Category Archives: Fossils

T. rex: Generations

­Dinosaurs. Love them or hate them, they are a part of our culture. Ever since the first scientific discovery of giant reptilian bones by Gideon Mantell in the 1820s, they have captured our imagination. The fossils showed that enormous, strange reptiles once lived and breathed on our planet. And some were enormous. Bigger than a house; these giants dwarfed most living things. Some walked on four legs, some walked on two. These were creatures unlike anything seen before. The stuff of imagination: except they were real.

Richard Owen, the slightly egocentric, arrogant Victorian scientist, made these extinct reptiles even larger than they were by naming them in 1841. He grouped the three creatures then discovered (Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, and Hylaeosaurus) into a scientific Class that would become a household name: he called them Dinosauria, meaning ‘terrible lizards’. A name which was not only was easy for anyone to say, but also added to their gigantic, terrifying nature. Strangely the scientific names of dinosaurs are discussed outside of specialist circles with relative ease (think of Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, or Triceratops), whereas all other animals have a common name. Today children can pronounce dozens of dinosaur genera without blinking an eye – how many beetles or mammal genera roll of the tongue with ease?

The awesome life size sculpture of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (Photo by me)

Soon after coining the word dinosaur, Owen helped create the first life size models at Crystal Palace, putting dinosaurs in the public eye for the first time. Since then they have been hot news. The press even followed the dinosaur rush in the late 1800s between two North American palaeontologists who fought it out to find and name the most dinosaurs they could (and led to bitter rivalry between the men). Even today, at least once a month, dinosaurs are in the media.

Why are dinosaurs so popular? There is something unreal about them; something almost from legend. We can see the enormous bones on displays in museums and get a real sense of the size of these animals – they are even bigger when we gaze up at them as a child. (Not all dinosaurs were massive. Most were smaller than a human. But of course the big ones get a lot of attention.) One group of dinosaurs even survives with us today: the birds.

They are one of the few group of prehistoric animals that regularly feature in films and books. Early films used wonderful stop-start animation in films to recreate them in dramatic from, such as King Kong (1933) and 1 million years BC (1966). Recently computer animation has brought them into our homes in even more realistic detail than ever before (Jurassic Park, 1994, Dinosaur, 2000). Dinosaur books fill the shelves of book shops. A-Z of dinosaurs, prehistoric life, dinosaur fact books, and many, many more are ready for the hungry reader, young and old. At least two popular science books on dinosaurs have been published this year, and both have sold extremely well. Like sex, dinosaurs sell.

Do we need yet another dinosaur book? If it is good enough, then yes, yes we do.

And Ted Rechlin’s new book, T. rex Generations, is good enough.

Ted Rechlin’s new book, T Rex Generations, published by Rextooth Studios.

It’s a fictional story about a family of Tyrannosaurus rex living life at the end of the Cretaceous. And it’s pretty nicely done. Rechlin has created an almost graphic style comic for his story, almost resonant of Frank Miller’s graphic novels like 300 and Sin City. The artwork is faultless, with little touches that show Rechlin knows what he is talking about. The story is brought to life by his dynamic illustrations.

What is great about this fictional story, is how the latest scientific knowledge is subtly included as part of the narrative. You are reading about a fictional family of Tyrannosaurus and unknowingly learn so much at the same time. That in itself isn’t easy to do, but demonstrates Rechlin’s skill as a writer as well as an artist. You will discover other dinosaurs around at the same time as they tyrant king. You will learn about the latest scientific research on the development of Tyrannosaurus rex. And much more: whilst the story is fictional, the information is not.

One thing that this book does, where others have failed, is to show that these dinosaurs – perhaps the most famous of all dinosaurs – faced the same struggles as animals do today. The struggle of finding food, the failure of the hunt, and the infant mortality, are all weaved through the story elegantly. Reading it you can visualise these animals as real animals struggling to survive, fighting to live. It is reminiscent of the hard life on the savannah today.

There are so many dinosaur books around. Fact books. Fun books. Popular science books. They are all great and are all full of fantastic information. This is different. Adults can enjoy it as much as children. It can easily be read as a bedtime story for little ones. It’s a nice story where you are swept away into the Late Cretaceous, where monsters hunted: only these monsters were real alive 66 million years ago.

I’m a big fan of Rechlin’s art work. The animals he illustrates are somehow as real as some of the more detailed palaeoart. His illustrations are different though.. They are not full of intricate detail, yet this doesn’t make them feel less alive. It is the character he skilfully creates which brings them alive.

With many dinosaur fact books there are illustrations of the dinosaur complimented by dozens of fascinating facts. For me, these are great to see what these extinct reptiles looked like, but they lack something else. They lack that living connection. Through his character filled illustrations, Rechlin manages with ease to portray these animals as real, living things. Reading his book you are immediately transported back to a time when these iconic animals struggled in life.

Visit Rextooth Studios for more about Ted’s art, and cool up to date information about the topics he writes about. Here are links to this book and two of my favourites:

T rex: Generations is available here.

Tyrannosaurus rex is available here.

End of the Ice Age is available here.

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Filed under Dinosaurs, Fossils, Tyrannosaurus rex

The flamboyant cast

Another Bad Cast for your pleasure. Here we have a pretty small cast of a trilobite. You can just make out the outline of this specimen.

Just. But it is a trilobite.

There is a cast of a trilobite on this image. There really is.

There is a cast of a trilobite on this image. There really is.

Unfortunately, as is a recurring theme with these bad casts, this specimen does not convey the true flamboyance of this type of trilobite. It is a cast from the extravagant trilobite family Thysanopeltid. Species in this family of these extinct arthropods are noted for their big gabella (which is the bulging bit in the centre of the head). They also have very elaborate pygidiums (the ‘tail’ segment): almost as long as the main body in some species.

A beautifully preserved (Image from here)

A beautifully preserved Scabriscutellum sp. from Morocco. Note the very elongated tail section (towards the left of the image). (Image from here)

As with all trilobites, they lived in the marine environment. With their large eyes, and relatively flat, streamlined bodies, these unusual trilobites likely lived in the shallow coastal areas where there was light. Staying close to the sandy or muddy floor, they would have scurried along feeding on the tiny organisms in the water as they went.

These were creatures of the Devonian. From around 410 to 358 million years ago, several species from this family were swimming in the warm seas. From Morrocco, North America, and South England, this was a successful family.

The land was slowly being colonised by plants in the Devonian, with some primitive insects scuttling through these alien forests. The seas were different: they were rich, full of diverse life.  With giant armoured fish longer than me, coral reefs, and hundreds of different types of trilobites, this was a world owned by the marine creatures. Stepping barefoot into shallow Devononian waters, you would feel the tickle of trilobites running furiously over your feet, while others swimming would accidently bump into your legs. It was a wonderful world.

Towards the end of the Devonian the fossil record shows that there was a huge extinction event, with numerous families of trilobites, ammonites, corals, and some land animals vanishing forever. Around 22% of families had gone, and 75% of species. The causes may have been due to a meteorite impact, or the changing atmosphere due to the spread of the land plants. It was, and still is, a very fragile planet where slight changes have extremely dramatic effects.

Around half of the bad casts at the museum are trilobites. I get why. Plymouth is on very hard, tough limestone. What fossils have survived 400 million years of crushing, burial, heat and uplift, are fragments of corals or sea shells. When the museum opened, like all museums, they wanted to represent life past and present. Without real fossils to purchase, casts were the next best thing. Apparently.

Did they have to be so bad? We will never know why someone, 100 years ago, spent many shillings on so many bad casts. What is worse for this particular cast, is that species from this wonderful family, Thysanopeltid, have been found in Newton Abbot. Rocks, which are only 40 minutes away. 40 minutes away. Instead of looking for the real thing, we have ended up with this bad cast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The beauty of the beast

I will admit it. I am fond of this weeks bad cast. The cast is not unique or unusual. Nor is it particularly striking. The beauty of this beast is unseen.

A familiar cast? It is of course, the wonderful Archaeopteryx.

A familiar cast? It is of course, the wonderful Archaeopteryx.

You will immediately recognise this cast: Archaeopteryx. A cast of one of the most famous fossils in history. Preserved almost perfectly for around 150 million years, this is a truly beautiful creature. The preservation on the real fossil is so incredible even the feathers have been fossilised. This is down to the exquisite limestone they have been encapsulated for an immense period of time: the Solnhofen Limestone.

The limestone in Solnhofen, Germany, has been quarried for centuries. Forming around 150 million years ago this was once at the edge of the now extinct Tethys Sea. Here, there was a beautiful, sparkling lagoon. Beautiful but deadly. With the salinity so high, no organisms could live here. This was good news for future palaeontologists, because no organisms in the lagoon means there is nothing to eat anything that falls into it. Added to this was the incredibly fine carbonate mud falling to the bottom. So not only was anything that fell into the lagoon protected from scavengers, their bodies were covered in extremely fine sediment. The result – exquisitely gorgeous fossils including plants, insects, pterosaurs, and of course Archaeopteryx.

Admittedly it is not the most detailed cast ever produced. Made with a rather thick, powdery Plaster of Paris, you can only just make out the outline of the wings. Today, fine resins make much more detailed casts of fossils, often reproducing the smallest of details.

This cast is certainly not rare. Almost every museum in the UK will have a copy of this famous specimen. So confident that you are guaranteed to see this cast, my chum at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, Mark Carnall, included it in his slightly tongue-in-cheek, ‘Museum Bingo’. Here you take the Museum Bingo card into a museum and cross off the specimens you see. More often than not, you will shout ‘Bingo’!

And it is true. There are plenty of them about. I have seen an Archaeopteryx proudly displayed in a case right next to the front doors welcoming all visitors. In another museum, a quirky ‘real life’ model of an Archaeopteryx is perched valiantly next to the cast. One museum goes one step further and boldly places the cast on the wall to explain bird evolution: it is the only specimen on the wall and I am really sure it works.

So why, if nearly every museum in the UK has a copy, do I have such a secret crush on this bad cast?

True beauty is not in what something looks like. Something that appears beautiful can actually be quite the opposite. I have known a couple of people whom many would say are beautiful. They have strong features, soft skin, big eyes. But to me, they were not beautiful. They lacked personality, humour, empathy, kindness, or warmth. These are the features that make someone (or something) beautiful. The ability to make someone smile; to have interesting, engaging chats; to understand others and to have that warmth of kindness in their eyes. There are so many truly beautiful people in the world. And it is their beauty that really shines.

This Archaeopteryx cast is beautiful. There are only 12 specimens of Archaeopteryx in museums in the world. Twelve. Being so rare, not every museum can hold a specimen. But that doesn’t stop every museum from wanting one. Because these were amazing animals.

Archaeopteryx is one of those ancient animals that have caused heated debate ever since it was first discovered. It is incredible because it has gorgeously preserved feathers; real, long, asymmetrical feathers, which are used in birds today for flight. But there are traits in this creature that cannot be seen in birds today:

  • Archaeopteryx had fingers: birds today have three fingers (digits ii, iii, and iv) which have shrunk or fused to form an extra one in the wing.
  • Archaeopteryx clearly has teeth: birds today lack teeth in their beaks. Some chicks have an ‘egg tooth’ to help them get out of the egg when they hatch.
  • Archaeopteryx had several bones in its tail: birds today have a small number of 5 or 6 tail bones fused together (called the pygostyle).

A strange creature indeed. And it clearly shows a very close relationship between dinosaurs and birds. Although maybe not a direct ancestor for modern birds, this was a very early type of bird which had wings for flying.

And even after 150 years after it was first discovered, we are still learning new things about this ancient bird. In 20122 a team used the incredibly powerful Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to look a feather of Archaeopteryx. Zooming in at such a high magnification brings out features that have not been seen before, including structures of melanosomes: the cells which store the colour of the feather. The team compared the structures to many other bird melanosomes, and it showed this feather was very likely black. Another study looking at more feathers indicated that some were dark and light. Each new fascinating bit of research adds a little extra detail to this enigmatic bird.

Using the bad cast. I like to use Archaeopteryx at events. This week I have been running an event for Science Week. School shave been learning about bird anatomy, plus a little bit of evolutionary history.

Using the bad cast. I like to use Archaeopteryx at events. This week I have been running an event for Science Week. Schools have been learning about bird anatomy, plus a little bit of evolutionary history.

All of these great features, and the historical tales of great debates of Archaeopteryx, make this a wonderful fossil to have a cast of. Does it matter that it is a cast? Not really, no. It was cast from the original fossil. And the cast can be used in many different ways. Many museums have it on display. I don’t. I actually use it for talking to schools or families about anatomy, evolution, adaptation, fossils, history of science…This is one of my regulars I get out for events. And it never fails to impress.

The beauty of this Archaeopteryx cast is it’s ability to inspire. Talking to people of all ages and letting them get up close to this fossil, give a real sense of awesomeness. It may not be the most perfect cast, but goodness me, it really is the most beautiful.

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