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.

Quetzalcoatlas! Grand Hall Display Through Monday

Quetzalcoatlus 1.14.11
It’s MASSIVE. See a
full set of photos of the assembly of this fossil
from this morning on Flickr.

We’ve got a new visitor to the Museum’s Grand Hall – the giant Texas Pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus!

Quetzalcoatlus northropi and its close kin can be considered as the largest animals to have ever flown – and the cast is indeed impressively massive.

This Quetzalcoatlus northropi cast was assembled today and measured to finalize the design of a Cretaceous vignette featuring three of the giant flying Texas reptiles. This recreated fossilized drama will be part of the new Paleontology wing scheduled to open in 2012.

Check out our progress on the new family wing!

According to Dr. Bakker, the plan “is to create a portrait of the giant Texas ‘dactyl defending its nest from a curious juvenile Tyrannosaurus.”

Dave Temple, our associate curator of paleontology, said, “Typically, we would uncrate the specimen, assemble, measure and pack it up over the course of an afternoon. I am glad we have the opportunity to leave it up for a few days to give the public a sneak peek at things to come.”

Be sure to visit this weekend to check it out! Tuesday morning, the Quetzalcoatlus northropi will be placed back in the crate until final installation in our new paleo hall in 2012.

Slideshow from this morning’s Quetzalcoatlus assembly:

Quetzalcoatlus Facts:

Quetzalcoatlus northropi was discovered in Big Bend National Park in 1971 by Douglas Lawson, a student of Dr. Wann Langston from the University of Texas at Austin. The species is named for the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, who was worshiped in the form of a feathered serpent.

Quetzalcoatlus northropi probably weighed about 200 pounds and had as large as a 36 foot wingspan. Their large, toothless beaks create a bit of a mystery, at times hypothesized to have unearthed shellfish, arthropods, carrion and opportunistic hunting, similar to modern-day storks. Likely Quetzalcoatlus ate a variety of different items. This species went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous.

Dimetrodon Discovery! [VIDEO]

This morning, we were super-excited to see that the Houston Chronicle’s story about our paleontology team’s recent discovery of a Dimetrodon giganhomogenes made the front page!

Dimetrodon Found!

You can read the full story online, or check out the video below – the Chron’s fascinating interview from the site of the discovery with our curator of paleontology (and blogger!) Dr. Bob Bakker.

Can’t see the video? Click here to view.

See photos from the site on Flickr, and check back on the blog for updates from the team! And, get ready to see this apex predator in person when our new paleontology hall opens in 2012!

Discovery! HMNS Paleo Field Team Unearths Extremely Rare Dimetrodon

The Houston Museum of Natural Science Paleontology team has discovered an articulated specimen of a Dimetrodon on the Craddock Ranch in Baylor County!

The team named the fossil “Wet Willi”—“Wet” because it was found while excavating a drainage trench for the quarry, and “Willi” for Samuel Williston, a paleontologist and educator who was active at the site one hundred years ago. Dimetrodon bones are common in the Craddock quarry, but articulated fossil skeletons, like “Wet Willi,” are extremely rare. Most of the Dimetrodon fossils on display in museums across the country, and even globally, have come from this area of north central Texas.

Our Associate Curator of Paleontology Dave Temple shows what makes Wet Willi so special in this clip:

Can’t see the video? Click here to view it on Vimeo.

“Willi” represents a subspecies, Dimetrodon giganhomogenes, originally described by Paleontologist E.C. Case in 1907. The type of specimen he used for his description had no head; “Willi” is the first example of this species found with the head attached.

Wet Willi! New Dimetrodon Discovered by HMNS team
Get a load of those TEETH.
See the full set of photos from the site on Flickr.

In life, “Willi” was the dominant predator of his world, and he would have been 11 feet long with a four-foot vertical fin running the length of his body. The purpose of the prominent fin that defines this species has been debated since it was first discovered by Edward Cope in Texas in 1878. It was originally suggested that the fin was used for thermoregulation—self-regulation of body temperature, even when outside temperatures may vary drastically. However, it now seems more likely that this dramatic fin was for show—to intimidate enemies and fascinate potential mates.

“Wet Willi” will be the star of the Permian section of the Museum’s newly renovated paleontology hall, opening in 2012, and will serve as an ambassador from this geologic period for millions of patrons. The Permian ended with the worst mass extinction known, and was a direct precursor to the rise of dinosaurs. At present, the Museum has a mural of the Permian Period featuring a Dimetrodon, but no fossils on display.

Wet Willi! New Dimetrodon Discovered by HMNS team
See the full set of photos from the site on Flickr.

Over the past five years, HMNS field crews under the direction of Dr. Robert T. Bakker, paleontology curator for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, have collected hundreds of bones, teeth, and coprolites, as well as complete skeletons of the smaller reptiles and amphibians that lived alongside “Willi.”

“There is a very strong Texas connection to Dimetrodon, and we are thrilled to be able to display one in Houston, along with the other animals that made up this ancient ecosystem,” said Dr. Bakker, adding that the specimen is “jaw droppingly beautiful.”

Area ranchers agree; local cattleman Donald Coltharpe remarked, “The only thing prettier is a new born calf.”