Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019 in Review

It was a fairly quiet year here at Equatorial Minnesota. Although I don't particularly trust the statistics because of the miracle of referrer spam, none of this year's entries were unusually popular or unpopular. The local topics continued to dwindle, something I plan to look at.

Not enough of these lately.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 19: Muyelensaurus, Narambuenatitan, and Nemegtosaurus

Since the previous titanosaur post, two more genera and species have been added: Nullotitan glaciaris (Novas et al. 2019) and Yamanasaurus lojaensis (Apesteguía et al. 2019). Nullosaurus is currently in line for the February "YFTT", but there will probably be another six or seven titanosaurs by the time I get around to Yamanasaurus. In the meantime, we have a definite rarity: three titanosaurs with skull material.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

St. Croix Cambrian trace fossils

Here's something simple: photos of Cambrian trace fossils in the St. Croix Valley. If you would like a refresher on the rocks in question, may I suggest this post? We've already seen some photos of Skolithos burrows in the Mazomanie, a sandstone unit. The finer-grained rocks have other kinds of trace fossils, which makes sense because they represent different environments than the Mazomanie. At the same places in Osceola where Skolithos are found in abundance in the Mazomanie, much different burrows are locally abundant in the overlying St. Lawrence Formation. In the upper part of this formation, where the beds are sandy and can be hard to tell from the Jordan Sandstone (Sardeson 1932), the burrows are much thicker and horizontal.

There are a few in these pieces of float, including just below the scale bar and in the block above and to the left of the central block. The squares in the bar are 1 cm, so the burrows are a bit larger, on the order of finger-sized.

Returning to the same area nearly two and a half years later, I came across these remnants of a disintegrated block. If you expand the photo, you'll see that the largest chunks are those with burrows.

Comparable burrows can be found lower in the formation, in more typical-looking gray-green blocks. I wasn't seeing body fossils, which are reputed to be there, but there were certainly plenty of trace fossils.

This is more like what the St. Lawrence is supposed to look like, and there's another horizontal burrow, a bit smaller than those in the photos above but pretty similar.

One of the finer-grained units intertonguing with the Mazomanie is the Tomah Member of the Lone Rock Formation, another part of the ex-Franconia Formation. The Tomah is the finest-grained part of the Lone Rock Formation and has a tendency to erode into angular chips, blocks, and chunks, usually hand-sized or smaller, often in pastel greens and oranges. Some of the beds are heavily marked by various kinds of trace fossils.

Several different sizes are apparent here.

This one's unusual for having eroded out as a substantial piece.

This chip has traces close to 1 mm in diameter near the top and a thicker trace several mm across near the center, with a "lobed" appearance that may be due to erosion.

The large straight burrow on this piece has a lumpy surface somewhat reminiscent of "corn cob" Ophiomorpha, but not as coarse.

A slice of pizza covered with grains of rice?

I could go on ad nauseum with trace fossil photos from the Tomah (you may already be there), so just one more for the road. As far as I know, nobody has published a detailed analysis of the trace fossils in the Tomah or St. Lawrence, although I can't rule out there being some dissertation or other piece of grey literature I haven't run across. There's certainly quite a lot of these fossils there, though!

This one is dominated by burrows a couple of mm in diameter. Note the long slender trace in the upper center


Sardeson, F. W. 1932. Fauna of the Jordan Sandstone. Pan-American Geologist 58(2):103–106.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Mimodactylus libanensis

If you're just in this for the dinosaurs, you may have gotten the impression that there aren't any Mesozoic fossils between, say, Egypt and Pakistan. This is not true; the Middle East just happens to specialize in marine Mesozoic rocks and fossils, so dinosaurs are not well represented. (Of course, these include the inevitable titanosaurs.) They're there, although as bits and pieces so far; eventually someone will name one. Pterosaurs are somewhat better known; before 2019 there was the azhdarchid Arambourgiana philadelphiae from Jordan and the much smaller azhdarchoid Microtuban altivolans from Lebanon. Now, Mimodactylus libanensis makes a third named pterosaur from this region, and is by far the best represented.

The type specimen of Mimodactylus libanensis (Figure 2 in Kellner et al. 2019, which see for full caption). The scale bar for a is 50 mm (2.0 in), and 10 mm (0.39 in) for the three insets. CC-BY-4.0.

Genus and species: Mimodactylus libanensis. The "Mim-" part is a reference to the Mineral Museum (MIM) of Beirut, Lebanon, where the type specimen is housed, and the ptraditional pterosaur "dactylus" comes from the Greek "dactylos", usually given as "finger" where pterosaurs are concerned. The species name refers to Lebanon (Kellner et al. 2019). Together, we get something like "Mineral Museum finger of Lebanon".
Citation: Kellner, A. W. A., M. W. Caldwell, B. Holgado, F. M. Dalla Vecchia, R. Nohra, J. M. Sayão, and P. J. Currie. 2019. First complete pterosaur from the Afro-Arabian continent: insight into pterodactyloid diversity. Scientific Reports 9:17875. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-54042-z.
Stratigraphy and geography: The type and only known specimen is from the Hjoûla Lagerstätte of the Sannine Limestone, of late Cenomanian age (early Late Cretaceous). It was found near Hjoûla in the northern part of Mount Lebanon Governorate, west and a little north of central Lebanon (Kellner et al. 2019). You may already know that Arabia has only recently split away from the African continent, geologically speaking. Back in the mid-Cretaceous, the two landmasses were still firmly connected and moving north, shrinking the Tethys Sea. Lebanon and other nearby areas were shallow marine settings on the leading edge of the tectonic action.
Holotype: MIM F1, a mostly complete and articulated to semi-articulated skeleton (Kellner et al. 2019). The skeletal restoration shows a few parts to be absent, such as the ilium and the top of the head, but I would not be surprised if at least some of these parts are actually present in the block but inaccessible.

The type specimen of Mimodactylus libanensis was a little fellow; Kellner et al. (2019) estimated its wingspan at approximately 1.32 m (4.33 ft). If that's a little abstract for you, the lower jaws are 102 mm long (4.02 in), and the humerus is 52 mm long (2.0 in). Kellner et al. (2019) interpreted it as a young individual, because many of the bones that fuse in adult pterosaurs were still unfused; for instance, no notarium (fusion of several dorsal vertebrae to brace the shoulders). Despite its youth, it is clearly not an example of either of the previously known pterosaurs from Lebanon, contemporaneous Microtuban and an unnamed ornithocheiroid. Rather, it was more closely related to one of the lesser-known groups of mid-Cretaceous pterosaurs, the istiodactylids (Kellner et al. 2019).

The istiodactylids are noted for having a small number of short pointed teeth, crowded toward the anterior end of relatively blunt and broad jaws ("relatively" meaning it doesn't come to a point, more or less). The breadth of the business end of the skull is sometimes compared to a duck's bill, but that's an exaggeration. Istiodactylus itself has one of those quaint, frustrating histories involving an early specialist (Harry Govier Seeley) inexplicably assigning a specimen to a genus known from completely non-overlapping material: in this case, a partial skull of a pterosaur placed in Ornithodesmus, otherwise represented solely by the hip vertebrae of what turned out to a dromaeosaur. Kellner et al. (2019) found M. libanensis to be near but just outside of Istiodactylidae proper, paired with the Chinese pterosaur Haopterus gracilis. They created Istiodactyliforms for M. libanensis and the istiodactylids, and Mimodactylidae for M. libanensis's branch.

M. libanensis has the istiodacylid-type crowding of small conical pointed teeth at the front of relatively broad jaws. There are some proportional differences in the wing compared to istiodactylids (the humerus being relatively shorter than some other elements), and overall the wings are relatively long as pterosaurs go, but the foot is similar to istiodactylids in being proportionally small. The pteroid (the rod-like projecting bone in the pterosaur wrist) is articulated pointing toward the body, for those of you keeping track of this historically controversial bone (Kellner et al. 2019).

The jaws of M. libanensis (Figure 3 in Kellner et al. 2019, which see for full caption). The scale bar for a is 10 mm (0.39 in), and for b is 1 mm (0.04 in). CC-BY-4.0.

Istiodactylids are often interpreted as preferring terrestrial areas and having scavenging habits. M. libanensis, on the other hand, is only known from a marine formation, and although its teeth are similar to istiodactylids, they aren't exactly the same. Kellner et al. (2019) looked in detail at a couple of hypotheses that would fit with the short pointed teeth. They decided insectivory was possible but questionable, because of the long wings and absence of insects (so far) in the host sediments. Instead, they proposed M. libanensis was going after decapod crustaceans in the shallow waters. The Hjoûla Lagerstätte, as the "lagerstätte" makes clear, is already known for producing well-preserved fossils, primarily of fish and crustaceans.


Kellner, A. W. A., M. W. Caldwell, B. Holgado, F. M. Dalla Vecchia, R. Nohra, J. M. Sayão, and P. J. Currie. 2019. First complete pterosaur from the Afro-Arabian continent: insight into pterodactyloid diversity. Scientific Reports 9:17875. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-54042-z.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Hunting the history of the Channel Islands mammoths

My visit to Santa Rosa Island back in June was just part of a larger project on Channel Islands National Park, for which I've been gathering information, researching, and writing for a number of months. Part of that work is summarizing the history of paleontological investigations, which go back well into the 19th century, and one of the most important parts of that is the history of mammoth finds on the islands. As often happens the story turned out to involve many more parts than I thought.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 18: Mendozasaurus, Microcoelus, and Mnyamawamtuka

The three guests for this entry are Mendozasaurus neguyelap from Argentina, Microcoelus patagonicus also from Argentina, and Mnyamawamtuka moyowamkia from Tanzania. Mn. moyowamkia is one of the most recent additions to Titanosauria, Me. neguyelap is a reliable sort that doesn't get a lot of publicity outside of the technical literature, and Mi. patagonicus is more or less a historical afterthought.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Ferrisaurus sustutensis

You may have come across a reference to the Sustut dinosaur over the years. It's now been formally described as a new genus and species of leptoceratopsid dinosaur: Ferrisaurus sustutensis. Victoria Arbour, as lead author and someone who has dealt with this specimen for nigh-on fifteen years, has a personal take over at Pseudoplocephalus. For those of you playing along at home, Ferrisaurus is the first named nonavian dinosaur from British Columbia.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

At the Grand Canyon

When I left off back in October, we'd just left Flagstaff for Grand Canyon National Park. The object of my visit was to support a paleontology project at Grand Canyon National Park, including our big National Fossil Day event.

The event is over now, but you can still see things like this display put together by GIPs Diana and Klara with park staff. As usual, I was too caught up in working the event to take a lot of pictures.

Of course, people who are interested in geology hardly need to be told to go to the Grand Canyon.

Pictured: geology, as far as the eye can see.

With billions of years of geological history on display, showing evidence of everything from high-grade metamorphism, to volcanic eruptions, to sea level changes, to eolian processes, to cave formation, there's something there for just about every area of geological study. Granted, a lot of things aren't immediately accessible due to the whole "enormous canyon" factor, but even if you've only got a few hours you can visit the historic Yavapai Geology Museum and take a quick tour of the park's geological formations on the Trail of Time.

Left: entering the trail. Right: a time marker, from near the "present" end of the trail, where time is less compressed.

The Trail of Time uses a series of time markers spaced evenly along the trail, with a couple of shifts in the order of magnitude. For example, starting from the Yavapai Geology Museum, the first markers are yearly. Pretty soon, though, the markers are for every million years. As you go along, stones from the various formations are placed according to their ages.

A couple of examples. Left: a close view of the stromatolitic rock chosen to represent the Awatubi Member of the Kwagunt Formation. Right: the Sixtymile Formation is one of the most obscure units of the Grand Canyon, and actually has had its age revised significantly since the Trail opened in 2010; it's now known to be early Cambrian in age (Karlstrom et al. 2018). This particular sample bears a striking resemblance to a Nut Goodie bar.

Once you get used to the rocks, you'll become able to pick out the different formations at long distances.

As the display shows, the top four formations of the Canyon can be readily picked out. Below the Hermit Formation is the Supai Group, which is responsible for giving the underlying steep cliffs of the Redwall Limestone its red walls (it's naturally gray).

There are also many trails which offer glorious views and the opportunity to commune closely with the rocks. (Don't plan on hiking to the bottom and back up in one day, though!) I went down part of the Grandview Trail as part of a day survey.

And it certainly lives up to its name! Try identifying the upper formations using the previous image.

There's also some human geological history of the Canyon at the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery, where several notable geologists and paleontologists have been laid to rest. Edwin "Eddie" McKee is the person most indelibly associated with the Canyon, having quite literally written the book on most of the sedimentary formations of the park, but there are also: Bill Breed of the Museum of Northern Arizona; John Maxson of the California Institute of Technology; Glen Sturdevant, the park's first naturalist; and David White, who described the park's plant fossils in the 1920s. Some of the species described by White are depicted on his monument.

It's a little difficult to make out the plants, but they are present in three of the four corners of White's plaque.

Just keep an eye open for wildlife...

Foggy mornings are a lot less frequent than elk.

Aphonopelma marxi (a.k.a. A. behlei) enjoying a walk on the Trail of Time.


Karlstrom, K., J. Hagadorn, G. Gehrels, W. Matthews, M. Schmitz, L. Madronich, J. Mulder, M. Pecha, D. Giesler, and L. Crossey. 2018. Cambrian Sauk transgression in the Grand Canyon region redefined by detrital zircons. Nature Geoscience 11:438–443. doi:10.1038/s41561-018-0131-7.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hyoliths IV: The Quest For Hyoliths

For being a pretty obscure group of long-extinct shelled invertebrates, hyoliths get a fair amount of study. What's been going on since we checked in a little over a year ago?

Back in the Hyolithening we looked at soft-tissue discoveries that indicated the enigmatic hyoliths were actually closely related to brachiopods. Later, in the Season of the Hyolith, came evidence of pedicles in early hyoliths, further linking hyoliths to brachiopods. Settled stuff, right? Hey, this is paleontology; we can always complicate things. There's also the hard parts of hyoliths to consider. It's been known for a while that hyolith shells and mollusk shells have certain structural similarities which must be due to either common ancestry or convergent evolution. Li et al. (2019) opted to go down to the early days of Hyolitha, publishing on the microstructure of Cambrian hyolith shells. The microstructural fabrics of the shells are more similar to what is seen in Cambrian mollusks than Cambrian brachiopods, being lamellar (fine layers of alternating materials) and composed of tiny "blade or lath-like" aragonite or calcite crystals. Li et al. (2019) interpreted the shell similarities as evidence of homology, not convergence. Would this make hyoliths mollusks? Well, no, not necessarily; it just means the mollusk line and the hyolith line diverged after evolution of the common shell structure. Li et al. proposed that the hyoliths were intermediates between mollusks and lophophorates (brachiopods, bryozoans, and horseshoe worms), with the common ancestor of the hyoliths and lophophorates evolving the basic lophophore feeding anatomy, but the lophophorates dropping the mollusk-like shell and evolving different shell structures. Under this hypothesis, you might think of a hyolith as something like sticking a brachiopod-like animal in a mollusk-like shell.

As we saw back in the Hyolithening, hyoliths were equipped with a sort of mustache of tiny tentacles for feeding. This is not the end of the digestive story, though. Berg-Madsen et al. (2018) recently described the fossilized digestive tract of the orthothecid hyolith Circotheca johnstrupi from the early Cambrian of the Læså Formation, Denmark. The guts of this hyolith formed a series of 20+ loops in a chevron pattern going off to the small pointy end of the shell, turning into a simple tube leading back to the wide end for the return chute. The chevron loops are interpreted as ventrally positioned (which would be along the flat side of the shell) and the anal tube as dorsally positioned. Based on the small number of preserved hyolith digestive tracts, the orthothecids had much more complex tracts than the hyolithids, which had a simple "U", suggesting an ecological difference. Interestingly, juvenile orthothecids also had simple "U"-shaped tracts, which may indicate the ecological factor appeared later in life (and that juvenile orthothecids were doing something different than adults) (Devaere et al. 2014).

An odd aspect of hyoliths is that they seem to have been very handy as hard substrates for epibionts. For example, Zicha et al. (in press) found that in the Middle Ordovician Šárka Formation, 60% of the colonized shells were hyolith conchs, with edrioasteroid echinoderms being particularly selective for them. Wen et al. (2019) also commented on the edrioasteroid fondness for hyoliths. They described the earliest known such colonizer, Totiglobis spencensis from the Cambrian Spence Shale (roughly what we used to call the Middle Cambrian). It was attached to a specimen of the hyolith Haplophrentis; based on the hyolith's operculum being adjacent, it seems that the hyolith acquired the epibiont during life and the two grew and prospered together.


Berg-Madsen, V., M. Valent, and J. O. R. Ebbestad. 2018. An orthothecid hyolith with a digestive tract from the early Cambrian of Bornholm, Denmark. GFF 140(1):25–37. doi:10.1080/11035897.2018.1432680.

Devaere, L., S. Clausen, J. J. Alvaro, J. S. Peel, and D. Vachard. 2014. Terreneuvian orthothecid (Hyolitha) digestive tracts from northern Montagne Noire, France: Taphonomic, ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications. PLoS One 9(2):e88583. doi:10.1371/journal.pone0088583.

Li,  L., X. Zhang, C. B. Skovsted, H. Yun, B. Pan, and G. Li. 2019. Homologous shell microstructures in Cambrian hyoliths and molluscs. Palaeontology 62(4):515–532. doi:10.1111/pala.12406.

Wen, R., L. E. Babcock, J. Peng, and R. A. Robison. 2019. New edrioasteroid (Echinodermata) from the Spence Shale (Cambrian), Idaho, USA: further evidence of attachment in the early evolutionary history of edrioasteroids. Bulletin of Geosciences 94(1):115–124.

Zicha, O., J. Bruthansová, and P. Kraft. In press. Epibionts on shells in the Šárka Formation: a sparsely occupied niche in the lower to middle Darriwilian (Oretanian, Ordovician) in the Prague Basin (Czech Republic). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2019.109401.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 17: Malawisaurus, Mansourasaurus, and Maxakalisaurus

A pair of African titanosaurs (Malawisaurus dixeyi and Mansourasaurus shahinae) get the call this week, along with Maxakalisaurus topai from Brazil. It's also the second consecutive entry where there are rumblings of an imminent redescription of one of the guests: last month it was the Magyarosaurus complex, this month it's M. dixeyi. What's going on with probably the most widely known African titanosaur? Read on to find out!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Compact Thescelosaurus Year Four

It's time for the annual update to The Compact Thescelosaurus, now entering its fifth year. This time, ichthyosaurs join the group, which is really stretching it for me, but hopefully it's not entirely in vain. Ichthyosaurs fared a bit better than plesiosaurs in that *only* 91 of the 224 species (40.6%) included are of questionable validity, rather than 173 of 318 (54.4%). (Only.) My go-to work was McGowan and Motani 2003 on Ichthyopterygia (Handbook of Paleoherpetology 8), just to figure out what was there. Ichthyosaurus itself, like Plesiosaurus, accumulated an awe-inspiring retinue of species over the years, but it's not alone. A couple of areas of ichthyosaur taxonomy are pretty volatile at the moment as massively specious genera are re-evaluated, so expect revision. (Also expect the usual formatting bugs and obvious corrections that come with a new sheet.)

Sure, like you don't know what an ichthyosaur looks like. This was found at Wikimedia Commons, but originally came from a short item by William Diller Matthew in the American Museum Journal for January 1908.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

What I Did While I Was Out: On the Way to the Grand Canyon

As I mentioned a few months ago, I've been spending a lot of time on the fossils and rocks of Grand Canyon National Park this year. Part of why I've been doing this culminated on Saturday, September 28: our special National Fossil Day event, held at the park as part of their centennial festivities. (You can see the whole group that worked the event here.) We've been working for months on a Grand Canyon NP paleontological inventory, and to further that work as well as help at the public event, I spent the end of September in Arizona, visiting various places.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Mongolian dinosaurs, 2002: part 2

Following from the previous installment, this second and final batch of museum photos comes from the "Paleontology Laboratory". This time around, I'm pretty sure I took almost all of them, both film and digital photos. It was probably my first extended use of a digital camera, and most of the photos I've selected are from the digital set. The facility had a small hall displaying ten or so specimens, none as large as the Tarbosaurus at the Natural History Museum, but again coelurosaur-heavy.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 16: Malarguesaurus and Magyarosaurus

We've entered the "M"s, where we'll be for the next few entries. This entry features quasi-titanosaur Malarguesaurus florenciae and distinguished miniaturized sauropod Magyarosaurus dacus plus whatever else is in (or out of) Magyarosaurus. Before getting into the discussion, you may be interested to know of two recent freely available titanosaur publications, González Riga et al. (2019) and Mannion et al. (2019). González Riga et al. (2019) is an overview of the limb and girdle bones of South American titanosaurs, and names a clade Colossosauria for Lognkosauria plus Rinconsauria. Mannion et al. (2019) redescribes Dongyangosaurus sinensis and Jiangshanosaurus lixianensis, and finds them and a couple other taxa (Baotianmansaurus henanensis and Yongjinglong datangi) to be outside of Titanosauria (which required a few notes to be added to previous entries).

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Kamuysaurus japonicus

Some of you may have come across online photos or information concerning a dinosaur skeleton from Japan informally named "Mukawaryu" ("Mukawa dragon", "-ryu" for "dragon" being the traditional suffix for informally named Japanese dinosaurs). The specimen went from "informally named" to getting a real scientific name in just a couple of years, exchanging "Mukawaryu" for Kamuysaurus japonicus.

"Mukawaryu", now Kamuysaurus japonicus. Figure 3 in Kobayashi et al. (2019) (go to link for full caption). The scale bars are all 10 cm (4 in) except for the skeleton itself (b), which is 1 m (40 in). CC-BY-4.0.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Geology at the Minnesota State Fair

When I've been available, for the past few years I've worked a shift at the Geological Society of Minnesota's booth at the Minnesota State Fair. (There are state fairs and state fairs; I was there last year when they set a daily attendance record of 270,426, and yesterday was probably well over 200,000 as well.) The GSM has had a booth in the Education Building for many years, with a display of rocks and educational materials.

The GSM's booth, featuring board member Theresa.

If you'd like to try your eye, this tray has five fossils or fossil-bearing specimens, although one of them is difficult to tell from this angle.

The other tray has two stromatolitic specimens, plus (in the lower right) schist-on-a-stick. It's the Minnesota State Fair, there has to be something on a stick! The rest of the tray includes such local specialties as Ely Greenstone (#25) (if you've never been here, "Ely" is pronounce "Eelee") and 3.5-billion-year-old Morton Gneiss (#30).

Of course, the primary function of the GSM booth is to inform the public about the society itself, but we also spend a lot of time talking to visitors about the rocks and minerals of the state. Sometimes people have even asked us to identify objects in photos or hand sample. Given this is Minnesota, one of the favorite topics of conversation is agates. The state gemstone is the colorfully banded Lake Superior agate, although they certainly aren't limited to the North Shore; thanks to glaciers that moved south out of the Superior region, agates have been scattered across much of the state. The GSM booth has a few on-hand, but the DNR Building has a much larger assortment on display, including the nearly 50-pound (23-kg) "Agzilla".

"Agzilla" usually calls the Agate and Geological Center at Moose Lake State Park home. Incidentally, Moose Lake holds Agate Days annually in mid-July. Another notable geologic state park is Hill Annex Mine State Park, near Calumet, which is not only of note as an example of a Mesabi Range open-pit mine, but is also one of the best-known Cretaceous sites in Minnesota. The visiting season at the park has just ended, but the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm also exhibits Cretaceous fossils from the Iron Range. A few of the fossils from Hill Annex joined the agates at the DNR building.

Plants, ammonites, bivalves, gastropods, teeth: a proper assemblage for near the eastern shore of the Western Interior Seaway.

If you're looking for upcoming geological events, October is a very good month in Minnesota. The GSM's lecture series opens in mid-September and continues into December. The Minnesota Mineral Club holds its annual show at the Armory in Cottage Grove over the third weekend in October, and over the same weekend, Whitewater State Park will be holding a "Geology Gathering", which I will be participating in on Saturday the 19th. Also, the Science Museum of Minnesota will hold an Object ID day on Saturday the 5th, and we're tentatively planning a fossil walk at Coldwater for Saturday the 12th.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Mongolian dinosaurs, 2002

As is traditional when I have an idea for a post but it's not working out, I go through my photos to see if something looks interesting. This time, I ran across a batch of photos taken during a trip I took to Mongolia as an undergrad in June 2002. The purpose of the trip was to do geologic work in the vicinity of Shinejinst, southern Mongolia, where we were looking at the assembly of central Asia. At both ends of the field work, we spent a few days in Ulaanbaatar. Naturally, we visited the Mongolian Natural History Museum. At the time, there was also a separate facility called the "paleontology laboratory", which we visited after returning from the field. (This predated the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs.) Because many of the species featured aren't represented in museums elsewhere, except for special exhibitions, and hopping over to UB isn't the simplest proposition for most of the readers here, I thought you might like to see some of the photos. There's enough interesting specimens to split them into two groups, so I'll start with the Natural History Museum.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 15: Lirainosaurus, Lohuecotitan, and Loricosaurus

This and the next few posts are going to be spending significant time outside of the South American titanosaur stronghold. Only Loricosaurus scutatus will be representing South America this time, with the other two slots filled by the unusually small Lirainosaurus astibiae and larger Lohuecotitan pandafilandi, both from the Upper Cretaceous of Spain.

This map, part of Figure 1 from Díez Díaz et al. (2011), shows the distribution of European titanosaur cranial material, but also happens to show the discovery locations of Lirainosaurus astibiae, Lohuecotitan pandafilandi (Lo Hueco), and species assigned to Magyarosaurus, which is coming up quickly. CC-BY-4.0.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Ngwevu intloko

For our first "prosauropod" entry since Ledumahadi mafube back in September 2018, we return to the Upper Elliot Formation of South Africa. This time around, it's massospondylid Ngwevu intloko. Or, is it just a distorted, young, or otherwise odd individual of the Upper Elliot classic Massospondylus carinatus?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Platteville sea stars and cystoids

It's been a while since I've featured something Ordovician, so here are some photos of some uncommon Platteville Formation echinoderms. I took them a few years back, when I wasn't quite as good at this as I've become. These specimens all come from the Platteville of the Twin Cities, and are in the collections of the Science Museum of Minnesota. In fact, the first example has since been moved out to the exhibits, which is good because it certainly deserves the visibility. It is a specimen of a small stocky early sea star identified as Hudsonaster (Protopalaeaster in older references, not to be confused with Promopalaeaster, another Ordovician sea star but of more conventional appearance).

Here it is, with scale artfully copied from elsewhere in the cropped photo and placed in a more convenient location (mm divisions, one full cm included). A crinoid columnal is visible in the upper left corner.

This was not a very large animal, only about an inch across or so. It's not from the former Johnson Street Quarry, the fabled lost storehouse of Platteville echinoderms in the Twin Cities. Actually, none of the three specimens in this post are from that site. It's possible they're from the Hidden Falls Member, as the Johnson Street specimens were, but I don't have stratigraphic information lower than formation for these specimens, two of which were found on loose slabs.

Another view, taken at closer range and thus a bit sharper, but with no scale.

Hudsonaster was not the only sea star in the Platteville. Urasterella was a larger, more lanky sea star, although since we're talking about the Ordovician of Minnesota, "larger" still isn't enormous by our standards. (It's still pretty big for a non-cephalopod of the Platteville, though.) The specimen is not as complete as the Hudsonaster, but there is one nearly complete arm and most of two others, with the missing sections partially recorded by natural molds.

And I've rather brilliantly arranged to have my reversible transparent ruler wrong-side-out.

From a quick glance of the exteriors, neither Hudsonaster or Urasterella are all that different from sea stars you might see today. Going from the familiar to "what-is-that-and-what-happened-to-it", we have a fossil identified as the rhombiferan cystoid Pleurocystites. Because only one side is visible, I'm not entirely sure if it is Pleurocystites or a close relative (the very similar genus Amecystis is also known from this interval in the Upper Midwest per Kolata et al. 1987), but it's a reasonable identification.

With quarter for scale; the block is also peppered with partial crinoids.

It somewhat resembles a deflated balloon on a string, or some kind of odd fish, and again is not very large. Rhombiferan cystoids were stalked ancestrally, but these pleurocystitids seem to have been using theirs for something else, perhaps on the order of a flagellum. It's not apparent in this specimen, but at the opposite end from the "stalk" were two long appendages that looked like antennae but were actually part of the feeding apparatus (only the bases are visible here). A few formations up, in the lower Prosser Formation, a mass-death assemblage in southern Minnesota yielded dozens of Pleurocystites (Sloan and DesAutels 1987), so whatever they were doing, they were at least briefly successful at it.

Strangely enough, members of a completely different group of echinoderms, the solutan "carpoids", hit upon an astonishingly similar body plan at almost the same time (Kolata et al. 1977). The Prosser bed also includes specimens of these solutan doppelgängers (Sloan and DesAutels 1987). A quick way to tell the two types apart is the "stalk": pleurocystitid "cystoids" have a simple "stalk" of stacked pieces, but the lookalike solutans have complex, "braided" "stalks". (Also, pleurocystitids have two appendages opposite the "stalk" and the lookalikes have one, but those aren't always as easy to see.) The Science Museum has one of these solutan lookalikes, Dendrocystis, on display. The fad for echinoderms that looked like deflated balloons with antennae did not last for either version, with both lineages going extinct long before the end of the Paleozoic.


Kolata, D. R., H. L. Strimple, and C. O. Levorson. 1977. Revision of the Ordovician capoid family Iowacystidae. Palaeontology 20(3): 529–557.

Kolata, D. R., J. C. Brower, and T. J. Frest. 1987. Upper Mississippi valley Champlainian and Cincinnatian echinoderms. Pages 179–181 in R. E. Sloan, editor. Middle and Late Ordovician lithostratigraphy and biostratigraphy of the Upper Mississippi Valley. Minnesota Geological Survey, St. Paul, Minnesota. Report of Investigations 35.

Sloan, R. E., and D. A. DesAutels. 1987. The Wagner Quarry cystoid bed: a study in Prosser (Sherwood) paleoecology. Pages 60–62 in R. E. Sloan, editor. Middle and Late Ordovician lithostratigraphy and biostratigraphy of the Upper Mississippi Valley. Minnesota Geological Survey, St. Paul, Minnesota. Report of Investigations 35.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Fossil Horses of the National Park Service

Every so often I like to do an overview of a fossil group in National Park Service lands. We've had proboscideans, dinosaurs, sloths, and bison, plus late Cambrian and Late Ordovician summaries, and an update to a published packrat midden roundup. This time around, I present Equidae, the horse family. Horses have a long and distinguished fossil record in the NPS, from the Eocene to end-Pleistocene Equus, the modern horse genus. (Note: if this was a formal setting, I'd stick to "Equidae" and "equids" throughout, but I think we can get away with "horses" here.) Cue the map with giant caption:

Another in the long line of long captions. There is some question about the location or antiquity of the records for 30, 31, and 32, so they are marked with gray question marks. 1. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument; 2. Nez Perce National Historical Park; 3. Hagerman Fossil Beds NM; 4. Yellowstone National Park; 5. Fossil Butte NM; 6. Great Basin NP; 7. Golden Gate National Recreation Area; 8. Death Valley NP; 9. Tule Springs Fossil Beds NM; 10. Mojave National Preserve; 11. Lake Mead NRA; 12. Glen Canyon NRA; 13. Grand Canyon NP; 14. Santa Monica Mountains NRA; 15. Joshua Tree NP; 16. Bering Land Bridge NPRES; 17. Kobuk Valley NP; 18. Wind Cave NP; 19. Badlands NP; 20. Agate Fossil Beds NM; 21. Niobrara National Scenic River; 22. Carlsbad Caverns NP; 23. Guadalupe Mountains NP; 24. Big Bend NP; 25. Waco Mammoth NM; 26. Padre Island National Seashore; 27. Mammoth Cave NP; 28. Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail; 29. Valley Forge NHP; 30. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal NHP; 31. Piscataway Park; 32. George Washington Birthplace NM; 33. Cumberland Island NS; 34. Big Cypress NPRES.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 14: Kaijutitan, Karongasaurus, and Laplatasaurus

This time around there are two easy entries and one tougher entry. Kaijutitan maui was named this year, and Karongasaurus gittelmani seems to have been largely forgotten by researchers. On the other hand, Laplatasaurus araukanicus, one of von Huene's South American titanosaurs, is a (waste)basket case.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Aquilarhinus palimentus

I get to knock another notable fossil park off my list today with a new basal hadrosaur from Big Bend National Park. The NPS doesn't have a park covering the classic Upper Great Plains terrestrial Upper Cretaceous rocks, but it does have Big Bend, one of the best southern North American Upper Cretaceous areas known (to say nothing of its Lower Cretaceous and Cenozoic records). Our visitor today is the arch-snouted trowel-jawed Aquilarhinus palimentus.

But first, a brief note which connects to the history of this blog: "Lori" the Morrison troodontid has been officially described, as Hesperornithoides miessleri (Hartman et al. 2019). There's really no point in my writing anything about it, because the two lead authors (Scott Hartman and Mickey Mortimer) have their own blogs where they are covering it and I certainly couldn't add anything to them, so check them out!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

What I Did While I Was Out, part 2

I was out of the office for work again last week. This time I was a bit farther afield than Wyoming and the Dakotas; on the weekend of June 29–30 I was on Santa Rosa Island, one of the five islands of Channel Islands National Park. Here's a few photos from Santa Rosa:

This is a pretty representative view from the central part of Santa Rosa Island, featuring grassy and brushy vegetation over a lot of up-and-down topography.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 13: Isisaurus, Jainosaurus, and Jiangshanosaurus

We take a brief break from South America and journey to India and China this time. Conveniently, two of the three most significant Lameta Formation titanosaurs have come up (the other is venerable Titanosaurus indicus, which isn't for a while yet). On the other hand, that does mean we're going to be spending a lot of time trying to figure out how many sauropods can dance on a hill named Bara Simla, in the company of Friedrich von Huene and Charles Matley.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Titanosaur osteoderms: functions and conclusions

We come now to the last part of our exploration of titanosaur osteoderms. For reference, the other parts can be found as follows: introduction and history of study, characteristics, and distribution in time, space, and across Titanosauria. This final entry will cover the proposed functions and offer some parting thoughts about the armored sauropods.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

What I Did While I Was Out

I made no post last week because I was traveling for work. Generally, I don't have the time to work on a post while traveling, and this was no exception. In order to get the most bang for our buck on work travel, we try to schedule as many projects as possible, and this trip was no exception. I had four separate projects scheduled over eleven days.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 12: Futalognkosaurus, Gondwanatitan, and Hypselosaurus

For today's entry in the ongoing series, we have a big sauropod that used to be even bigger, a small sauropod that appears to have been lost in a fire, and a small sauropod of historical interest which is a bit of a humbug.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Trilobites and strange fate

For reasons that will become abundantly clear in a few months, I've been immersed in the paleontology and geology of Grand Canyon National Park for work. We've been doing a lot of projects in that general area over the past few years (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Walnut Canyon National Monument [check out the public report], Wupatki National Monument, and Zion National Park), and it's only fitting that we take on Grand Canyon. This particular story includes both Grand Canyon and Lake Mead.

Boulder Dam Recreation Area, later renamed Lake Mead National Recreation Area, was established in the 1930s to administer the reservoir Lake Mead that was filling behind Hoover Dam, at the time known as Boulder Dam. As originally conceived, the recreation area extended quite a bit farther east, into what is now part of western Grand Canyon National Park. This is because at the time it was planned that another dam, the Bridge Canyon Dam, was going to be constructed in that area, and the recreation area was sized to accommodate the anticipated reservoir. Obviously, unless you are a reader who has stumbled in from another timeline, no such dam was ever built, and in 1975 the park boundaries were reconfigured, with most of eastern Lake Mead NRA (Grand Wash Cliffs and east) being transferred to Grand Canyon National Park.

This area, as a matter of fact, looking due south into the Grand Wash Cliffs (photo taken from small plane, hence the plane structures and the whole "up in the air" thing).

Anyway, we were still back in the 1930s. The NPS had a few people on staff in the 1930s who specialized in geology, such as H. Donald Curry at Death Valley and Edwin McKee at Grand Canyon. Working at Boulder Dam Recreation Area was Ed Schenk, who had the challenge of contending with a field area that was steadily shrinking by the day as the reservoir filled. A substantial portion of his work at Lake Mead remains unpublished, but his research on the Cambrian escaped that fate (Schenk and Wheeler 1942). His counterpart at Grand Canyon, McKee, was also working on the Cambrian, and published a rather more famous work a few years later (McKee and Resser 1945). You may not recognize the citation, but if you've studied geology at the college level you may well have run into material that's been derived from this publication, in which McKee described the facies changes of the Cambrian formations in terms of marine advances and retreats: very briefly (and simply), there's the nearshore Tapeats Sandstone, the shallow marine Bright Angel Shale, and the deeper marine Muav Limestone.

As part of his work, Schenk collected fossils from about four dozen localities in and around the recreation area. About a quarter of the collections were from Cambrian rocks, all in that area which is now in western Grand Canyon NP. These collections included a fairly typical assortment of mid-Cambrian life, such as trilobites, brachiopods, and hyoliths. Several of these collections were cited in Schenk and Wheeler (1942). It is not immediately obvious, but the same collections are also cited in McKee and Resser (1945), with a few re-identifications. I only realized it when I thought to check because Schenk was noted as a collector in McKee and Resser (1945). Charles Resser, whom we met briefly earlier, also provided identifications for Schenk's paper. Essentially, the two papers were being worked on contemporaneously with contact between the groups of authors, and Schenk's shorter publication beat McKee's work into press by a couple of years (M&R '45 would also have been affected by wartime circumstances and Resser's passing in 1943).

If you're super-curious about these things, the collections definitely mentioned in both S&W and M&R are as follows, using M&R's stratigraphy ("F-" collections are Schenk's):
Peach Springs Member, Muav Limestone: fauna 73 = F-40
Bright Angel Shale tongue: fauna 74 = F-47
Spencer Canyon Member, Muav
Bright Angel Shale tongue
Sanup Plateau Member, Muav
Bright Angel Shale tongue: fauna 75 = F-37
Rampart Cave Member, Muav: fauna 76 = F-39
Flour Sack Member, Bright Angel Shale: faunas 46, 47 = F-16, F-17
Bright Angel Shale tongue
Tincanebits Tongue, Muav
Bright Angel Shale upper slope units: fauna 48 = F-44; fauna 49 = F.C. 761
Bright Angel Shale red-brown cliff unit?
Bright Angel Shale lower slope units: fauna 8 = F-15

Resser named several taxa from the F-# collections, and the holotypes for these taxa were sent to the USNM. These include Albertella schenki from F-44 (McKee and Resser #48; holotype USNM 108583), Lingulella mckeei from F-17 (M&R #47; USNM 108561a), Acrocephalops? arizonaensis from F-16 (M&R #46; USNM 108624), Kootenia simplex from F-37 (M&R #75; USNM 108591a), Kootenia schenki from F-40 (M&R #73; USNM 108586a), and Solenopleurella porcata from F-40 (M&R #73; USNM 108586a and 108626a). If you check the online USNM database, specimens with photos have the F-numbers on their slabs, showing their origin.

We come now to strange fate. Around 1960, with Schenk having long since left the NPS, staff at Lake Mead sent his old collections to the USGS for taxonomic identification. The USGS used to have a system where field geologists could send material for identification, usually to determine the relative age of rock units for mapping and resource projects. The resulting files were called "Examine & Report" (E&R) files. I've seen the files for the Lake Mead project, which took a while to complete for various reasons. Trilobite specialist A.R. "Pete" Palmer was sent the Cambrian samples for identification. Naturally enough, given the rock units involved, he used McKee and Resser (1945) for reference, as he remarked in the memo. Given that most of the fossils in McKee and Resser (1945) were only mentioned in lists, and type and figured specimens that might have given away the tale were retained from the collections by the Smithsonian, there was very little way of knowing that this exercise was actually about using McKee and Resser (1945) to identify fossils from some of the collections in McKee and Resser (1945).


McKee, E. D., and C. E. Resser. 1945. Cambrian history of the Grand Canyon region. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 563.

Palmer, A. R. 1963/10/17. O-60-55. USGS internal memo to M. B. Ingham (E&R file).

Schenk, E. T., and H. E. Wheeler. 1942. Cambrian sequence in western Grand Canyon, Arizona. Journal of Geology 50(7):822–899.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Stillwater tusk(s): Minnesota's first

Stillwater, Minnesota is not the kind of place that comes to mind when thinking about good elephant country. If you've never been there, there's a bit of a drop from the top of the St. Croix Valley to the river (the map coming up will make this clear). Furthermore, Stillwater is not noted for its broad floodplain, so a proboscidean wouldn't have much space if it did come down. However, the deep valley of the St. Croix itself is of geologically recent vintage, a parting gift of the most recent ice age sending meltwater through an area marked by billion-year-old faults. This is all a long-winded way of saying that compared to today, it would have been much easier to have mammoths and mastodons wandering around the future area of Stillwater right after the ice had cleared out, only where they were wandering wouldn't have looked very much like how it looks like today.

In fact, what appears to be the first documented find of mammoth or mastodon fossils in Minnesota was made in Stillwater in 1856 (Anonymous 1860; Stauffer "1945"). The find was briefly mentioned in a description of the Minnesota Historical Society ("Already we find it its museum the remains of the first mastodon found in the State, presented by A. [Abram or Abraham] J. Van Vorhes, esq., of Stillwater"; Anonymous 1860), but a fuller account would not be made until Newton Horace Winchell took an interest in it.

According to Winchell, who met with Van Vorhes, the find came from coarse river gravel (actually the base of a bed of fine sand 30–40 feet thick [9–12 m] according to the included stratigraphic section) "far above the present river, but within the main valley" and consisted of a single mastodon tusk (Winchell 1878). Obviously, as an isolated find there's really no way to be certain where the tusk was when its services were no longer required by its owner, but we take our tusks where we find them. (There are differences between mastodon and mammoth tusks, but I don't know if these were known in the mid-1800s, or if this is just a case of "mastodon = generic American proboscidean".) Van Vorhes also reported pottery fragments at the top of the sand bed. Eight feet (about 2.5 m) of the tusk went to the Academy of Sciences of St. Paul (Winchell 1878), and would have been lost in the 1881 fire (mentioned previously).

Winchell also included an extensive quotation from Van Vorhes, who reported multiple tusks "were found about eight or ten feet [about 3 m] above the base of the hill: the hill at this point rises at an angle of about 45°. After excavating in the base of the hill on the grade of Myrtle Street about 37 feet [11 m], the tusks were found, consequently 37 feet below the surface. At this point the hill was about 90 feet high [27 m].

The crockery I found some thirty feet [9 m] farther into the hill and some six or eight feet [about 2 m] higher in the strata. This hill is a continuous tongue of land lying between the Florence mill stream and a spring run. The two streams run parallel and some 350 feet [107 m] apart. The hill is so steep on the Florence mill side as to be inaccessible except by clinging to roots and brush growing on it. The material at the base is sand and small gravel. Where the tusks were found the strata were pure sand ten or twelve feet thick [about 3 m], exhibiting clearly the direction of the current in an eastward inclination one or two degrees."

Leaving aside the question of one tusk or multiple tusks, the location of the find can be reasonably well established from Van Vorhes’s recollections (refreshing for a mid-19th-century find!). The Florence flour mill is long gone, and was not built until 1872, so Van Vorhes was using the then-current geography to describe the 1856 situation. However, as mentioned in the linked article, "The water for the mill was brought down from a dam located where the Pitman House once stood, now the northern portion of Trinity Lutheran Church, and supplied by a brook from McKusick’s Lake." The church is adjacent to Myrtle Street between 3rd Street N and 4th Street N, and a valley can be traced from this area to the lake. The "spring run" seems most likely to be related to a valley to the south, but the present-day distance is much greater than 350 feet. Given that Van Vorhes was an experienced surveyor, it's unlikely he would have been off by hundreds of feet or more; it seems more likely to me that the critical area has been so heavily modified in later years that the 1856 watercourses have been obscured or obliterated. My guess is that the find was made within 500 feet (150 m) of the present location of the church.

This map (helps to click) shows several of the landmarks mentioned above. As I said, I think the find was made in the vicinity of the modern church. (Here's a plug: I've found the Earth Point topo map overlay for Google Earth invaluable!)

The location was retransmitted incorrectly in Hay (1924:44), who placed it in Browns Creek. I suspect this stems from a misreading of a later report by Winchell. Winchell (1888:397) stated "In the fall of 1872 the writer [Winchell] first visited Stillwater, and in company with Mr. Abram Van Vorhes examined the deposit of tripoli in the valley of Brown's Creek. At the same time Mr. Van Vorhes pointed out the drift bank in which he had found ancient pottery and the remains of the mastodon." It's not hard to see how a reader may have come to the conclusion that the "drift bank" was in Browns Creek. This creek, though, is on the north side of Stillwater; Highway 96 borrows part of its valley. It is approximately 1.4 miles (2.3 km) north of the actual area of the find.

The loss of the specimen relegated it to a paper curio. Winchell returned to it once more, in 1910, which is notable because he hedged on the mastodon identification, acknowledging it could have been an "elephant" (mammoth). Aside from Hay (1924), the only other place it seems to have appeared in the literature since Winchell is Stauffer's inventory of Minnesota's Pleistocene fossils (usually given as 1945, but at least 1948). Winchell’s report is #17 in this publication, and Stauffer classified it as "Elephas sp.", which translates as "some kind of proboscidean". Stauffer included another Stillwater find, #6, a tusk found in terrace gravels “in the edge of Stillwater” at an unspecified time. With such little information, it is impossible to say anything else about it.

[An unrelated closing note: I really ought to plug the Geological Society of Minnesota more frequently for local readers; for example, there was a talk this week on Cretaceous fossils in Minnesota. This would have been the normal closing session of the spring lecture series, but an opportunity arose for the GSM to co-sponsor a presentation by Peter Brannen on "The Ends of the World", his book about extinction events, Monday, May 20th (see flyer below for more details). The fall lecture series will start up in September. The GSM staffs a booth during the State Fair in the Education building if you'd like to stop by and chat in person. Lectures are free and open to the public.]

Here's a flyer for the upcoming talk. Note: "Blue Line" should be "Green Line".


Anonymous. 1860. Minnesota. The Historical Magazine 4(5):141–142.

Hay, O. P. 1924. The Pleistocene of the middle region of North America and its vertebrated animals. Carnegie Institute of Washington Publication 322A.

Stauffer, C. R. “1945” [at least 1948 based on dates in the article]. Some Pleistocene mammalian inhabitants of Minnesota. Minnesota Academy of Science Proceedings 13:20–43.

Winchell, N. H. 1878. Primitive man at Little Falls. Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey Annual Report 6:53–65.

Winchell, N. H. 1888. The geology of Washington County. Pages 375–398 in N. H. Winchell and W. Upham. The geology of Minnesota. Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, Final Report 2. Johnson, Smith & Harrison, state printers, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Winchell, N. H. 1910. Extinct Pleistocene mammals of Minnesota. Bulletin of the Minnesota Academy of Science 4:414–422.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Titanosaur osteoderms: distribution

My plan had been to wrap up everything in this post. (Well, originally it was to do everything in one post. Ha.) However, again the contents were beginning to sprawl, and I felt guilty about the lengths of a couple of recent posts. After all, this isn't a peer-reviewed journal article, is it? There are different expectations for a blog post. Therefore, we'll just have distribution here, and one more post for the functions and conclusion. For the previous installments, go here (introduction) and here (characteristics).

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Your Friends The Titanosaurs, part 11: Drusilasaura, Elaltitan, and Epachthosaurus

It's an all-Argentina installment this time around, including two large titanosaurs that seem to have gotten lost in the flood of titanosaur taxa (Drusilasaura deseadensis and Elaltitan lilloi) and a more modestly sized stalwart of the clade (Epachthosaurus sciuttoi).

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Titanosaur osteoderms: characteristics

Now that we've had a look at the background and history of study for titanosaur osteoderms, we can get into the nitty-gritty of their anatomy and where they were positioned on the body. It turns out there's still quite a lot we don't know about these structures.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Pacific Mastodon

Mastodons have been in the news this week, thanks to a new paper by Alton Dooley et al. that makes a case for distinguishing a new Pleistocene species, Mammut pacificus, from the familiar Mammut americanum. The paper is freely available, so give it a look if you're interested in the technical side of fossil proboscideans (mammoths, mastodons, elephants, and friends). If you're interested but not quite up to speed on the details, there's also an in-depth interview with the lead author.

The skull of the type specimen of M. pacificus, Figure 1 in Dooley et al. 2019. From the caption: "Cranium in: (A) dorsal, (B) ventral, (C) left lateral, (D) right lateral, (E) posterior, (F) distal end of left tusk (I1), lateral, and (G) right tusk (I1), lateral view. Teeth include left and right M2–M3. (A–E) are images of a resin cast of the holotype cranium on exhibit at the Western Science Center. All images are orthographic views of photogrammetric models. Scale = 10 cm."

Although mastodons and mammoths are among the most familiar extinct animals, our understanding of their species is still fairly hazy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the issue, the short answer is that paleontologists historically loved to name proboscidean species. The long answer is too long for a post, but there's a little 1,800-page two-volume monograph by Henry Fairfield Osborn that may provide some illumination. You can read and download the volumes from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (both) and Internet Archive (1, 2). Two caveats for the reader: both volumes are large files (88 and 103 mb, respectively), and Osborn had some* ideas about taxonomy and evolution that have not quite stood the test of time. The 1920s and 1930s were a splitting time, and Osborn could split with the best of them. Over the following decades researchers have gradually settled on a shortlist of a few species and genera, but there are still a lot of questions, and given the results from the original binge of species-naming there hasn't been much of an appetite for creating more.

*By "some" I mean "all of them".

Western North America appears to have been mammoth country; mastodons are not particularly abundant, with many finds only coming in the past couple of decades. Dooley et al.'s project started with a mastodon found at Diamond Valley Lake West Dam near Hemet, California. This mastodon, now on display at the Western Science Center and known familiarly as "Max", has small third molars for its size. (As the interview relates, this fact only became apparent when Dooley was working on exhibit text, and then the project grew from there.) The authors began making comparisons to other mastodon specimens. What they concluded, after several years of work, was that mastodons from California and southern Idaho shared a small suite of characteristics unlike the more familiar mastodons of eastern North America. Aside from the small third molars, these include six fused sacral vertebrae (usually five in M. americanum), femora with relatively thicker shafts, no mandibular tusks (M. americanum sometimes has tusks in the lower jaw), and males with relatively thinner tusks at the base.

Figure 33 from Dooley et al. 2019. The caption there reads "Red circles mark all known M. pacificus localities, while blue circles mark the M. americanum localities that produced teeth used in this study and represented in Table S2. Note that while there are many additional M. americanum localities that were not included in this study and that are not indicated on the map, there are no known M. americanum localities in California. The M. americanum locality in Oregon is a non-diagnostic specimen that was included as M. americanum in this study, but that could represent M. pacificus."

Dooley et al. found not only that all of the mastodons that could be studied from California shared these characteristics, but that the differences extended well into the Pleistocene, into the Irvingtonian land mammal stage. The mechanism for species separation would most likely be ecological: mastodon fossils are particularly rare in the mountain and desert country that intervenes between California and the rest of North America, and there may simply have not been enough suitable suitable mastodon environments in that region to keep the California population connected to the eastern population. In recognition of this distinct population, Dooley et al. coined the name M. pacificus, the Pacific mastodon. Moral of the story? Keep looking at your fossils, even if it's something seemingly well-known; you never know when something unusual might turn up.


Dooley, A. C., E. Scott, J. Green, K. B. Springer, B. S. Dooley, and G. J. Smith. 2019. Mammut pacificus sp. nov., a newly recognized species of mastodon from the Pleistocene of western North America. PeerJ 7:e6614. doi:10.7717/peerj.6614.