Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why I, a dinosaur paleontologist, am excited about Jurassic World

Let me first get something out of the way. I know many of my colleagues will disagree with me on this post. That is perfectly fine. This seems to be a major point of contention among most of my paleo-colleagues. But I’m here to take the side that is not the norm among us paleontologists. The “holy shit I’m excited about this movie because it is a freaking dinosaur movie” side. Here’s why.

Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park
First of all, think about every single dinosaur movie that has ever come out. Jurassic Park (1, 2, and 3), Land Before Time, Disney’s Dinosaur, and Walking with Dinosaurs just to name a few. None of them have had much in the way of scientific accuracy in their time. Here are a few examples:

Land Before Time: 1) Those dinosaurs didn’t live together at the same time. 2) All of the names of the dinosaurs like “long-neck”. 3) Why the hell did Cera, a "three-horn", not have three horns, but other babies younger than her in other chapters did?
Cera from Land Before Time
Jurassic Park: 1) ALL OF THE DINOSAURS ARE WAY TOO F-ING BIG. Note Brachiosaurus’ head in the tree scene. 2) Dilophosaurus spitting venom. 3) The whole frog DNA thing (WTF?). 4) Velociraptor being too big with the wrong wrists (Note: they INTENDED to make Velociraptor much bigger than is scintifically accurate. They just got lucky because Utahraptor was found after they had already decided to increase the size. 5) Tyrannosaurus not being able to see if you don’t move. 6) Pretty much most other things about the dinosaurs in that movie besides anatomical posture.

Disney’s Dinosaur: 1) Many of the dinosaurs did not live together. 2) They talked/had lips.
Iguanodon in Disney's Dinosaur with lips.

Walking with Dinosaurs: They talked. (I thought this was great, but many, many of my colleagues disagreed.)

People say that a good thing about the original Jurassic Park was that it presented the latest science of how the animals would have looked to the public. But honestly, that is not true at all.

Think about it. There were only SEVEN dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park. Seven. And five of them barely got even four minutes of screen time altogether! That leaves TWO DINOSAURS. Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. Two horrifying theropod dinosaurs, one of which (Velociraptor) had so many things wrong with it in the first place (on purpose) that it had hardly any scientific value. It’s a monster movie with very few other random dinosaurs trickled in. That’s all.

These movies were never meant to be ENTIRELY scientifically accurate. Not even in the beginning. We tend to sensationalize the original Jurassic Park so much that we forget how horrible it was scientifically even for its time. Also, people tend to rag on the second and third Jurassic Parks. I personally loved the second one because of its diversity. Not to mention Triceratops was a badass terrorizing an entire campsite in it, whereas it was sick and pathetic in the first movie. I even kind of liked the story in the second one (aside from the whole T. rex taking over San Diego thing…), but I digress…
Triceratops in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World tearing shit up like a badass.
This brings me to the whole issue with the raptors not having feathers in the new Jurassic World movie. People have been all up in arms about the non-inclusion of a feathered body. My opinion still stands. They didn’t have feathers in the original and any kind of line that would allow them to put feathers on dinosaurs would be cheap at best. It is not the way Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were made. It is not what people are expecting. When you see other monster movies, do you want them to change the way the monsters look in sequels? No. Keep in mind most of the people watching this movie already have a set image of what they want the dinosaurs to look like. Hollywood always takes public’s expectations into account. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it works. Yes, it is unfortunate that we are showing less than accurate dinosaurs to the public, but it’s our job to teach them otherwise, just as it has always been ever since the first movie
Velociraptor in Jurassic Park 3
Also, as another point, we have no idea about feather type in Utahraptor. We’ve never seen them preserved. “Has feathers” is not science. We don’t know what the feathers looked like, plain and simple. It is not scientific accuracy if we cannot portray feathers with accuracy, be it size, shape, type, or color. Therefore we would STILL have arguments about it and people would complain and yadda yadda. Also, I’m not going to go into the whole genetically-engineered new dinosaur issue. That was their own call for the plot. Not that I agree with it because dinosaurs are way cool and horrifying how they were in the first place--but hey, Hollywood. I’ll let it go.

I grew up around theater kids and movie buffs (who, by the way, mostly agree that Jurassic Park was one of the greatest movies of all time). Continuity is a big thing to them and THAT is what most people always argue about in movie plots. Not the way a frog-engineered dinosaur looks on screen. When Gravity came out, astronomers laughed at a bunch of the science, but in the end, it still gave them great amount of publicity, they didn’t make that huge of a fuss over it. It’s a sci fi movie. Laugh it off and move on. As scientists, we always feel like it is somehow our job to be upset about how our precious baby of a science is portrayed on the big screen. We look for any excuse we can to hate it. If it is not scientific accuracy, it is talking dinosaurs, or whatever else. We feel like we need to pretend to hate the idea of another monster dinosaur movie when in fact it is A FREAKING DINOSAUR MOVIE AND PEOPLE WILL LOVE DINOSAURS AGAIN. And the fact of the matter is you are STILL going to go watch it and you are STILL going to enjoy every minute of it, even if all you talk about is your disdain for it. Because it is a dinosaur movie. Museums will have much better attendance when this movie comes out. I guarantee it. And when people go to museums, it is our job to tell them what dinosaurs were really like. It is our job to show them the real fossils. 

To refer to the audience as a “dumbed-down public” because of how they see dinosaurs in movies is incredibly unfair. The more we refer to them as “dumb”, the more they will revolt and want more kaiju-sized monsters instead of real dinosaurs. They are not “dumbed-down”. In fact, it makes them ask questions about it. And WE are the people they ask! That’s the beauty of it! What better way to get the general public to ask us more questions and get interested in dinosaurs! People haven't really said anything bad about how the dinosaurs and mosasaurs are way too huge in the trailer. Or the fact that Gallimimus looks nothing like it did in the original Jurassic Park. Or the fact that Apatosaurus is probably holding its neck wrong. All people really care about is the lack of feathers. Jurassic Park is not a documentary. We need to stop thinking of it as one. There's way too much negativity, I feel, about something that is ultimately really good for a field, no matter how much it strays away from the science. 
Mosasaur from Jurassic World trailer. Holy shit, its huge.
So. Since everyone is always so upset about anything in any dinosaur movie ever, I propose we all work together to create the best plot for a dinosaur movie and pitch it. Something completely new and different to Jurassic Park. If we think we can do better and constantly complain about how dinosaur movies COULD be better, then let’s take matters into our own hands and pitch an idea as paleontologists. We will never be satisfied unless we communicate it the right way proactively, especially when we judge a movie from just one trailer.

Until then, let me bask in my excitement for trained Velociraptors and motorcycles and watch the damn movie in peace when it comes out.

Velociraptors and motorcycles. And Chris Pratt. On the motorcycle.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What is YOUR favorite dinosaur or other prehistoric animal?? A study of the general public’s (as well as the expert’s) ideas of the ideal extinct creature

I’ve loved dinosaurs ever since I can remember. I was three years old when I happened upon my first dinosaur museum experience in Toronto and it had me hooked ever since. (Note: this was BEFORE Jurassic Park ever came out. Yeah, I feel old.) At the gift shop, my parents bought me a little red cup with a picture of a Triceratops on it…

            … And that was it. From then on, I was destined to name Triceratops as my all time favorite dinosaur throughout my childhood and, to this day, it has stood the test of time. I didn’t care that it was an herbivore. In fact, I preferred it over any carnivore (all of those carnivores, like T. rex and Velociraptor, looked the same to me anyway...). I mean, come on. Triceratops had the best kind of weaponry there is on any animal ever!
Okay, that might be a bit much, but it still looked WAY cool. Three sharp horns, two of which were over three or four feet long! And the frill with all the extra smaller horns made it look even cooler. EVERY time I went to a museum with a Triceratops skeleton, I had to take my picture with it, no matter what. It was absolutely essential. And now, guess what. After all these years, my dissertation research is on jaw mechanics in plant-eating dinosaurs. Better still, Triceratops is part of it! (Albeit, it is one of many, many genera I’m looking at, but still.)

Pentaceratops (a relative of Triceratops) and me.
            Now, a big part of why I have liked dinosaurs is that I loved to draw them all the time. I have now been learning a lot about scientific illustration in grad school to help me out with creating publishable illustrations. One day, I thought to myself that it would be a lot of fun to draw my friends as their favorite dinosaurs or other prehistoric animal. So I (stupidly) posed this question on a couple Facebook statuses:

“What is your favorite DINOSAUR / PREHISTORIC ANIMAL?”

I got many responses. Way more responses than I expected and I said, “Well, damn. I can’t draw all of these, now, can I?” And that’s when it hit me. I could analyze the responses and see, both in the general public and in the expert world of paleontology/zoology/physical anthropology, who (and how many) finds what prehistoric animal the most interesting and, dare I say, AWESOME? What is each person’s ideal prehistoric animal?

I got answers from around 146 people. What I didn’t realize when I went into this was just how interesting the answers would be. Before I get into that, though, let’s look at the rankings of all of the answers that were given that made it past one vote:

Okay. I promise I didn’t make this up. Triceratops beat out everything else. In fact, it beat out Tyrannosaurus by 6 votes. That was the first shock to me. But it makes the case that herbivores are, by far, way cooler and more diverse than carnivores. (YES!) Granted, this is not nearly a statistically robust graph by any means. I would need a LOT more answers to get anywhere near that, but I figured this was a good start. The graph above shows all answers that got more than one vote. (I counted half-votes for people who gave me two answers because they couldn’t make up their minds.)

Check this out, though. Elasmosaurus (a plesiosaur) is in sixth place. After that, Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat. “Pterodactyl” and Wooly Mammoth are not too far off either. Why? Because they are the most publicly known non-dinosaurian prehistoric animals out there. If I ask someone who is not a paleontologist what their favorite non-dinosaurian prehistoric animal was, 90% of the time it would probably by one of those. I couldn't do that, though, because sometimes when I’d ask the question “What is your favorite dinosaur?”, some people would respond with “pterodactyl” or “plesiosaur”. Both things that are NOT dinosaurs. So I had to broaden the question I asked a little bit to all of prehistoric life to avoid that for now.

In any case, we have Triceratops first, then Apatosaurus, then Velociraptor as our top three answers. I had to take this a step farther, though. While getting responses, I got a lot of answers that were not QUITE the actual name of the animals. For instance, for Apatosaurus, I counted “Brontosaurus”, sauropod, and “Long neck” in the same category. Also, any time someone asked a descriptive question (i.e., “What’s that one that’s really big with a really long neck?”), I put that under Apatosaurus as well. Here are those answers parsed out in a small graph:

Funny, isn’t it? Most of the people that said Apatosaurus was their favorite dinosaur didn’t even know it’s actual name. Some knew “Brontosaurus” from childhood stories and movies, but that name has actually been invalid since the early 1900s. Some knew the term “long-neck” from the classic cartoon movie “The Land Before Time”, but that is all they based any knowledge of paleontology off of.
Little Foot, a "long-neck" from "The Land Before Time"

Well, that and “Jurassic Park”, which brings me to Velociraptor.

Now, I grouped Velociraptor, Deinonychus, and “raptor” in the same category too because, let’s face it, any non-paleontologist who says Velociraptor is thinking of “Jurassic Park’s” portrayal of Velociraptor, which is actually a Utahraptor or Deinonychus with a cooler name (Velociraptor is actually quite a lot smaller than that seen "Jurassic Park").  
"Velociraptor" from "Jurassic Park"
Most people said Velociraptor, but quite a few non-paleontologists said Deinonychus as well, which I was pleased about. The term “raptor” snuck in there by some people, which irks me a bit, but I’ll get over it since that is, again, what much of the media and the movies call them.

Thankfully, most people who picked Triceratops actually said the real name, except for one person, who said “three-horn” like in ‘The Land Before Time”. 

Ducky, a "swimmer" from "The Land Before Time"

A few people said “Ducky” like in “The Land Before Time” rather than Parasaurolophus or Saurolophus because, unfortunately, not a lot of people actually know what a hadrosaur is called outside of paleontology enthusiasts.

Six people said “Saber Toothed Tiger”, while only one person actually said “Smilodon” (its actual genus name). This was not surprising at all, but again, it’s a sign of how prehistoric animals are being portrayed to the general public.

More people said "plesiosaur" instead of Elasmosaurus, too.

Also, here's the breakdown of "T. rex" vs. "Tyrannosaurus", just for kicks. T. rex won by a landslide, probably because its easier to say. Everyone knows T. rex.

Tyrannosaurus from "Jurassic Park"
I’m happy to see Archaeopteryx (early avian ancestor), Stegosaurus, and Ankylosaurus make this list, though. It shows that many people know at least a bit more diversity of dinosaurs outside of the norm, although I wish the numbers were larger. What it all comes down to, though, is what prehistoric animal they thought was the coolest looking. It didn’t matter to them that they didn’t know what its name was, as many did not. They just knew it looked cool at some point in their lives when they saw it.

I guess what I’m trying to emphasize is that we need a much larger push to get paleontology out there more in the general public. We need to teach every one of ALL ages that paleontology is real and it is important. Movies are fantastic ways to get the public more interested in paleontology, and more movies have been and are coming out, but we need to take it a step farther. Let’s start teaching more about them in schools, in documentaries outside of mere fanciful animated dinosaurs running around with brief commentary, in books, in the news, anything you can think of. Paleontologists and evolutionary biologists need to make their research known in the media to a much greater extent. This will gain more public interest and, ultimately and hopefully, improve upon how much scientific interest is received in the general public. Hopefully we can get that ball rolling soon and I look forward to being a part of it.

~ Ali

P.S. ~ Here are all of the genera which only had 1 (or one half) vote. Oh, and a good majority of these are from paleontologists/paleoanthropologists. :) Some of these are way cool. Look them up if you haven't heard of them!

Homo ergaster
Homo floresiensis

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Some Drawings of Ornithischian Heads

Here are some dinosaur heads I drew. Mostly in graphite and colorized in Photoshop. Each is made a little differently and they need some work done on them, but they're good enough for the dissertation for now. I need to turn this thing in! Ha.







~ Ali

Monday, January 6, 2014

Stegosaurs, Ankylosaurs, and Kin: A Look at the Crazy, Crazy Jaws of Armored Dinosaurs

Hello again!

I've finally decided to post some more illustrations I'm doing for my dissertation...

These are illustrations I've done for my chapter on the jaws of Thyreophora (stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, and kin). It's one of my descriptive chapters which I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what should go where and what is important to illustrate that would need more than just words alone.

Thyreophorans, or the "armored dinosaurs", are known to be some of the most bizarre dinosaurs to have ever existed. Why? Because not only do they have bones on the inside, but they've got bones on the outside, too. It is what is known as dermal bone, meaning bone that develops in the skin. Now, there are a lot of vertebrates living today with dermal bone which serve the purpose of (among others) a shielding protection against predators (i.e., turtles, armadillos, and loads more). Thyreophoran dinosaurs take this to the extreme and are covered with plates and scutes, some to the point of making them look like enormous tanks that could kick any predator's--well, you know.

This post will just show illustrations I've made for the chapter. In a future post, I will talk more about how these critters used their jaws:

Basal Thyreophorans

So the most basal (earliest forms) of thyreophorans consisted of things like Lesothosaurus (although, maybe not anymore?), Scelidosaurus, Scutellosaurus, and Emausaurus. I've only done illustrations for Lesothosaurus and Scelidosaurus, though, because that was all I was really able to observe for this study.

This is Lesothosaurus, one of the first thyreophorans to have existed. It's a tiny little guy that walked on two legs and a pretty long, skinny snout. I've decided to do side views of skulls in micron pen to show, with line-work, the different morphologies on the skull.

 Lesothosaurus had your standard leaf-shaped teeth with little, tiny sharp projections coming out the top edge of them (on left below). These teeth are ideal for cropping plant material, especially for such a small dinosaurs going after tougher plants. They also had teeth at the front of the upper jaw (premaxillary teeth; on right below) that were good for puncturing plants when first nipping them, like our incisors. I've done these and many other illustrations of different elements in graphite pencil which I then put into Photoshop and played with contrast and textures.

There is a bone at the front of the jaw (which you've all probably heard me boast about at some point or another) which is unique to all of the dinosaurs I am studying (within the group Ornithischia, which Thyreophora is a part of). It is a little bone at the middle of the front of end of the lower jaw that might have been used for mobility at this junction. I'll get to that in another post, though. For now here are some views of the predentary in Lesothosaurus (overhead view on left; side view on right):

 And here's an underside view looking at the predentary-dentary bone articulations (based on Sereno, 1991):

I've also included a view drawings of Scelidosaurus material as well. Scelidosaurus is a little more derived than Lesothosaurus and has a lot more dermal bone, or armor, that surrounded its body. On the left below is the jaw joint articulation (quadrate bone of skull nested within jaw joint). On the right is a side view of the back of its lower jaw, showing the coronoid eminence and retroarticular process morphologies.

Aaaaaaand just for kicks, here is a Scelidosaurus tooth! More spade shaped and bulbous.


The next group I talk about is stegosaurs. Everyone knows stegosaurs, right? It means "roof lizard" and is named so because of its insane-looking huge plates sticking out of its back (and huge spikes on its tail). These were enormous creatures that walked on all fours and had incredibly tiny heads for such a big body. Below is an ink illustration of a Stegosaurus skull:

The teeth in stegosaurs are also more-or-less leaf shaped. They have ridges on the sides and little more subtle bumps along the top edge (seen below on left). Premaxillary teeth (shown below on the right) are only seen in Huayangosaurus, the basal-most known stegosaur. More derived stegosaurs, however, have evolutionarily lost premaxillary teeth.

The predentary of Stegosaurus is also shown below (side view on top left; overhead view on bottom left) and the predentary-dentary articulation at the front of the jaw (view from below on right):

I've also depicted the jaw joint from behind. You can see that it is bicondylar (two spheres) like in Scelidosaurus above and rests in a cupped surface in the mandible.


Lastly, the beloved ankylosaurs, or "fused lizard". (By the way, don't take anything away from the term "lizard" when I say it in a name meaning. Dinosaurs aren't lizards. It's just etymology. Ha!)

Ankylosaurs are the huge tanks of armor. They have so much plating and scutes on their backs that no predator could have done anything to it from above. All it would have to do is hunker down and and Ankylosaurus could be chomping on a little bush as Tyrannosaurus kept trying to peck at it (given it was stupid enough to do so, which I don't think so... Maybe?) Some (not all) of them also had club tails that they used for EXTRA protection. Below is an ink drawing of the skull of Euoplocephalus (without the predentary):

Okay... I just have to point out that these guys have THE most bizarre jaws I have ever seen. Their tooth rows are insanely curved. But again, I'll get to that in a later post. For now, here are images of the teeth. On the left is an example of one of the dentary teeth that run along the jaw line. They look very similar to stegosaur teeth, except their little projections on the top, or denticles, are a lot sharper and more specialized for slicing and dicing. On the right is an example of a premaxillary tooth, which is only seen in some of the basal-most ankylosaurs, but not most of them (both teeth are illustrated from Silvisaurus):


The predentary bone in ankylosaurs is really weird too, because really all it is is a single bar that runs along the front of the jaw and hardly connects well with the rest of the jaw at all.


(Overhead view of Euoplocephalus predentary)


(View from behind Euoplocephalus predentary showing flat articular surface that would press up against the two dentaries)

(View from beneath front of Pinacosaurus jaw showing predentary articulation with dentaries [note: this predentary is more arched than in Euoplocephalus)

Finally, below I've illustrated the jaw joint of ankylosaurs (in this case Edmontonia) from behind. The quadrate (of the skull) is very wide at the bottom and rests in a very open basined jaw joint surface of the mandible which is also very curved.

Anyway, there it is! Again, in another post in the future I'll talk more about the jaw mechanisms these guys were using, but for now I just wanted to get these illustrations out there. Feedback would be great! 

Thanks for stopping by!