Sunday, October 30, 2016


The Triassic was an experimental time for large tetrapods. The Permian–Triassic extinction event had eviscerated the prevailing communities of diverse therapsids (relatives of mammals), various early reptiles, and large temnospondyl amphibians (for more on them, Tetrapod Zoology has made them a cottage industry since 2007). Into that vacuum the survivors seem to have gone with the strategy of "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks". Some lineages stuck quite well. Early turtles and sphenodonts (tuatara) showed up during the Triassic, as well as forerunners of crocodilians and mammals. Lizards are probably in there too somewhere. Frogs may predate the Triassic, but the first good fossils are Triassic. Famously, the dinosaur line, which eventually produced birds, appeared in the Triassic as well. Long-lived but now extinct groups that got their start in the Triassic include the ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and our friends the choristoderes. There was also a veritable heap of briefly successful groups that for whatever reason went extinct by the close of the Triassic. Among them: aetosaurs (armored herbivores that look vaguely like ankylosaurs), drepanosaurs, nothosaurs and other plesiosaur cousins, placodonts, phytosaurs (crocodiles before there were crocodiles), rauisuchians (carnivores with theropod-like skulls), rhynchosaurs (big beaked herbivores), tanystropheids (necks plus neck delivery systems), thallatosaurs (lanky marine reptiles), and all kinds of other strange one-hit wonders.

Until the 1960s, dinosaurs seemed to have more or less just appeared in the Late Triassic, with theropods and prosauropods (in the sense of "all them sauropodomorphs what ain't sauropods")  recognized as present. What came before those theropods and prosauropods wasn't known, although there were a few guesses and extrapolations. One popular option of the time was that, technically speaking, there weren't really any basal dinosaurs because "dinosaurs" themselves were an artificial group "united" by some coincidental bits of anatomy related to being large land-living animals. This view is practically extinct, although I cannot say completely extinct. One of the great truths of humanity is that there is someone who will believe any proposition. One of the great truths of the Internet is that now you can find that person (or oftentimes, they will find you, if you are holding an opposing position). Other researchers drafted in various poorly known Triassic reptiles. The most enduring may have been Teratosaurus, which people who got into dinosaurs before the late 1980s will probably remember as a sort of megalosaur-like thing stalking the wilds of Late Triassic Europe. It was actually based on jaw material from a rauisuchian, with prosauropod skeletal remains misattributed to it. The misidentification of Teratosaurus, though illustrative, serves mostly as a lesson in the honesty of bonebeds. More recent work with Reveultosaurus, Shuvosaurus, and others shows that it can be darn hard to separate true early dinosaurs from the various wacky archosaurs of the Triassic if you've only got a few remains. The terrestrial Triassic still has more fools to make.

Of all the various bits and pieces put forward as early dinosaurs in the days before the 1960s, the only one that actually is both vaguely useful and does not easily slot into any of the known clades of true dinosaurs is Saltopus elginensis, described in 1910 by von Huene. It got to be in all the best dinosaur books as an archetype, overcoming the significant handicap of being a terrible specimen, which just goes to show that sometimes all you have to do to succeed is show up. The first useful basal dinosaurs to be described, Herrerasaurus and Ischisaurus, were described in 1963, followed by Staurikosaurus in 1970. They were followed by Lagosuchus, Lagerpeton, and Lewisuchus in 1971 and 1972, which were underappreciated at the time but eventually were shown to be dinosaurian cousins once we got that whole "unnatural Dinosauria" thing worked out of the collective scientific system. At the present, there are around 20 species of near-dinosaurs, from Dinosauromorpha to Dinosauria. This doesn't compete with, say, Titanosauria, but it's not bad for about 45 years of serious work. There's a little wiggle room built in depending on how charitable you feel toward Pseudolagosuchus, how you handle "Thecodontosaurus" alophos and borderline cases (e.g. Agnosphitys, Alwalkeria, Teyuwasu), and the occasional analysis that pulls Herrerasauridae or Eoraptor out of Saurischia. Some of them can be grouped as lagerpetids, diminutive bipeds, or as silesaurids, larger animals which could reach roughly the size and shape of Fred Flintstone's pet Dino. At least one of these, the namesake Silesaurus, was equipped with a little can-opener of bone at the tip of its lower jaw, perfect for being confused with the ornithischian predentary. A few others either don't slot comfortably into either group, or are poorly known (and I tend to the conservative when it comes to where I slot, which in this case mostly affects Lewisuchus/Pseudolagosuchus). The chart below lays them out with age and continent denoted. One thing to note is the abundance of species for South America and Africa, which not only suggests a Gondwanan origin but also provides a partial explanation for why these animals have only come to light in the past few decades: there haven't been a lot of paleontologists in those areas until recently.

Click for further enlightenment

Another important thing to keep in mind is to avoid the trap of turning extinction and evolution into a morality play. "Near-dinosaurs" were not merely a sideline, or waiting hopefully to eventually evolve into dinosaurs, or a bunch of saps that got pushed out of the way by their cousins. They were their own creatures, diversifing into several lineages and living alongside their more famous cousins for twenty or so million years, at least. We currently have named examples from four continental landmasses, and it would hardly be surprising to add a few more landmasses, five to ten million years, or additional lineages.

Dromomerom romeri, by Nobu Tamura (from For whatever reason I've always found this restoration charming.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Year One of The Compact Thescelosaurus (now with extra choristoderes)

Mid-October is the time of National Fossil Day, as well as just past the anniversary date of the late lamented Thescelosaurus! and the introduction of The Compact Thescelosaurus. In honor of the occasion, I've made a couple of additions. One is a new page with a selection of online museum collections databases. The other is a new worksheet on The Compact Thescelosaurus, featuring choristoderes. This sheet is the first of what I hope to be a series covering other fossil groups; choristoderes were selected for the honor this time around because there are only a few. I have a few candidates in mind for the next addition, perhaps a year from now; it depends on how ambitious I'm feeling. I haven't given up on the idea of making a version of the old website's contents available, but I haven't really decided how to do it.

So it's not really surprising that I came up with a post on subtle nuances of the nomenclature of Champsosaurus.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Platteville Formation revisited

For the person interested in fossils in the Twin Cities, the Decorah Shale is money in the bank. It's a cooking pot that never empties, a gas tank that's always full. If you have a patch of it, you cannot lose. The Platteville Formation is more like a lottery ticket. If you pick up a random piece, the chances are good it will have nothing, or maybe an imperfect brachiopod mold or two, or some "eyelashes" from shells in cross-section, or half of a burrow. Even when you do find a chunk that's loaded with fossils, usually it's 95% brachiopods and 5% snails, with a couple of crinoid columnals, bivalves, or bryozoans for variety. Every so often, though, you will come up with something unusual. It's true that the Decorah also rewards in-depth exploration, but the "floor" of discovery is so much higher in the Decorah that the feeling when you do find something out of the ordinary in the Platteville is much different. It's more of an accomplishment. The universe has rewarded your perseverance, has conspired with taphonomy, lithification, and erosion to put someone with the proper skills and inclination (i.e. you) in this place at this time to observe and appreciate this fossil. (I will refrain from pulling out the conulariid again.)

I've seen a few of these big snails; not sure about the genus yet.

In terms of preservation, the Decorah Shale is a strictly representational artist dedicated to faithful reproduction of the fossils, thanks to relatively mild conditions for fossilization and diagenesis (the stuff that happens during and after the formation of sedimentary rocks, like replacement of calcite with dolomite). Thanks to dolomitization, the Platteville Formation of the Twin Cities Basin is a sort of minimalist impressionist, retaining only some essential essence of a given fossil while losing most of the fine details. (It also has a thing for sparkles, what with all of the fine dolomite crystals.)

And then we've got blocks like these, doing a decent job of imitating the Decorah. I think I can place the source to a specific bed in the upper Mifflin, but it may be very localized.

On Saturday, I was the guest paleontologist for the Second Saturday fossil event at Coldwater Spring. (I'm the tall one with the facial hair.) After having spent a lot of time along the gorge, I think it is fair to say that Coldwater Spring is one of the best places in the Twin Cities to be in close contact with the Platteville Formation, if not the best. It is certainly the best place to take people of all ages and experience levels to see Platteville rocks and fossils. In most locations on the gorge, the Platteville is a brooding presence capping whitish bluffs of St. Peter Sandstone, inaccessible to all but the most reckless. At some places where a ravine joins the gorge, such as Shadow Falls, Minnehaha Falls, and a few locations on the Minneapolis side of the river, you can walk around parts of the Platteville, but you also are stuck on narrow paths where you've got the Platteville on at least one side, sometimes two (the other side is the one above your head), and the steep slope of the bluffs on the other. This can be chancy when you're on your own and is not feasible for groups of non-professionals, and even when you do go, you usually only get to see the lower part of the formation. By virtue of erosion and some human modification, Coldwater Spring allows you to appreciate the Platteville at close range on level ground. The gentle slope of the bike path trail means it's a short walk from the lower Platteville exposed at the south end of the park to the upper Platteville at the north end. This chance alignment also means you can get right next to the contact with the Glenwood at more or less level ground as well. October is also one of the best times to visit: the vegetation is dying back so you can see the rocks, the temperature and humidity are comfortable, mosquitoes and ticks are in retreat, and the ground is is not saturated with spring snowmelt.

The park is also great for these fossil walks because of the fossiliferous building stone and the presence of several areas with lots of small eroded blocks of the Platteville. I can bring families to the building stone used in the parking area and near the Spring House to give them an idea of what the fossils look like, and then the kids can rummage around in the loose stone. It's a great time: if your family is here, you're probably already the kind of kid who likes to rummage around in rocks; the Platteville is a reliable producer of shelly fossils, so everybody should get to see something; there's that paleontologist guy who can tell you what you've found, and if it's really interesting he'll call everybody over to see what it is; and there are also lots of interesting bugs and spiders and so forth if you're striking out on the fossil front, without anything too dangerous (one of the perks of exploring in Minnesota, although we do scare the bejeezus out of many innocent pillbugs). I get lots of questions, and nobody seems to mind that it's "catch and release" here (NPS property). I've been around the rock pile a few times, so I'm jaded. It takes more than a couple of brachiopod molds to get my interest. But if this is your first time to visit fossils in the field, to turn over a rock and maybe be the first person to ever see the brachs on that particular slab, you can't do much better.

First shells!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Fossil type specimens of the National Parks

I've just returned from the 2016 Geological Society of America annual meeting at Denver, wherein I gave a presentation on our recently updated inventory of paleontological resources in the Mojave Desert Inventory and Monitoring Network. Trying to stuff Death Valley National Park, Great Basin National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, and friends into a sub-15-minute box is an interesting experience. I could have done a semester-long class and still missed some things.

Why, it's a giant blue bear. You don't see that every day, unless of course you live in Denver. It lost its name tag, so they won't let it in.