In July 2015 I described a new species of bird-like dinosaur with my friend, the great Chinese dinosaur hunter Junchang Lü. Our new dinosaur, Zhenyuanlong, lived 125 million years ago in China. It is a dinosaur that really looks like a bird. Feathers cover most of its body. Simple fluffy fuzz coats the head and neck, long feathers stick out from the tail, and the arms have three layers of quill-pen feathers forming wings. These wings look remarkably similar to those of living birds. But Zhenyuanlong is not a bird, it was a dromaeosaurid, a very close cousin of Velociraptor. And it probably couldn't fly, as it was fairly large (about 2 meters long and 20 kg in mass) and had short arms. This raises the question: what were its wings for? Did it evolve from a feathered ancestor, or maybe it was using its wings for other things, like display or egg brooding. And that raises an even bigger question: why did dinosaurs evolve wings in the first place? Maybe for flight, but maybe for something else. Our study is published in the open access journal Scientific Reports, and the paper is freely downloadable. Our new feathered friend received some press attention. I did television pieces for CNN, BBC, BBC Newsround, Sky News, and STV. I did radio interviews for several BBC programs, including Radio 4 PM, Radio 5 Live, Radio 5 Live HitList, World Service, and BBC Scotland (Good Morning Scotland), as well as others for CBC in Canada and CBS in the US. I wrote a first-person piece on the dinosaur for the Conversation. Articles about the discovery appeared in BBC, Science, Live Science, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times, the Scotsman, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Discovery News, Newsweek, BBC Focus, CBS News, ABC News, Time, New Statesman, Buzz Feed, the Huffington Post, Esquire, the Daily Mail, the Express, the Mirror, the National, the Motherboard blog at Vice, the Christian Science Monitor, Fox News and Red Orbit. Wire stories were put out by AP, Reuters, and AFP. The news aggregate site Newsy made a video about the discovery.
In June 2015 I dissected a Tyrannosaurus rex on television. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life, and a highlight of my career. I was an on-screen presenter and scientific consultant for the incredible National Geographic Channel program T. rex Autopsy, which premiered on June 7 in 140+ countries. The premise may seem a little absurd, but the science behind the show is top-notch. Working with the amazing artists at Crawley Creatures, we created a life-like, scientifically accurate model of T. rex, bones, muscle, skin, internal organs, feathers, and all. To me, it is the single most realistic dinosaur model ever built. Then we cut it up, explaining how each bit of the body tells us about what T. rex was like as a real animal: how it fed, moved, grew, dealt with injuries, and reproduced. In telling the story we featured a wealth of new scientific evidence gathered from fossils and paleobiological studies over the past decade. I am incredibly proud of the program and think it's a totally wild, totally novel, and perhaps even groundbreaking way of presenting science to the public. It was a real pleasure to join vet Luke Gamble and fellow paleontologists Tori Herridge and Matt Mossbrucker in conducting the autopsy, and working with the team at Impossible Factual and National Geographic Channel to make the show. I was involved in a lot of the promotion for the program, discussing it on BBC's The One Show and STV's Scotland Tonight and numerous radio programs, including BBC World Service, BBC Radio 5 Live, and stations across the US. My role in the program was covered by Yahoo News, Forbes, Newsweek, Live Science, Fox News, the Daily Record (Scotland), the National (Scotland), the Edinburgh Evening News, the Herald, the Metro, the Daily Mail, the Mirror, Brian Switek's National Geographic blog, Newsy, Blastr, Hitfix, Australian News, New Zealand news, I wrote a first-person piece for the Conversation, on my role in the show and my thoughts on why the show is both groundbreaking and a great new way of communicating science. A great review of the program was published by the Washington Post.
I was chuffed to write the cover article for the May 2015 issue of Scientific American, one of the great publications that articulates science to a broad lay audience. The article tells the story of tyrannosaur evolution: how tyrannosaurs originated deep in the Jurassic ~170 million years ago, were mostly marginal human-sized predators living in the shadow of other giant meat-eaters for most of their history, and only evolved colossal size and rose to the top of the food chain during the final 20 million years of the Age of Dinosaurs, before T. rex was struck down in its prime by the dinosaur-killing asteroid at the end of Cretaceous 66 million years ago. The story describes much of my own research over the past decade, much of it in collaboration with Thomas Carr (as well as many other colleagues), which has produced a comprehensive family tree for tyrannosaurs, placed tyrannosaurs in the larger family tree of dinosaurs, and revealed four new species of tyrannosaur (Alioramus altai, Juratyrant, Qianzhousaurus, Raptorex). It also follows spectacular discoveries of new tyrannosaurs from across the world, like the pint-sized Middle Jurassic Kileskus from Siberia, the feathered furball Yutyrannus from China, and the dwarf carnivore Nanuqusaurus from Arctic Alaska. It was a real thrill to work with Kate Wong, my editor at Scientific American, and the incomparable artists James Gurney and Todd Marshall. Jim's cover image is a gorgeous reconstruction of the long-snouted 'Pinocchio rex' Qianzhousaurus, and I think it is one of the most striking cover boy images I've ever seen on a science magazine! Jim also contributed a beautiful spread of Yutyrannus and Dilong for the opening pages of the article, and Todd created new, up-to-date, highly accurate reconstructions of several of the newest tyrannosaur discoveries for a 'family tree' spread.
Since 2009 I have been working with a great team of European colleagues--including Richard Butler, Octavio Mateus, and Seb Steyer--searching for fossils in the gorgeous Algarve region of southern Portugal, where a nice sequence of fossil-rich Triassic rocks are exposed. In March 2015 we announced a new discovery from the Algarve: a new species of the large temnospondyl amphibian Metoposaurus, which we named M. algarvensis. This was a roughly 2-meter long, huge-headed, toothy fish-eater that would have ruled the rivers and lakes of Triassic Portugal, during a time when Pangaea was beginning to break up an the earliest dinosaurs and stem mammals were diversifying. We haven't found only one or two fossils, but a bonebed of what looks like tens or even hundreds of individuals. Our paper was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The discovery received some press attention. I did television pieces for BBC Scotland and STV and recorded video pieces for CNN, the Wall Street Journal and CBBC Newsround. I did radio interviews for several BBC programs, including Today on Radio 4, Breakfast on Radio 5 Live, BBC World Service, BBC Scotland (Good Morning Scotland and other programs), and various local services, as well as the great Quirks and Quarks on CBC. I wrote a first-person piece on the discovery for the Conversation. Articles about the discovery appeared in BBC, Science, Live Science, the Independent, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Scotsman, the Washington Post, Discovery News, Science News, BBC Focus, CBS News, the Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, the Metro, the Motherboard blog at vice, Fox News, and even the gossip website Gawker (for some reason). Wire stories were put out by AP, UPI, and AFP. Some photos and videos of the excavation have been posted by Octavio Mateus and the news aggregate site Newsy made a video about the discovery. A few months after the discovery, Metoposaurus was featured in a BBC Earth online piece on the "Ten giant animals that are long since dead".
When you think of dinosaurs and fossil vertebrates Scotland may not come to mind, but believe it or not, my adopted country boasts one of the world's best records for Middle Jurassic vertebrates. Most of these come from the Isle of Skye, a beautiful speck of land off the west coast. In January 2015 my colleagues and I had the great privilege of announcing a remarkable new fossil from Skye, a new species of ichthyosaur that we named Dearcmhara shawcrossi. Dearcmhara is a 170-million-year-old, approximately 4-meter-long, top-of-the-food-chain fish eater. We didn't discover the bones, but they were found by an amateur collector named Brian Shawcross, who did a great thing and donated them to the Hunterian Museum instead of selling them. For this reason we honored Brian by naming the new animal after him. This is Scotland's first unique ichthyosaur (or marine reptile of any kind) that has been discovered, studied, and named. Our paper was published in the Scottish Journal of Geology. It is a joint effort of a large new research consortium, the PalAlba group, that includes a number of other Scottish researchers, including Nick Fraser, Stig Walsh, and Jeff Liston at National Museums Scotland; Neil Clark of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow; Tom Challands, Mark Young, and Mark Wilkinson of the University of Edinburgh; Dugald Ross of the Staffin Museum; and Colin MacFadyen of Scottish Natural Heritage. The awesome paleoartist Todd Marshall collaborated with us to produce the reconstruction (to the left). The discovery received quite a bit of press attention, including many stories that purported it to be the discovery of the "ancestor of the Loch Ness monster". I did television pieces for BBC Scotland, BBC Newsround, and STV. NPR broadcast a great segment for Morning Edition in the USA and CBC Radio in Canada also featured and interview. I wrote a first-person piece on the discovery for the Conversation. Articles about the discovery appeared in BBC, Science, Live Science, National Geographic online, the Guardian, Discovery News, Washington Post, the Independent, the Telegraph, the Times, the Daily Record, the Daily Mail, the Metro, the Scotsman, the Herald, Edinburgh Evening News, the Express, the Motherboard Blog at Vice.com, Huffington Post, Sky News, the International Business Times, CBS News, NBC News, the National Post, Nature World News, Red Orbit, and Sci News. Wire stories were put out by Reuters, UPI, and the Press Association.
By now it is widely recognized that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs. Or put another way, birds ARE living dinosaurs, in the same way wolves are a type of mammal or frogs a type of amphibian. In September 2014 I led a team that produced the most comprehensive family tree of theropod dinosaurs yet attempted, which slots in birds among their closest dinosaurian relatives. This phylogeny, and a discussion of its implications for understanding the dinosaur-bird evolution link, were published in Current Biology. It was a great pleasure to join my colleagues Graeme Lloyd, Steve Wang, and Mark Norell on this project. The roots of this study were in my PhD thesis, which I finished at Columbia University/AMNH in 2012. For my thesis I assembled the most recent version of the Theropod Working Group (TWiG) phylogenetic dataset, the latest in a long line of ever-expanding phylogenetic studies of theropods begun more than 20 years ago by my supervisor, Norell. Our dataset includes over 150 coelurosaurian theropods scored for over 850 characters, with most species observed first-hand by either me or another member of the TWiG team. We used the dataset to compile a phylogeny, and then used that phylogeny to examine the dinosaur-bird transition in detail. We found that there is no clear separation between 'dinosaurs' and 'birds' on the family tree. Instead, the characteristic features of birds such as feathers, wishbones, and wings evolved piecemeal over tens of millions of years of dinosaur evolution. But, once the avian body plan came together fully in the Jurassic, then something was an unlocked and an evolutionary explosion began, with birds evolving significantly faster than other theropods. The paper generated a bit of attention from the press. I did a piece for Al Jazeera television and some BBC radio interviews, including one for BBC World Service and the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. Some articles summarizing our research appeared in National Geographic, Live Science, Forbes, the Scotsman, the Herald, the Daily Mail, CBS News, Discovery News, the Telegraph, the International Business Times, Science Recorder, Tech Times, and NBC News.
It's one of the greatest mysteries in science: why did the dinosaurs go extinct? It was one of those fascinating questions that got me into dinosaurs as a teenager. It was a great pleasure to join Richard Butler in Birmingham to lead a team of 11 dinosaur experts from across the world to sit down and write a consensus on what we currently know about the timing and reasons for the dinosaur extinction. We published our report in Biological Reviews. The verdict: dinosaurs went extinct abruptly (they weren't wasting away for tens of millions of years), the asteroid that fell out of space 66 million years ago was the main culprit, but the asteroid happened to hit at a very bad time for dinosaurs, when their ecosystems were weakened by a slight dip in diversity of the large plant-eating species at the base of the food chain. The dinosaur extinction is one of those perpetually fascinating topics to the public and the press, and our paper generated a bit of media buzz. The coolest thing I was able to do was to fulfill a lifelong dream and be featured on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley (with James Brown filling in at the anchor desk). The clip is available here. I also did a featured interview for the television station Al Jazeera America, which is available here. Additionally, I did a number of interviews for BBC radio stations (including a few featured spots on BBC World Service's Newsday and a spot for BBC Scotland). We were thrilled to be the subject of some great articles in the Guardian, BBC, National Geographic, Nature, the Independent, the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Live Science, Discovery News, Wired, the New York Daily News, the Motherboard blog, Al Jazeera, io9, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Daily Mail, among others. The aggregate site Newsy also did a short film summarizing our work. Along with Richard Butler, it was a pleasure to join Paul Barrett, Matt Carrano, David Evans, Graeme Lloyd, Phil Mannion, Mark Norell, Dan Peppe, Paul Upchurch, and Tom Williamson on this project. I am still beaming that 11 paleontologists could sit down and agree on something, especially something as contentious as the dinosaur extinction!
One of the greatest privileges I've had as a scientist thus far is being invited by my friend Junchang Lü, one of China's eminent dinosaur hunters, to work with him on an incredible new tyrannosaur from southern China. We announced this new tyrannosaur to the world in May 2014 in a paper in Nature Communications. The bizarre new species, Qianzhousaurus sinensis, was discovered in ~66 million year old rocks in Ganzhou, China, making it one of the last surviving dinosaurs before the asteroid impact snuffed them out. It is a tyrannosaurid, so one of the closest relatives of T. rex, but it's much different than its most famous cousin. It's smaller (only 8-9 meters long), lighter (weighed about one ton), and had a long snout with several small horns sticking out of it. It belongs to a newly-recognized subclade of long-snouted Asian tyrannosaurids that also includes the two species of Alioramus from Mongolia. Both Alioramus species are known from a single specimen, which in both cases is a juvenile. But Qianzhosaurus is known from a much larger, more mature specimen that is nearing adulthood, making it unequivocally clear that the long snout and light skeleton were not transient juvenile features but characteristic of a major tyrannosaurid subgroup. We were thrilled to get some international press coverage on the discovery, helped in no small part because of a cheeky nickname ("Pinocchio rex", in reference to its long snout) and the incredible life reconstruction by Chuang Zhao (left). I did television interviews for BBC News and STV's Scotland Tonight and STV News, among a few others. I did radio interviews for Quirks and Quarks (CBC, Canada) and ABC in Australia and several BBC stations, as well as a nice recorded piece for the Voice of Russia. There was some great coverage by the BBC, Nature, Science, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, New Scientist, US News and World Report, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the International Business Times, the Edinburgh Evening News, the New York Daily News, Discovery News, Live Science, Buzz Feed, the Motherboard blog of vice.com, and io9. Wire stories were put out by UPI and Reuters. There was also a fun video on the find put together by the news aggregate website Newsy.
Walking With Dinosaurs: I've had a huge amount of fun over the past year and a half working with the talented team behind the blockbuster family film Walking With Dinosaurs 3D, which was released in December 2013 in cinemas worldwide. I was one of several paleontologists who consulted on the film. I also consulted on a range of other threads related to the film. I was the lead scientific consultant for the Sony Wonderbook video game, which takes kids on a virtual reality adventure into the world of dinosaurs. I also consulted on the WWD toy series, making sure that the dinosaur toys were scientifically accurate. I wrote the dinosaur encyclopedia accompanying the film, the Walking With Dinosaurs 3D Encyclopedia, which provides an overview of the world of dinosaurs, gives all of the vital stats on the dinosaurs portrayed in the film, and discusses the science behind the film. I was also a consultant on the film's website. For the year before the film was released I was the "resident palaeontologist" on the website, and answered questions from readers every week, as well as provided news articles on the latest dinosaur discoveries. I took part in promoting the film, working with Fox in the US and UK and BBC in the UK to discuss the film with journalists. I appeared on BBC Breakfast with Neil Nightingale, the director of the film, to discuss the science behind the story. My role as a consultant was profiled by New Scientist, National Geographic, the Huffington Post UK, the Huffington Post US, the Herald (Scotland), and Geek Dad, among others. I also worked with New Scientist to make a short online video about the science portrayed in the film. The film is squarely intended for kids and families (hence the voiceovers and talking dinosaurs), but there is no doubt in my mind that the dinosaurs are the most realistic and accurate and stunning that have ever appeared on the silver screen, or any screen for that matter. Neil Nightingale, Barry Cook, and the rest of the team from BBC made a huge effort over four years of development to ensure that the science behind the film was on the ball. That level of commitment to accuracy should be celebrated.
I have just started a new faculty research and teaching position in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh (February 2013). I am employed as a Chancellor's Fellow--a new scheme to attract young faculty to the university across all of the university's disciplines. These are permanent academic positions with the usual responsibilities of research, teaching, student advising, administration, and outreach. The fellowship transitions into a lectureship pending the completion of a performance review. I am very excited to be moving back across the Atlantic, and my wife (a beautiful Englishwoman) is thrilled to be returning closer to home after four years of trying to become an American. She never lost her accent and never quite understood the fuss about guns or for-profit health care. I'm looking forward to immersing myself in one of Europe's great universities--the place where Darwin went to medical school and Peter Higgs currently teaches. Scotland was the birthplace of modern geology, and the city of Edinburgh itself is a geological playground, with so many outcrops and crags and volcanic sills to explore. I look forward to working more closely with the great group of paleontologists already based in Edinburgh--Dick Kroon, Rachel Wood, Nick Fraser, and Stig Walsh--and to helping train the next generation of Scottish earth scientists.
BBC Earth--one of the masters of science programming--has recently launched a YouTube Channel called Earth Unplugged that includes clips of some of their best science and nature television programs, as well as new content exclusive to the internet. Much of the new content is short, snappy videos highlighting some of the coolest new scientific discoveries and theories. I recently did some filming with the BBC crew in London and Oxford that will be featured in a few online videos. The first, posted in early December 2012, is an installment in Earth Unplugged's Meet Your Planet Series. In this video, which can be seen here on YouTube, I discuss my passion for paleontology, the importance of paleontology for better understanding our planet and how it has changed over time, and what a job as a paleontologist actually entails. The second, which was posted in late December 2012 and can be seen here on YouTube, is a run-down of ten of my favorite dinosaur discoveries of all time. In it I discuss the earliest discoveries of dinosaurs, bizarre fossils such as dinosaur coprolites, animals that lived alongside the dinosaurs, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the now universally accepted idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs. It was a blast filming these videos with the BBC's top-notch crew, including the stellar director Chris Howard and my friend from my Bristol MSc days, Amirah Barri. The aim with these videos is to present current science in a fun, accessible format, by having scientists such as myself directly interact with the public. I hope we have succeeded! I am also happy to announce that the BBC has just recently launched a new Walking With Dinosaurs Website. I was a consultant for the website and also act as the site's resident paleontologist. I'm available to answer questions from any interested online dinosaur enthusiasts! Please follow this link to ask questions. And please pass this along to any young dinosaur fans that you may know. The website is associated with the BBC's upcoming Walking With Dinosaurs 3D movie, which is destined to be a blockbuster when it is released in late 2013.
New Book: Dinosaur Paleobiology (Wiley-Blackwell, May 2012): I am thrilled to announce that my first foray into technical book writing, Dinosaur Paleobiology, has just been published by Wiley-Blackwell (May 2012). This book is the inaugural title in a new series called Topics in Paleobiology, which is edited by Mike Benton and sponsored by the Palaeontological Association. The book is semi-technical, written in the tone of a long review paper, and is primarily aimed at professional researchers and students, but is also accessible to dinosaur enthusiasts and younger students who have background knowledge about the major dinosaur groups, evolution, and skeletal anatomy. Please see the book's page on Wiley-Blackwell's website for more information, as well as an excellent review by Dr. Heinrich Mallison. It can also be ordered at amazon.com or amazon.co.uk. Here is a synopsis:
The study of dinosaurs has been experiencing a remarkable renaissance over the past few decades. Scientific understanding of dinosaur anatomy, biology, and evolution has advanced to such a degree that paleontologists often know more about 100–million–year–old dinosaurs than many species of living organisms. This book provides a contemporary review of dinosaur science intended for students, researchers, and dinosaur enthusiasts. It reviews the latest knowledge on dinosaur anatomy and phylogeny, how dinosaurs functioned as living animals, and the grand narrative of dinosaur evolution across the Mesozoic. A particular focus is on the fossil evidence and explicit methods that allow paleontologists to study dinosaurs in rigorous detail. Scientific knowledge of dinosaur biology and evolution is shifting fast, and this book aims to summarize current understanding of dinosaur science in a technical, but accessible, style, supplemented with vivid photographs and illustrations.
I sincerely hope that researchers will find this book useful as a summary of dinosaur science, that students will see it as a valuable entryway into the details of dinosaur biology and evolution, and that university professors will integrate it into their courses on dinosaurs, evolution, and global change.
The Dinosaur Extinction: Were Dinosaurs in Decline During the Latest Cretaceous?: Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? Was their extinction sudden (perhaps caused solely by a major asteroid impact) or more gradual (the result of millions of years of stagnating evolutionary decline)? These are some of the most enduring questions in vertebrate paleontology research, and have captured the attention of scientists ever since the first dinosaurs were discovered. In a new paper published May 1 in Nature Communications, my colleagues and I present new data and quantitative analyses that may help clarify the riddle of the dinosaur extinction. We measured the morphological disparity of seven dinosaur subgroups during the final 10-12 million years of the Cretaceous (the last hurrah of the dinosaurs, before the asteroid impact and massive volcanism drew a curtain on the Cretaceous 65 million years ago). Morphological disparity is an anatomical measure of diversity: it measures the overall variability of the skeletons of dinosaurs, which gives a clue as to how dinosaur anatomy and biology (because diet and ecology are strongly linked to anatomy) were changing over time. Our results are intriguing. We found that there was no universal evolutionary pattern: some dinosaur groups such as the carnivorous theropods and clades of small herbivores (pachycephalosaurs, ankylosaurs, sauropods) had relatively constant disparity during the latest Cretaceous, whereas the two major groups of large-bodied, bulk-feeding herbivores underwent dramatic declines (hadrosaurs, ceratopsians). Additionally, these latter declines are especially marked in North America, whereas Asian hadrosaurs seem to have been undergoing a disparity increase during the latest Cretaceous. These results strongly indicate that dinosaur evolution during the latest Cretaceous was complex. Some groups were undergoing long-term declines, but it is uncertain whether these declines were related to the final extinction of the dinosaurs. At the very least, it is clear that different groups of dinosaurs, differing in diet, body size, and geographic location, were evolving in different ways. When the asteroid struck and volcanic eruptions occurred at the end of the Cretaceous, these catastrophic events did not suddenly snuff out an idyllic, static "lost world" in which dinosaurs were thriving. Instead, they hit a dramatically and dynamically changing global dinosaur fauna. This work is a collaboration between myself, Richard Butler, Albert Prieto-Marquez, and Mark Norell. For further information, please see a press release from the American Museum of Natural History, which also includes a short video in which Mark Norell and I discuss our findings. Mark and I also did an interactive live + online question and answer session regarding this project, which is archived online. Other fine articles on our study can be found at the New York Times, Live Science, TIME, Discovery News, AFP, USA Today, the International Business Times, the Guardian, Brian Switek's Dinosaur Tracking blog, and the blog io9.
Monograph of the Skeletal Osteology of Alioramus, a long-snouted tyrannosaur: I'm pleased to announce the publication of a full monographic treatment of the Late Cretaceous tyrannosaur Alioramus in the February 29, 2012 issue of the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. My colleagues and I described the specimen in question, which we named as a new species of the bizarre long-snouted predator Alioramus (A. altai), in a short paper published in the fall of 2009. Over the past few years since the initial publication we have been hard at work documenting the anatomy of the specimen in meticulous (and some may say excessive and yawn-inducing) detail. The result is this nearly 200 page monograph written by myself, Thomas Carr, and Mark Norell, with ~300 photos expertly taken by Mick Ellison at the AMNH. As with all American Museum publications, this monograph is available for free download from the museum's website. The monograph presents a comprehensive description of Alioramus anatomy and also provides extensive comparisons between Alioramus and other tyrannosauroids. These comparisons were used as a basis for a novel cladistic analysis of tyrannosauroids that we published in Science in 2010, and the monograph is a handy companion guide that better explains many of the characters in our analysis. The monograph also expands on the systematics of Alioramus, the differences between Alioramus and the coeval Tarbosaurus, ontogenetically variable characters in the specimen (which is a juvenile), hypotheses for the development of the novel elongated snout of Alioramus, and ideas about the paleobiology and feeding habits of Alioramus. Surprisingly, especially because of their popularity with the general public and attractiveness as "exemplar taxa" for paleobiological studies, tyrannosauroids have not been the subject of many monographic treatments. Our goal with this project was to document the anatomy of Alioramus (including the postcranium, which is often ignored at the expense of the cranium in tyrannosauroid descriptions) in as much detail as possible, and we hope that fellow theropod enthusiasts enjoy the result!
: The origin and rise of archosaurs during the Triassic is a particular research interest of mine, and many of my publications have focused on this exemplary evolutionary radiation in the fossil record. Much of my work on this subject is done in collaboration with Richard Butler from the University of Munich, and our most recent project has been a thorough redescription of one of the most important, but neglected, archosaur fossils: the holotype of the sail-backed taxon Ctenosauriscus from the latest Early Triassic of Germany. Our paper on Ctenosauriscus, written in collaboration with Mike Reich, Sterling Nesbitt, Rainer Schoch, and Jahn Hornung, was recently published in PLoS ONE. We review the stratigraphy of the holotype locality and provide evidence that Ctenosauriscus is the oldest archosaur body fossil in the global fossil record. We then review the anatomy and phylogeny of Ctenosauriscus, and show that it belongs to a relatively derived lineage of crocodile-line archosaurs. Therefore, by the necessity of ghost lineages, many archosaur clades that are not sampled until the Late Triassic must extend into the latest Early Triassic at a minimum. Finally, we show that Ctenosauriscus is part of a clade of sail-backed archosaurs that were widespread globally during the latest Early Triassic-Middle Triassic. These represent the first true worldwide radiation of archosaurs in the fossil record.
: The spectacularly preserved holotype of Alioramus altai from the Late Cretaceous of the Gobi Desert, which my colleagues and I published on in 2009, has given us a remarkable wealth of data on tyrannosaurid skeletal anatomy. Not only is the specimen very well preserved and fairly complete (the skull is essentially complete), but the bone really shows up well on CT scans. In our short initial paper on Alioramus we briefly mentioned some important features gleaned from a CT scan of the braincase. Now, in a separate new paper in PLoS ONE, my colleagues and I describe the braincase and internal endocranial anatomy of Alioramus in more detail. This study was led by Gabe Bever, an assistant professor at NYCOM, and an expert on CT scanning and braincase morphology. Also involved in the project were Amy Balanoff from the AMNH, who is also a CT specialist extraordinaire, and Mark Norell. The primary aim of this study was to describe and figure the A. altai holotype braincase, which is among the best preserved tyrannosauroid braincases known. Our main focus was on the internal anatomy, especially the anatomy of the endocranial cavity itself, as well as several sinuses that would have been filled with air sacs, cranial nerves, and blood vessels. Some of the figures that Gabe and Amy produced, which are freely available on the PLoS ONE website, are truly stunning! We also took a step beyond describing the braincase and showed that tyrannosaurids (including Alioramus) possess a mixture of primitive and derived braincase characters--characters that are always scored for the primitive state in more basal theropods and always for the derived state in more derived theropods. This indicates that basal coelurosaurs like tyrannosauroids had especially variable anatomy.
: The origin and rise of dinosaurs is one of those perpetual subjects of fascination, and for good reason. Understanding when dinosaurs originated and the tempo of their diversification is important, because it may help explain why dinosaurs attained such resounding success and may help untangle more general mysteries about how major groups of organisms first radiate. In the October 6, 2010 early edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, me and my good friends and colleagues, Grzegorz Niedźwiedzki and Richard Butler, describe the oldest known fossils of the dinosaur lineage (Dinosauromorpha, the group that includes dinosaurs and their closest extinct relatives). These tracks, called Prorotodactylus, come from a 250-million-year-old site in the Holy Cross Mountains of Poland. Aside from the mere novelty of being the oldest dinosauromorph fossils, these tracks give two important insights about the initial rise of dinosaurs. First, the tracks are only a few million years younger than the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, raising the tantalizing possibility that the origination and early diversification of the dinosaur lineage occurred as a direct response to open ecospace after the greatest mass extinction of all time. Previously, it was thought that the rise of dinosaurs was completely unconnected to the P-T extinction, and happened more than 10 million years later. Second, these tracks are prime evidence that the oldest dinosauromorphs were small (about the size of a housecat), walked on four legs, and remarkably rare in their ecosystems (2-3% of total footprints). Thus, it is no surprise that their bones have yet to be found. Additionally, we described footprints from two slightly younger Early-Middle Triassic sites in Poland, including several tracks called Sphingopus from 246-million-year-old rocks that are currently the oldest known examples of a bipedal and moderately large-sized dinosaurs (footprint length=15 centimeters).
This work was profiled by the New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, ABC News, Reuters, Discover Magazine, Scientific American, Live Science, and the Discovery Channel. Some nice articles were also published in Polish and Lithuanian newspapers. Check out an interview with me on the CBC Quirks & Quarks radio show and the ABC Science Show.
: Tyrannosaurus rex is undoubtedly the most iconic of all dinosaurs--it is a popular museum exhibit and movie subject, and known to children of all ages. Only one decade ago, however, dinosaur paleontologists knew little about where T. rex fit into the dinosaur family tree and how T. rex actually functioned as a living, breathing species. At that time only five tyrannosaurs were well known to scientists: T. rex and four close relatives, all of which were apex predators from the terminal Cretaceous. Times have changed for the better. Today, about 20 different tyrannosaur species are known, which span from lightly-built, dog-sized species that lived during the Middle Jurassic to the 13-meter-long, 5-ton T. rex itself. We also have a rich understanding of the biology of tyrannosaurs: how they ate, moved, grew, and interacted with other species in their environments. In a recent review article in Science, several colleagues and me summarized the current understanding of tyrannosaur evolution and biology. Aside from the review, this paper also presents a novel, comprehensive, up-to-date family tree of the tyrannosaur group, which is based upon a rich new dataset that includes many newly discovered species.
Check out an online video interview with me about this research at the Science website and a podcast interview at Earth & Sky Radio. This work was also profiled in some online news features at National Geographic and Live Science
: Despite centuries of exploration, scientists unfortunately know very little about the predatory dinosaurs that lived in Europe during the Late Cretaceous, the same time that giants such as T. rex were terrorizing North America. During this time, one of the warmest in earth history, high sea levels flooded Europe and reduced the continent to a series of small, disconnected islands. Fossils of dinosaurs that lived on one of these islands are today found in abundance in Romania, and offer clear evidence that these Mesozoic island faunas were in no way typical. Herbivorous dinosaurs such as sauropods and hadrosaurids were dwarfed compared to their closest relatives, and were remarkably more primitive than mainland contemporaries. But what about the predators? A remarkable new fossil from the Maastrichtian of Romania provides, for the first time, a glimpse at Europe's Late Cretaceous carnivores. Discovered in 2009 by Matyas Vremir, the new specimen is the most complete predatory dinosaur from the final 60 million years of the Age of Dinosaurs in Europe. In a new publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this specimen is described as the holotype of a new genus and species of aberrant dromaeosaurid, Balaur bondoc. In many ways Balaur is similar to its closest relative, the fabled "raptor" Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame. Both were about the same size, both were sleek predators, and both had an arsenal of weapons ideal for taking down prey. However, even a cursory glance reveals just how strange this new dinosaur is. It has approximately 20 unique skeletal features, most notably a double set of hyperextensible "killer claws" on the foot (other dromaeosaurids have one such claw), a stocky and fused hindlimb, enormous hip muscles, and an atrophied and fused hand. Balaur truly is a new breed of dinosaurian predator, very different from anything we have seen before. And why is Balaur so strange? We hypothesize that its aberrant anatomy is due to its island habitat. Islands, both modern and ancient, are notorious for supporting strange species, which are often dwarfed or more primitive than their closest mainland relatives (such as the aforementioned herbivorous dinosaurs). Balaur is no smaller or more primitive than contemporary dromaeosaurids living on the Asian or North American mainland, but its anatomy is truly bizarre. This discovery, therefore, illustrates that Europe's Late Cretaceous island theropods were susceptible to the "island effect," and together with the dwarfed herbivores helped comprise one of the most unusual Mesozoic terrestrial faunas on record.
The new discovery was published on the cover of the August 31, 2010 issue of PNAS (Csiki, Vremir, Brusatte, and Norell). See a video of me discussing the new dinosaur at the NPR website. The story was covered by the New York Times, the Associated Press, BBC News, the Telegraph, the Guardian, Discovery News, Discover online, Scientific American, and Live Science, among other sources. Also see a nice life reconstruction from Francisco Gasco.