than modern birds (similar to most other Mesozoic dinosaurs, including many other Mesozoic birds). There has even been study of the possible size and shape of our eyeballs that reveal we were active during the day (like many modern birds but unlike many deinonychosaurs). So there you have it. Archaeopteryx is one of the most significant dinosaur discoveries and has a long, rich history and continues to be studied blah blah blah. Not bad for a pigeon-sized protobird if I say so myself. Last but not least, I must leave a token of my appreciation for the Acme Museum, which has provided me with this wonderful opportunity and put me up to this arduous chore.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

San Diego Zoo Part IV: Elephant Odyssey

Now that I'm writing this post, I've realized that I didn't take as many pictures of Elephant Odyssey as I probably should have. Perhaps that says something about which animals I'm more interested in (i.e.: things like sauropsids, amphibians, and the smaller mammals instead of the large crowd-pleasing mammals). Which also means that, ironically, I didn't take any pictures of the elephants for which the entire exhibition area is named, even though they had these gigantic exhibits that take several minutes to walk past.

By the way, I mentioned earlier that this new area replaces the Horn and Hoof Mesa that ran down the entire "right" side of the zoo, so it's a big, big exhibition area. Fortunately, my stamina appears to increase by a hundred percent when I'm in a zoo, so I could walk all day without being tired out too much. (Once I stepped out of the zoo, on the other hand...) There was also the fact that I was suffering from a bit of jet lag at the time, which turned out to be useful in that I didn't get hungry at the "right" times and so didn't have to make long stops for lunch. (Meanwhile, the "increased stamina effect" staved off the less desirable side effects of jet lag, i.e.: wanting to sleep at the "wrong" times, though that made me extra sleepy once the effect was gone.)

Elephant Odyssey is an interesting exhibit concept. The exhibit area focuses on extinct (Cenozoic) Californian animals and their still-living counterparts (either modern relatives or ecologically similar species). Statues of the extinct species are placed near the exhibits containing these modern counterparts. (I didn't get any photos of the statues, but I probably should have.) The titular elephants represent the many extinct proboscideans known from California. There are also some animals here that are native Californian species that known from close relatives in the recent fossil record and still live today.

A California condor, representing both a native Californian species as well as the extinct giant carnivorous bird Teratornis. An exhibit panel explains that prehistoric California condors probably survived by feeding on the carcasses of marine mammals on coastlines, while Teratornis, more dependent on the bodies of large land mammals, died out.

Another exhibit contained native turtles, lizards, newts, and frogs in an open-air and very large (compared to the occupants) display area, similar to the displays in the Reptile Mesa. I think it's really nice that small "reptiles" and amphibians get such exhibits, not just the large mammals and birds. However, I was not able to find most of the exhibit's occupants that day other than this western fence lizard.

Even native arthropods got some representation at Elephant Odyssey. There are a series of terrariums housing beetles and scorpions. However, the glare on the glass of these exhibits was very strong. I spent a long time trying to photograph some diving beetles, but in the end the only decent picture I have of the arthropods are of these dung beetles.

The two coolest animals at Elephant Odyssey got to share an exhibit. (They're both maniraptors, naturally.) One is this black-billed magpie. Corvids are cool. That goes without saying.

The other is this secretary bird, a long-legged bird of prey that hunts mostly on the ground. Secretary birds, of course, are not from California but from Africa. This one is here to represent the Daggett's eagle, an extinct long-legged hawk that did live in California. Secretary birds feed on many types of small animals, but are best known for hunting snakes, which they kill by stamping into the ground. (Okay, they actually kill most of their prey that way.)

There was also a mixed exhibit showcasing several South American mammals (capybaras, tapirs, and guanacos) to represent the fact that now-extinct capybaras, tapirs, and laminins once lived in North America. Here are some capybaras.

There are a lot of other exhibits at Elephant Odyssey (lions, jaguars, duikers, pronghorn, rattlesnakes, donkeys, camels, etc.), so I really haven't done a thorough job at covering it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

San Diego Zoo Part III: Some Miscellaneous Exhibits

On my first trip to the San Diego Zoo one of the places I visited was the Horn and Hoof Mesa, a very long trail that ran down the entire right side ("right" as depicted on the zoo map) of the zoo and exhibited mostly (as one can guess) hoofed mammals. This time, I walked into the zoo feeling certain I wouldn't have to walk that long trail this time around.

But when I examined the new zoo map, something was off. The Horn and Hoof Mesa was gone, and in its place was an entirely new exhibition area: Elephant Odyssey.

That was something I didn't foresee.

That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. New exhibits at zoos are usually quite fun. I decided to go and see what this one was all about. However, I certainly hadn't planned on adding an entire area this big to the trip. This would shake things up a lot.

As Elephant Odyssey is situated at the far right of the zoo, I got to check out some of the other exhibits located along the various trails on my way there. As it turns out, this is going to be a maniraptor-heavy post.

A Guam rail.

A female magpie robin.

Some binturongs.

I think this is a fig parrot. I'm certainly going to remember to photograph the signs next time.

Another minor drawback of this zoo is that even the nocturnal animals tend to be housed outdoors (with one exception that I'll get to in a later post). So I didn't have much luck seeing things like lorises and flying squirrels. There's probably a better chance if one visited those around dusk. (The zoo opens to eight at night during summer and winter holidays.) However, I still got to see this southern white-faced scops owl. This species is famous for its defensive responses: it can either fluff its feathers and spread its wings to look more threatening, or press its feathers tightly against its body to resemble a tree limb. Another good use for feathers, and a good example of how feathers can drastically alter the apparent shape and size of a dinosaur.

A laughing kookaburra. One of my favorite living maniraptors.

A banded mongoose. Seeing this guy reminded me that typical mongooses are unusual among small carnivorans in being largely diurnal.

A koala.

This parma wallaby lived in the same exhibit as one of the koalas. It had a shelter underneath the elevated walkway that surrounded the koala exhibits.

A ring-tailed lemur. Unusually, these lemurs were kept with rock hyraxes, perhaps because this is one enclosure the hyraxes can't escape from. (Hyraxes are good climbers, and I hear they're difficult to confine.)

A Visayan warty pig.

Some Cuvier's gazelles.

A bateleur eagle.

A Madagascar buttonquail. This one was part of an exhibit with several other African birds.

For example, there was this white-headed buffalo weaver.

There was also this green woodhoopoe.

In another exhibit was this guineafowl.

The guineafowl lives with this hornbill, though I'm not certain what species this is. (The zoo has a lot of different hornbill species, by the way.)

And here's a white-bellied go-away bird.