Posts Tagged 'dinosaurs'

A Couple of Science “Quick Hits”

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

Just thought we’d share a couple of interesting science news bits that we’ve come across lately.

First up: TED, the Twitter Earthquake Detector.

Created by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), TED is a prototype system that tracks Twitter responses to earthquakes. According to the USGS, TED

…gathers real-time, earthquake-related messages from the social networking site Twitter and applies place, time, and key word filtering to gather geo-located accounts of shaking. This approach provides rapid first-impression narratives and, potentially, photos from people at the hazard’s location. The potential for earthquake detection in populated but sparsely seismicly-instrumented regions is also being investigated.

Pretty cool.

Closer to home, and sure to please all you dinosaur fans out there, is news from the Morrison Natural History Museum about the discovery of a set of tracks believed to have been left by juvenile sauropods — running.

The find was revealed at Monday’s 2010 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting and Exposition in Denver (read the abstract here). If this interpretation holds up, it most likely represents the first evidence that these massive, long-necked herbivores locomoted at anything other than a leisurely saunter. Plus, the lack of foreleg prints and tail marks indicates that young sauropods may have run on their hindlegs, holding their tails off the ground.

Some people are saying the sauropods may have run like this guy,

Basilisk lizard running

while others argue that the way sauropod legs are positioned under their bodies would make that style of running impossible. Further analysis of the paper and the tracks will tell us more.

Read about it here: Dinosaur footprints yield clues to running behavior and here: Did wee little sauropods stand up to run?

Dinosaur designs; or, What Color is Your Parasaurolophus?

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

I know I’m not alone in this, but dinosaurs may have been the beginning of my love affair with both science and museums.  Representations of the thunder lizards in question when I was a child usually ranged in muted shades of green and brown. (Granted, I was luckier than the generation of children that grew up under the notion that Tyrannosaurs were not only friendly and musical, but also purple.)  While science has been able to establish the skin textures of some dinosaurs based on a few fossil impressions, the skin colors have remained a mystery.   Recent discoveries shed new light on the subject as scientists have discovered a method of determining color on at least a few species of dinosaurs.

Sinosauropteryx fossil

Most fossils were once something hard – teeth, bones, shell, or another hard substance. Soft tissue doesn’t normally fossilize, although it will occasionally leave an imprint.  Fortunately, we know that some dinosaurs had feathers, similar to the birds today that descended from them, with their fossilized remains clearly showing the remains of tough, protein based plumage.  Usually, the fossilized feathers are the same color as the rest of the fossil, taking on the characteristics of the minerals in which they were fossilized.

Mike Benton, a paleontologist with the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, thought that if the feathers had been fossilized, the tiny structures inside the feathers probably had been, too.  Knowing that in modern birds pigments known as melanin are partially responsible for coloration, Benton thought that the same pigments might present clues to the coloration of feathered dinosaurs.  Melanin is stored inside tiny capsules, and each color or shade has a unique shape.  For example, black and dark brown shades come in long, sausage shaped capsules; where as reddish hues tend to be encapsulated inside balls, or spheres.

Benton chose to study Sinosauropteryx, due to its abundance of fossilized feathers, especially along the tail.  Although small, about the size of a turkey, Sinosauropteryx was no push over.  Benton describes the dinosaur as a carnivore, or meat-eater, “with sharp little teeth and grabby little hands,” who moved about quickly on two powerful hind limbs.  The feathers that ringed Sinosauropteryx’s tail were examined under a powerful microscope capable of looking at the internal structure.

Sure enough, the melanin capsules were present, shaped like the ones normally associated with the reddish-brown color affectionately known as ginger.  Those reddish bands of feathers may have alternated with stripes of white.  This idea is supported not by what was found, but what wasn’t.  The alternating colors are suggested by the absence of feathers in between the bands of red.  White feathers lack in the melanin capsules, making them much less structurally sound and therefore less likely to fossilize.

Fossilized Feather

This works continues research that has been conducted on fossilized bird feathers, including early avian species such as Confuciusornis, with melanin capsules that indicate a variety of colors including black, and an orange-brown shade.  Like Sinosauropteryx, the absence of patches of fossilized feathers indicates that Confuciusornis also had its share of white markings.  This method only works with species that have well preserved feathers, although it’s believed that fossilized scales may possess similar clues as to the nature of dinosaur coloration.

Researchers may be able to distinguish between browns, reds, and iridescent colors. Unfortunately, fossilized scales are very rare and none belonging to a species like T. Rex are known to exist.  That said, based on the range of colors that have been established so far, I feel pretty comfortable saying that purple is no longer in the running.

Sorry, Barney.

Science at home: Considering the “dino-chicken”

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Jack Horner, the paleontologist famous for providing the first clear evidence that some dinosaurs cared for their young, was recently interviewed on 60 Minutes about, among other things, creating a “dino-chicken.”

Horner, Curator of Paleontology at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies and a MacArthur fellow, is know for supporting the controversial theory that Tyrannosaurus rex was a scavenger, not a hunter. Horner’s current projects are also stirring up the paleontology community, with discoveries and suggestions that are incredible and, to some people, impossible. Watch the interview, or read the transcript, and learn about how to determine the sex of dinosaurs, the possible discovery of real (non-fossilized) blood vessels inside fossilized dinosaur bones, and Horner’s plans to reverse evolve a chicken into a “dino-chicken.”

P.S. How cool is the idea that you can identify a fossil from a rock by licking it? I’m totally remembering that one for later…

This artist's illustration shows what the skeleton of a so-called "dinochicken" might look like. By working to reverse engineer a chicken embryo to have some of the traits of its dinosaur ancestors, paleontologists are hoping to create a part-chicken, part-dinosaur creature in the lab. Image from Discovery News.

More dino news: Ancient bird ancestor found in China

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

A very interesting new dino discovery from China — a four-winged, chicken-sized dinosaur that’s the oldest bird-like dinosaur found to date. Dubbed Anchiornis huxleyi, this find pushes back the age of dinosaurs bearing flight feathers to 160 million years ago. The earlier date — 5 million years before Archaeopteryx, the oldest known bird — furthers weakens the argument that birds did not have enough time to evolve from dinosaurs. See the article in Scientific American for more.

The feathered dinosaur, Anchiornis huxleyi, sported four wings when alive some 155 million years ago (shown in this artist's reconstruction). Credit: Zhao Chuang/Xing Lida

The feathered dinosaur, Anchiornis huxleyi, sported four wings when alive some 155 million years ago (shown in this artist's reconstruction). Credit: Zhao Chuang/Xing Lida


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