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.

Bakker blogs: Murder by hickey — or a dinner date with a meat head

We’ve been pondering  the problem of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence. It’s a Red Beds tragedy; fin-back reptiles were nibbling each other’s brain bones and gouging each others’ cheeks.

But now, maybe, we have some evidence for the softer side of fin-backs: hickeys and love-bites.

Here’s a scientifically precise reconstruction of one fin-back smooching another on the back of the neck, sort of like the cover for a Permian romance novel: Fifty Shades of Red (Beds).

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

Neck-nibbling is quite the thing among living species of predators, both large and small. Cats do it. Go to Animal Planet and see male lions grabbing the lioness by the nape.  Or come visit our Seymour digs in north Texas and meet “Elton,” the male Mountain-Boomer Lizard. Male Mountain Boomers, aka “collared lizards,” are the brightest lizards in all of the Lone Star State.  Not “bright” as in “smart,” but as in wearing “fabulous iridescent blues and pinks and yellows in the mating season.” Elton stakes out a wide, flat area in our quarry where he struts his stuff, doing Marine-style push-ups to attract females and frighten away younger males. Every spring he succeeds in enticing a healthy female, almost as muscular and buff as he is.

Here’s a portrait of Elton, snapped by David Temple, Curator and Herpeto-photographer extraordinaire.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

(Warning: If you keep Boomers in captivity, never have two males together in a small cage. They’ll beat the coprolites out of each other. The same warning often applies to keeping two curators together.)

Actual Boomer mating includes neck-grabbing. Elton has an extraordinarily wide forehead housing mighty jaw muscles, so the love-nibble has force behind it. If she’s willing, the female displays a hunkered-down posture and shows off her red dots. Therefore, when the female Boomer signals “Bite me!” it’s in fact a “Come hither!” message.

Here’s a fine snap of a female Boomer, from Mike Cong Wild Photography.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

Elton does NOT view us humans as a higher species. He’ll race to where we’re digging under the shade of a tarp and give us the hairy eyeball, lizard-style, cocking his head right and left. Then out he goes to ascend his viewing stand, a foot-tall sandstone block 20 feet away.  I think he’s checking us out to make sure we are not competition for his favorite lizard-love.

Given such behavior by Elton, we expect that our 400-pound Dimetrodons engaged in some sort of gnathic-cervical love-grabbing. Do we have petrified evidence? You bet. Here’s a cervical vertebra number two, the big bone right behind the head. It belongs to a full grown  D. loomisi, a species nicknamed the “Keira Knightly Finback” because of the excessively long, slender neck. The arrow points to a bite — a  powerful nibble that actually removed a piece of bone.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

But that’s a bit too big of an ouch. There would be thick muscles running from the vertebra to the back of the skull that flex the head up and down, side to side, and twist the head around. This bite would have gone right through the thick part of the muscles, leading to massive trauma, blood loss and death.

Murder by hickey!

Check out this diagram: On the right you’ll see some of the massive and meaty muscles that are located around the head and neck.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

It was a sad day when we realized that our love nibble was instead hard evidence of cannibalism. But the head-neck bites also prove something elegant and marvelous about Dimetrodons. We mammals are, supposedly, the Highest Class. We have the most advanced, most efficient anatomical tools for cutting up our food and digesting it quickly. We are far better than the cold-blooded class Reptilia, or so the textbooks say.

Cold-blooded reptiles today do seem sloppy and inefficient. Nile crocodiles and komodo dragon lizards kill zebra, wildebeest and goats — but once their prey is dead, their table manners are primitive. The big reptiles bite their prey anywhere and everywhere, chomping down on bony snouts and chins where there’s not much meat.

Mammal top predators display far greater precision. The tiger examines his prey carefully before removing bite-sized pieces off the meaty zones. The rear teeth slice meat as efficiently as your neighborhood butcher making prosciutto.

You can do this experiment  at home: buy some delicious Texas beef jerky and present a big piece to your hungry dog (or your friend’s). The pup will position the jerky between its rear teeth and slice, slice, slice, GULP. The quick slicing action comes from special features of those rear teeth.

Scrutinize these photos of a wolverine. See the big rear teeth?  When the wolverine bites meat, the upper rear tooth slides against the lower tooth, and the teeth hone each other like metal shears. That’s why mammal meat-eaters can cut even tough meat and tendons swiftly.

Murder by hickey: Dr. Bob explores another side of Dimetrodon-on-Dimetrodon violence in the latest Bakker blog

Fossil predator lairs from the Age of Mammals show that these precision-slicers are old adaptations. When we excavate prey carcasses left by saber-toothed predators like Dinictis and Hoplophoneus (both on display in our new Morian Hall of Paleontology), we see bite marks on the skull bones where there was lots of meat — the rear of the skull, the brain case and the tops of neck vertebrae. The extinct mammals ate like the highly efficient carnivores in today’s world. Saber-toothed cats did not waste much time and energy gnawing bony, meat-poor zones of chin and snout. Neither did the extinct dog-like Hyenodon.

Our Dimetrodon was a very, very primitive reptile. In fact, in most ways, D’don was even more primitive than a crocodile or komodo dragon. One big deficiency was the set of meat-slicing teeth. Dimetrodons didn’t have the enlarged self-sharpening chompers. The upper rear teeth could not slide past the lowers in a honing action. Therefore, so the theory goes, a Dimetrodon would have been sloppy and slow and inefficient when dismembering big carcasses.

If D’dons were really as sloppy as crocs and komodo dragons, then we’d find bite marks all over skulls and necks. But if D’dons were careful and efficient, they would have left tooth marks concentrated on the meaty zones of heads and necks.

When we analyzed bite marks on all the necks and heads from our digs, I was flabbergasted. (Talk to anyone in the lab — Dr. Bob hardly ever gets gabberflasted.) Our supposedly primitive Dimetrodon did not bite a la lizard. Or a la crocodile. Or a la gator.  Bite marks were targeted with consummate precision. Little energy had been wasted gnawing at non-meaty parts. Bony snouts and chins were not chewed upon. Instead, the tooth marks had been concentrated on all the most meaty zones of the head and cervical region. Bites on the braincase are exactly where big, thick muscles attached. Bites on the cheek are where the jaw muscles attached. Bites on the neck are where the thickest cervical flesh was located.

I have new respect for the Texas Red Beds Dimetrodon. Whenever we unearth another D’don victim, I doff my hat in honor of its masticatory prowess.  Our modern mammal efficiency began a hundred million years earlier than we had thought. And now, when we do lunch at Smokey Bros Barbecue and we chew succulent brisket and bring a doggy-bag back to Skippy, we thank our fin-back ancestors.

Members…And Monsters! [The Prehistoric Kind]

This summer is still swinging (17 straight days of 100+ temps make that fact hard to forget) – but we’re already looking forward to summer 2012!

Why? Because that’s when our new paleontology hall opens!

To get ready, we previewed the new hall this summer with a series of member events – each one featured a different dinosaur that will take up residence in the new wing next year.

Shark Week at HMNS: Megalodon!
Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple shows an HMNS volunteer
around our 10-foot Megalodon jaw on display to celebrate Shark Week!
The jaw will be part of the new Paleontology Hall, opening Summer 2012!
Prehistoric Monsters: Mosasaur! [July 16, 2011]
Members who attended our Prehistoric Monsters series of events
this summer had the opportunity to talk dinosaurs with our curator of Paleontology, Dr. Bob Bakker!
Prehistoric Monsters: Mosasaur! [July 16, 2011]
Meet the Mosasaur! This prehistoric sea monster will be on display in the new paleontology hall!
Prehistoric Monsters: Quetzalcoatlus [6.11]
Kids dig for – and identify! – fossils!

We want to say a huge THANK YOU to all our new and existing members who joined or renewed this summer – your support is vital to our expansion project, and will enrich science education in the Houston community for decades to come.

If you visited our photo booth during one of our Prehistoric Monster events, find your photos here!

If you’re not yet a member – what are you waiting for?

Members will be the very first to experience the new paleontology hall when it opens next year – and if you join or renew now, you’ll get 3 additional months of membership free! Plus, there are still several great summer member events coming up!

HIPS HIPS HURRAY! [Dimetrodon Fossil Update]

Your HMNS field crew and lab staff score the missing pelvis!

Willie the Dimetrodon continues to command the attention of your Paleo Dept. personnel. In May through June, David Temple led an intrepid crew who gently lifted the plaster jacket containing Willie’s torso, shoulder and rump. Local ranchers Donny Gale and Gary Max Coltharp once again generously donated their time and machinery – especially useful was the Coltharp front-loader named “Lola.”

But still – though Willie is among the very finest D’dons anywhere, he had a pelvic deficit. Check out this hip diagram.

CB-WilliHipsEdge

Willie’s sacral ribs are there, the parts of the vertebral column that hold the hips. However, the hip bones themselves are still missing. Probably some hungry scavenger came by and bit these meaty bits off (one rib was twisted out of place too  and the lower left shoulder had some bite marks).

“Locality Edge” comes to the rescue. Discovered by a local science teacher four years ago, Locality Edge is an awesome outcrop of badlands, full of tortuous arroyos, box canyons and spires of red rock. The strata here are just a bit later than our Craddock Bone Bed and about a mile away. We removed a pelvis and set it in a drawer.

c-Willi-Edge-Pelvissmall

We did note that this set of pelvic bones was unusual – the shape was not distorted by the tons of rock that had buried it. Most of the time the burial layers flatten out natural curves of the upper bone, the ilium, and the wide lower bones, pubis & ischium. The Edge pelvis miraculously survived 285 million years under the rock layers. The lower bones kept the strong inward curve that the living animal had.

c-williedgevaronicasmll

The thought erupted in our minds: Could the Edge pelvis fit our Willie? Was it big enough??

Was it the correct species? We took the pelvis out of its museum tray and I brought it to the small but excellent prep lab at the Morrison Museum in Colorado (located a short drive from the famous Coors Brewery). The Morrison Museum generously opens its facilities for special Houston projects. Thirty hours of work later, with the assistance of three delicate pneumatic chisels, the outer form was cleaned of the rock (note the specimen in the skilled hands of a Morrison volunteer at right).

Superb!  And  when the inner surface of the ilium was placed next to Willie’s sacral rib, they clicked together precisely.  The size was perfect. So was the shape – the Edge specimen clearly came from the same species and the same body size.

Now, the pelvis is getting its final beauty-treatment at the skilled hands of volunteers at the Houston Museum prep lab.

Thus the contributions of a dozen volunteers and staff, plus two labs, has taken us one step further in getting Willie up on his feet, to delight and instruct  HMNS visitors.