W is for Wings

Pteranodon longiceps, at the NY Museum of Natural History

The flying dinosaur is a tricky concept. If you search “flying dinosaur,” you get a hundred sites that refer to pterosaurs as flying dinosaurs. But they’re not dinosaurs; they’re not on the dinosaur clade (family tree). They don’t have the right kind of hips or the hole in their head (see Letter “A”). Maybe 10% of those internet sites put “flying dinosaur” in quotes to show they at least know something, although most don’t bother (including MSN, Youtube, LiveScience and so on). Just to be clear, pterosaurs were flying reptiles, but not dinosaurs. Now that we have that out of the way, they were also cool. Just look at the bones, the arms, the wings!!!!

Meanwhile, scientists talk about non-avian and avian dinosaurs. What’s that about? Some reputable sites say the non-avians meant cold-blooded, the big giant sauropods. Others label all dinosaurs non-avian except for the one line, Avialea, that produced the modern birds. To recap, flying reptilian pterosaurs were not dinosaurs. Birds are avian dinosaurs. I would argue that makes all other dinosaurs non-avian. And one specific type of non-avian dinosaur was so close to birds that it may be considered a missing link between the two bird and dinosaur branches.

Whether dinosaurs or avian or not, their flight is also the subject of the day. How did they fly–compared with modern fliers? And what was so unusual about archaeopteryx, the fossil with a feather? I want to acknowledge right up front that I was inspired in this post by the paleontologist guru professor of the Rediscovering the Age of Dinosaurs Great Course, Kristi Curry Rogers. She specifically compared pterosaurs–those wonderful flying giant reptiles–to birds and bats, so I am going to borrow and share several of her ideas here.

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V is for Variety

Prize-winning weird deinocheirus, from Discover magazine.

Gone are the days when all the dinosaurs were drawn the same way… green, tail-draggin’, oversized lizards. If there’s one thing the dinosaurs ought to be known for — other than not being green, tail-dragging, or lizards — it’s that there were a ton of them, all shapes and sizes. So, as we approach the end of the world of dinosaurs, this is the perfect opportunity to do a little guinness record thing. I”m going to keep that lower-case because I wouldn’t want to be rivaling the actual World Record people. I did get some of these answers from them, though.

This will be about the -ests. The biggest, smallest, smartest, dumbest, earliest, and so on. I start with the weirdest, the deinocheirus. The name means horrible hand, and the skeleton itself looks like a patchwork quilt. It had an upturned claw on a hand, but also had a ducky bill, long tail, and a hump thing on its back. Or you could call those back spines “sails,” if you like. I have to trust the paleontologist that they got this right. There have been many instances of skeletons being mixed and mashed together, though, but this is not one of them.

Here’s our deino, without the skin. See? Still looks weird.

Deinocheirus skeleton, a weird theropod, photo from Wikipedia.
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U is for Utah

Author’s note: We are down to the last six posts of the alphabet. You may have noticed that they’re going to slide a few days into May, so not technically finishing in A to Z April. Still, let’s finish this alphabetic journey about dinosaurs … we are on the home stretch!

Geology Utah, dinosaurs discovered across the variety of ages.

Normally, I would not be touting tourist information for any particular place, and certainly not gathering or sharing information from a chamber of commerce-y site. But this is about dinosaurs and that site is Utah. Utah is a dinosaur place. So is Wyoming and so is Colorado. And China, Argentina, Mongolia. Those are your international dinosaur hot spots.

(Gosh, I sure would like to go Ulaanbataar and see their dinosaur fossils and Chinggis Khan artifacts. How am I ever going to convince my spouse that would be the next great vacation, when we haven’t even been to Paris or Germany or Prague or Madrid… hmmm… anyway.)

There’s just no getting around it. Utah was prime real estate for capturing fossils from almost all significant ages. It also has the second-most different types of dinosaurs discovered, only behind China.

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