T. rex vs. Prey: Imagining battles between ancient gladiators

When I was super young, say around five or so, I remember playing in the bath tub with my plastic toys. Some were super heroes like He-Man or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, others were monster trucks and die-cast matchbox cars by Mattel, but most were dinosaurs.

This might be TMI, this story about the kid in the bath tub with bubbles on his head, ramming plastic characters into one another and dreaming up their backstories, the bellows of challenge they traded, and the choreography of their battles, but I know there are other adult children out there with similar memories.

During this epoch in the evolution of me, I distinctly recall pitting Tyrannosaurus rex against Stegosaurus, which, as I’ve discovered in later life, was completely wrong, as was most of what I thought around five years old, but you know, who can blame a five-year-old for muddling up the fossil record?

T. rex is one of the most famous dinosaurs in history, easily identified by its massive, heavy skull, long steak-knife teeth, powerful back legs and tail, and ridiculous vestigial arms, but due to her status as dinosaur royalty, the length of her reign and her identity is as often confused by adults as it is by naive five-year-olds. The T. rex lived for two million years in the Late Cretaceous, never in the Jurassic, as her appearance in Jurassic Park might suggest, but we can forgive this fiction for its oversight. (After all, InGen, the engineering firm responsible for cloning extinct dinosaurs in the movie, infamously mismatched animals from different eras within the same park.) And she wasn’t the only two-legged carnivore.

stego allo

In a dramatic representation, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus duke it out in the Jurassic. Morian Hall.

In the time of Stegosaurus, between 155 and 150 million years ago (the real Jurassic), the apex predator was the Allosaurus. Smaller than the T. rex, but with more capable arms with three fingers ending in talons, this baddie no doubt picked battles with Stegosaurus, putting its life on the line for a meal. With its polygonal plates down its back, viciously spiked tail, flexible spine and toes that allowed it to rear up, Stegosaurus could give Allosaurus a true walloping.

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Allosaurus remains feature prominent eyebrow ridges and three-fingered hands with sharp claws.

Forget about jaws and claws. One solid hit from the bone spikes could deeply puncture the neck or torso of any shady Allosaurus looking for a bite, and its plates would protect its spine from being severed by teeth until it could land a blow. It isn’t difficult to imagine eyes gouged and jugulars perforated, many Allosauruses bleeding out after botched predatory encounters with Stegosaurus. There were certainly easier things for Allosaurus to eat, but few battles with other species could match the gladiatorial epicness of this match-up, at least not in this era.

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Even as an herbivore, Stegosaurus would have made a formidable opponent against Allosaurus in the Jurassic, using a spiked tail and bone plates along its spine as defenses.

Fast forward 90 million years to the Late Cretaceous, the reign of the “tyrant lizard.” Tyrannosaurs roamed North America and Asia, preying on a variety of other famous megafauna like Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, and duck-billed hadrosaurs including Edmontosaurus, Brachylophosaurus, and Parasaurolophus. There’s no way T. rex even knew Stegosaurus was a thing. More time passed between these two than between dinosaurs and Homo sapiens.

HMNS_Own_It_rexes

As the largest predator of the Late Cretaceous, the T. rex is one of the fossil record’s most iconic species.

Nor was the T. rex the only one of her kind; she was just the largest, hence the name, “king of tyrants.” Among her smaller contemporaries, Tarbosaurus, Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Gorgosaurus, she was the Queen B, big and bad, in spite of the competition. She had excellent vision, a sense of smell that could detect prey from miles away, and decent hearing, though high-pitched sounds would have been lost to her. Food wouldn’t have been difficult for the T. rex to find, but that food really, really didn’t want to be eaten.

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T. rex couldn’t have fought Stegosaurus, but it preyed upon Triceratops, another iconic species that lived in the same time period.

There’s no more famous match-up than Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. With two long horns and a bony frill like a samurai helmet to guard its neck, as long as the trike met the T. rex head-on, there was no contest. But if Triceratops charged and missed the mark, the tyrant’s big jaws could take out its backbone in a single bite, neutralizing the threat of horns. Recent discoveries of casts of Triceratops‘s hide reveals nodules that might have housed quills, making even a bite to its back a dangerous one if T. rex ever got around the impenetrable helmet. You can imagine this battle yourself in the Morian Hall of Paleontology, where Lane the Triceratops takes a defensive position under an aggressor T. rex.

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T. rex preyed upon Denversaurus and its famous cousin, Ankylosaurus, but both would have made a difficult meal, protected by bony armor.

Against Ankylosaurus and its cousin Denversaurus, also on display in Morian Hall, tyrannosaurs likely had a more difficult time. Both Ankylosaurus and Denversaurus developed the adaptation of a wide, low body and armored plating, making access to its soft underbelly impossible for tyrannosaurs unless kicked onto its back, but Ankylosaurus had another advantage. The tip of its tail bore a mace-like club that, like Stegosaurus’s spiked tail, could maim the jaws of predators that didn’t pay enough heed. One swing from this heavy weapon could break open a T. rex‘s face, cripple its legs, or shatter its ribs, and with arms too small to defend itself, dodging seems the only tactic at her disposal against this tank of a creature. An encounter with an Ankylosaurus could mean either a meal or certain death, depending on the T. rex‘s experience hunting.

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Armor plating on the back of Denversaurus would have protected against a bite from the T. rex and other tyrannosaurs of the Late Cretaceous, but if flipped over, its soft underbelly would be exposed.

A more easy meal for any tyrannosaur would have been Edmontosaurus and other duck-billed dinosaurs. These hadrosaurs had few defenses. No armor plating, no spikes, no claws, no wings, no sharp teeth. But it’s possible they had a different advantage, though it’s tough to deduce through fossils alone. Hollow chambers in the skulls of many hadrosaurs suggest these creatures, like geese and other water fowl, had the power of sound at their disposal. A deafening bellow might have stopped a tyrannosaur in its tracks or sent it running in the other direction. T. rex isn’t known for its sensitive hearing, but as we all know, if the sound is loud enough, it can be excruciating. And T. rex had no fingers to put into her ears, nor could she reach them.

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Edmontosaurus, a duckbilled hadrosaur and cousin of Parasaurolophus, appears to have lacked natural defenses. However, the hollows in its skull suggest it could have protected itself with deafening bellows like giant geese.

Understanding these species as they once were, interacting with one another, is more than bath tub child’s play for paleontologists; it’s a career and a discipline. It’s in the Greek roots of the word “paleontology,” the study of being and beings in the ancient world. The study of what life on Earth might have looked like eons ago. The work of these scientists is more like philosophy than fiction, but building careful theories via the fossil record and considering every angle does require a measure of imagination.

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An artist’s representation depicts Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex in an age-old feud set in the lush swamps of the Late Cretaceous, an imagined scene deduced from evidence in the fossil record. Morian Hall.

I suppose, apart from the spikes and teeth and horns and claws and body armor and all the other things that make these terrible lizards seem like something out of science fiction, or monsters invented by a puppeteer, it’s the daydreaming paleontology requires that holds my attention. To understand their world, you must build it in your mind.

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

 

Attention Movie Lovers: Now you too can spend a “Night at the Museum” with overnights at HMNS!

Editor’s note: This post was written by Julia Russell, HMNS Overnight Program Coordinator and Curator of Education Collections.

Movies have the power to entertain and transport us, and yes, maybe even teach us a thing or two. We laugh, we cry, we… go to museums?

Over the past decade, movies have increasingly inspired moviegoers to follow their intellectual curiosity out of the theater and into the museum. With the release of movies like Lincoln, National Treasure, Night at the Museum, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, museums across the country have seen a fairly dramatic increase in attendance over the past 10 years.

The Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois had a 7.7% increase in visitorship following the release of Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie Lincoln. The National Archives saw an increase of 200,000 visitors after National Treasure hit theaters in 2004. Though, I would bet that a good number of those visitors were probably trying to get ahold of the Declaration of Independence. (There’s a treasure map on the back, you know! Or maybe there’s not…) The American Museum of Natural History in New York City had a 20% increase in attendance after the release of the first Night at the Museum movie in 2006 as did the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. after the second Museum movie came out in 2009.

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These movies have reignited an interest in history, science, and culture in the American public. They’ve also resulted in museum staff hearing questions like “Okay, so when does everything in this museum come to life?” on a daily basis. Audiences across the country are leaving movie theaters wanting to know more about the political savviness of Abraham Lincoln, the secrets of the Declaration of Independence, the ferocity of Tyrannosaurus rex, and the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt. And where are they turning for the answers? Their local museums, historic houses, aquariums, and zoos! Zoos and aquariums certainly aren’t immune to the “movie bump” that’s happening across the country. Dolphin Tale increased visitorship to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium almost tenfold after its release in 2011!

Museum goers can satisfy their movie-induced curiosity by visiting a museum to see Lincoln’s original stovetop hat or dinosaur skeletons in the flesh…well, sort of, maybe it’s more like seeing dinosaurs in the fossil. These Hollywood blockbusters have also given museums a chance to provide some unique opportunities for their visitors. Many museums across the country are letting visitors get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their institutions after hours. Lucky for you, HMNS is one of them

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The Overnight program at HMNS actually started back in 2004 even before Ben Stiller saw the treasures at the Museum of Natural History come to life for the first time. Since the start of this program, we’ve had thousands of children and adults spend a night at the museum. This program gives people an opportunity to see one of their favorite Houston landmarks in a new light (or in a new dark, actually)!

For more information about HMNS’ Overnight program and how you and your group can see HMNS after hours, click here or email overnights@hmns.org. Maybe you can spend a night at the museum and finally answer the question, “Does everything come to life at night?” You never know, our objects could speak to you in a whole new way.

But here’s the Hitch: Who really discovered that dinosaurs had feathers?

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s reading books about the dinosaur “orthodoxy.” According to this traditional view, the dinos died out at the end of the Cretaceous because their beloved swamps dried up and the air became too cool. But the new conditions were perfect for us quick-thinking Mammalia, so we took over, along with the other hot-blooded class, feathered birds. That was the Official Scientific View until the 1970s.

Whew! It’s hard to believe that four decades ago paleontology could be so very, very wrong.

Us versus Them. The smart hot-blooded mammal Didelphodon defies a rex. The furball is saying “Just wait till yer swamps freeze....”

Us versus Them. The smart hot-blooded mammal Didelphodon defies a
rex. The furball is saying “Just wait till yer swamps freeze…”

Today we know that Tyrannosaurus rex was not a big lizard. It was the 10,000-pound roadrunner from hell, clothed in fine feathers. Tyrannosaurs and other dino-clans ranged far north and far south and survived icy winters just fine. We mammals were kept small all through Mesozoic times because the dinos, on average, were faster on their feet, quicker in their jaws, and had better hearts and lungs. Dinos won the roles of top predator and top herbivore fair and square. The humiliating truth is that we mammals are the class that won by default, taking over only because some external event removed our dinosaurian overlords.

Face the facts friends: we are furry carpet-baggers.

Question: Who first discovered that dinosaurs were part of the hot-blooded bird family tree?

Was it Dr. Bob Bakker, your faithful curator? Aww, nice of you to ask, but the original hot-blooded-dino guy was long before my time.

How ‘bout Yale’s John Ostrom, who dug up the raptor Deinonychus in 1964 and linked raptor-dinos to the early bird Archaeopteryx?

No, he wasn’t the first. (Oddly, John fought the idea that Deinonychus had feathers.)

Was the first dino-bird chap Thomas Henry Huxley, the pugnacious defender of Darwin in the late 1860s and 1870s? Huxley, who coined the term “agnostic,” was a favorite of my advisor at Harvard, Stephen J. Gould. Huxley did point out that hips and shoulders of dinos were very bird-like, and so were feet. Therefore, Huxley argued, some sort of dinosaur-oid was the ultimate ancestor of the bird class.

But no again. Huxley was not the first to see bird-ness in the dinosaurs.

T. H. Huxley, as portrayed in Punch. Among his many jobs, Huxley served on the Board of Fisheries.

T. H. Huxley, as portrayed in Punch. Among his many jobs, Huxley
served on the Board of Fisheries.

Got your notebook ready? Here comes the answer, and it makes most museum-goers raise an eyebrow.

The true discoverer of feathered dinos was… the Reverend Edward Hitchcock, State Geologist of Massachusetts, Professor at Amherst College, philosopher and Congregationalist pastor. Hitchcock figured out that dinos were a subclass of birds as early as 1838 — four years before the term “dinosauria” was invented!

First Director, Massachusetts Geological Society, Edward Hitchcock. His wry sense of humor and boundless joy in science is evident.

First Director of the Massachusetts Geological Society, Edward Hitchcock. His
wry sense of humor and boundless joy in science is evident.

How many skeletons did Hitchcock dig up? None. Not a one. But surely his lab got many well-preserved parts of dinos, right? Nope. Only after he retired did a partial skeleton show up, blown to bits by gunpowder used to excavate a well. Hitchcock came to the fundamental truth about dinosaurs entirely from fossil trackways.

Across the pond at Oxford, Hitchcock’s colleague, the Reverend William Buckland did dig hundreds of Jurassic and Cretaceous bones and some pretty good skeletons. The Oxford fossils inspired Buckland’s student, Richard Owen, to come up with the name “dinosaur” in 1842.

Sad to say, neither Buckland nor Owen realized that their restorations of dino skeletons were, in today’s parlance, “bass ackwards” — they put a huge bone in the shoulder, giving the critters a clumsy muscle-bound look in the forequarters. They didn’t realize that their “shoulder” was really part of the hips. Hitch*, on the other hand, without a single well-preserved osseous specimen, scrutinized the footprints and got dinos correct, fore and aft.

What a guy.

“Bass Ackward” dinosaur in the 1820‘s--1860’s. The restoration done under Richard Owen, with gigantically distorted forelimbs and flat feet. Painting by Luis Ray from our “Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs”.

“Bass ackward” dinosaur in the 1820s-1860s. The restoration done
under Richard Owen, with gigantically distorted forelimbs and flat feet.
Painting by Luis Rey from our Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs.

Hitchcock and Buckland were members of the “Pious Paleontologists,” thoughtful scholars of the early 1800s who took the record of the rocks and the record of Scripture seriously. Hitch was persuaded that earth history, written in pages of shale and sandstone, would make everybody better, more intelligent citizens. He wrote a delightful book for his Congregationalist flock,The Religion of Geology probably the finest rumination of how rocks and fossils can be integrated with piety.

Hitch won the reputation as an inspiring lecturer at Amherst. Emily Dickinson, among many others, was enraptured by the stories of prehistoric New England and how the past had shaped the woodlands and gardens of the present day.

When Hitch took over the Geological Survey, the Connecticut Valley was already famous for red Jurassic rocks. Quarries were dug for paving stones, excellent for walkways, and massive sandstone blocks, ideal for constructing “brownstone” homes, college dorms and courthouses. (Alas, as coal-fired furnaces became common, acid rain ate into the Triassic-Jurassic sandstones and many brownstone monuments began crumbling in the mid-20th Century.)

Hitch and his crew found petrified remains in these beds: some fern-like fronds, stems of horsetail reeds, bits of fish and a magnificent bug, the larva of some ferocious water insect. The red rocks had petrified weather, too: some surfaces had the delicate pattern of raindrops. Others showed deep cracks produced by prolonged drying.

But the most abundant remains were tracks, thousands of them. Some of the littlest footprints were made by flat-footed, lizard-oid critters with long, supple toes in fore and hind paws. Much more common, and often of giant size, were tracks made by somebody very different — mystery animals who grew as big as elephants and shared a common body plan that kept Hitchcock’s powers of deduction busy for his entire career. It was a great quest — he was on the trail of the creatures who ruled the Jurassic world on land.

Giant mystery tracks exposed along a county road in Massachusetts, with the local farmers using the one-horsepower field vehicle to visit the site.

Giant mystery tracks exposed along a county road in Massachusetts, with
the local farmers using the one-horsepower field vehicle to visit the site.

Hitch pondered the prints made by the mystery toes. Almost two centuries before Microsoft and Apple, Hitchcock began a digital revolution, inventing new methods of deciphering the details of paws. He and his son scoured libraries for anatomical details of the class Amphibia, the class Reptilia, and the hot-blooded classes, the Mammalia and Aves. Then they ran digital experiments, chasing all manner of animals across muddy fields — including barefoot boys with cheeks of tan — so they could draw the arrangement of toes.

All this research gave the Reverend Hitchcock more insight into the animal sole than anyone had obtained before. Step by step, Hitch filled a dossier of clues that would lead him to a final identification.

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Barefoot boy track as drawn in Hitchcock’s great monograph. Little dots are raindrop impressions. Hitch found drop marks on rock slabs with the mystery monster tracks. There was no evidence, pro or con, that the boy or the monsters carried slingshots, a la Bart Simpson.

First Clue: Bipeds. Nearly all the mystery tracks, even the biggest, were made by animals walking on their hind legs alone. That was unlike the locomotion of most lizards and mammals. And unlike the way dinosaurs were restored — with huge shoulders.

Second Clue: Toe-walkers, not flat-foots. Usually there was not a trace of the heel so it must have been held high off the ground. That eliminated dinosaurs because the dinos were flat-footed — so said the brightest and best of Europe’s bone-sleuths.

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Third Clue: Long Achilles tendons. This clue was the biggie. Over 99 percent of the tracks showed nothing of the ankle and nothing of the front paw, because the mystery beasts were strict toe-walkers. But in a precious few fossils, the tracks captured the mystery animal as it squatted down on all fours to drink or sniff the earth. Marvelous. The entire backside of the ankle was pressed into the mud — the Achilles tendon wasn’t wide and flat like a lizard’s. It was gracefully elongated and slender. The front paws were tiny, five-fingered and carried short, sharp claws. Maybe there was a mark left by a stumpy tail — the track wasn’t clear on this point.

Hitchcock’s mind raced. What prehistoric monsters had ankles and front feet built that way? Not mammoths or rhinos. Those giant hairy beasts always had front feet wider than the hind, and the ankle was always short. Well then, what about frog-oids? The hopping amphibians did have long, powerful hind limbs, strong calf muscles and small hands. The thought of multi-ton froggies stomping over the Jurassic meadows was … well, weird. And exciting.

If not frogg-oids, mebbe … bandicoot-oids? Australia was famous for “low-class” mammals, the marsupials, which on average were smaller in the brain than antelope, deer and other “normal” mammalians. Kangaroos and bandicoots had enlarged rear legs with super-strong calf tendons — plus little hands. Therefore, Hitchcock had to take seriously the idea of Massachusetts being overrun by Jurassic bandicoots bouncing about, as big as bull African elephants.

The Usual Suspects: Giant prehistoric beasts who might have made the tracks.

The Usual Suspects: Giant prehistoric beasts who might have made the
tracks.

And then there was the original suggestion made about 1800 by farmers who dug tracks on their land: Maybe it was Noah’s raven. The Flood Story in Genesis says Noah released a raven from the ark to test the depth of the water. The raven didn’t come back, so Noah concluded that some bare land had appeared. The Noah reference was a joke, an i.d. offered with a chuckle. But, indeed, to the un-trained eye, the Jurassic mystery tracks did have an avian gestalt …

… and Hitchcock could feel that he was getting close to the final answer. He needed just one more new type of CSI analysis, a quantitative sole-searching that would finger the culprit and reveal, once and for all, the identity of the Jurassic rulers.

Hitchcock’s Digital Data Base -- one page of the great monograph of 1858. Paleo-podiatry would enable the Reverend to solve the mystery of the Jurassic tracks.

Hitchcock’s Digital Data Base: one page of the great monograph of
1858. Paleo-podiatry would enable the Reverend to solve the mystery of the Jurassic tracks.