Thursday, April 06, 2006

Killer turkeys and sauropod snouts

Two big dino discoveries this week, one of them much commented on, the other less so. I'm fascinated by both.

The first is the discovery of a seven-foot oviraptosaur in Utah. This critter is both bigger and was found farther south in North America than any other known member of its lineage. So far only a hand and foot (both articulated!) have turned up, but they clinch the identification. It would have been nice to have a skull, too. Oviraptosaurs are notably bizarre in their skull and beak shapes.

The second bit of info is a new study on sauropod skulls and nostril shapes. Paleoblog, as usual, has the info.

Most people don't know that there has been an ongoing, low level debate about whether or not sauropods actually had small trunks. Yeah, like elephants or tapirs. The argument was that the shape of their nostril openings, combined with their browsing habits, would have made trunks both possible and useful.

The new study's short answer: nope, probably not.

This second discovery is actually more interesting to me, in my guise as an SF writer. I've written one (unpublished) story involving time travel and dinosaurs, and I'm likely to write more. It's nice to know that I'm on safer scientific ground if my sauropods don't have trunks.

Still, the field is changing so fast that it's impossible not to get stuff wrong, at this point. Anything you write may be perfectly accurate the day the manuscript goes in the mail, and thoroughly disproved by the time it reaches print.

Jurassic Park is actually the worst victim of this constant revisionism. When Crichton wrote the (execrable yet compulsively readable) novel, there had been a swing in the battle over dinosaur nomenclature. The dinosaur named Deinonychus had been lumped in with it's smaller cousin, Velociraptor. By the time the movie had come out, the Deinonychus had won it's proper name back. So those "velociraptors" in all three movies are actually supposed to be Deinonychuses. Which doesn't really roll off the tongue like "raptor."

Then, just as the first movie came out, the Utahraptor - a bigass sickle-clawed killer - was discovered. So they could have retconned the velociraptors into Utahraptors, but they didn't bother. And we're about 99 per cent sure now that raptors, all of them, had feathers. When Gregory S. Paul and a few others were drawing feathered predatory dinos in the late 1980s, at the same time Crichton wrote his book, they were considered gonzo mavericks. Now, we know that they're giant killer turkeys. Much like the critter dug up in Utah.

At least Jurassic Park III got the Spinosaurus right. In the past month, it has been firmly established as the biggest predatory dinosaur ever discovered, and Paleoblog has pictures of the original specimen up on his site. The story of the original speciment is a sad one - it was destroyed in Allied air raids on Germany. It's discoverer, Ernst Stromer, had argued that they should be removed to safer locations. But for reasons of Nazi war propoganda (the Allies will never succeed in bombing us!) they were left in a Munich museum, which was reduced to rubble.

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