An Introduction to Pterosaurs

Anyone who’s ever heard of a dinosaur almost certainly also knows about the pterosaurs- the flying reptiles that often serve as window dressing or to give a sense of scale to depictions of dinosaurs in prehistoric artwork. They also, to the eternal exasperation of paleontologists, get labeled by the media as ‘flying dinosaurs’. But the pterosaurs deserve better, and the study of their diversity and biology makes for a fascinating look into the Mesozoic Era.

To begin with, it bears repeating that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs, as they don’t have the anatomical features necessary for this classification (see our article on what it takes to be a dinosaur for more on this). But they’re close to dinosaurs, on the same side of the archosaur family tree, and are probably the closest major group to the dinosaurs themselves. They also showed …

Big Carnivores

Have you ever encountered a big predatory dinosaur in a book, museum, movie, etc., and ventured to identify said dinosaur as a Tyrannosaurus, only to be informed by some dino-obsessed little know-it-all (like your humble author) that what you thought was good old T. rex is actually Carcharodontosaurus saharicus, or Tarbosaurus baatar, or some other unheard of prehistoric beast? When did paleontologists name so many other dinosaurs? A lot of us grow up learning only the ‘fundamental’ dinosaurs of kid’s books and Spielberg movies. You have Brontosaurus as the long-necked one, Triceratops as the horned one, Stegosaurus as the weird spikey one, throw in some generic hadrosaurs bathing in the background for scenery, and T. rex as the big nasty bad guy.

I would probably blame the ‘quiet years’ of paleontology from the 30’s to the 70’s …

The Dinosaur of Champions

In the last article, we talked about the taxonomic confusion surrounding North American troodontids, and how this uncertainty is just now being resolved. What might come as a surprise to many readers is that the common hadrosaurid dinosaur Edmontosaurus, also known since the early days of paleontology in North America, has just as convoluted a history. It’s taken some miraculous discoveries and a lot of effort from paleontologists both past and present to work out the classification of this dinosaur and to overturn the myths and misconceptions surrounding its biology. Edmontosaurus, in turn, has rewarded paleontologists with a better understanding of dinosaur biology than nearly any extinct animal.

In a way, Edmontosaurus is kind of the ‘classic’ duck-billed dinosaur. With its long, flat skull and big duck-like beak, it’s pretty vanilla compared to some other hadrosaurs with their …

What’s Going On With Troodon?

It’s a precarious gamble in paleontology naming a new species of dinosaur from a single, isolated tooth. Things get pretty confusing after a while, which is why modern paleontologists don’t really do this anymore, and use unique, diagnostic features in the bones plus the teeth of fossil animals as a basis for describing a new species. A good example of this can be seen in the story of Troodon, a dinosaur many people think they know… But do we really?

The name Troodon formosus was given to a tooth collected in Montana in 1855. It was named by the forefather of American paleontology Joseph Leidy the following year, making it one of the first dinosaur remains known from North America (Leidy, 1856). It’s hard to blame Leidy for naming a whole new animal from a single tooth, since the …

A Day in the Life of Triceratops

Quick- picture everyone’s favourite horned dinosaur, Triceratops. More specifically, picture it alive, in its ecosystem, doing typical Triceratops things. Okay, how many people imagined this dinosaur engaged in mortal combat with its eternal nemesis, Tyrannosaurus? I don’t gamble, but if I did, I’d bet at least a few people imagined this. I find that when Triceratops is reconstructed in popular media doing more than just standing pretty to be admired, it’s usually doing one of two things: squaring off against the perpetual assault of T. rex (as in countless paintings, dioramas, exhibits, and films), or lying on the ground dead or dying. While I understand the appeal of the dramatic showdown between the last giant carnivore and horn-face of the Cretaceous, I think history has done a disservice to this dinosaur. It was more than just Tyrannosaurus chow

What’s the Biggest Dinosaur?

The mystery of the biggest dinosaur is one that, surprisingly, doesn’t concern most palaeontologists. That might seem unusual. What’s the point of these gigantic animals if we don’t figure out, first and foremost, which one was the biggest of them all?

It would be hard to deny that no one, palaeontologist or layperson, is completely unimpressed with the biggest dinosaurs known to science. Getting a sense of how big some of the true giants were reawakens that sense of childhood wonder that we’re all born with, but only a lucky few ever keep. But palaeontologists don’t study dinosaurs simply because they’re big. There are dozens of experts out there who pin their careers on fossil animals ranging from the size of an eagle to the size of a sparrow.

It’s the thrill of uncovering another fragment of a primordial world …

The Real Tyrannosaurus

With nearly every movie star in the world, the fans usually only see the glamourous side, their true nature only glimpsed by the privileged few lucky enough to dwell within the insular world they occupy. Once we see the truth of our celebrities, it’s often disappointing, and leaves us disillusioned. I think this is how many people feel when confronted with the unglamorous facts about the world’s most famous dinosaur.

Tyrannosaurus rex has always had to struggle to live up to its own hype. The beast was named by American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborne (remember him from the Velociraptor article?) from material collected in Wyoming by Osborne’s right-hand-man, the legendary Barnum Brown. Osborne knew he had a prize on his hands- the largest carnivorous dinosaur known at the time- and Brown returned from further expeditions with …

The Real Velociraptor

Aside from Tyrannosaurus, the small Mongolian dromaeosaur Velociraptor has probably achieved the most fame and notoriety among the general public. We’re all familiar with its frequent brushes with movie stardom within the past twenty years, although usually still playing second fiddle to Tyrannosaurus. It’s important to remember, however, that Velociraptor was a real animal, not just a movie monster created by Hollywood writers. The real animal, as near as we can tell, was actually a far cry from what most non-paleontologists imagine Velociraptor to be like. Let’s get to know this dinosaur a little better through the lens of science and illuminate the facts around it.

Velociraptor was described in 1924 by the notorious autocrat of paleontology at the time, Henry Fairfield Osborne, based on a skull collected from Mongolia in the early 20’s. It had only been …

So What IS a Dinosaur, Then?

Is your favourite dinosaur the sail-backed Dimetrodon? Or is it one of the wonderful flying pterosaurs? Or maybe it’s one of those sea-going dinosaurs, perhaps a type of long-necked plesiosaur or a shark-like mosasaur? If you’d say any of these are your favourite dinosaur, I have sad news- these creatures, though wonderful in their own right, are not dinosaurs.

Hopefully I didn’t lose any paleontology specialists there.

Instead of the usual thing where we go through the list and name off famous fossil creatures that are not dinosaurs, I’m going to illuminate what scientists mean by the word ‘dinosaur’. Casual dialogue, especially in the media, tends to use ‘dinosaur’ to mean any (usually big and ferocious) extinct animal. This implies as well that dinosaurs, by definition, can’t still be alive (and preferably not small and timid). However, the word …

Fossil Predators of the Wapiti Formation

The late Cretaceous rock unit exposed throughout much of northwestern Alberta is known as the Wapiti Formation, named by George Dawson for the river along which many of its outcroppings can be found. The Wapiti Formation overlaps in age with other rock units from the southern parts of the province, namely the Dinosaur Park, Bearpaw, and Horseshoe Canyon Formations. However, while these southern formations have been extensively researched for over a hundred years, the Wapiti Formation has been largely ignored by professionals until fairly recently. Lacking vast swaths of badlands where fossils can be found with relative ease, Alberta’s northwest is mostly covered by dense forests and farmlands, which means getting to exposures and looking for fossils usually isn’t easy.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t fossils here worth looking for. Quite the opposite in fact- with many of …

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