Bakker Blogs: The kleptomania continues with a Sid Vicious Julieraptor — Dino Rustlers Part II

Part Two: Julieraptor — The raptor rescued from rustlers.

Small and mid-sized raptors swarmed over the landscape in the Late Cretaceous. Velociraptor, as heavy as a coyote, haunted the sand-dunes of Mongolia. The Rocky Mountain states hosted Bambiraptor, a predator no bigger than a rotisserie chicken. Here is our cast of “Julieraptor,” a close relative dug from near Malta, Mont.

julieraptor
Courtesy of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc.

These mini-raptors were big-brained by dinosaur standards — as smart as a wild turkey (not the dumbed-down domestic version).  Their eyes were huge — an adaptation for chasing nimble prey, like furry mammals and tree-climbing lizards. The extra-long arms and fingers gave the raptors three-dimensional abilities — they could scramble up trees quadrupedally, grabbing branches with claws on front and back paws. Long feathers on the arms and legs let the raptors glide from branch to branch like dino-flying squirrels.

Even little raptors could be dangerous to larger dinosaurs — these carnivores were armed with the standard raptor-fighting claw on the hind leg, a weapon that could inflict ghastly wounds.

“Julieraptor” played a central role in a modern-day case of dino-rustling. The original specimen was found in 2002 by a crew of talented amateurs working with the local non-profit museum in Malta, Mont. Mark Thompson, a leader of the group, nicknamed the animal after his sister, Julie. Mark picked up some finger bones and claws and bits of the skull. These fossils were lying on the surface where the rock had been washed away by rain and wind. He suspected that most of the skeleton was still buried in the ground, but he didn’t dig down.  Since the spot was on a private ranch, the fossils actually belonged to the land owner, so the crew would have to wait until the museum and the land owner could negotiate a full excavation. The original box of fingers and bits stayed in a museum drawer.

A few years later, another individual working with the Malta museum claimed to have found a second raptor from a totally different spot in another Montana county. He planned to make money for himself by selling replicas of the skeleton, which he nicknamed “Sid Vicious.”

But the folks from the Malta museum became suspicious. This “new” specimen was exactly the same size as Julieraptor. And the anatomy was exactly the same, too. Even the color of the bones matched perfectly. The two specimens seemed to be from identical twins. Finally, the museum crew compared the finger bones of both specimens side-by-side. The broken ends of the bones of Julieraptor fit precisely onto the hand of “Sid Vicious.”

Then museum investigators went out to where the original Julieraptor bones had been picked up from the surface. There was a huge hole. Clearly, someone had snuck in and excavated the rest of the skeleton.

Case closed! There was no second Sid raptor. All the raptor bones came from one and the same specimen. The fellow who claimed to have found “Sid Vicious” was a raptor-rustler! He admitted his crime and spent several months in jail. The skeleton was returned to the land owner, who arranged to sell the specimen to the Royal Ontario Museum, a non-profit institution which specializes in Late Cretaceous dinosaurs.

Our cast of Julieraptor was made by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, who worked closely with the land-owners.

How To Evolve a Wing

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn the different ways in which wings evoloved on various prehistoric creatures.

Solnhofen show us three ways for Darwinian processes to construct a wing from a normal arm

Dactyls:
Dactyls evolved from very close relatives of early dinosaurs. The dinosaurs and their crocodilian kin are archosaurs. Archosaurs developed a unique asymmetry in the hand. Primitive reptiles, like today’s lizards, have five fingers, each with a strong claw. In archosaurs the outer two fingers are weak and have no claw at all.

Crocodilians and many dinosaurs kept this arrangement -  for example, stegosaurs and Triceratops had five fingers and three claws on the inner fingers. Meat-eating dinosaurs usually evolved three-fingered hands, doing away with those outer two claw-less fingers.

‘Dactyls evolved their archosaur hand in a different manner: they lost the pinky (the outermost finger). The claws on the inner three fingers were strong – useful for climbing trees and the sides of cliffs. The fourth finger evolved into an organ we see in no other creature: Finger four became immense, as thick as the thigh or thicker. The finger could be folded back where it joined the wrist for walking on the ground. When flying, the giant finger four was stretched outwards.

 Schematic of a generic pterosaur wing, pencil drawing, digital coloring
Creative Commons License photo credit: Arthurweasley

Solnhofen fossils showed that the wing surface was attached to the finger four and to the sides of the body and the inner edges of the hind leg. So ‘dactyls could flap like a bat – using up and down strokes of both arm and leg to make the power stroke.

Dinosaurs and Birds:

 Archaeopteryx

Birds evolved their wing by another wonderfully unique method. Their hand bones were 99% identical to those in small meat-eating dinosaurs. Only the three inner fingers were retained. Darwinian processes had clipped off the pinky and fourth finger. Solnhofen fossils prove that specialized wing feathers were attached to the second finger. So Archaeopteryx flew with the feathered arm.

Raptor-type dinosaurs, like Velociraptor and Microraptor, had evolved feathers very like those of birds. But these small dinosaurs evolved hind-leg wings to assist the arms. Flight feathers were attached to knee and shin as well as to the forelimb. When a tiny raptor-like dinosaur evolved into Archaeopteryx, the feathers were lost from the hind-legs, leaving just the arm to do the work of flying.

Bats:

Bats are specialized mammals and no bats had evolved in the Jurassic. The first bats appear much later, about 55 million years ago.

Bats use strong skin to make the wing. But unlike ‘dactyls, who evolved just one finger to support the wing surface, bats use three or four fingers to spread the wing and control the wing in flight.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. Want to learn more? Check out our previous blogs on Archaeopteryx.

Raptors – Group Hunters or Cannibals?

The question to answer is did dino-raptors live and hunt and feed in packs, like wolves?

I’m biased. I worked on the movie “Jurassic Park,” consulting with the special effects artists. And the book “Jurassic Park” has references to my research.

And…my first dig was excavating raptors near Bridger, Montana, in 1964. I was a freshman. Grant Meyer was the Field Boss – a fine fellow with delicacy of touch that was surprising in such a hulking physique.

Grant is the guy who really started “Jurassic Park.”

It was Grant Meyer who found the raptor Deinonychus, four of them, their bones intermingled in a thin layer of dark gray clay-stone. He directed us kids in extracting the bones. Back at Yale, another undergrad, Peter Parks, cleaned the rock off the bones. Professor John Ostrom named the beast “Terrible Claw” – Deinonychus.

I prepared the first restoration and the temporary exhibit.

Model of a Dromaeosaurus raptor claw

Raptor Kick-Boxer of the Cretaceous
Deinonychus became a dino celebrity.  It was fast, smart, maneuverable – we imagined it as a Kick-boxer of the Cretaceous. It would leap up and slash its victims with the huge, curved hind-claw, shaped like a box-cutter.

We wondered whether the four Deinonychus were a social unit in real life. Maybe the hunted together. Since Deinonychus was close kin to Velociraptor, dug in the 1920’s in Mongolia, we started calling all the similar critters “raptors.”

Michael Crichton read about the Yale raptors and he got thinking: “hmmmmm…wouldn’t it be cool to use genetic engineering to bring back to life…a pack of Dino-Raptors…”  His best-seller “Jurassic Park” was the result. In his book, he called Deinoncyhus a species of Velociraptor (they are close).

CSI of Multiple Victims.
But how can we be sure that the four raptors lived and hunted together? Perhaps these four raptors lived separately, died separately, and then their bodies got washed in together. How can we be certain that the way fossils are buried truthfully preserves the way they lived?

We can’t.

Here’s a Fundamental Rule of paleontology: all species tend to leave their dead bodies in clumps. Whether or not they hunted together, extinct animals get buried together.

Example of Non-Pack Mass Burial

Dimetrodon
Creative Commons License photo credit: kaurjmeb

We’re digging in north Texas now, excavating the first specialized top predator that ever evolved – the Finback Dimetrodon. It’s 170 million years before Deinonychus. Dimetrodons had very small brains, slow legs, and certainly were not  nearly as quick witted or quick legged as a Komodo Dragon Lizard of today.

Lizards don’t make wolf-packs. We wouldn’t expect Dimetrodon to make well organized social units.

But we find them buried in clumps. In one quarry there are fossils from at least 500 Dimetrodons. Maybe 5000…we find hundreds of bones from scores of Dimetrodons all mixed together at dozens of spots within the quarry that is about 200 yards long.

There are babies, adolescents, young adults, and old Dimetrodons all piled on top of each other – in fifteen separate layers.

And…..DIMETRODONS WERE CANNIBALS!!!!!!

Here’s the proof:

What we look for is ballistic evidence. First, we search for clues that victims were dismembered and gnawed – we want to find marks on bones left by carnivore teeth.

Second, we want fossil bullets. Bullets are the tooth crowns shed by meat-eaters as they fed. Like crocs and sharks today, dinosaurs and primitive reptiles like  Dimetrodon shed old tooth crowns as they fed. New crowns would grow in to replace the old. So…when we find many shed teeth mixed with chewed bones that’s excellent CSI evidence about who ate whom.

Do our Dimetrodon bones have tooth marks? Yes!  And do we find shed teeth from  the perpetrators? Yes again.  Who’s the perp? 98% of the shed teeth at our big Dimetrodon quarry are from……

….Dimetrodon!!

Dimetrodon cannibalism surprised us at first, but it shouldn’t have. It’s Standard Operating Procedure today. Meat is hard to come by and most carnivore species won’t turn up their noses at a meal of their own kind.  Lions eat lions. Wolves eat wolves. Hyenas will eat everybody.

Our mega-Dimetrodon quarry was different from the Four Raptor Site. The Dimetrodons included babies, adolescents and adults. And a dozen other species were buried with the Dimetrodons, including big and small herbivores, insect-eaters, fresh-water sharks, and bottom-living aquatic amphibians shaped like salamanders.

We don’t know yet what killed our Dimetrodons. We don’t know why so many carnivores came to one spot – maybe they were attracted to amphibians who were trapped in a pond that was drying up. But it’s perfectly natural that the Dimetrodon survivors would gobble up the Dimetrodon victims. Cannibalism is just common sense.

Back to the Four Raptors……
Did dinosaur predators feed together?

X-ray of an allosaur upper jaw showing the
new tooth crowns growing inside
the tooth sockets

I’ve dug several Jurassic spots with shed teeth from carnivorous allosaurs. These Jurassic sites show that the allosaurs were cannibals but still may have been good parents. We dug a spot with heaps of giant, multi-ton prey.  Herbivore bones were tooth-marked and chewed. There were shed teeth only from one species – an allosaur. Both baby shed teeth and adult shed teeth were mixed with the giant bones.

So here it looked like parents and babies did eat together – and the parents may have brought food to the young.

Five of the victims chewed by adult and baby allosaurs were….adult allosaurs. Perfectly natural – cannibalism is nature’s way.

Did Deinonychus eat its own dead?
They’d be foolish if they didn’t. At the Four Raptor Site there are some tooth marks on some bones and a few shed teeth. We just dug another Montana site where someone had chewed on a Deinonychus hip and left some shed teeth. The chewer was…..another Deinonychus.

Ok – no surprise to find chewed & clumped raptors. Cannibalism is Ubiquitous.  But we’re not through with our Dino-CSI.  We need to analyze why the four raptors died and were buried so close together.

The Three D’s of Death:
There are three big mass killers in Nature, the three big D’s:

Disease. Drought. Drowning.
A long-lasting drought can kill thousands, both herbivores and carnivores. A sudden flood can drown thousands of all species. Epidemics wipe out multitudes of plant-eaters and meat-eaters.

The D’s work together: A drought can kill and dry up many victims. Then, a flood can wash the desiccated carcasses into a sandbar. After disease kills many, the bodies may dry up, then get washed in together.

Did a flood drown the raptors and wash them into one spot?
No evidence for that. The water that carried in the mud was moving very slowly – it wasn’t a killer flood.

And…this is important…there weren’t other victims bunched up with the raptors. A major flood would wash in turtles and crocs, fish and dino-herbivores. The four raptors were alone in their burial – no other species.

There are flood sites with dinosaurs – huge river sand bar deposits with hundreds of skeletons. Usually there are many species – plant-eaters and meat-eaters. Bone Cabin Quarryin Wyoming was such a sandbar and had stegosaurs, apatosaurs, Diplodocus, camarasaurs, camptosaurs – all herbivores, adults and youngsters. And there were allosaurs and Ornitholestes, both predators.

The Four-Deinonychus quarry wasn’t like that.

Did Drought Kill the Four Raptors?
No evidence here either – the habitat seemed peaceful and normal. Drought should concentrate water-loving critters – we should see crocs and turtles huddled together in the last ponds and lakes. That’s not our Four Raptor site.

What Could Clump Raptors in Life?
The four raptors were all adults, one a bit older than the others. No babies. In many Jurassic and Cretaceous digs, we get adolescent predators – one of my Como digs had a half dozen young allosaurs. But not at the Deinonychus site dug by Grant Meyer.

What would concentrate four adults of one raptor species and no one else? Why didn’t the young die and get buried?

Did Disease Kill the Raptors?
Disease today hits social predators hard. Since they live together, all the predators in a pack can come down with a virus or bacterial ailment together.

Age Segregation and Adult-Only Death

Model of a Dromaeosaurus
from the same family as the Deinonychus

Plus – social predators do separate the young from the adults during hunting. Group hunting is common among mammals, birds and some advanced reptiles. Crocs are the most social reptiles alive today. Nile Crocodiles do some adult-group hunting when wildebeest herds cross rivers. Several big crocs (probably brothers) gang up on the wildebeest.

Hunting groups - wolves, hyenas, lions, crocs - usually contain only adults, babies and adolescents are well advised to stay away so they won’t get hurt. Therefore, social hunting is one way adults clump together and may die together.

Working Hypothesis:

Therefore….at this stage in our investigation…when we look at all the clues from the mud, current velocity, lack of babies, lack of other species…

…group hunting by adult Deinonychus Raptors is a viable hypothesis.

It’s not the ONLY hypothesis but still, I think, the strongest one.


HMNS at Sugar Land: Installing the new Dig Pit

Sugar Land FrontOne of the most popular exhibits in the new HMNS in Sugar Land is the dig pit. This kid-friendly activity contains several different dinosaurs, and gives the budding paleontologist the opportunity to see, up close, exactly what the discoverers, excavators and preparators saw when they worked on the original fossils. The dinosaurs in the dig are casts, meaning they are created from silicone and rubber molds made from the actual, real fossil. This process reproduces all of the detail of the original with exacting accuracy.

Foremost in size is a cast of “Raymond” the Triceratops. Named for a rancher, this particular Triceratops is a real rarity, being one of only a few articulated examples ever found. Displayed on his right side, his left side was exposed by erosion during the Pleistocene and weathered away. Fortunately he was reburied before the weathering was complete. When you uncover him in the dig he is almost exactly as discovered only a few tail bones and skull bones were repositioned.

Another cast fossil is a recreation of the famous “Mongolian Fighting Dinosaurs.”  This fossil was discovered and 1971 and features the skeletons of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops locked in a combat that neither won.   This mount has some restoration, bones were added to fully complete the skeletons, but the positioning dinosaurs are as discovered and amazing.

t rex & struthio
Stan the T-Rex is on display
in the entrance hall

Tucked in a corner of the dig pit is a cast of the most complete skull of Acrocanthosaurus known. Discovered in Oklahoma, this “razor backed” therapod was a fearsome predator in the early Cretaceous of Texas. Tracks attributed to Acrocanthosaurus have been found in the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas in Dinosaur Valley State Park. This cast copy was made after the initial preparation and before the individual skull bones were removed to restore the skull- so you the view is exactly what was seen in the field and after initial cleaning.

Lastly, to complete this hands-on collection of Cretaceous dinosaurs there are two panels from the Tyrannosaurus “Stan.”  One features his spectacular skull and the other a section of thoracic vertebra and ribs.  A fully articulated and mounted copy of “Stan” is on display in the entrance hall.

Volunteers and staff fill the dig pit with matrix.  The matrix is a recycled rubber product and a popular material for playgrounds. Unlike the ancient sediments covering dinosaur bones in less controlled environments, these can be successfully removed with scoops and a variety of brushes. The experience offers budding paleontologists the opportunity to “keep it real” by working on casts of actual dinosaurs without the dilemmas of strained muscles, mashed fingers, cactus, snakes, dangerous storms, scorpions, centipedes, heatstroke, bad food, and looming concerns about a place to go to the bathroom.

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