Monday, February 25, 2008

Discover the "X-Wing" Dinosaur - tonight on PBS

It sounds like the winning entry in Google's X prize, but "X-Wing" is actually just a very cool name for a dinosaur - also called the "Four-Winged" dinosaur and, more scientifically, the Microraptor - that sheds new light on the origins of flight.

It's got four wings. Which puts it in the running for coolest dinosaur ever. And it's the subject of a new documentary on PBS tonight, Tuesday 2/26 at 7 p.m.

If you miss it, you can watch the whole thing online starting Wednesday. Since it's a NOVA project, you can also find lots of interesting extras on the show's Web site - see fossils of the other creatures that lived alonside the Microraptor in Liaoning and experiment to figure out how microraptor used its second pair of wings. The Producer's Story gives interesting background into how they chose to tell this complicated story.

Visitors to HMNS might also remember seeing a Microraptor gui fossil and a fleshed-out model in the Liaoning diorama of Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries, a recent special exhibition from the American Museum of Natural History.

So - coolest dinosaur ever? Or just a prehistoric ostrich? Check it out tonight and let us know what you think.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Who wouldn't love to be this kid?

8-year-old Rhys Nichols recently became the first to walk in the footsteps of a particular prehistoric plant-eater in over 160 million years. At least - he was the first one to realize it.

The 9-inch Iguanodon footprints he found are amazingly clear and well-preserved - you can check them out at the Daily Mail's story online, along with a cute pic of Rhys smiling and pointing to his clever find. Experts say that based on the size of the footprints, Rhys and his dinosaur are roughly the same size.

The story goes on to say:

"His only disappointment is that they are prints from a plant-eating dinosaur. He would rather they had been from one of the big meat-eating ones like a Tyrannosaurus Rex because they are his favourite."

With all of the extremely bright kids that come to our Museum and dream of finding dinosaurs, it is extremely cool to see one who's done it. Congratulations, Rhys - you may just have a new favorite.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Dr. Bakker's new book: Prehistoric Monsters!

Text copyright © 2008 Dr. Robert T. Bakker
Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Luis V. Rey

Dr. Bakker's latest book is out - and it's for kids! Well, I enjoyed it qute a bit, too - so maybe we should say it's for kids, and that kid inside all of us that still geeks out over 12-foot sea scorpions and the idea of Quetzalcoatlus zooming by overhead.

Prehistoric Monsters! tells the entire story of life on Earth - from the algae-rific Precambrian to Ice Age cave paintings. And manages to do it in just 23 picture-packed pages. It's a perfect introduction to pre-history for young ones - but the incredible illustrations by Luis V. Rey are a sight to behold for anyone. This preview doesn't do it justice - but you can check it out at any bookstore.

Speaking of geeking out - Dr. Bakker also talks about our Seymour dig program on the page that covers the Permian, right next to a Dimetrodon attacking and Edaphosaurus - both of which we've found evidence of at our sites. Woot!

Text copyright © 2008 Dr. Robert T. Bakker
Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Luis V. Rey

(Thanks to Random House for allowing us to post these selections from the book.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

VIDEO: Nicole in 3D - CT scans of our favorite lysorophus

Recently, David wrote about the perils of being married to a paleontologist - mainly, that paleontologists tend to name things they discover after their loved ones. Sounds great! Some fossils - like Sue or Stan - are known all over the world. They're so famous, they only need one name - kind of like Cher. Who wouldn't want to be immortalized as a fossil?

Well...not every fossil is T. rex. And David's find happened to have some particularly unattractive characteritics as a species. If you missed it, check it out here and let us know what you would have done in his shoes.

In this case, David's wife now has the honor of giving her name to a particularly well-preserved lysorophus. And, the lovely people of MD Anderson were kind enough to give us a look at the inside of this fascinating fossil, through the use of the computed tomography (CT) scanning in their small animal imaging facility.

The cloudy red area you see in this video is the rock surrounding the fossil itself. The more defined, lighter sections show the fossil itself. As the image rotate, you can see the ribs and spine curling around. In life, it would have looked something like a pile of coiled rope, with each coil resting on the one under it. Stretched out, Nicole would have been about 18 - 20 inches long.

A Lysorophus closes in on its prey. (c) Robert T. Bakker

You can also see an vertical oval outline protruding from the main coil - it starts on the right, rolls around to the left, and then ends at the right again, it will be on the right of your screen. According to David, this is probably the skull.
Even cooler, this next video is in 3D - if you've got the red and blue glasses, this should pop right off the screen.


Advqnced 3D Imaging and Movies courtesy of:
Luc Bidaut, PhD.
Director, Image Processing & Visualization Lab (IPVL) UT - M. D. Anderson Cancer Center Houston, TX
lbidaut [at]
Computed tomography (CT) performed in the Small Animal Imaging Facility (SAIF), UT-MDACC

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Note to Eocene: You can fossilize, but you can't hide

At least not from the enthusiastic volunteers at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Almost every weekday, curator David Temple brings paleontology to life for the Museum's visitors. They can stand under the gaping jaws of T. rex or marvel and the sheer size of our Diplodocus - but only at David's table can visitors experience what it's like to actually find a fossil -and then try to figure out what it is.

Some days, he's got volunteers working on the sediments brought back from the Museum's dig site in Seymour. Recently, he's introduced a table full of Eocene-era sediments from the area around College Station, TX.

This week, we captured the experience on video. We hope you enjoy seeing these young minds at work as much as we do - and that you'll visit sometime soon to try this out for yourself.

In this video, David explains this particular project, where these fossils came from, how they ended up preserved so closely together, and how our volunteers are analyzing them.

Samantha, a young and very tenacious fossil hunter, shows us what she found. In the next video, David helps her identify it.

Todd is a patient, very thorough fossil hunter - here, he identifies several Eocene fossils for us, shows us how to use his tools, and lets us in on why he wants to be a paleontologist - despite David's vivid descriptions of what a hard, tedious job it can be sometimes.

Friday, February 8, 2008

David Temple - Lysorophus found!

- OR -

The perils of marriage to a paleontologist

I first met “Nicole” in a wash about 800 meters from the main quarry our team has been working in Seymour. The day was winding down, sun was shining at a raking angle, and we were all tired of sitting on lumpy, pointy rocks.

So, we took a short paleo “road trip” and in order to do some prospecting. The Doctor and Flis headed south and east, I went north and west.

Usually, this kind of contrarian behavior on my part results in the opportunity to admire everyone else’s fantastic finds. You would think that since this happens so often, it would encourage me to follow the pack. Still, it’s at least a little easier on the ego to admire everyone’s discoveries back at the vehicles, rather than at the outcrop. (Particularly after they have asked me to move some part of my body so they can retrieve or examine said fantastic find, which I have been unwittingly laying or sitting on. I have not been successful in arguing that standing, sitting, leaning, lying, on or next to a fossil, constitutes “discovery.”)

When I brought “Nicole” back to the vehicles to meet the folks, as it were, I knew the kidney-shaped rock was something interesting, as The Doctor immediately became very excited. It was a Lysorophus, a small amphibian that resembles a modern amphiuma. Faint outlines of ribs could be observed sinuously disappearing into the rock.

This was the fossil of a complete animal, still coiled in its burrow. During the late Permian it had burrowed in the mud to escape drought and wait for rains that never came.

The fossilized Nicole. You can see the ribs curling around the lower right corner.

In his excitement, the doctor called for a name. As is his habit, he suggested the name of my first girlfriend. This required some thought, as I briefly but awkwardly recalled her identity, realizing that the minimal qualification for “girlfriend” status is mutual affection.

Then – thankfully – I experienced a moment of clarity, a fast mental flash-forward, as I return home to the missus with news of the find, the name and an explanation.

“But Sweetheart, I could never name a wriggling, tiny-limbed, slime-covered amphibian that burrowed in the mud and ate by sucking - and a dead one at that – after you! I’m saving that honor for the discovery of a graceful, long-limbed and beautiful new species.”

A Lysorophus closes in on its prey. (c) Robert T. Bakker

But, this moment of clarity brought with it a mental soundtrack: Gordon Lightfoot , The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes;
When the words turn the minutes to hours...”

No matter what you’ve found, naming opportunities are few and far between. So, I did the smart thing and named it after the wife, who was polite but not particularly enthusiastic, despite assurances that I had no hidden agenda in naming a dead, wriggling, tiny-limbed, slime-covered, mud-burrowing, suck-eating amphibian specimen after her – that this act was, in fact, complimentary.

Defending this claim was problematic. So, I reminded her that 292 million years ago, this thing was quite a looker…. at least to members of its species… maybe even the cutest one…and after all, it was very thin.

A X-ray of Nicole.

Hello Rock, meet Hard Place. If I ever get christening rights again, I am sticking with U.S. presidents, beloved pets or Batman villains.

I think I made the correct choice – would you have done it differently?

Nicole – the fossil, not the wife – will eventually end up freed from her burrow and on display in our new paleontology hall.