Get a LIFE: Happy (almost) 60th anniversary to the magazine that launched a thousand dino geeks

Some people like to tell me, “Dr. Bob, get a life!”

I did, 60 years ago. Here I am re-reading my battered copy of the magazine that got me hooked on paleontology.

Celebrating Life!
Happy anniversary to the LIFE magazine that created … me!

Sept. 7, 1953 was the publication date of the greatest, most momentous article on fossils and the history of life. LIFE issued its glorious “The World We Live In” series with a cover story about the prehistoric safari. Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus loomed large on the opening page. There were trilobites too, full-page photos, and scenes from the Texas Red Beds. Then came Triassic dinos, Jurassic dinos, Cretaceous dinos, and the ocean-going reptiles who filled the warm tropical seas of the Mesozoic. There were evolutionary opportunists, the conquering furballs of the Paleocene Epoch, who rushed with Darwinian speed to fill the voids left by dinosaur extinction. Prominent furry mammals included the the famous “Saber-toothed Vegans”, six-horned Uintatheres, followed by Killer Warthogs like our mounted skeleton of Archaeotherium. Finally, the LIFE story reached a crescendo with the Ice Age behemoths: mastodons, mammoths and saber-toothed cats.

But what hooked my fourth-grade mind wasnʼt merely the monster parade of weird and wondrous beasts. It was the story. LIFE writer Lincoln Barnett explained how chromosomes and habitats cooperated in manufacturing new species. How we could see desert lizards evolving right now in Americaʼs Southwest. And how Birds of Paradise exemplified the power of sexual selection to transform bodies and behavior.

The fossil history became even more wonderful because we could understand what shaped the successive waves of creatures who swept across land and sea, dominated the ecosystems, and then suffered catastrophic die-offs to make room for the next surge of evolution. Barnettʼs prose was graceful and riveting (he wrote an award-winning biography of Einstein for kids). Many other budding scientists owe their careers to Barnett and to Life.

We should never underestimate the extraordinary power of fine science journalism. As a 9-year-old, I read and re-read that LIFE magazine in my Granddadʼs solarium. Then I said to myself, “Wow, thatʼs the best story I ever read. Best story I could imagine.” At dinner, I announced to my startled parents, “Iʼm gonna grow up to be a paleontologist and dig up the history of the world!”

After a polite pause, Mom remarked “Thatʼs nice dear … itʼs a phase and youʼll outgrow it.”

(She still says that.)

Celebrating Life!
Hereʼs an unapologetic plug to buy this issue of LIFE. We see here a scene
from the middle of the narrative. A Late Jurassic Allosaurus is feeding on
the rump of a brontosaur. The painting is by Rudy Zallinger and was based
on the skeletons at New York — the museum there dug a brontosaur with
severe tooth marks on the bones, bites that matched the jaws of an
allosaur dug from the same strata not far away.

Do check your used book stores for this issue of LIFE. They are out there, but delicate since the paper is hi-acid. The paleo-issue was bound together with other special LIFE numbers on nature as a hard-cover, “The World We Live In.” There was a kidsʼ edition of the book, too, and a Golden Book version of the fossil story.

Paleo-powered pictures for everyone on Sept. 24: Bakker’s back with a big book of dinosaurs

Our esteemed curator of paleontology, Dr. Robert T. Bakker, is back in town and on campus at HMNS Tuesday, Sept. 24 for a very special book signing and lecture.

Coinciding with the release of his brand new picture book, The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs, Dr. Bakker will lead a lecture in the Giant Screen Theatre, to be followed by a book-signing session at the Museum Store.

From the Google

Among the topics to be addressed during the lecture with Dr. Bakker’s inimitable enthusiasm are: Was T. rex a slow-footed stumble-bum? (No!) Were tyrannosaurs devoid of any gentle, nurturing gestures? (No way!) Were gigantic meat-eating dinos ticklish? (You bet!) Could you out-run an angry charging triceratopsine? (Don’t even try.)

Kid-friendly dino activities will be available throughout the Grand Hall prior to the lecture, beginning at 5 p.m. For more information or to book your tickets in advance, click here!

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.