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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T is for T. rex

Feathered TRex from Everything Dinosaur blog (2018)

Mr. T!

Why wasn’t in named T. regina? (Tyrannosaurus regina, Queen of the dinosaurs?) I suppose that’s a pipe dream. Consider who discovered them first and named them first. Women weren’t in charge of naming at the time.

He was a formidable guy. And there were a lot of him around, as the world seems to be full of many T. rex and general tyrannosaurus species specimens. They’re finding them practically every year out in the deserts of China and Montana. T. rex is arguably the most popular dinosaur, the best known. Plus, people love to make fun of those tiny arms.

1905 version of the skeleton.

The History of the Finding

The first person to find T. rex fossils was named after P.T. Barnum, circus showman, which seems appropriate. His name was Barnum Brown, and he was the new naturalist running the brand spanking new American Museum of Natural History in New York. They had a bit of funding, so Barnum was out in the west digging for bones. And he found them.

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S is for Skin

Dinosaurs had a lot of skin in the game, even though it’s rather hard to find it 200 million years later. They did have a lot of skin in general. That process of fossilization I described back in letter “F” replaces bone with minerals, though. Skin has to be preserved in a completely different way. It must be mummified, i.e., geologically captured in a unique set of circumstances that don’t allow it be replaced with anything. Skin is tricky to discover.

But there are a few examples, and they can tell us plenty about what the reptile rulers were like.

The preserved Borealopelta, photo on Reddit.

Dino-Mummies

It’s difficult for dinosaur skin to be found intact, but miners in Canada managed to find an exquisitely preserved–it can hardly be called anything else–nearly full skin, complete with horn edges and the face of a type of ankylosaur. This was a nodosaur that they called Borealopelta, meaning “northern shield,” in reference to its discovery origin and covering.

The circumstances of preservation were unusual. Our Borealopelta fell into water when it died, then flipped upside-down. That wasn’t particularly odd as corpses do float after death, typically filling with gases. Perhaps because its thick top layer was so much heavier than the dead, soft underside, the dead animal turned belly-side up, then sank into the mud. It was held fast and did not decay, the sands inside the water acting in this case as a mummifying agent rather than as a conduit to replace living tissue with rock.

When the Canadian paleontologist pulled it out they saw a beautiful set of scales, clearly defining the horns that had long been known as stubborn resistance to predators. Yet they also found something else in the skin. There were remnants of skin-marking melanosomes, the organic things that create coloration and pigmentation.

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