Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Good-er Dinosaur

Well then, just when one over-hyped dinosaur film comes out, another one takes its place. Seriously, 2015 is looking like the year of the dinosaur. Not just that, but it also happens to be the second Pixar film this year, a first for the studio. Guess people like me who appreciate dinosaurs and good animation just got super lucky.

While I personally was not a big fan of Jurassic World for a number of reasons (not just the inaccuracies, mind you), I've been keeping an eye on this film for quite a while. I still remember first hearing about it back in 2011, and listening in on-and-off about how production was doing and who and what was attached. The promotional artwork certainly looked promising, and the concept for the film was rather interesting. Tied to it all was also the fact that Greg Dykstra is involved, the sculptor for a number of Pixar and other animation projects ranging from Finding Nemo to The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also happens to be a big dinosaur-nerd, and has been out on digs in South Dakota while much of the production of The Good Dinosaur was getting started. Now that some trailers of the film have finally appeared, I think it's definitely a better time than any to start talking about it.

Some early concept art of the film. Arlo, the Apatosaurus lead character, seems to have gone from a full-sized sauropod to a juvenile during production. Spot doesn't seem to have changed much at all.
The movie is based on the concept of a major "what if" question. "What if" the asteroid impact that occurred 66 million years ago, missed? And thus, the K-T extinction event didn't occur? Dinosaurs would still be wandering the Earth, and much of our fauna would probably be much more like the Mesozoic. The plot centers around Arlo, a juvenile Apatosaurus who's part of a small herd that lives in the "Clawed-Tooth Mountains". One day, a tragic event occurs which kills Arlo's father and causes the young sauropod to fall into a river, where he is hit by a rock and knocked unconscious. Upon awakening, he finds himself far away from home and needs to find a way to make it back. While searching, he stumbles upon a young human boy, who like him, also seems to be all alone, if not lost himself. Arlo names the human Spot, and the two set off on a journey back to the Mountains, encountering a wide range of landscapes and colorful characters along the way.

Many people into speculative biology and evolution already know many examples of the main premise of this in fiction already. The idea of dinosaurs never going extinct has been used by Dougal Dixon's The New Dinosaurs, the Speculative Dinosaur Project, and as a host of other independent projects online. This is a Pixar-ized version, however, and while there appears to be a form of worldbuilding and perhaps a few speculative creatures (the heck is that red snake-lizard thing?!), this is mostly fantasy. It also strangely seems to be an homage to many old-school dinosaur films, with the opening from the two trailers obviously being an homage to the Rite of Spring segment in Disney's Fantasia. The film also seems to take a twist on those old cartoons where there's a caveman and his pet Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus: the symbiosis is present, but reversed, with Arlo apparently treating Spot like a pet.

Who doesn't like to flaunt their animation budget every now and then?

I'll be holding most of my judgement for when the film actually enters theaters, but from the looks of the trailers, it is gorgeous. Holy crap, when the first teaser trailer came out I was debating with myself whether or not the animals were placed over a real backdrop, but nope, everything is CGI. Greg Dykstra and the rest of the animation department have my permission to pat themselves on the back and throw a party. This is some of, if not THE best animation I think I've ever seen from a Pixar film, and this is just from the first trailer. Everyone remember when the first Jurassic World trailer came out and how bad everyone thought the CGI was? If this is how the movie looks now, at only the first trailer, the final product is gonna be brilliant.

I won't talk about inaccuracies, as a) the dinosaurs are meant to be anthropomorphized, cartoony, and human-like, and b) we've yet to see most of the characters from the film from what I've heard, but I'll go over a few things I noticed from the trailer that caught my interest...
  • The Opening - The opening scene where the asteroid whizzes overhead is obviously using pre-dinosaur renaissance dinosaurs in it. Although, as said before, this seems to be a reference to Fantasia if anything, so I'm willing to let it slide.
  • Arlo's Legs - Other than the typical "sauropods didn't have elephant-feet" point, why does he have backwards "elbows"? Granted, they could be elongate "hands" and the upper arm could be embedded in the body, but it's still weird and makes his legs more horse-like than anything. And it doesn't help that he gallops...
  • Galloping - Can sauropods even gallop? I don't think they can...
  • Old Cross-Eye - The heck is that ceratopsian supposed to be? Looks like an asymmetrical Styracosaurus with extra spikes and Triceratops brow horns. Guess it could be a new species that evolved in the past 66 million years, but then why is Arlo's species still Apatosaurus after an even longer period of time?
  • The Riders - If you look close at the cross-eyed ceratopsian's head, you'll see there's a large number of small animals sitting on it, ranging from monkey-like things, to armadillo-like things, to some owls, an anole, and quite a few birds. Two of these birds are rather odd, and look almost like Rahonavis or some small dromaeosaurid. It's hard to tell if they actually are, but it might suggest we're getting properly feathered maniraptorans in this film.
  • Red Snake-Lizard - I said it before and I'll say it again. The heck is that thing?
  • Bat-Crap Crazy Pterosaurs - Why do pterosaurs always have to be eagle-swooping bringers of death? Not even in Pixar can they be cute adorable things that sing. I want a cute trio of fluffy Darwinopterus to sing to our heroes, not toothed Pteranodon (faceplam) to swoop down and pick up humans with opposable feet that they don't have!
Anyways, despite some of the issues, I'm still hyped and can't wait. I adored Inside Out, and I'm looking to see what Pixar brings to the table next. This will probably not be the last time I bring up this movie, so stay tuned for more. Cheers!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Harley's Head and His Leaf-Munching Neighbors

Image of bad Iphone camera quality, but with dinosaurs.
Here's that head of Harley (LACM 23844) I promised. The biggest tyrannosaur in LANHM's collection, Harley's a monster with a five foot head and some terrifying teeth, the longest of which is nearly twelve inches. When he was first put up on display, Harley was the largest T. rex (and indeed, theropod skull period) on display anywhere in the world, and it still quite a sight to behold.

During my time working at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, I've gotten a ton of questions relating to this skull and our other Tyrannosaurus from people glancing at it through it's display case. One of the most-asked questions I've got actually has to do with what isn't present in this mount. If you notice at the bottom of the picture, Harley's jaws are separate and not touching. This has lead to a lot of questions and suggestions from visitors that Tyrannosaurus was able to separate it's jaws out like a snake in order to swallow huge prey items.

Alas, that's not the case. Harley's jaw tip was simply not recovered during the expeditions to free him in the 1960s. Other Tyrannosaurus with complete lower jaws show such fusion between the two lower mandibles (take this image of Stan, for example). I don't see why T. rex would need to swallow massive prey items anyways. When you've got a bone-crushing bite and the power to rip chunks of bite-sized meat off prey, flexible snake-like jaws become a hindrance that I'd expect would actually weaken the overall crushing ability.

Oh yeah, and next to Harley is his neighbor, LACM 154919, a Lambeosaurus lambei. At just a little bit over two feet long, this skull has hardly any of the massive overpowering presence that Harley's skull does, and doesn't get nearly as many family pictures in front of it. It's a shame really, especially given the size of the actual animal it probably came from. We do have some other ornithischian dinosaurs with a more overpowering presence, however...

More bad Iphone camera quality, with a dinosaur.
And this is our big Triceratops prorsus (LACM 59049) skull, again. Like Harley, we decapitated this dinosaur for safety reasons, and it's head is safe in a glass case alongside two other ceratopsid skulls (which will be shown in the future). The head on the mount is a lightweight cast built to be lightweight and replaceable, which is good considering this induvidual had a skull over eight feet long (if not longer). LACM 59049 was also one of the more complete specimens of its kind during it's initial discovery. 60% of this Trike's bones were discovered over the course of a couple of field seasons, and most of those bones are on display throughout the institution; abet scattered.

You can tell that this specimen is a T. prorsus, and not a T. horridus, by the enlarged nasal horn. T. horridus has a little stub of a nasal horn on its head, but longer (proportionality speaking) brow horns than T. prorsus. Work done by
Scannella and Fowler (2009) suggests that these two species were separated stratigraphically in the Hell Creek and other similar formations, with horridus specimens appearing in older rocks and prorsus occurring closer to the K-T boundary. Some specimens of Triceratops found in the middle of the Hell Creek even show evidence of being intermediate between horridus and prorsus, suggesting that horridus directly evolved into prorsus, which would be incredibly cool if shown true.

Expect more ceratopsians soon...

- Scannella, J.B. and Fowler, D.W. (2009). "Anagenesis in Triceratops: evidence from a newly resolved stratigraphic framework for the Hell Creek Formation." Pp. 148–149 in 9th North American Paleontological Convention Abstracts. Cincinnati Museum Center Scientific Contributions 3.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A New Beginning...

Hello and welcome dear readers to my humble abode. This is my starting post to a blog that will hopefully turn out to be a good permanent residence for my writings and rambles. What are the topics of these writings gonna be? Mostly extinct animals and paleontology in general, I hope, but I also plan to use this blog to write about quite a bit more than that. I have many interests covering a wide range of topics, and because of that, I hope to use this blog to talk a whole range of things that I, and I hope readers, finds interesting.

First thing's first though: disclaimers. Although I will be writing about dinosaur-themed topics as well as various other interests of mine, I want to make clear that I'm simply an enthusiast, and not a actual paleontologist with any form of degree. I have a volunteer job at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum where I work as an educational docent, have taken classes on paleontology and geology, and have published writings in online magazines, but everything posted here doesn't come from an "expert". Just someone who loves to learn, and loves sharing what he has learned with others. If you want to read from actual experts, there's plenty of other blogs out there that can fulfill your wishes, such as TetZoo, SV:POW, and Mark Witton's Blogspot.

I hope to use this blog to introduce people to new ways of looking at science. Whether it be hard factual discoveries that shape the way we perceive the past, to speculative sciences that allow people to see things they find familiar in a new light. This is a place to educate those who know little, while also enriching the experiences of those that know much.

As such, this is also a blog that will openly take requests if people wish to learn more. I will be sure to take the time to read every post made here, and if anyone wishes to pass me a question, either here, on Facebook, or some other form of media, I'll try my best to answer it.

And with that, I thank you all for joining me at my new location. I'll leave you all with a rather popular picture of the LA Natural History Museum's famous mount of a Triceratops prorsus (LACM 59049) and Tyrannosaurus rex (LACM 23844).

Picture by yours truly, with shameful iPhone quality to boot.

We at the museum call this T. rex Harley, after the late Harley Garbani who discovered most of our institution's Tyrannosaurus. When he was unearthed in the late 1960s, his bones were disarticulated and scattered, and most of the body was missing; but the head was largely complete. It was so complete, in fact, that Harley (the dinosaur) held the title of the most complete T. rex skull of in the world for a long time. That is, until more complete Tyrannosaurus like Sue (FMNH PR 2081) beat him out in the late 1990s. That head, however, isn't displayed on this mount. The head shown is a lightweight cast, built to be replaceable in case it ever falls due to California's infamous earthquakes or other disasters. His real, concrete-filled skull is in a well-protected display case in our Dinosaur Hall.

Pictures of that will be coming soon! Cheers! :)