Dinosaur Drama Makes for a Stellar Documentary: Dinosaur 13 screening coming to HMNS December 9

Join Peter Larson and Robert T. Bakker at HMNS for lecture and final screening of Dinosaur 13 in the Giant Screen Theatre Tuesday, December 9.HMNS Dinosaur 13 screening December 9

When paleontologist Peter Larson and his team from South Dakota’s Black Hills Institute made one of the world’s greatest dinosaur discoveries in 1990, they knew it was the discovery of a lifetime — the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found. The dinosaur quickly became known to the world as ‘Sue,’ named after amateur paleontologist, Susan Hendrickson, who located the first fossil fragments of the historic find.

Larson recalls the exhilaration of the find, and of toiling in more than 100°F to recover the skeleton before it could be damaged by weather, oxidation, and other forces of erosion: “We all wanted to see what the skeleton was going to look like,” Larson says in the film.

“It was – it still is today – the most exciting, the most wonderful excavation – the most incredible thing we have ever done,” his brother, Neal Larson echoes.

Through interviews with the principal players in the story that unfolds, filmmaker Todd Miller portrays what happened next. Shortly after the excavation, a ten-year battle ensued with the U.S. government, powerful museums, Native American communities, and competing paleontologists over the legal custody of Sue. 

Academic paleontologists were outraged that a historic find would be planned for exhibition at a commercial facility (the Black Hills Institute), Native American communities filed complaints that the find was improperly removed from land that belonged to them. And, in an unusual argument, the federal government requested nullification of the sale of the prospect rights for the fossil by the landowner, who now also argued that he had never intended to sell Sue to Larson. 

In the government’s view, the fossil had become land, making it inappropriate to transport, attempt to auction, or purchase Sue without legal standing. Larson and his crew soon found themselves fighting for their own freedom. 

To celebrate the global television premiere of Dinosaur 13 in the US on CNN on Thursday, December 11, Lionsgate and CNN are presenting a special screening of Dinosaur 13 on the giant screen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on December 9.

For more information about Dinosaur 13, please visit www.cnn.com/dinosaur13.

Lesson learned from Sue?
Being a dinosaur hunter takes great “Rex Appeal”— what happens when art, technology and politics blend into one epic tale.

So what happened to Sue?
With help from Disney and McDonald’s, Sue was purchased by the Field Museum at an auction in 1997 for $8.36 million. Since May 2000, she has been on display in the entry hall of the museum. She has been seen by an estimated 20 million visitors there.

Dinosaur 13 HMNS December 9

Sue at the Field Museum

Want to learn more about this amazing story?

If your answer is yes, you are in luck. We have 3 ways to learn more — all wrapped up in one fantastic evening at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on December 9.

  1. Peter Larson and Dr. Robert Bakker—live and in person—will share the inside scoop on the story of Sue.
  2. See the new documentary Dinosaur 13 on the Museum’s giant six-story screen.
  3. Purchase Peter Larson’s book Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life, which he will sign for you, and read it cover to cover before midnight. (HMNS was able to secure a stash of this out of print book acclaimed by paleontologists.) “[this is] the book anyone who loves dinosaurs must have!” says Dr. Robert Bakker.

Lionsgate & CNN Films present a film screening and panel for Dinosaur 13 followed by a lecture by Peter Larson and Robert Bakker, Ph.D.
Tuesday, December 9, 6 p.m.
Houston Museum of Natural Science 

Join paleontologists Peter Larson and Dr. Robert T. Bakker for a lecture on this important period in paleontology, followed by a screening of Dinosaur 13— featuring Larson and Bakker – presented by Lionsgate and CNN Films.

Paleo activities for kids of all ages begin at 4:30 p.m. in the Grand Entry Hall. McDonald’s open until 6 p.m. Book signing by Peter Larson and Dr. Robert T. Bakker will follow the program.

Click here to purchase tickets in advance.

Want Peter Larson to keep you posted on his dinosaur finds?
Follow him on Twitter: @PeteLarsonTrex

Dinosaur 13 Peter Larson

 

The guts stop here: Delve deeper into dinosaurian intestines with Dr. Bakker

Attention all Dino-Nerds! Put Your Anatomical Expertise to Work. Prestigious Careers Await in the Field of Gastroenterology.*”

Bakker Dino Guts 1

Where the guts fit in a T. rex. The pubic bone (yellow) sticks down and won’t let the intestines expand behind the hip socket.

Often, I get approached by parents who fret over their dino-fixated kid. “You gotta help us, Doc. All she wants to do is read about fossils. Will she ever find a respectable career in the real world?”

I can reassure Mom and Dad that studying dino anatomy can lead to well-paid and honorable occupations — for instance, as a professor of anatomy or a foot surgeon or a knee specialist. Or a gastroenterologist. Being a gut doctor is becoming especially attractive now because aging yuppies are suffering from decades of intestinal abuse from spicy nachos and a misplaced reliance on gluten-free pizza.

So, adults, encourage the children to delve deeply into the dinosaurian intestines. It’s fun. It’s educational. It might pay off — big time.

T. rex was a gut-less wonder

The first step toward a visceral understanding of dinos is to face the fact that T. rex was a gut-less wonder. Consider the rexian body cavity. The space available for guts is severely limited. That’s because the intestines must stop at the pubic bone, the big prong that points straight down from the hip socket. It’s inviolable anatomical law: No intestines can be behind the pubis!

In a rex, that means all the guts are in front of the hip socket and there just isn’t a lot of room here. You might argue that rexes were forced to be pure carnivores because they needed high protein food that could be digested with a minimum weight of gastric equipment.

(Vegan advice: A gentle admonition to all my vegan friends in Boulder, Colorado: High fiber plant food demands big, complicated gut compartments, a series of vats where the fodder is soaked and softened, worked upon by microbes that secrete the enzymes needed to break down fiber. That explains why Herefords and zebras, which are consummate digesters of grass, have naturally rotund tummies. Contrary to widespread myths, we humans, when we first evolved, were not adapted to high fiber, animal-free diets. When Australopithecus evolved into our genus Homo, the size of the gut shrank dramatically. So we had to specialize in protein-rich food, such as eggs, baby birds, grubs, turtles, bunnies and antelope carcasses scavenged from unwary saber-tooth tigers — plus, of course, nutritious fruits and nuts and tasty tubers excavated with digging sticks and roasted over the fire. Fire was domesticated at about the time our guts diminished in volume. Cooking releases food value otherwise unobtainable with our small-size intestines. Today, a modern human can indeed survive on a plant-based diet but you choose your veggies carefully. And cook ‘em.)

Bakker Dino Guts 2

Fowl guts.

Chickens that don’t fall over

Now that we’ve learned the basic laws of gut size, we are ready to unlock the mystery of the balanced chicken. You’ll remember from the previous post that barnyard fowl have exquisite balance on just two legs, despite the lack of a heavy tail.

Here’s another fowl mystery: Chickens have formidable digestion. They can extract food value out of raw grains and plant fiber far better than we humans can. The secrets to balance and digestion are one in the same — the gut-wrenching development of the pubic bone. When an embryonic bird in its egg is just beginning to develop a pelvic skeleton, the pubis points down, sorta like an adult T. rex pubis does. But when the chick hatches, the pubis has rotated completely around so it points backward and the guts expand behind the thigh.

Brilliant! The pubic re-alignment has doubled the potential room for intestines. And all that new weight of intestines is behind the hips, and therefore, confers perfect balance without any sort of ponderous tail.

Pubic-wrenching is a splendid osteological trick. Some dinosaurs did exactly the same thing. Stroll past our fine duckbill skeletons. Fix your gaze on the pubic bone. It’s rotated backward, just like a four-ton version of the barnyard fowl.

The duckbills go even further in gut expansion than do most birds. The pubis and ischium (the other lower hip bones) are so extended toward the rear that the guts gain another yard or two of length and allow another couple of chambers for microbial action on the food. All those extra digestive vats would let the duckbill G.I. tract break down even the toughest, most fibrous vegetables.

Duckbills win the award for longest gut tract of any dinosaur. And, probably, had the least constipation problems.

There’s a word every dino-nerd learns in the first grade: “ornithischians”. The simple meaning is “dinos with bird-style hips,” and that denotes the many species, like duckbills, that have undergone gut-wrenching. Stegosaurs wrenched their pubes, as did Triceratops.

Make a game of it! Go through our Fossil Hall with the children seeing how many different skeletons show the backwardly-bent pubes. Make the whole family pubo-literate!

Bakker Dino Guts 3

Before and after gut-wrenching experience: Top duckbill dinosaur shows how intestines would be limited if the animal had the primitive, vertical pubis. Bottom duckbill shows the real bent-back pubis and ischium.

When I skulk around our tour guides as they talk to school groups, my rib cage swells with pride. Our docents are the best! So I want to add an advanced bit of pubic-lore here. Stegosaurs and many other gut-wrenched herbivores do something tricky, pubis-wise.

After they evolved the backward-pointing pubis, these dinosaurs grew new pubic prongs — one on each side of the rib cage — that pointed forward and outward. This new set of prongs didn’t change the gut layout at all. The new prong lies outside the body cavity. The guts lay between the left and right new prongs.

What good did the new prong do? A stout muscle probably attached to it and ran back to the thigh to help swing the hind leg forward. If your child is considering med school, tell her that this muscle is what we call in humans the “psoas.

Bakker Dino Guts 4

Colorado State dino, Stegosaurus, showing the new prong of the pubis that points forward. Don’t confuse it with the true pubis!

And now, the ultimate Darwinian inquiry into gut-wrenching, the question that earns me sour stares from all my creationist relatives (37 full cousins on one side, 97% creationists)…

Here’s the query: When did pubic-twisting happen in the evolution of birds?

The chicken diagram I used earlier works pretty good for all modern day birds — every single one of the 10,000 species. From hummingbirds to ostriches, today’s avian species have the strongly wrenched pubic shaft and the attendant elongation of all things intestinal. No modern bird has the vertical pubis and short gut of a T. rex.

Bakker Dino Guts 5

Diagram of Archaeopteryx from Heilmann’s 1926 book “Origin of Birds”, modified by me in 1958. Heilmann explained the mix of bird and pre-bird features.

Archaeopteryx surprises

When first discovered in the 1860s, the Late Jurassic Archaeopteryx was an evolutionary celebrity, a missing link combining perfectly formed avian designs with archaic dinosaurian features. The first “Archie” skeleton excavated was jumbled but it certainly looked like the long, thin pubic bone was bent back in standard bird configuration. “Archie” also possessed another definitive bird device — the lagoonal, limestone-preserved imprints of fully-formed flight feathers.

Some dino characteristics were retained too: sharp little teeth, curved claws on the fingers, separate bones in the wrist (modern birds fuse up the individual bony units), and a long bony tail. The Archie was dubbed “Ur-Vogel” in German, an event which solidified the critter’s place in nature.

“Proof that creationism is wrong and Darwin is right!” shouted many an agnostic in 1868. In fact, the chap who coined the term “agnostic,” Thomas Henry Huxley, led the charge in proclaiming birds as descendants of wee dinos. Huxley’s favorite dinosaurian was Compsognathus, the original “Chicken-Dino,” a Late Jurassic carnivore extracted from the very same lagoonal rock that produced Archaeopteryx.

The Compy skeleton was cute as a button — so small that Huxley could imagine it perched on his shoulder during debates about Darwinism. When I began reading dinosaur books in the 1950s, the Compy was still the tweensiest dino known and several kids’ stories had a pet Compy following a second grader to school.

That image was just too cutesy-pootsy, too Disney, and the Compsognathus needed a makeover to give the species gravitas. The Jurassic Park franchise of the 1980s did just that. In the first Jurassic Park book, Compys are turd-eating pack-hunters that would jump up into a crib in a children’s hospital to bite off the kid’s nose and cheeks and rest of the face. That scene definitely stripped away the excess cutesy.

In the movie Jurassic Park, the Compys were upgraded to frilled little monsters that spat narcotizing pea-soup in the face of characters before biting off their noses, cheeks and rest of their faces. That scene ripped away the excess pootsy.

Movie villains can seem especially evil when they begin as pint-sized plush toys and then metamorphose into killers. Remember Gremlins and Chucky? (Maybe the writers of Jurassic Park scripts were trying to do to Compys what Miley Cyrus did for herself — take an adorable little star and remake the image so it seems more adult and more formidable. I believe that, when you go slow-motion through the Jurassic Park movie, you can see some of the Compys twerking.)

(Be advised: Jurassic Park books and film mix and match parts from three different dinos: (1) The true Compsognathus, beloved of agnostics; (2) The enigmatic pro-compsognathids known only from incomplete Triassic specimens; and (3) The distant compy cousin, the hefty 20-footer, Dilophosaurus, from the Early Jurassic. None were poisonous. None could spit. But recent discoveries from China reveal a raptor with teeth grooved like a gila monster’s — that means poison glands dripped venom down the grooves into wounds. Cool.)

Bakker Dino Guts 6In all three real dinos that inspired the Jurassic Park Compys, the pubis pointed downward and forward, the primitive configuration for carnivorous dinos and retained in our Texas Coelophysis. No gut expansion here.

Bakker Dino Guts 7

Bambiraptor, a little raptor-type dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous. Diagram done for Dr. David Burnham and me when Bambiraptor was named. Note that the pubis is bent back just a bit.

In the 1970s, Yale’s John Ostrom rediscovered Huxley’s insights. He used the recently discovered Deinonychus and its kin to prove that raptor-type dinos had hands, feet and a tail nearly identical to what Archaeopteryx possessed. But raptors still had primitive pubic bones that were bent back just a little bit. See the raptor-pubes for yourself in our “Julie-raptor” skeleton on display at HMNS or in the Bambiraptor skeleton in the lab (come by and take a look).

So, because of its superior pubic wrenching, Archaeopteryx was entitled to be hailed as more advanced than most raptors.

That made us all happy because we could make a nifty evolutionary scenario — an early raptor-like dino, a Jurassic version of Deinonychus, evolved into an Archaeopteryx-oid and then the Archie-oid evolved into a modern bird in the Early Cretaceous. Take that, my creationist-cousins!

(By the way, don’t let TV’s South Park mislead you; the plural of “pubis” is “pubes,” and it’s pronounced “pew-bays” and not “pewbs.”)

But then came the inevitable Oops Moment. That happens whenever we get too cocky.

Our friends at the Thermopolis Dinosaur Center in central Wyoming announced they had obtained a near perfect Archaeopteryx in 2006. I rushed up to ogle it, armed with a zillion photos of all the other Archie specimens. I stared at the pubes.

The new specimen and the other best specimens showed that the simple pelvic scenario was wrong. The real, undistorted Archaeopteryx pubis pointed straight down. No backward wrenching at all. In other words, Archies had no gut expansion whatever. The Ur-Vogel was no more advanced in this one key hip feature than an allosaur or a tyrannosaur.

Bakker Dino Guts 8

A very accurate diagram of Archaeopteryx, drawn by the magisterial paleontologist Peter Wellnhofer, who is the all-time expert on Jurassic pterosaurs and birds. Note the disturbingly vertical pubis.

Dang, dang, double dang

In this one famous feature, the backward wrenching of the pubis, Archaeopteryx turns out to be less like a modern bird than Bambiraptor or Deinonychus. Gosh … nearly every ornithischian dinosaur has more advanced pubic positions than does an Archaeopteryx.

We should’ve known. Evolution hardly ever goes in a neat, straight line. The origin of birds didn’t come about as one undivided line of dinos that gets better and better, more and more like a chicken, from the Triassic through the Jurassic and then into the Cretaceous. Darwinian family trees are much more complicated and much more confusing — more like tangled blackberry bushes, full of short branches going off in all directions. There are side branches and side branches coming off the side branches.

Archaeopteryx itself couldn’t survive by being a mere ancestor; it had to fit into its local environment; it had to be adapted to its immediate surroundings. The short gut and un-wrenched pelvis worked fine. A cluster of raptor-like dinos, with minor variations in pubic slant, shared the basic Archaeopteryx blueprint — and they too thrived for millions of generations. Even in the latest part of the Cretaceous, un-wrenched guts with vertical pubes contributed to the success of little Bambiraptor type predators.

Finally, after the Cretaceous ended, all the raptor-type dinos and all the birds with vertical pubes were extinct. Now, in today’s habitats all over the world, no bird or bird-like animal operates with the un-wrenched gut. Why? Did the short gut prove inadequate somehow in the long run? Could be. But we must remember that short-gutted birds and raptor-like dinos had done very well since the Mid Jurassic to Late Cretaceous, and that’s a full 100 million years. It’s not totally true, the old adage, “No guts, no glory.”

* It’s traditional for paleontologists to teach anatomy to pre-meds. I did that for years: at Harvard, then at Johns Hopkins. Thomas Henry Huxley, who worked out relations between little dinos and birds in the 1860s, also taught courses in basic dissection. It’s even more socially acceptable to be a genuine medical doctor who also digs fossils.

True story, not a Seinfeld episode: When I visit my mom at the retirement home, she introduces me as “my son, Dr. Bakker.” All the octogenarian ladies lean forward smiling. Then, politely, they begin to ask specific questions about certain medical conditions. Mom whispers, “He’s not a real doctor…” and all the ladies lean back with a slight curl of disapproval in their smiles.

Nota bene: The new book Ten Thousand Birds, (Princeton University Press), is wicked good — best ever done on our feathered species. Beautifully written. Everyone should get a copy.

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.