Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs

Those who read my lowly blog will no doubt be familiar with the work of Matt Martyniuk. As an incredibly talented paleoartist, Matt's restorations of prehistoric life are both aesthetically appealing and meticulously researched. In particular, he specializes in (and is probably best known for) depicting Mesozoic birds (=Aviremigia in his personally preferred usage). Additionally, he is a founding member of WikiProject Dinosaurs, a collaborative project that aims to increase the quality of Wikipedia dinosaur articles, and is single-handedly responsible for many of the life restorations and (especially) iconic scale charts present on the online encyclopedia.

One of the greatest contributors to the excellence of Matt's paleoart is the sheer thought and research that has been put into them. Many of the posts on his blog, DinoGoss, discuss aspects of paleoart that are frequently glossed over and yet immensely crucial to the field, such as the processes and biological significance behind feather colors. For this reason I have long thought that it would be magnificent if Matt wrote a self-illustrated book on restoring Mesozoic birds.

As it turns out, he did. About a month ago he teased us all with a picture of the following book cover on Facebook, and later wrote a more extensive article about the subject on DinoGoss.

The book is now out. Having spent two years in the making (so that's why Matt hasn't uploaded much on his DeviantArt for a while), for most part the book does not disappoint. The first few sections of the book detail the evolution and diversity of Mesozoic birds as well as things to take into account when restoring them, some of these incorporating updated versions of DinoGoss posts. Being the very topics I'd hoped Matt would cover were he to write a book, I found these chapters highly enjoyable and they will doubtless serve as a useful guide to other paleoartists looking to illustrate Mesozoic avifauna. Longtime followers of Matt will likely be able to identify nods to his online interactions and activities. Case in point, in order to demonstrate how feathers can obscure skeletal features, Matt uses the deinonychosaurs Troodon and Saurornitholestes to show that even dinosaurs that are supposedly anatomically disparate may have been hard to distinguish in life were we armed only with skeletal characteristics for identification, the same genera Mickey Mortimer used as an example in a comment on DinoGoss.

The main bulk of the book is presented in, as the title implies, a field guide format. With two chapters on oviraptorosaurs, five on deinonychosaurs (and some phylogenetically ambiguous paravians), one on non-ornithothoracine avialans, four on enantiornithines, and five on Mesozoic euornithines, each preceded by a phylogeny indicating the likely positions of taxa discussed, this presents near-comprehensive coverage on the known extent of aviremigian variety in the Mesozoic. Life restorations of almost all known Mesozoic aviremigian species are present, often shown in multiple views, poses, and sometimes ontogenetic stages, each accompanied by a scale chart done in Matt's recognizable style. For a great many aviremigian species, especially avialans, these are likely the first time they have been seriously restored, much less in print. Ornithologically savvy readers will be able to identify choices in coloration inspired by modern birds, though none fall into the trap of being a direct ripoff of a modern species. The succinct but informative text (as is typical for a field guide) lays down the physical characteristics, habitat, and known natural history of each taxon. Much of this will be a great help for buffing up the descriptions in my own list of maniraptors, again particularly with respect to avialans. There are a few cases where I felt that certain interesting facts that could have been added were missing, like Sinornithosaurus being known to have been preyed on (or at least eaten) by the compsognathid Sinocalliopteryx, but such preferences delve into the subjective side of things. Species too fragmentary to be reliably restored are listed in an appendix at the end of the book.

The book is immensely up to date, including even the last aviremigian to be published prior to its launch (Shengjingornis) and incorporating new research on the number of covert layers present in basal aviremigians. A recent paper that heavily influences the content of the book but came out too late to be extensively incorporated was the description of wings in ornithomimosaurs. Though the wing feathers of these specimens are not directly preserved, the authors of the study suggest they were pennaceous, potentially making ornithomimosaurs (and thus all maniraptoriforms) aviremigians. Should this be the case, any subsequent editions or companion volumes to this book would have to include at least ornithomimosaurs, therizinosaurs, and alvarezsaurs in addition to the groups it already has. Commendably, this discovery does get acknowledged in the introductory chapters of the book, and either way this does not cheapen this guide's value. Science marches on is an inevitable acquaintance of the best of us, and the book remains an indispensable reference for the groups it has managed to include.

If there's anything that does remotely detract from this gem, it's the typos. While on the whole they don't hamper the usefulness of the book, typos are abundant enough to be noticeable, especially to paleo-savvy readers. Most of these are spelling errors, but the most glaring example is that Cryptovolans is incorrectly stated to hail from the Upper Cretaceous Dinosaur Park Formation in Alberta, Canada. More extensive proofreading could've considerably increased the quality in this regard.

A bibliography is available at the back of the book, which I approve of (the last reference listed even has quite a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor to it), though I do feel that even more references could have been included. For instance, Velociraptor being known to have scavenged was evidently based on Hone et al. (2010), and yet this paper was not listed as a source. There are also countless specimen description papers that must've been referenced in a project of this type but are not mentioned. Although creating an exhaustive bibliography may not have been the main purpose of this book, it does appear strange to me that only some of the references used were credited. This is arguably especially important for the unpublished tidbits that are brought up. For example, Tianyuraptor is said to have had long neck feathers based on an undescribed mid-sized dromaeosaurid that preserves this feature and may be a specimen of said taxon. Those who are aware of this specimen will know the source of this, but those who know Tianyuraptor only from its published description (based on a specimen that preserves no feathers at all) may well be confused by this information.

There are also a few unexplained omissions to the list of Mesozoic aviremigians. Borogovia, Pamparaptor, Shanag, Otogornis, and Longchengornis are neither included as field guide entries nor mentioned in the appendix (or anywhere else that would explain their truancy). Hesperonychus is also bizarrely absent, despite being namedropped in one of the introductory chapters. (Edit: And Alethoalaornis too. See comments for more on the situation with these MIA taxa; thanks for chiming in, Matt!)

These are but quibbles, outweighed immeasurably by the book's numerous finer points, and if this review appears to imply otherwise it is only because I hold this work to such high standards. This is a book I'd recommend to everyone with an interest in some of the most wonderful of all creatures (i.e.: birds) and easily deserves a place of its own among works of this genre.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

National Zoo: Third Time's the Charm?

More trips to the National Zoo, yay.

A red-billed hornbill in the Bird House.

In the same exhibit, some black crakes that were too active for me to photograph effectively.

A little blue heron.

A pygmy falcon. Cuteness is a thing among small endothermic predators, I tell ya.

A great argus. Many galliforms have elaborate courtship displays, and this one is no exception. The wings of the male can open up into an astounding display, somewhat reminiscent of the tail feathers of a peacock. Visitor comment on this animal: "What is that ugly crap?"

And kiwis still hate me, but that should go unsaid by now.

A double-wattled cormorant in the outdoor aviary. It having no fear of people, I was able to get a very good look at it preening its feathers. Later on it went for a swim and hopped onto a platform right in front of me, where it splashed and snapped at my face!

Some female smew.

A pair of peafowl with bamboo partridges nearby. I almost got a shot of a tragopan in the same frame as well, but it walked out of range as I snapped the picture.

A northern cardinal.

Perhaps the most surprising thing on this trip was that I ran into Rudyspino, a fellow online paleontology enthusiast! I'd known that he visited the National Zoo with some frequency (and have mentioned him on this blog in the past), but it was still rather unexpected. I recognized him as a fellow paleontology enthusiast thanks to him wearing a t-shirt bearing one of David Orr's wonderful designs ("Spinosauridae"), and Rudyspino being the only one I knew of who visited the National Zoo regularly I put two and two together. I accompanied him back into the outdoor aviary (I'd just been leaving the aviary when I bumped into Rudy) and to the seriema exhibit (one of his favorites at the zoo), and afterward he wanted to look at his favorite extant species, the ravens (whose existence at the zoo I'd told him about online mere days ago), which were on the American Trail.

On the way, I noticed this amusing sign I hadn't seen before.

I hadn't seen the ravens on my last visit to the American Trail, but fortunately for Rudy they were out and about this time. Who needs dinosauroids when you have the real thing?

We also had a good look at the hooded mergansers, gray wolves, seals, sea lions, and pelicans, but Rudy's luck didn't hold when we came to the bald eagles. (He's informed me that he has managed to see them on subsequent trips, however.) We parted ways soon afterward, as he had to leave. I continued onwards to the Small Mammal House.

A red ruffed lemur. It lived in a large exhibit (comparable to the South American themed one I've mentioned before) with rock hyraxes and blue-naped mousebirds. I caught a glimpse of a mousebird, but it flew into thick foliage before I could get a photo, while the hyaxes were nowhere to be seen. The lemur off to the left is actually a stuffed animal, by the way, acting as a temporary companion for the real lemur, who'd been alone in the exhibit when I visited.

A degu. The tail of these rodents break off easily when grabbed by a predator. Sadly, unlike lizard tails, these don't grow back. Degus display some surprisingly intelligent behaviors, known to spontaneously pile objects in order of decreasing size (something otherwise only observed in primates and birds) and capable of being taught to use tools.

An American alligator outside the Reptile Discovery Center.

A freshwater stingray on the lower floor of Amazonia.

A Goeldi's monkey on the upper floor. I don't recall seeing these on any of the signs at Amazonia (nor the actual animals themselves on previous trips), so I suspect they've been newly placed into the exhibit.

A silver-beaked tanager.

A tiger salamander in the amphibian exhibition at Amazonia.

A gray tree frog, native to eastern North America. Those who have read Thornton Burgess's stories will know it as Stickytoes the Tree Toad. (What do you mean, "You're the only one"?)

Some red-spotted newts.

Passing by the American Trail on my way back, I finally got to see the bald eagle.

On my previous trips to the National Zoo I'd seen signs for griffon vultures at the gazelle and oryx exhibit but had become really confused while trying to find them. I'd assumed they must've been flightless (either through wing clipping or permanent injury to the wing) because the exhibit was open air, and yet couldn't find any no matter how hard I searched across the ground and any low perches they could conceivably reach. This time, Rudy had informed me that he had seen a griffon vulture and that it was in a separate cage in the back of the gazelle and oryx exhibit. Right before I left the zoo I went and looked and lo and behold. I do wonder if the zoo has any further plans for the griffon vulture, as the exhibit looked rather cramped and drab compared to the general quality of the zoo's other enclosures, and it wasn't situated in a place conducive to visitor viewing (I took this picture on maximum zoom, for perspective).

Monday, October 29, 2012

National Zoo Redux Part VII: Small Furry Friends New and Old

Circling back towards the main zoo entrance, I stopped by at the Small Mammal House. This is a golden-headed lion tamarin, a species I don't remember seeing on my first trip.

A nice photo I got of a tree shrew, considering that it can seem to an onlooker that these guys almost never stop moving. I heard another visitor dismiss it as a "common squirrel", and felt immense satisfaction when she was immediately berated by her companion, who'd actually bothered to read the damn sign. Tree shrews are neither squirrels nor shrews, but one of our closest non-primate relatives.

The short-eared elephant shrew was out and about that day being adorable. For some reason or another it took a tumble off the rock platform right after it finished doing whatever it was doing, and it was hard to tell if that was a deliberate action on its part or not. Don't worry, it appeared to be unharmed.

It'd just happened to be feeding time in the Small Mammal House when I visited, and I got to see a keeper tending the large tamarin/saki/armadillo/acouchi/sloth/tinamou exhibit. The armadillo was buried in the substrate initially, but the keeper appeared to know exactly where it would be and uncovered it, then scattered crickets nearby so it could feed. I didn't get to see it eat, but it did unroll a few moments later. Incidentally, I'd also managed to see the acouchi (which I hadn't last time), but in the same moment that I started up my camera, it scampered out of sight. Someday...

A Prevost's squirrel gnawing on an ice cube. The exhibits at the Small Mammal House can come across as somewhat repetitive (for example, there are multiple exhibits there housing Prevost's squirrels), but in this case it may be a good thing, as it allows visitors a better chance to see certain species of small mammals, which can be rather secretive. (Granted, Prevost's squirrels are pretty hard to miss.)

A Damaraland mole rat, one of the two known species of eusocial mammals. Though I didn't take any pictures of them, the zoo exhibits the other species, the naked mole rat, as well in parallel (though not interconnected) tubes just below the ones that contain the Damaraland mole rats. Unlike the naked mole rat, the Damaraland mole rat has a full covering of fur.

A banded mongoose.

A meerkat. Funny that I caught it in a similar pose to its fellow mongoose above.

A greater hedgehog tenrec. Sadly this is one of those animals that often get passed by due to its inactivity and resemblance to a more familiar animal, because tenrecs are amazing creatures, an excellent example of adaptive radiation on an insular environment. And like with the case of chameleon forest dragons, some people really need to get their reading comprehension checked. The sign doesn't say it's a hedgehog. It says it's a hedgehog tenrec. Get it right.

Before I wrapped up my trip for good, I took a detour to look at a number of exhibits displaying a motley set of animals near the main zoo entrance, including wallabies, emus, zebras, gazelles, oryxes, vultures, cheetahs, and maned wolves. (Officially this area is known as the African Savanna, but not all of the animals are from Africa, much less from the African savannah.) I'd passed by the maned wolf exhibit on my first trip but hadn't even caught a glimpse of one, so I was pleasantly surprised to see one come out into the open. Almost immediately after snapping this photo, with astonishingly good timing, my camera lost power.

Hey, the poll results have been restored! Whew!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

National Zoo Redux Part VI: Revisiting the (Non-avian) Reptiles (and Amphibians)

Besides the invertebrate house, there were also other exhibits behind the Reptile Discovery Center that I hadn't looked at on my first trip. Here is a Komodo dragon in an outdoor enclosure. The outdoor non-avian reptiles are moved into indoor quarters from November to April, another incentive to visit during the other half of the year.

A Chinese alligator, the smaller and more threatened of the two living Alligator species.

Inside the Reptile Discovery Center, an emerald tree monitor. Unlike other monitor lizards, this species doesn't use its tail as a weapon, due to the importance of the tail in climbing.

A Philippine crocodile.

A Madagascar day gecko. Both times I've visited the Reptile Discovery Center, I overheard visitors identifying it as "the Geico Gecko".

A rhinoceros snake.

A poison-dart frog.

Some Cuban crocodiles, a rather gregarious crocodilian species. The zoo really has a nice crocodilian collection.

A glass lizard.

A blurry picture of a Vietnamese mossy frog. I actually thought its eyeball was a tortoise beetle at first and wondered why the zoo wasn't using more typical feeder insects before realizing my mistake.

Some Solomon Island leaf frogs. Their young skip the tadpole stage, hatching as fully formed tiny frogs.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

National Zoo Redux Part V: Invertebrates

Triceratops statue!

A bit further down the road is the lemur exhibit. Some turtles live in the moat surrounding it.

The ring-tailed lemurs themselves. (There are also red-fronted lemurs in the exhibit, but I didn't see them.)

I made my way behind the Reptile Discovery Center to an invertebrate house, which I'd overlooked the first time. These are giant clams.

A sea anemone I don't know the species of.

Some tube anemones.

A land crab. Though it spends much of its time on land, it periodically returns to the water to moisten its gills.

A giant river prawn. Check out those long blue chelipeds!

A slipper lobster. Unable to swim by flipping their tails the way many other crustaceans do, these rely on other methods, such as their heavy armor, to defend themselves from attack.

A blue crab, a species of great commercial importance along the Atlantic coast.

Some nautiluses.

An emperor scorpion.