Bakker blogs: Indiana Dipsy & the Temple of More Room — A fascinating tail of surprise

Here’s the poster (as I see it) for the latest episode in the long-running Indiana Jones franchise, with Harrison Ford playing Diplodocus playing Indiana Jones.

Before you object to its realism, Harrison is not too old; our Dipsy will be, after all, 148  million, 345 thousand and 77 years old on a Thursday in November.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Indiana Dippy Thwarts a Gang of Cut-Throat allosaurs
along the Red Fork of the Powder River.

Actually, the art is from Dr. Bob’s favorite book from the fourth grade, So Long Ago, by E. Boyd Smith, published 70 years ago. According to the book, the great whip-fighter is supposed to be a Brontosaurus, but our Diplodocus would be very similar, just skinnier around the middle. So Long Ago is hard to find but worth the effort.

For his role as the Professor-Dipsy, Ford will have to be fitted with a prosthetic neck (his is short by nine vertebrae) and we will have to insert an animatronic bull whip to his derrière, in classic Diplodocus style. We’ll have to contact his agent, but we’re sure he won’t mind.

Opening scene: The tortuous canyons around Hole in the Wall, Wyoming, where the Red Fork of the Powder River cuts steep gorges and box canyons that confuse lawmen and tourists. Jones is investigating rumors of a cache of antique gold coins stolen by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Their gang stopped the Union Pacific Railroad Express train, blew open the safe, and absconded with the relics, plus cash. (That really did happen.)

We see Indiana Dipsy following the miscreants’ trail up the dry wash. Meanwhile, hiding in the rocks a hundred feet above are the scaly heads of allosaur outlaws, who lick their thin lizard-lips in anticipation of an ambush. “This’ll be easy…” they think as they evaluate the weapons carried by the Dipsy. “Weak jaws, wussy thin teeth…he can’t bite back.”

“Whooop whooop!”  Down they come, a dozen hardened criminals, armed with saw-edged knives in their mouths. It looks like Indy-Dipsy can’t possibly escape.

“Wwwwwwwwffffffffft  WHAM!” Our hero lashes out with his whip tail, catching the nearest brigand around the throat. “Yank-thud”: The would-be bushwhacker gets toppled. Now our Indiana Dipsy clambers up the canyon wall, deftly hopping from one boulder to another.

“Haha!” He yells derisively, “You thought you had me cornered. Bet you didn’t know that I was born right here in Hole in the Wall!”

The tail sweeps right and left. Up and down. Desperado-allosaurs get flipped and tossed, smacked along their muzzles, tumbled under boulders and rolled down by the dancing Diplodocus.

“I grew up here. I know every niche and cavern. I played with the young Sheriff Bill Utterback all over these rocks!”

***

Gripping, right?  And, as they say in Hollywood, “Based on a true story.” Our very own HMNS Diplodocus did, in fact, come from the Red Fork of the Powder River, from an outcrop of red and green mudstone just a stone’s throw away from Hole in the Wall. Plus, the Red Fork Dipsy was a champion tail-fighter who could whip a score of opponents all at once. His trainer in tail-martial arts was W. H. Utterback from the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

Bill Utterback — The “Redoubtable Utterback” as he was known back then, was already a famous Frontier Dino-Hunter when he penetrated the badlands of the Red Fork in 1902 and 1903. He had scored an entirely new kind of long-necked dinosaurian monster at Canon City, Colorado, the site of the new Federal Penitentiary. Canon City and Boulder had fought over who was going to get the state university and who was going to get the prison. (Boulder lost.)

Utterback’s Canon City finds became Haplocanthosaurus, an herbivore with anatomical features that contrast with those of Dipsies . Haplos have stubby, thin tails and very long front legs, resemblances to the ginormous Brachiosaurus. Go to the Cleveland Museum to see an excellent Haplo — one of eleven great reasons to visit that city. (The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is reason #7.)

Haplos were part of the “Bite-Back” group of long-necked vegetarians, a clan that includes the very common camarasaurs. Jaw muscles were large, by herbivore standards, and the front teeth were immense. These were no timid dinosaurian Bambis. They could crunch down on unwary carnivores. It’s very interesting that the Bite-Back species had much stronger jaws than did Dipsies, but far weaker tails.

Here’s an angry camarasaur running down a terrified baby allosaur.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Though Haplos were intriguing to scholars, the real star of the Jurassic at the time was Diplodocus and its kin, creatures with weak muzzles, extraordinarily elongated necks and rumps of massive construction. The Pittsburgh crew had already scored a pair of fine Diplodocus along Sheep Creek, Wyoming, in the 1890’s. The New York museum got a super rump and tail from Como Bluff, Wyoming about the same time.

Here’s the New York view of Dipsy: Note that the beast is standing tripod-fashion, using the mightily muscled tail as the center leg. Why is the lab guy hitting the dino with a chisel?  I haven’t a clue.

Note where the tail meets the ground:

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

***

New York became the center of Dipsy-ology when, beginning in 1899, they exhumed a half-dozen skeletons at Bone Cabin Quarry just north of Como.

So, when Utterback arrived at Hole in the Wall in ’02, an entire posse of Diplodocus had been dug up at a half dozen spots. Skulls, necks, shoulders, torsos, rumps, feet were well represented. Andrew Carnegie, who footed the bill for the  Pittsburgh expeditions, was immensely pleased with the results. The bone-hunters honored their benefactor by naming the Pittsburgh species Diplodocus carnegiei, which became the most famous Dipsy species, a status it still retains today. Dipsy-specialists felt self-satisfied too. They were sure they understood every compartment of the Diplodocus body form.

They were wrong.

Dipsy tails were the problem, but no one suspected that there was a caudal flaw in all the reconstructions. Dipsy tails were powerful near the hips and then tapered down to a blunt point, in the manner of a croc tail, or so everybody thought. That’s the way all the plaster copies of Carnegie’s Dipsy were mounted in Berlin, in London, in Vienna, and many other spots.

Check out this gorgeous anatomical drawing of the New York Dipsy: Note how the artist showed the termination of the tail. The diagram fibs a bit — New York crews had not actually found the final tail vertebra.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Then came Utterback. He explored Hole in the Wall and found our Dipsy, a rather delicate-looking individual. Excellent portions of neck, torso, limbs — and tail. This skeleton would be named Diplodocus hayi and would eventually come to Houston. The base of the tail was standard Diplodocus: thick where it attached to the hips, thinning down until it reached where it should stop, according to all the brightest and best among Jurassic dino-thinks. But it didn’t stop! The Hole in the Wall Dippy tail kept going and going and getting thinner and thinner and losing all the normal prongs of bones for joints and muscles that normal vertebrae have. At about vertebra number 40, counting from the hips, the tail bones became so thin they looked like nunchucks, those rods of wood martial-arts fellows like to swing around. The nunchucks then continued for another 20 vertebrae or more. When Utterback got to the last vertebrae preserved in the series, he was sure there had been more in the living animal, because dino tails end in a short half-vert, with a pointy rear end. Utterback’s tail terminated in another long nunchuck that must have connected with at least one more, to mark the extreme finality of the caudal organ.

Look at this fine anatomical diagram of Utterback’s tail tip. The entire intact Dipsy tail was longer than the neck and body put together. The last 30 feet of tail looked like an enormous bull-whip.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Even the veteran Carnegie Museum folks were flummoxed by this, although there had been hints of a nunchuck-tail one English Jurassic dino. Utterback’s discovery forced all the museums to re-boot their tail diagrams.  Inside museum drawers from old digs they found nunchucks that had been mingled with Diplodocus bones. The scientists just hadn’t paid enough attention to these strange bones. New excavations in Utah backed up Utterback. Skeletons of Dipsies and their close kin, the apatosaurs, revealed complete tails. Every one had the same arrangement seen in the Hole in the Wall specimen. Clearly all the Dipsy tails in all the exhibits and textbooks had to be changed. In a few years, it was clear that Dipsies were not alone in carrying the multiple nunchuck device. Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus*, extra-massive fellows with the same basic proportions of Diplodocus, were equipped with the super-whip too.

There still was one more major correction that needed to be made in how the tail was restored. The Carnegie folks made the tail droop down  from the hips, like this:

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

The droopy reconstruction forced the tail to lie along the ground for most of its length. Problem: trackways proved that Dipsy-type dinos moved in big herds. Wouldn’t the tails get stepped on?  At the Smithsonian, dino-sleuth C. W. Gilmore scrutinized the joint where tail met the hips. The droopy arrangement had to be wrong, way wrong, because the joint on the back of the hips didn’t match the joint on the front of the tail. When he rearranged the bones correctly in his Dipsy, Gilmore was delighted to see that the tail didn’t droop at all. Instead the tail rose up and out from the hips and then made a long, slow descent. The widely arching tail made much more anatomical sense — and it looked infinitely cooler.

Clearly the whip-tailed dinos carried their tail high off the ground, where it wouldn’t be stepped on and where it was ready to lash out. And here is the elegant result: the Dipsy at Denver, re-mounted a la Gilmore. Now the tail didn’t drag.

Dipsy Goes Down: Dr. Bakker blogs about our Diplodocus de-installation

Your Curator, Dr. Bob, wrote his first scientific paper as a geeky undergrad on how Dipsy tails never dragged.

The whip-tailed giants of the Jurassic were obviously designed for some serious martial arts, nunchuck-wise. The long thin bones in the tail tip would have been surrounded by a sheath of flexible skin and ligaments. When the huge muscles in the tail-base twitched, the lightweight tail tip would go slashing at high speed. Estimates go to 700 mph and beyond. You could hear the Dipsy tail cracking like a whip. As a weapon, it was unique among dinosaurs. Only Dipsies and the related families used multi-nunchucks to trip their enemies and lash their foes. Whip-tails were most diverse in the Late Jurassic, but some survived into the next Period, the Cretaceous. The very last whip-tail was the magnificent Alamosaurus of the Late Cretaceous. The Perot Museum in Dallas has a fine reconstructed skeleton, tail held high.

You can see a bunch of whip-tailed dinos on display all over the world. But remember, it all started with our Houston Dipsy and the careful digging of Bill Utterback. Which is the best whip-tail display? OURS! Because the tail is actually whipping around, coiled on the right, ready to swing fast to the left.

*There’s a lot of confusion about these two genera, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus. Most dino-scholars put the Bronto species into the genus Apatosaurus. Your Curator, Dr. B., and Matt Mossbrucker, the Director of the Morrison Museum in Morrison, Colorado, are studying new specimens of giant whip-tails from the Jurassic; we’re giving a paper at the big Geological Society of America conference in late October. Our conclusions: The species Brontosaurus excelsus and Apatosaurus ajax were related but turn out to be far more distinct than we had thought. It has not escaped our notice that these new specimens might force us to re-appraise the status of Brontosaurus.

Why all the Shark Week mania over megalodon? Why two other sharks blow it out of the water

With all the fuss over megalodon lately (including the Discovery Channel’s doubled-down non-apology), we decided to give some attention to a couple of grossly unappreciated other prehistoric sharks. Great whites are great and all, and megalodon is a marvelous monstrosity, but there are two other prehistoric shark species that really blow everything else out of the water.

We get that megalodon is mega-huge, and it’s thrilling to ruminate over an extra-large, extra-hungry version of today’s Great White. But what about sharks with scissors for jaws? Or a buzz-saw mouth full of teeth?

It’s not science fiction. Here are two prehistoric sharks that we think should be in the running for their own Shark Week special:

Edestus

There were several species of this scissor-jawed prehistoric shark, the largest of which — Edestus giganteus — could rival the size of a modern Great White. But instead of regular shark teeth (which are pretty scary as is), Edestus had a mouth that cut like giant scissors.

“When you say ‘shark,’ the first thing that pops in your head is teeth,” says Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple. “Sharks have had similar kinds of teeth, but there were some weird evolutionary offshoots where the teeth don’t look like we imagine them now. Instead of the rows and rows of teeth that we expect the mouth, Edestus’ mouth looked more like a modern dolphin’s, and its teeth were more like shearing scissors.”

Image courtesy wikimedia

Edestus wound up with its unusual, protruding shears (pictured above and reenacted here) because it did not shed its worn teeth like a modern shark would. Instead, new teeth continued to grow outward until its two rows of single-file teeth protruded out past its mouth.

Helicoprion

Also called the whorl shark, the Helicoprion is notable for its bizarre toothy set-up. Like Edestus, instead of shedding its old, worn teeth, Helicoprion retained them, adding new teeth in a single row in a spiral formation (imagine the growth pattern of the world’s longest fingernails, and you’ll get the idea.)

For years, Helicoprion’s remains confused scientists and an accurate body outline eluded researchers:

Photo courtesy Scientific American
The many faces of Helicoprion, courtesy of Ray Troll for Scientific American.

Recently, though, a report published in Biology Letters offered new insight into the shark’s unusual jaw. Instead of protruding past the lower jaw and coiling beneath the chin, as was once thought, or existing completely externally as some sort of defensive structure, scientists now believe that the shark — which had no teeth at all in its upper jaw — housed its “whorl” of teeth inside its lower jaw. To kill soft-bodied prey, it sliced upward like a buzz-saw, using this vertical spiral of teeth to push food back into its throat.

courtesy WikiMedia

A “whorl” of Helicoprion teeth

“Two of my fantasy acquisitions to the museum are paleozoic sharks,” Temple says of these often underappreciated freaks of the sea.

What say you: Should Discovery Channel devote a special to these super-special sharks?

On the Discovery Channel’s megalodon bungle: In defense of cryptozoology and critical thinking

For us, as for many science lovers, it’s currently our favorite season. Some might even call it the most wonderful time of the year: Shark Week.

The Discovery Channel’s annual full-channel takeover, devoted to all things predatory and sleek, is one of the single-most anticipated science events of the year. So we were a little disappointed — as, apparently, were many Discovery Channel viewers — when the network aired a film that implied that the extinct monstershark megalodon might not really be extinct.

We consider ourselves something of experts on the subject, because, well, this:

Megalodon Jaws
(That’s our Associate Curator of Paleontology, David Temple, with our Adult Education Director, Amy Potts, NOT being swallowed alive by an EXTINCT shark.)

We sat down with Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple to dish over the epic bungle and set the record straight. Here’s his point-by-point breakdown of how wrong — WRONG WE TELL YOU! — it all is:

Point 1 (less a point than a fun fact):

The largest recorded (and verified) Great White Shark was caught off Prince Edward Island in 1988. It measured 20 feet long, meaning the 25-foot “Great White” featured in Jaws would have actually been more believable as a megalodon. The movie is, of course, fictional. Temple says there is a truism in diving that Discovery might have missed during its excitement over giant sharks: “Everything underwater looks a third bigger and a third closer than it really is, except for sharks. Then you can multiply that times 10.”

Point 2

For a threatened “living fossil” species to exist, they must retreat into the margins of their ecosystems. See: the Coelacanth. Megalodons required tropical, warm water to survive, and so for them, retreating into the depths of the ocean simply wouldn’t be a viable option.

Point 3

Megalodons were, as the Discovery Channel portrayed, extremely aggressive and proficient predators. As a result, their impact on their native ecosystems was great. If a population of megalodons yet existed, it’s impossible that we wouldn’t have noticed.

Point 4

If megalodons still existed, even in the cool depths where they couldn’t possibly survive, we would have seen a carcass by now. Even the Giant Squid, seen for the first time just last year, periodically washed up on shore to confirm its existence.

So in conclusion, while it’s fun to imagine a world in which megalodons still swam the seas (“Imagine Jaws on steroids,” says Temple); and while cryptozoologists chasing hidden and mythical creatures like the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot are occasionally right (see: the Okapi); you’d be far more likely to discover a small new species of frog than a 70-foot shark that could eat a fishing boat.

Point? Science.

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer’s utterly subjective examination

Editor’s Note: This blog comes to us courtesy of longtime volunteer John Moffitt.

I lead tours through the new HMNS Paleo Hall and spend a lot of time in the Paleozoic. Sometimes this ties in with a class on trilobites. During these tours, I answer a lot of questions like, “What is a trilobite, anyway?”

But a favorite question has always been, “What is the best trilobite in the collection?” The question may be worded differently or be slightly more specific, but an array of related questions always comes up:

•    What is the rarest trilobite?
•    What is the most scientifically significant trilobite?
•    What is your favorite trilobite?
•    Which trilobite is the most valuable?

The answers to these and similar questions are often different, and sometimes involve a process of further qualifying the question. To some degree, many of these questions involve personal opinion. For this article, I am going to put the question in terms of my own personal favorite trilobite with no further qualification required. Quite convenient!

I will pretend that I have done something so significant that the museum gives me a one-chance opportunity to walk through the entire trilobite collection, pick one out and take it home to live with me.

Once I’ve selected my favorite, I’ll tell you where to look for my favorite trilobite, a few things about where it was collected, and maybe even a few suggestions on how the museum might improve the overall display.

It will come as no surprise to anybody that knows me that I would select an odontopleurid trilobite, since I often wear one on my hat and my favorite trilobite graphics are nearly always odontopleurids. I am also known to have a special love for Oklahoma Devonian odontopleurids from the Arbuckle Mountains. For this exercise, I will pick an Ordovician odontopleurid, the enrolled Boedaspis ensifer located on your left shortly after entering the Paleozoic part of the museum exhibit.

While Boedaspis ensifer is a very rare Ordovician trilobite, a number of good specimens have been collected over the last 60 years. It wasn’t described until 1960, and even then only from trilobite fragments. Two of the very best complete specimens of Boedaspis ensifer that have ever been collected are in the museum in the current display. Both of these trilobites were donated from the Sam Stubbs collection.

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

In my opinion, this enrolled specimen of Boedaspis ensifer is the absolute best trilobite in the museum’s collection.
Family: Odontopleuridae BURMEISTER 1843
Genus: Genus Boedaspis WHITTINGTON & BOHLIN 1960
Species: Boedaspis ensifer WHITTINGTON & BOHLIN 1960

My reasons include — but are not limited to — the following:
•    This is a rare trilobite in any condition
•    This is one of the more interesting positions to find an odontopleurid
•    This is one of the best preparations of any trilobite that I’ve ever seen
•    This is one of the most beautiful and spectacular fully prepared trilobites that I’ve ever laid eyes on

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

This is a map of where most of the museum’s trilobites are displayed:

Using a map of the trilobite section of the hall, you can find my favorite trilobite on Wall C. But you would first need to pass by an outstretched specimen of the exact same species located across the walkway on Wall B, mixed in with some Devonian trilobites. The specimen of Boedaspis ensifer on Wall C was selected mostly because of the position it died and was permanently preserved in, inside mud that finally became rock, and because of the extraordinary preparation used to remove that rock.

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

Other views of the enrolled specimen Boedaspis ensifer help illustrate why this is — for my money — The Best Trilobite.

A slow turn from the rear position reveals the full richness of this trilobite. The outstretched specimen of that same species is shown here:

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

Both of these trilobites were collected from the Lower Ordovician Putilovo Quarry and the Kunda Herizont Formation, over 100 kilometers east of St Petersburg, Russia. Notice Putilovo down the M-18 freeway on the right side of this Russian map.

The Best Trilobite: A volunteer's utterly subjective examination

The entire length of this Ordovician shelf is an excellent collecting location for the entire Ordovician geological sequence. The Houston museum collection currently has 20 Ordovician trilobites on display that were collected from this region.

There are a lot of rarer, more important, and more valuable trilobites in the museum’s collection. You have to visit more than once to fully appreciate the many dimensions of this collection of extinct arthropods. Museum members get a free chance to visit the paleo hall as often as they choose, and there is always a FREE afternoon on Thursdays for those who are not museum members. Sam Stubbs has donated many of the trilobite specimens that you will see in this collection, and many of these are the best in the world for that species.

Continue your education at our hands-on Adult Education class this Tuesday, August 6 at 6 p.m. For more information or to reserve tickets online, click here.