Category Archives: Fossils

Berlin Natural History Museum

Last week I had the great fortune of a mini European road trip and being in Germany I took the opportunity of visiting the Berlin Museum Fur Naturkunde (Natural History Museum).  This particular museum has been on my bucket list for one big reason – Brachiosaurus.  She’s a beautiful beastie and like London’s Diplodocus (well until the recent announcement that they are replacing her with a Blue Whale), stands in the main entrance area of the museum.  It’s the first time I’ve seen a dinosaur this size and according to the information board she stands at 13.5m high, and is apparently the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world.

DSCN1523I love the fact that they’ve put the Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus and Dicraeosaurus next to each other so you get a feel for the size difference.  You also have a Kentrosaurus in the central dinosaur display.

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Now I’ve been using the name Brachiosaurus for this specimen, but I am aware that she differs from the American type specimen and is now referred to as Giraffatitan everywhere except the information board next to the skeleton itself.  I found that rather amusing…I guess the matter is not settled afterall.  Along with the Sauropod centre display there is also an Allosaurus, an Elaphrosurus (shown below) and a Dysalotosaurus.

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Along with the dinosaurs you also have a wide range of fantastic fossils from the Solnhofen limestone formation, including fish, crustaceans, insects and pterosaurs.

DSCN1525There is a particularly fine specimen of a Rhamphorhynchus.  I really like the the preservation of the wings.

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The other star specimen of the museum is of course the Archaeopteryx fossil.

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Sorry it’s not that good a photo, my camera was playing up at the time.

So what is there besides the dinosaurs?  The museum also houses a large mineral collection that is considerably bigger than my own collection of rocks, a room for taxidermed specimens, rooms explaining the geological history of earth as well as the solar system, and what was my favourite room after the dinosaurs – the wet samples room, containing animal specimens in jars.  A little morbid I know, but what did you expect I’m into dead things (and please no necrophilia jokes they’re dead boring…sorry…thus ends the family friendly session of my ramblings).

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OK back to serious things.  How does it compare to London’s Natural History Museum?  Well it’s a lot smaller.  The London museum will take the best part of a day to get around, whilst you can see everything in the Berlin one in a couple of hours.  For me I felt that this was a bit of a two-edged sword.  On the one hand I was a little disappointed and wanted to see more of what they had, yet on the plus side it ment that the museum wasn’t too crowded (I went on the Saturday of a school holiday, if that had been London I’d have had to queue for hours), yet in Berlin I just walked in.  Another bonus to it being smaller is that what they do have on display is the really good stuff.  Not that I’m saying that London doesn’t have good samples, it just means that you know in Berlin you’re getting the very best that they have to show you…like a 13.5m tall Brachiosaurs/Giraffatitan.  Lets have another picture of her.

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So is it worth going to?  Oh yes.  For a guy who’s been into dinosaurs since he was 3 most definitely, nowhere else in Europe will you see a Brachiosaurus/Giraffatitan.  If you’re ever in Berlin I’d make a point to spend a coupke of hours of your trip in the museum.

I’m going to finish with one last photo of the star attraction.

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A Study in Stegosaurus

It was announced the other day that the Natural History Museum in London has started to do the most detailed study of a Stegosaurus.  Info for this can be found at the BBC news website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30301895 and the Natural History Museum’s website http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2014/dec/come-and-meet-the-worlds-most-complete-stegosaurus133779.html.  It’s worth a look.  The museum has managed to get hold of the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton found and has used 3D scanning technology to study the creature.  So we’ve known about Stegosaurus for about 100 years, what new stuff can we found out?  Well for one thing the biggest mystery involves the dinosaur’s most distinguishing characteristic; the back plates.  What they were used for is still debated; sexual or territorial display, defence or body temperature regulation are the favourite ideas, but the jury is still out on these.  The second mystery with them is the alignment.  Were they in two parallel rows, with each plate next to each other or did they alternate.  There can also be other things that we just don’t expect, so I look forward to when they’ve completed the study and my next trip to London.

Stegosaurus in the Earth Hall

Images from the Natural History Museum and BBC News websites.

Deinocheirus – mystery solved

There has been a new announcement from the world of dinosaur palaeontology; after almost a decade of putting the pieces together we can finally reveal the shape of Deinocheirus.  For those not family with this creature, Deinocheirus mirificus was first discovered in 1965 (formally named in 1970 by Halszka Osmolska and Ewa Roniewic).  The original fossil was found in the Nemegt formation (70ma)  in Mongolia and was just a set of forelimbs as shown in the featured image above (taken from Wikipedia).  These arms are a considerable length (2.4m), hence the name Deinocheirus or “terrible hand”.  The rest of the dinosaur was unknown and it has at times been placed with the Dromaeosaurs or Therizinosaurs, before being tentatively group with the Ornithomimosaurs due to similarities in the arms & hands (Weishampel et al.).  This however was not a certainty as there were some differences  in the radius and the ulna, as well as a few other locations (Weishampel et al.).

Due to research done on two new finds from 2006 and 2009 a Korean team led by Yuong-Nam Lee has finially revealed a complete image of the creature.

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(Image form the journal Nature – published 22nd October 2014)

1413995319991_wps_10_Embargoed_to_1800_Wednesd(Image from the Daily Mail website – taken 24th October 2014)

D. mirificus has been confirmed as an Ornithomimosaur, the largest known one at 11m in length.  It does however include some interesting features;

“[It] has many unique skeletal features unknown in other ornithomimosaurs, indicating that Deinocheirus was a heavily built, non-cursorial animal with an elongate snout, a deep jaw, tall neural spines, a pygostyle, a U-shaped furcula, an expanded pelvis for strong muscle attachments, a relatively short hind limb and broad-tipped pedal unguals.”          – Yuong-Nam Lee et al. (Nature 22/10/14)

So overall not quite what people were expecting, but still in the general area.  As for D. mirificus lifestyle the presence of both fish remains and numerous gastroliths in the stomach region suggest a omnivorous diet in a semi-aquatic environment.  This is similar to other Ornithomimosaurs, with other species (such as Sinornithomimus) having gastroliths and fine-combed filter feeding strainers such as those found in Gallimimus (Weishampel et al.).  To be honest this doesn’t surprise me.  The connection between Deinocheirus and the other Ornithomimosaurs has been long suspected, as has their omnivorous diet.  The only that really surprised me was the hump on its back, the purpose of which is still a bit of a mystery.  Other dinosaurs have similar humps/sails made from elongated neural spines and there is still much debate over the exact nature of the feature.  The popular ideas being that it was used for either sexual/territorial display or for body temperature regulation.

On more thing I would like to add is be careful of the media and how they represent science.  I was first alerted to this announcement via Sky News which titled the article “Duckbilled Dinosaur Looked Like Jar Jar Binks” (Sky News Website & iPhone App 23/10/14).  I have problems with this.  First of all it’s much better looking and certainly more relevant to…well anything than Jar Jar Binks (oh come on we all like to pick on that Star Wars character).  Secondly – and for me most importantly – is that they misidentify it.  By calling it a duckbilled dinosaur they are implying that it is a Hadrosaur, commonly called duckbilled dinosaurs due to their beak being broad, flat and…well shaped like a duck’s bill.  This it most certainly not.  Take a quick look on Wikipedia for something like a Hadrosaurus or Edmontosaurus and you’ll quickly realise the difference.  In the article itself they also say it “is a relative of the ostrich belonging to the dinosaur branch often known as ostrich dinosaurs.”  Well that makes it a completely different Order of animal to the Hadrosaurs, but at least that line is half-correct.  D. mirificus is a member of the Ornithomimosaurs – often called the Bird/Ostrich mimics – with some of its members being called Ornithomimus (Bird Mimic), Struthiomimus (Ostrich Mimic) and Gallimimus (Chicken Mimic), due to their superficial resemblance to birds.  They are however not thought to be the ancestors of birds, more like distant cousins.  The exact connection between birds & dinosaurs is still up for debate but is thought to be closer to Maniraptora like the Troodonts, Dromaeosaurs or Alvarezsaurs rather than the Ornithomimosaurs.  Knowing evidently more about dinosauria systematics than the person who wrote the Sky News article I had to do a little digging as they didn’t even mention which Journal it had been published in.  This took me to the Daily Mail who had a much better write up of D. mirificus and then onto the actual Journal article in Nature.  Moral of the story; check the sources for yourself.

References: Sky News Website article Duckbilled Dinosaur Looked Like Jar Jar Binks – author unknown (accessed 24/10/14), the Dail Mail Website article The dinosaur that looked like a hump-backed ostrich: Enormous creature that roamed Earth 70 million years ago recreated in 3D by Jonathan O’Callaghan (accessed 24/10/14), Resolving the long-standing enigmas of a giant ornithomimosaur Deinocheirus mirificus (Yuong-Nam Lee et al. Nautre 22/10/14), The Dinosauria (David B. Weishampel et al. 2004), Wikipedia article on Deinocheirus (accessed 24/10/14).

New Tyrannosaur – Qianzhousaurus

In case you haven’t heard a new member of the Tyrannosaur family has been announced last week from southern China – Qianzhousaurus sinensis.  This new beastie is from the late Cretaceous (70-66Ma) and has led to a revision of the Tyrannosaur family group.  A Tyrannosaur family?  Yep.  Most people are only familiar with the large Tyrannosaurus rex, in fact if you asked the average person on the street to name a dinosaur then T. rex is likely to be the first (and sometimes only) one they can recall.  The reality is that the Tyrannosaurs form an entire family of predatory dinosaurs (theropods), some small, some large.

The reason that Qianzhousaurus sinensis has made a change is that previously there were 3 main divisions in the Tyrannosaurs – early Tyrannosaurs found in both Europe & China (including Aviatyrannis jurassica from late Jurassic Portugal, the UK’s Eotyrannus lengi and China’s Dilong paradoxus).  These are characterised by their small size (often less than 1.5m in length), less powerful jaws and the presence of more than two figures seen in the later Tyrannosaurs.  Other features; in particular the shape & structure of the hip confirm that such small creatures are Tyrannosaurs and may represent the ancestors of the more familiar giants.  The second division is the Albertosaurinae which includes the species Albertosaurus sarcophagus and Gorgosaurus libratus.  Though larger (7-8m in length) these Tyrannosaurs are slender & graceful and are found in the western USA and Canada.  The age of the rock seems to suggest that A. sarcophagus and T. rex co-existed.  The final group is the Tyrannosaurinae and includes the largest members; T. rex, Tarbosaurus bataar, Daspletosaurus torosus and the much smaller Nanotyrannus lancensis.  These Tyrannosaurs have the familiar two-fingered hand and large skull with the powerful, bone crushing jaws.

So where does the new  Q. sinensis fit in?  Well there are a few Tyrannosaurs of uncertain lineage; Alectrosaurus olseni and Alioramus remotus.  Both are from Mongolia and although their features point to them being Tyrannosurs, they showed some different skull characteristics.  To illustrate my point take a look at the images below.

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This skull is of the T. rex.  It has the familiar big, bulky shape that so many people think of.  Now compare this to the skull of A. remotus.

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A. remotus’ is much thinner and longer, and has a characteristic set of bumps on the top of the skull.  This was only to be found in A. remotus, but no other Tyrannosaur.  Well have a look at the skull of Q. sinensis.

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The skull is long, thin and has nose bumps similar to A. remotus.  This suggests that the two creatures are more closely related to each other than to other Tyrannosaurs.  Thus there is another branch in the Tyrannosaur family tree – one of longer snouted predators.  This is cool, and if you’re into dinosaurs as much as I am is really exciting (what did you expect, I’m running a blog called geogeek).

If you want to know more, the Wikipedia entries of Tyrannosaurs aren’t too bad.  If you want a more serious publication then I can highly recommend The Dinosauria (2nd edition) edited by David B. Weishampel, Peter Dodson and Halszka Osmolska (2004).  I know it’s a few years old, and could do with a third editon to include some of the more recent discoveries, but it is a very comprehensive tome and is a must for the more grown up dinosaur lover.  And of course all recent discoveries are published in the relevant peer reviewed journals.

Just to clarify, the images of the Tyrannosaurus and Alioramus skulls came from Wikipedia, whilst the the images of Qianzhousaurus came from sci-news.com.  The extra information in the text came from above mentioned The Dinosauria.