Catch Dr. Bob Bakker and David Temple in a new History Channel documentary this Thursday night

Mark your calendars and fluff your cushions — the paleontology team at HMNS is set to get some major coverage on the History Channel this Thursday, Oct. 11 thanks to a premiere documentary: How the Earth Made Man.

Wet Willi! New Dimetrodon Discovered by HMNS teamFrom the History Channel:

“It is mystery 4.5 billion years in the making: how has our planet transformed, and why? New clues are being discovered not in volcanoes or canyons, but inside each of us. From a case of hiccups to the sensation of deja vu to how we throw a football, quirks of the human body and mind all trace back to enormous transformations on Earth, millions and even billions of years in the past. Inside us are the keys to asteroid impacts, global mass extinctions, and shifting continents…ultimately revealing the epic story of Earth’s past — and our own.”

So how does HMNS factor into this immense and complex story? The crew followed paleontologists Dr. Bob Bakker and David Temple as they dug up a rare Dimetrodon specimen in the north Texas town of Seymour — and with it, clues to our shared past.

You can meet the Dimetrodon featured (called Willi) in person at our new Morian Hall of Paleontology in 2013.

What: How the Earth Made Man
When: Thursday, Oct. 11 at 9/8 p.m. Central
Where: The History Channel
Why: Because we’re on TV!

On Happy Puppies, “Bugs” and Honorary Dinos: A statement by Dr. Robert T. Bakker

When I was a lowly freshman hanging around the Yale Peabody Museum, one mind-opening surprise was the unrestrained joy of paleontological language. I’d been a dino-geek since the fourth grade. I knew a dozen duck-billed dinosaurs by name — their technical names.  I’d met Corythosaurus casuararius and Saurolophus osborni face-to-face in the exhibit halls of the New York museum.

But real-life paleontologists in the Yale lab addressed their favorite fossils as if they were family pets. The great Tyrannosaurus rex had been known as “that big bug” since 1909. The Montana canyon where the finest rex had been dug was “Bug Creek.”  And the whole slice of geological time recorded by the rocks there had become the “Bug Creekian Age.”

buggy blogOur esteemed Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Robert T. Bakker

The term “bug” was a term of paleontological endearment. Tiny, microscopic fossils were “bugs.” The paleo folks squinting down their microscopes searching for single-celled fossils said they were searching for “my beloved Early Paleocene bugs.” Field expeditions looking for tiny Jurassic mammals spoke of “furry bug jaws,” a.k.a. the dentigerous rami from Paurodon, Docodon, and Ctenacodon.

Gigantic species, too, were encompassed by the affectionate buggy label.

Trilobite specialists — and I have met many — always smiled when they showed us students an especially ornate Devonian phacopidan: ”Check out this elegant bug,” they’d say. Trilobites with smooth, streamlined shells — adaptations for burrowing through the sediment — invariably were “mud-bugs.”

buggy blogA trilobite or “dino-bug,” as they are affectionately called in the paleontological community.

“Puppy” was popular for Mammalia of gargantuan sizes. The immense, multi-ton Eobasileus cornutus, an herbivore with six horns and giant saber-teeth, was “that bumpy-headed puppy.”  Even cold-blooded Amphibia could enter that category.  When we moved a cast replica of the Triassic Mastodonsaurus, with its yard-long skull, we were cautioned to be especially careful with that “monstrous puppy.”

The term “Dinosaur” was an honorific as well as a narrowly defined taxonomic category. Any fossil that evoked the mystery of the Deep Past could be an “honorary dinosaur.” Mastodons and mammoths, saber-toothed cats and fin-backed Dimetrodons were all included in the “dinosaur exhibit.” Trilobites, because they were so captivating, were honorary “dinosaur-bugs.”

The labels in our new HMNS fossil hall follow the paleontological tradition of using both technical and affectionate terms. The free app, which be available soon, will give even more scientific data, plus stories from the scientists. Our superb skeleton of an Early Permian lake amphibian is labeled as an Early Permian archegosaurid. But it also goes by the nickname bestowed by the collection-management crew when the crate was opened — “Happy Puppy.”

The breathtaking sea reptile with seven unborn embryos is described in the signage as “Stenopterygius from the Toarcian Age of the Early Jurassic.”  And also as “Jurassic Mom.”

Our HMNS trilobite display is among the very best in the world. All our many trilobites are identified by genus and species, family and geological age. There’s a compact but precise scientific family tree of all trilobites, showing their Darwinian booms and the puzzling busts of extinction. But, since we are very fond of every single trilobite specimen, we are are quite happy to call them “bugs,” too.

The only way to experience the joy of paleo-nomenclature in all its multi-levels is to visit our hall, stroll past the petrified bugs, puppies and mini-monsters, and thereby absorb the wonder of the Deep Past.

Bakker Blogs: The kleptomania continues with a Sid Vicious Julieraptor — Dino Rustlers Part II

Part Two: Julieraptor — The raptor rescued from rustlers.

Small and mid-sized raptors swarmed over the landscape in the Late Cretaceous. Velociraptor, as heavy as a coyote, haunted the sand-dunes of Mongolia. The Rocky Mountain states hosted Bambiraptor, a predator no bigger than a rotisserie chicken. Here is our cast of “Julieraptor,” a close relative dug from near Malta, Mont.

julieraptor
Courtesy of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc.

These mini-raptors were big-brained by dinosaur standards — as smart as a wild turkey (not the dumbed-down domestic version).  Their eyes were huge — an adaptation for chasing nimble prey, like furry mammals and tree-climbing lizards. The extra-long arms and fingers gave the raptors three-dimensional abilities — they could scramble up trees quadrupedally, grabbing branches with claws on front and back paws. Long feathers on the arms and legs let the raptors glide from branch to branch like dino-flying squirrels.

Even little raptors could be dangerous to larger dinosaurs — these carnivores were armed with the standard raptor-fighting claw on the hind leg, a weapon that could inflict ghastly wounds.

“Julieraptor” played a central role in a modern-day case of dino-rustling. The original specimen was found in 2002 by a crew of talented amateurs working with the local non-profit museum in Malta, Mont. Mark Thompson, a leader of the group, nicknamed the animal after his sister, Julie. Mark picked up some finger bones and claws and bits of the skull. These fossils were lying on the surface where the rock had been washed away by rain and wind. He suspected that most of the skeleton was still buried in the ground, but he didn’t dig down.  Since the spot was on a private ranch, the fossils actually belonged to the land owner, so the crew would have to wait until the museum and the land owner could negotiate a full excavation. The original box of fingers and bits stayed in a museum drawer.

A few years later, another individual working with the Malta museum claimed to have found a second raptor from a totally different spot in another Montana county. He planned to make money for himself by selling replicas of the skeleton, which he nicknamed “Sid Vicious.”

But the folks from the Malta museum became suspicious. This “new” specimen was exactly the same size as Julieraptor. And the anatomy was exactly the same, too. Even the color of the bones matched perfectly. The two specimens seemed to be from identical twins. Finally, the museum crew compared the finger bones of both specimens side-by-side. The broken ends of the bones of Julieraptor fit precisely onto the hand of “Sid Vicious.”

Then museum investigators went out to where the original Julieraptor bones had been picked up from the surface. There was a huge hole. Clearly, someone had snuck in and excavated the rest of the skeleton.

Case closed! There was no second Sid raptor. All the raptor bones came from one and the same specimen. The fellow who claimed to have found “Sid Vicious” was a raptor-rustler! He admitted his crime and spent several months in jail. The skeleton was returned to the land owner, who arranged to sell the specimen to the Royal Ontario Museum, a non-profit institution which specializes in Late Cretaceous dinosaurs.

Our cast of Julieraptor was made by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, who worked closely with the land-owners.

Bakker Blogs: Rapscallion dino rustlers and the paleontological gold rush of the American West

Part One: Allosaur-Rustlers of the Old West.

It’s 1879, and we’re in the Old West. Como Bluff, Wyo., to be exact. It’s hot, it’s dusty, and it’s full of rustlers.

There’s a Jurassic Gold Rush going on — a paleontological stampede to get the best dinosaur skeletons out of the rock and back into museums. Two “Bone Barons” are out in force, trying to be the first to score Mesozoic giants.

Professor Othniel Charles Marsh from Yale University got here first. In 1877, two railroad hands working in Laramie County, Mr. Harlow and Mr. Reed, had telegraphed the Yalie scientist with the galvanic announcement: “We’ve found huge bones. Plenty of them.  Easy to dig and haul to the station for shipping back East. Send money.”

Marsh sent money — his own money.  He was using up his inheritance to fill the Yale museum. In the first 18 months at Como, Yale got tons of rock full of gorgeous ebony-hued bones. New species galore! No one had seen such glorious relics from the Late Jurassic Period before. Marsh zipped out preliminary scientific papers on Morosaurus, Laosaurus, Dryosaurus, Camptosaurus and Brontosaurus. The specimens were so complete that Marsh’s anatomical illustrators could generate beautiful diagrams of the entire skeleton, nose to tail. Marsh and his dinos scored front-page headlines in newspapers and magazines in a dozen languages.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the other Bone Baron, Edward Drinker Cope, seethed with jealousy. Though he was from an old Quaker family, Cope was overcome by emphatically un-Christian thoughts. “I’ve gotta get some Jurassic bones from Wyoming…no time to find my own quarries….gotta hire some independent diggers, men with more moxie than scruples.”

Marsh’s crew at Como Bluff heard the rumors about Cope’s devious plan. Some surly no-goodnicks were trolling through the local bars asking questions about what had been excavated and where. So the Yale crew armed themselves with pickaxes, shovels and Winchester rifles. Unwelcome visitors, they figured, would be bombarded with chunks of black Jurassic rock and, if need be, a barrage of .44 caliber bullets fired in a great cloud of black-powder smoke.

But Como Ridge is too wide — 12 miles east to west — and the three or four Marsh men couldn’t patrol the entire outcrop. Word came from the freight manager at Como Station that some chaps had, indeed, sent big crates of rock to the address: “E. D. Cope, Philadelphia.”

What had the pirates dug up? The Yale crew scoured the landscape for tell-tale marks of recent digging. “There it is, next to our old Brontosaurus quarry — a huge hole!” The excavation was big enough to mark the spot where a mid-sized dino had been lifted out, a beast maybe 30 to 35 feet long. What species? There was no clue. The rustlers had been thorough; they didn’t leave a scrap of identifiable bone.

The Yale folks muttered curses and Old West imprecations and treated themselves to dinner at Laramie, a three-hour ride from the diggings.

No one at Yale ever learned who had stolen what. But in an odd twist of fate, the nefarious Quaker Cope was no wiser. Yes, he paid “F. F. Hubbell” and his brother for three loads of bones stolen from Como. Yes, he opened the first two sets of crates and poked around inside. “Jurassic junk,” Cope muttered. “Bits and pieces, nothing important. Those Hubbell brothers wouldn’t know a significant fossil if it came alive and bit them on the boot.”

Cope was discouraged. His lapse into scientific larceny hadn’t paid off. Maybe his Mother’s Christian admonitions had come to haunt him. Anyway, Cope retired from the rustling business. He paid the Hubbell Brothers for their last shipment but didn’t bother opening the final set of crates.

Fast forward to 1901. Setting: the brand new American Museum of Natural History at Central Park West in New York City. Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn was in charge, and he had more money than Cope and Marsh put together.  Thanks to a generous millionaire on the Board, Osborn had arranged to buy all of Cope’s fossils in the late 1890s. Cope and his estate needed the funds, because the family fortune had been spent down to the last penny in the quest for prehistoric trophies. Osborn hired the brightest and best young men in paleontology — many of whom had worked with Cope or Marsh or both.

Dr. Jacob Wortman oversaw the unpacking. He had risked life and limb for Cope in the wildest parts of Wyoming in the early 1880s. Then he had led Osborn’s first field parties to Como Bluff in 1897. Now he was in charge of the biggest purchase of fossils ever made. Exclamations of joy came from the American Museum crew as box after box was opened. Many of the specimens were world-famous, their images spread across scientific monographs and textbooks.

And that last shipment from the Hubbell Brothers? Since it had never been opened, the crate was dusty and the shipping label was faded. “Leave it till last…those brigands never dug up anything worthwhile,” the crew must have thought.

So it was not until 1904-1905 that the crates had their lids pried off. Cheap wood splintered. Rusted nails fell to the floor. Osborn’s men looked in…

Inside was not what they expected. Filling the crates was not a mass of useless paleontological bric-a-brac. That last shipment contained just one, single specimen — a nearly complete skeleton of the apex predator who had ruled the Late Jurassic ecosystem: Allosaurus.

L-Allo on apato greyHubbell

Marsh had named Allosaurus fragilis from a pretty good skeleton dug in Canon City back in the 1870s. The Hubbell Brothers’ beast was twice the bulk, clearly from a later, more advanced species. Apex predators are always the rarest finds, because these top carnivores needed such large populations of prey species as a food base. Dozens of Jurassic herbivores had been announced but only a handful of Apex meat-eaters. The Hubbell Brothers’ animal was the biggest and finest dino-carnivore known from the entire Jurassic Period.

Osborn jumped on the new opportunity: the Allosaurus would be the new exhibit’s top priority. Bits of rock flew off the bones as micro-chisels were employed by skilled fingers. Broken sections were expertly glued together with gum arabic. Artists who worked bending iron prepared a graceful armature of braces that held every vertebra, every toe bone in proper anatomical position.

Osborn was an unusual paleontologist. His educated imagination saw every skeleton as a living, breathing being. He loathed mounts that were stiff and clumsy. His would capture the sinuous grace of the beasts in the full bloom of health.

What is the most vivid way of showing the Hubbell allosaur?  In the act of feeding on its prey.  Jake Wortman had brought back from Como a brontosaur specimen that was a genuine CSI exhibit. The tops of the vertebrae had been bitten by some huge, unknown predator. In the rock next to the bronto were tooth crowns from the perpetrator. Now that he had the Hubbell Brothers specimen for comparison, Osborn could identify the perp — it was a giant allosaur the same size as the Hubbell skeleton.

The CSI evidence fell into place. Wortman and his fellow diggers had found the old Hubbell Brothers’ excavation site and mapped the location. It was only a quarter mile from where they dug up that chewed brontosaur and in the same layer of rock. The esteemed allosaur might have been the very same individual that snacked on the Brontosaurus!

To Osborn, the design of the exhibit was crystal clear.  The Hubbell allosaur would be mounted as if it was still chewing flesh and bone from the brontosaur carcass. When the display opened to the public in 1907, both the public and the scientific community were astounded. For the first time, Jurassic bones came alive.  The mount became the most famous dinosaur display ever seen. To this day, there is no Jurassic exhibit that is superior, and few exhibits have equaled it.

As for the Hubbell Brothers, did they live to hear about their specimen or see its image on the cover of Scientific American? We do not know. After 1879 and their last shipment to Cope, they disappeared. There is doubt that their real name was even Hubbell. Allegedly they were from Minnesota, but no record can be found.

Stay tuned for Part II.