Wait a second. Why did dinosaurs have tails?

Question: Why does T. rex have such a big tail?

Answer: The tail is a counterbalance, so the body doesn’t come crashing down.

Everyone knows this is the right answer. All the books in the volunteer library say so. We’ve been telling kids this since 1907 (or thereabouts).

You can do an experiment. Go to the Museum Store. Buy a plastic T. rex. Cut off the tail with your Leatherman. Watch the plastic T. rex fall. See? Case closed.

Bakker - Tail Blog 1Dr. Bob does say that’s the right answer. But he also says it is the totally wrong answer.

Dang PhD! Doesn’t he know we have to talk to 35 fourth-graders all at once in our Fossil Hall? We need simple, direct answers, not some sort of Talmudic rumination that goes around in circles and ties itself in knots like a philosophical pretzel.

Wait. He does make a good point or two.

First point: Dino tails were made of live bone and thick muscle, tissue that’s expensive for any animal to make. To grow his massive tail, a rex would have to eat lots more protein and minerals than what he would need if he were tail-less. Any rex who could do away with his tail would save 35 percent of his total food bill.

If the only purpose of the tail is to be dead weight that balances the body in front of the hips, it seems silly to build the tail out of such costly material.

Second point: Consider the turkey. Or a free range chicken or ostrich. Or Texas roadrunner. They are just as bipedal as a tyrannosaur or allosaur but they have hardly any bone or muscle in their stubby little tails (tail feathers are very light and inexpensive).

Go out to a farm and chase chickens and turkeys. Come to Seymour and try to catch a roadrunner as it zig-zags between the cactus. You will discover that these nearly tail-less critters run around and maneuver quite efficiently — and hardly ever fall over on their beaks.

Bakker - Tail Blog 2If evolution can make a bird who balances perfectly without a heavy tail, why would Darwinian processes insist on giving dinosaurs such wasteful rear ends? Let’s walk through the history of tails to see how function shifted over the last 380 million years.

Stage One: The Earliest Amphibian, the First Vertebrate with Legs and Toes Fit for Walking.

We trust you’ve been watching “Your Inner Fish” on TV. Go read the book. It’s a great story about how the earliest four-legged fossils were dug in Greenland, stubby-limbed fellows named Icthyostega and Acanthostega. These species retained some very fishy features, like internal gills, tail fins designed for swimming, and heads that had no way to hear airborne sound waves. They did have thick, strong thigh bones (femora) with large joints for the hip socket and knee.

Bakker - Tail Blog 3On the back of the thigh bone is a bump where a major muscle attached — it is the “tail-thigh muscle”, or, if you’re a fossil geek, you can use the Latin caudo-femoralis. Reptiles today have that muscle, as do salamanders.

Next time you are in Grand Chenier, La., go to the Cajun restaurant and order gator tail. The big chunk of meat you are eating is the tail-thigh muscle. It’s immense. It attaches to the side of the tail bones and then runs forward to attach to that bump on the thigh bone.

(More fossil-jargon for paleo-nerds: muscle bumps on the thigh are labelled “trochanters”, and the tail-thigh muscle is hooked onto the “fourth trochanter.” No, I’m not going to explain the other three trochanters; if you must know, get Al Romer’s The Vertebrate Body).

When the tail-thigh muscle contracted in Ichthyostega , it pulled the hind limb back and pushed the body forward. In other words, the tail-thigh muscle was one of the main propulsive organs that let the earliest four-legged animals walk. Top speed wasn’t fast; more of a steady waddle.

Stage Two: Early Reptiles, about 300 million years ago.

Early reptilian legs were much longer than in the early amphibs, and the beasts were far more nimble. The tail-thigh muscle still was the No. 1 propulsive unit, pulling back on the fourth trochanter in every step. The end of the tail was very long and whip-like, so it could be used as a weapon to slap other reptiles or inquisitive amphibians who got too close.

Bakker - Tail Blog  4Stage Three: Land Crocs, Close Kin of Dinosaurs, about 210-250 million years ago.

A major upgrade in running equipment came in the Triassic with the evolution of land crocs (technical label: the “suchia,” from the Greek word for croc). Land crocs did include the direct ancestors of today’s water-loving crocodiles and alligators, plus a dazzling array of land-lubbers. Leg action was even stronger than in the earliest reptiles, and the tail-thigh muscle was of great size.

Footprints show that most types of land crocs walked on all fours. However, the hind limbs were much, much thicker and longer than the front, so the tail-thigh muscle was dominant in thrusting the animals forward, with only a little help from the forelimb.

Bakker - Tail Blog 5Land crocs filled the Middle and Late Triassic with a dynamic horde of adaptive variations — we have three examples in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. There were huge predators with heads over a yard long, armed with saw-edged fangs (Postosuchus), who used their hefty tail-thigh muscles to generate fast running speeds. And there were armor-plated plant-eaters (Desmatosuchus) who employed their tails to brace the forequarters when the up-turned snout was busy excavating roots and tubers. And there were immense fish-eaters with long snouts bristling with stabbing teeth up front and, in the rear, steak knife teeth for cutting prey (Smilosuchus and its cousin Rutiodon). These aquatic species developed deep, flat-sided tails that were useful for swooshing underwater, providing locomotion a la croc or a la gator.

Bakker - Tail Blog 6Here are two land crocs featured in our Fossil Hall. The spiky fellow is Desmatosuchus, an herbivore. The big-headed chap is Postosuchus, a predator. Both are common fossils in the Triassic Red Beds of Texas and adjacent New Mexico.

Bakker - Tail Blog 7And here’s Rutiodon, a land croc who modified the tail into a swimming organ. Our Smilosuchus is a close kin. The drawing is by the great S. W. Williston for his delightful book, Water Reptiles of the Past and Present. Williston did all his own illustrations — my hero!

Stage Four: Carnivorous Dinosaurs, about 200 million years ago.  

The first genuine dinos evolved from a quadrupedal ancestor shaped like a Land Croc. The dinos took the trends in limb evolution to extremes. They reduced the size of the front legs even more, and increased the length and thickness of the hind. Voila! The early meat-eating dinosaurs were completely, unapologetically bipedal. Since the tail was already very heavy, it found employment balancing the forequarters.

My old professor Stephen J. Gould would label this event as an “exaptation.” That’s when an organ first evolves to fulfill some initial function — in this case, the tail-thigh muscle developed to power the hind limb stroke — and then, later, turns out to be useful in a new role: balancing.

Bakker - Tail Blog 8See! The long tail of bipedal dinosaurs did NOT first evolve as a counterbalance.

It first evolved in strictly quadrupedal animals, the earliest fishy-oid amphibian. The tail was the attachment for the tail-thigh muscle, a key unit of the hind limb stroke. The tail remained very important in walking and running in early reptiles and then in the close kin of dino ancestors, the quadrupedal land crocs. The first dinos were similar to land crocs except the hind legs were bigger and the fore legs smaller. Since they already had a super-heavy tail, the dinos were equipped to shift into a strictly bipedal style.

Yes, the T. rex tail served as a counterbalance. But all through the evolution of rex ancestors, going back to 380 million years ago, the tail’s main purpose had been as an attachment site for the super-sized tail-thigh muscle.

Where Night at the Museum Goes Wrong. And Black Labs Go Right.

I love the Night at the Museum movie, especially the T. rex skeleton that comes to life. However … the rex does illegal things. He wags his tail like a dinosaurian bloodhound or Labrador retriever.

Wrong. Since the tail-thigh muscle was thick and attached to the thigh, rex-like dinos couldn’t twitch, flip, wag or otherwise wiggle their tail with quick movements. Crocs and lizards have the same limitation: powerful sweeps of the tail are fine, but twitchy movements are impossible.

That’s why pet gators don’t wag their tails — even if you throw them a frisbee.

Bakker - Tail Blog 9Hmmmmmmm … that brings up a mystery. We mammals evolved from an ancestor very close to Dimetrodon, the fin-back reptile of some 285 million years ago. D’dons had thigh bones with huge fourth trochanters, where the tail-thigh muscle attached. And that means the tail was linked to the hind limb and incapable of rear-end wiggle-ness.

Modern mammals are weird. None of us has any connection between a tail muscle and the thigh bone, not even big-tailed species like otters, platypuses, pangolins * or giant red kangaroos. Somewhere between Dimetrodon and the earliest true mammal of the Triassic, our ancestors lost the thigh-tail linkage.

How can we tell when it happened? And how can we tell why it happened? It’s not a rhetorical question — I don’t know for sure. No one does. But I do have a hunch …

Bakker - Tail Blog 10*Don’t know what a pangolin is? “Scaly anteater” is another common name. Google it.

Archaeopteryx – The Fossil that Proved Darwin was Right

1859: Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species.” Other scientists had proposed evolutionary theories before but Darwin was the first to work up a detailed case of how natural processes could transform one species into another.

Darwin claimed that even Classes could change – for example, the Class Reptilia could evolve into the Bird Class Aves.

“Where is the fossil proof??” exclaimed doubters. “Where is a transitional fossil that links one Class with another?”

The absence of missing links between Classes bothered Darwin.
………………………

Class to Class evolution would have to bridge immense gaps in anatomy and physiology:

  • Reptiles are a “Low Class.” They’re cold-blooded and can’t raise their body temperature much without basking in the sun. Birds are hot blooded and have so much metabolic heat that they can keep warm even in the snow.
  • Reptiles have scaly skin. Bird skin is clothed in feathers.
  • Reptiles have small, weak hearts and lungs. Birds have huge hearts and extremely efficient lungs.
  • Reptiles have small brains. Bird brains are gigantic, compared to their body mass.
  • Reptiles usually don’t spend much time in caring for their young. Birds lavish parental care on their babies.

Before 1861, it was hard to imagine how evolution could remake a reptile and make it into a bird.

……………..

Archaeopteryx changed all that. It was a bird because it had the complex flight feathers clearly preserved.  Feathers implied hot-bloodedness. And the brain appeared to be bigger than what a typical reptile had. Plus – the hind legs had long, narrow ankles, like a bird’s, not the flat-footed feet of a reptile. Archaeopteryx had three main hind toes pointing forward and a smaller toe pointed inward – the bird pattern, not the five-toed hind paw of a typical reptile.

The Archaeopteryx wing had three fingers arranged like a bird’s, not five as in most reptiles.

But Archaeopteryx  possessed extraordinarily primitive, reptilian features too. The tail had a long line of bony vertebrae. Modern birds have only a short, stubby vertebral column in the tail. Archaeopteryx had the three fingers of the hand separate instead of having the outer two fingers fused together.

Archaeopteryx had big, sharp claws on each of the three fingers instead of the blunt-tipped fingers of typical birds.

And Archaeopteryx had a mouthful of teeth instead of a modern bird’s beak.

More evidence of how birds evolved came in 1868. Professor Cope in New Jersey and Professor Huxley and Phillips in Oxford showed that meat-eating dinosaurs had been put together all wrong. Dinosaur legs weren’t flat-footed and five-toed. Carnivorous dinosaurs, in fact, had long, slim legs with ankles held high off the ground, and the hind foot had three main toes pointing forward. So these dinosaurs had bird-style legs.

Dinosaurs bridged most of the gap between primitive reptiles and Archaeopteryx. Most progressive paleontologists accepted the theory that Archaeopteryx evolved from a dinosaur.

The case became iron-clad in the 1880’s to early 1900’s. Excavations in the American West uncovered small meat-eating dinosaurs, like Ornitholestes, that had very long arms that matching those of Archaeopteryx closely.  The missing links were no longer missing. A primitive reptile had evolved into a primitive dinosaur which evolved into an advanced meat-eating dinosaur. And that dinosaur had evolved into Archaeopteryx, which in turn evolved into modern birds.

This is your last chance to see Archaeopteryx at HMNS. The exhibit is closing after labor day weekend. Don’t miss your chance to see the only Archaeopteryx on display in the Western Hemisphere.

How To Evolve a Wing

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn the different ways in which wings evoloved on various prehistoric creatures.

Solnhofen show us three ways for Darwinian processes to construct a wing from a normal arm

Dactyls:
Dactyls evolved from very close relatives of early dinosaurs. The dinosaurs and their crocodilian kin are archosaurs. Archosaurs developed a unique asymmetry in the hand. Primitive reptiles, like today’s lizards, have five fingers, each with a strong claw. In archosaurs the outer two fingers are weak and have no claw at all.

Crocodilians and many dinosaurs kept this arrangement –  for example, stegosaurs and Triceratops had five fingers and three claws on the inner fingers. Meat-eating dinosaurs usually evolved three-fingered hands, doing away with those outer two claw-less fingers.

‘Dactyls evolved their archosaur hand in a different manner: they lost the pinky (the outermost finger). The claws on the inner three fingers were strong – useful for climbing trees and the sides of cliffs. The fourth finger evolved into an organ we see in no other creature: Finger four became immense, as thick as the thigh or thicker. The finger could be folded back where it joined the wrist for walking on the ground. When flying, the giant finger four was stretched outwards.

 Schematic of a generic pterosaur wing, pencil drawing, digital coloring
Creative Commons License photo credit: Arthurweasley

Solnhofen fossils showed that the wing surface was attached to the finger four and to the sides of the body and the inner edges of the hind leg. So ‘dactyls could flap like a bat – using up and down strokes of both arm and leg to make the power stroke.

Dinosaurs and Birds:

 Archaeopteryx

Birds evolved their wing by another wonderfully unique method. Their hand bones were 99% identical to those in small meat-eating dinosaurs. Only the three inner fingers were retained. Darwinian processes had clipped off the pinky and fourth finger. Solnhofen fossils prove that specialized wing feathers were attached to the second finger. So Archaeopteryx flew with the feathered arm.

Raptor-type dinosaurs, like Velociraptor and Microraptor, had evolved feathers very like those of birds. But these small dinosaurs evolved hind-leg wings to assist the arms. Flight feathers were attached to knee and shin as well as to the forelimb. When a tiny raptor-like dinosaur evolved into Archaeopteryx, the feathers were lost from the hind-legs, leaving just the arm to do the work of flying.

Bats:

Bats are specialized mammals and no bats had evolved in the Jurassic. The first bats appear much later, about 55 million years ago.

Bats use strong skin to make the wing. But unlike ‘dactyls, who evolved just one finger to support the wing surface, bats use three or four fingers to spread the wing and control the wing in flight.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. Want to learn more? Check out our previous blogs on Archaeopteryx.

The Man Who Made Fossil Fish Famous

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn about the Louis Agassiz and his theories.

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Paris and the Lure of Fish, 1836
Agassiz grew up in Switzerland where he excelled as a student in  chemistry and natural history. He went to Paris to study fish fossils under the Father of Paleontology, Baron Georges Cuvier. The geological history of fish seemed muddled at the time. Agassiz brought order to the fins and scales.

“There’s order in the way fish changed through the ages…” Agassiz concluded. He was the first to map out the long history of fish armor, fish jaws and fish tails.

1) The earliest time periods, the Paleozoic Era, most bony fish carried heavy armor in the form of thick scales covered with dense, shiny bone.

2) In the middle Periods, the Mesozoic, the armored fish became rarer and were replaced by fish with thin, flexible scales.

3) In the later Periods, the Cenozoic, thin-scaled fish took over in nearly all habitats.

4) Today, the old-fashioned thick scales persist only in a few fresh-water fish like the gar.

5) Tails changed too. The oldest bony fish had shark-like tails, with the vertebral column bending upwards to support the top of the fin. Later fish had more complicated tail bones, braced by special flanges, and the base of the tail was more symmetrical.

6) Jaws in the earliest bony fish were stiff, like the jaws of crocodiles. Later fish developed jaw bones that could swing outwards and forwards.

Discovery of the Ice Age
As he traveled across Europe, Agassiz saw evidence of giant ice sheets that had covered the mountains and plains. According to Agassiz’s theory, New England too had been invaded by mile-high ice layers. Giant hairy elephants – woolly mammoths – had frolicked in the frigid habitats. At first,  scholars harrumphed at Agassiz’s idea of a Glacial Period.  But by the mid 1840’s the theory was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Boston 1846: Toast of the Town & the New Museum
Fish and glaciers made Agassiz the most famous scientist of his time. When he came to Boston in the 1846, his lectures were so successful that the New England intellectuals wouldn’t let him leave. Poets and politicians, rich merchants and artists all helped raise funds to get Agassiz a professorship at Harvard. He repaid the support by working tirelessly to build a grand laboratory of science and education at Harvard – the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Opened in the 1859,  the MCZ has been a leader in fossil studies ever since.

Design in Nature
Agassiz’s interests spread beyond fish and glaciers. He sought the Plan of Creation, the key to understanding all of Nature. Was it  Evolution? No. Agassiz rejected any notion that natural processes somehow had transformed one species into another. He was a fierce exponent of the theory of Serial Creation: every species of fossil creature was created to fill its ecological role in its special geological time zone.

Darwin and Agassiz
Though he fought Darwin’s theories for his whole life, Agassiz’s work in fact provided support for the new views of evolution. The long trends in fish fins and scales were best explained by Natural Selection. Agassiz’s best students at Harvard went on to become strong supporters of Darwinism.  Endowed faculty positions were established in Agassiz’s name.  Agassiz Professorships were given to Alfred Sherwood Romer, the greatest Darwinian  paleontologist of the 20 century, and to Stephen Jay Gould, the most eloquent defender of Darwin in the last thirty years.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. To read more about Agassiz and Darwin, check out my earlier blog.