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Vertebrate palaeontology at Lyme Regis: of ‘All Yesterdays’, the ‘Leathery Winged Revolution’, and Planet Dinosaur

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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If you’ve been wondering, Tet Zoo isn’t dead (as you might guess by the fact that Tet Zoo ver 3 has slipped way down the ratings over at Nature Blog Network). It’s just that I’ve been away, this time at Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, specifically for the 59th Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy (or SVPCA) [image above by Robert Nicholls of paleocreations.com]. And what fun I’ve had. There were those hours of wandering around in the dark, trying frantically to find my place of residence (the wonderful Horn Tavern), those countless anecdotes about that holiday I had, in 1993, in Lynton and Lynmouth, and all those incidents involving chairs, beer, curry and Gregory Paul imitation (sorry, these apparently random bits of nonsense will mean something to certain of my friends and colleagues).

Vidovic, Hing and Lawlor, fossiling.

The Jurassic Coast is where you might go for ammonites (should you like that sort of thing), plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, Scelidosaurus and historical palaeontology (Anning, De La Beche, Conybeare and so on). It thus follows that any palaeontological meeting held there is likely to be dominated by a strong ‘marine Jurassic’ feeling.

And it was for me, at least – partly because I spent a lot of time talking about, thinking about, and looking at ichthyosaurs. More on that later. Rather than reviewing or discussing any of the talks or other SVPCA presentations at length, I’m aiming here to discuss things in a fairly loose, stream-of-consciousness style, mentioning things as and when they occur to me. So, like normal, then. I regret that my coverage will be Mesozoic-heavy, partly because I had to miss some of the Cenozoic/mammal-themed talks due to other commitments. If the marine Jurassic theme sounds familiar, that might be because you’re read my articles on a previous meeting held relatively recently at Street in Somerset [see links below] – an area with a similar set of marine reptile taxa to those present in the Lyme Regis region.

All Yesterdays: the Conway show

Goats- - I mean, Protoceratops in a tree. Image (c) John Conway/Ontograph Studios.

I think it’s fair to say that one of the most unusual presentations was the ice-breaker talk given early on in the meeting by John Conway and (an absent) C. M. Kosemen. It was titled ‘All Yesterdays’ (bonus points if you know why this title was chosen) and involved the presentation of various novel reconstructions of fossil animals that look weird, yet are actually more or less within the realms of possibility, though currently impossible to test or disprove. Combining Looney Tunes (what is it with Mesozoic archosaurs and Looney Tunes right now?) and various nods to artists of the past (including Zallinger and Knight), John presented us with such wonders as a wobbegong plesiosaur, log-mimicking Majungasaurus, porker Parasaurolophus and a particularly well-endowed Citipati. The illustrations were shown via a vintage slide machine and actual slides. Wow, retro. For more on John and his outstanding work, be sure to check out Ontograph Studios.

Wobbegong-mimicking plesiosaur (c) John Conway/Ontograph Studios.

In more technical talks, Jenny Clack discussed a new Scottish fossil from the Carboniferous that seems to be from Crassigyrinus (don’t know what Crassigyrinus is? Go here), yet is 20-25 million years older than the other known specimens. I also enjoyed Marc Jones’s talk on the shearing bite of rhynchocephalians (if you know of footage that shows a tuatara tearing a baby bird to pieces, please say so – Marc wants!). Mark Hutchinson’s talk on the Upper Triassic Tikiguana was very interesting: it is a crown-group draconine agamid (see Datta & Ray (2006) for the initial description) – - so is it reworked from substantially younger sediments? Susan Evans’s talk on the palaeobiology of the Jehol Group lizard Yabeinosaurus was also great (some of this work has been recently published: see Wang & Evans (2011)).

Ryoko Matsumoto’s talk on a Paleocene choristodere showed that some members of this group possessed a crocodile-style, serrated dorsal margin to the tail. Jeremy Martin spoke about a freshwater teleosaurid from the Jurassic of Thailand. Were teleosaurids invading freshwater habitats as a novelty, or were the freshwater forms the primitive ones?

The “Leathery Winged Revolution” (not my phrase)

Mark Witton, Hollie (20, from Manchester) and a dimorphodontid.

Pterosaurs were extraordinarily well represented this year. Among the several talks, Dave Unwin discussed a new dimorphodontid taxon from the UK, Eric Buffetaut presented an analysis of some possible ctenochasmatoid remains from the Stonefield Slate, Brian Andres showcased a British wukongopterid, and Mark Witton discussed forelimb posture in Dimorphodon. Wukongopteridae, incidentally, is the group that seemingly includes the infamous ‘modular’ pterosaur Darwinopterus (Lü et al. 2009, Wang et al. 2009, 2010) [Darwinopterus has been covered a few times on Tet Zoo: see Darwinopterus, the remarkable transitional pterosaur, A spectacular new fossil provides insight on the sex lives of pterosaurs, part I, and A spectacular new fossil provides insight on the sex lives of pterosaurs, part II: what it all means for eggs, nests and the behaviour of babies].

Mark also gave a public lecture on pterosaurs: ‘Pterosaurs: the Leathery Winged Revolution’. It was tremendously well illustrated, featuring Page 3 girls and a crapload of Wittonesque reconstructions, many of which are – I presume – planned for Mark’s soon-to-be-finished Princeton University Press book on pterosaurs.

African fish eagle, Lyme Regis. Honest.

And well done that Mark for fighting against an awful lot of background noise, including that produced by a helicopter (seemingly hovering just outside our venue, Lyme’s Marine Theatre) and clanking crockery. I was later to learn that the offending helicopter (which we’d seen flying around the town several times during the course of our stay) was being used to fly Steve Backshall around for the Live ’n’ Deadly roadshow. ‘Live ’n’ Deadly’ is a touring spinoff of Deadly 60, a BBC children’s TV series (fronted by Steve Backshall) that focuses on neat predatory animals and their behaviour and biology. I actually think it’s pretty good and I like Steve: he very kindly wrote the forward to Tetrapod Zoology Book One and is always good for a laugh. It was due to Live ’n’ Deadly that I happened to spot an African fish eagle Haliaeetus vocifer sat on top of a house, in Lyme Regis. I think the bird was called Fraggle, but I might have dreamt this.

Distracted by Planet Dinosaur

Having started talking about TV… well, I don’t watch much television these days, but how ironic that – while SVPCA was going on – the sea turtle episode of Inside Nature’s Giants was on (I missed it, but am sure I’ll catch it eventually). And then there was Planet Dinosaur.

BBC's Spinosaurus, from ep 1 of Planet Dinosaur.

Fuelled up on beer and a righteous sense of misplaced indignation, I and a bunch of my Portsmouth-based buddies made an evening of it, sitting around a TV set with a box of rotten fruit and empty beer-bottles ready for the throwing. But, hell no, I have to say that it honestly was pretty good. Naturally, certain palaeobiological speculations were presented as being ‘harder’ than they might actually be (example: the depicting of Rugops as a scavenger dependent on the leftovers of spinosaur meals). Furthermore, some of the CG was a bit off (the animals didn’t run well, they sometimes looked a bit… well, rubbery, and temporal fenestrae and so on often looked way too ‘hollow’) [adjacent BBC Spinosaurus from the Planet Dinosaur site].

But – overall – Planet Dinosaur made the point of showing/stating which bits of evidence have allowed scientists to come to the palaeobiological conclusions that they have, and the narration (provided by John Hurt) even included cautionary language like “We think that xxxxx did xxxxx because xxxxx”. Of course, not everyone agrees with my rosey-tinted view (for those who don’t know, I co-authored Walking With Dinosaurs: The Evidence with Dave Martill back in 2000; I’ve been involved in Planet Dinosaur, but only on an at-the-end-of-the-phone basis). Dave Hone (he of Archosaur Musings) and I would later come to fisticuffs over how appropriate it may or may not be to describe Spinosaurus as 17 m long. I’m cool with it; Dave is, apparently, not.

To be concluded!

For previous Tet Zoo articles on ‘marine Jurassic’ themed meetings and discoveries, see…

Refs – -

Datta, P. M. & Ray, S. 2006. Earliest lizard from the Late Triassic (Carnian) of India. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26, 795-800.

Lü J., Unwin, D. M., Jin, X., Liu, Y., & Ji, Q. (2009). Evidence for modular evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277, 383-389

Wang, X., Kellner, A. W. A., Jiang, S., Cheng, X., Meng, X. & Rodrigues, T. 2010. New long-tailed pterosaurs (Wukongopteridae) from western Liaoning, China. Anais de Academia Brasileira de Ciências 82, 1045-1062.

- ., Kellner, A. W. A., Jiang, S. & Meng, X. 2009. An unusual long-tailed pterosaur with elongated neck from western Liaoning of China. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 81, 793-812.

Wang, Y. & Evans, S. E. 2011. A gravid lizard from the Cretaceous of China and the early history of squamate viviparity. Naturwissenschaften 98, 739-743.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Dave Hone 12:23 pm 09/20/2011

    I didn’t think it was *that* bad, I mostly have an issue which their inconsistency. Very good presentation of actual, real, data then thrown aside for hyperbole or massively unsupported statements on occasion. So it’s not that I necessarily disagree with a 17 m Spinosaurus (though I think it very likely to be smaller than that) so much as where is the harm in saying “Could be up to 17 m” or “Upper estimates reach 17 m” as opposed to “*was* 17 m”.

    Link to this
  2. 2. pmurphy98 12:45 pm 09/20/2011

    Hmmm, is All Yesterdays at all a reference to Nemo Ramjet’s All Tomorrows? That wobbegong mimicking Plesiosaur seems reminiscent of some of the artwork in All Tomorrows…I don’t know, maybe they’re both referencing something older and/or more relevant/famous…

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  3. 3. Dave Unwin 1:33 pm 09/20/2011

    Wukongopteridae? What’s that? Darwinopterus is almost all there is (at least from the Tiaojishan Formation) and the collective term is darwinopterans, or is that darwinopterids, or darwinoptera? Hmmm. Anyway, Brian said it should be one of these and, as he is from Texas, I’m not going to argue.

    Dave

    PS …or changchengopterids…

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  4. 4. Heinrich Mallison 1:48 pm 09/20/2011

    Ah I wish I’d been there!

    I also was a end-of-the-phone expert, but I also got to see material via Cinesync, and overall the entire set-up was impressive: us experts got asked when things could still be changed to accommodate our advice.

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  5. 5. naishd 2:03 pm 09/20/2011

    On darwinopterans: yeah, I just didn’t wanna scoop Brian.

    Dinosaurs to be covered in part II.

    Darren

    Link to this
  6. 6. Halbred 2:28 pm 09/20/2011

    Hey, it’s Holly Peers, my current favorite Page 3 girl!

    Wasn’t there a second species of Darwinopterus named recently?

    Link to this
  7. 7. Therizinosaurus 4:46 pm 09/20/2011

    A Triassic crown agamid does seem quite odd. I’d be interested to see how many steps would take it to a more stratigraphically reasonable phylogenetic position.

    Incidentally, I also have a rather “rosey tinted” view of Planet Dinosaur- http://theropoddatabase.blogspot.com/2011/09/planet-dinosaur-review.html

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  8. 8. DMA12 7:21 pm 09/20/2011

    Incidentally, there is a new dinosaur documentary in America titled “Dinosaur Revolution”. I’m guessing that some of you knew that, and Darren obviously part of it (Pterosaur Looney Tunes). I haven’t seen all of it but it seems more focused on gory scenes, bringing to mind Jurassic Fight Club.

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  9. 9. Andreas Johansson 4:12 am 09/21/2011

    Re size estimates in Planet Dinosaur, one thing that struck me as strange was the Carcharodontosaurus-Tyrannosaurus comparison: the former was said to be larger, 13 m as opposed to the later at 12.5 m. Now I don’t know what data there may be on intraspecific variation in length among these critters, but that’s a relative difference of about 4%, which seems awfully small (it’s about the same as the stdev of Swedish men’s height). Some discussion of confidence of estimates and extent of overlap would seem required before claiming one critter as bigger.

    (Plus, one might think mass, which is harder to tell from fossils, would be a more sensible measure of bigness.)

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  10. 10. naishd 4:43 am 09/21/2011

    One thing that Planet Dinosaur seemed big on is the idea that Carcharodontosaurus (and maybe Giganotosaurus) are substantially larger than Tyrannosaurus. I wasn’t a consultant for the series, but I did edit the book, and I requested that they change this whole “bigger than T. rex thing” – these animals were approximately the same size (12-13 m-ish), perhaps with Tyrannosaurus being heavier due to its more robust proportions.

    Darren

    Link to this
  11. 11. Andreas Johansson 6:13 am 09/21/2011

    When will the book be out?

    Link to this
  12. 12. David Marjanović 6:50 am 09/21/2011

    A Triassic crown agamid does seem quite odd.

    Let alone a Triassic crown draconine!

    Link to this
  13. 13. David Marjanović 6:53 am 09/21/2011

    …Oh. Yeah. I keep forgetting that the blog software here is too stupid to allow the frigging blockquote tag.

    I still think the SciAm management believed there would never be a frigging discussion on a science blog, only little “gee, awesome” one-liners.

    Link to this
  14. 14. BilBy 8:30 am 09/21/2011

    I gave up trying to get on TetZoo as the problems with the slow-running script still seemed to be happening. I’m not using internet explorer to get on here now but I won’t always have that option. I hope Sci Am is trying to sort it out. I agree with David M – I come here for the discussions (even as mostly a lurker) as well as the outstanding articles. I’ll add my usual request for a ‘latest comments’ sidebar as well. Apart from all that whingeing, welcome back Darren!

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  15. 15. John Conway 3:36 pm 09/21/2011

    Thanks for the write up, awesome! It was great conference.

    Link to this
  16. 16. DMA12 3:58 pm 09/21/2011

    On theropod size, wouldn’t you say Tyrannosaurus is larger because of it’s mass. Also, I thought MUCPv-95 was around 14 meters (a length that some say T-rex reached).

    Link to this
  17. 17. DMA12 4:18 pm 09/21/2011

    Oh, and don’t forget UCMP 137538.

    Link to this
  18. 18. David Marjanović 4:11 am 09/22/2011

    I gave up trying to get on TetZoo as the problems with the slow-running script still seemed to be happening.

    Wait, click “no”, wait again, click “no” again, wait again. Then it works.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Dave@reptileevolution.com 8:44 am 09/22/2011

    Thanks for the updates, Darren. Always curious about the talks.

    BTW, I found Wukongopterus, Darwinopterus and Kunpengopterus to nest neatly with Pterorhynchus, a “rhamph”-grade taxon with a reduced naris. Kunpengopterus added a longer neck. Darwinopterus added a longer skull, convergent with Pterodactylus, etc. So, rather than nesting as a transitional taxa with “modular evolution” (wouldn’t that play havoc!), Darwinopterus was a dead end with no known successors. (Apologies to all those rather more invested in the big D.)

    http://www.reptileevolution.com/pterorhynchus.htm

    I’m eager to read about the Triassic agamid. Makes perfect sense when you have Lacertulus in the Permian and other lizards like Jesairosaurus, Drepanosaurus, Cosesaurus and Macrocnemus in the Triassic.

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  20. 20. naishd 9:53 am 09/22/2011

    Hi David, thanks for the comment. On pterosaurs: as you know, no-one else really gets the topologies you do. As for agamids, the point is that a crown draconine agamid is so out-of-place in the Triassic that it’s almost certainly a ‘drop in’ from the Neogene. And those other taxa you list aren’t squamates (though I know that you think they are).

    Darren

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  21. 21. Dartian 4:26 am 09/23/2011

    Darren: “And those other taxa you list aren’t squamates

    Hmm. How old are the oldest undisputed fossil squamates, anyway?

    Link to this
  22. 22. David Marjanović 10:34 am 09/23/2011

    wouldn’t that play havoc!

    Huh?

    Hmm. How old are the oldest undisputed fossil squamates, anyway?

    Middle Jurassic. Which is odd, because the oldest undisputed rhynchocephalians are Middle Triassic in age (…though Gephyrosaurus, the sister-group to all the others together, is Early Jurassic).

    The oldest salamanders and albanerpetontids are Middle Jurassic, too. The oldest frogs are Early Triassic.

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  23. 23. Jerzy New 10:40 am 09/23/2011

    Am I the only one who doesn’t understand push for 17 m and not, say, 12 m dinosaur? They look no different on the screen.

    But there are lots of incredible dinosaur species and facts which don’t make it to films.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Jerzy New 10:41 am 09/23/2011

    Yes, latest comment toolbar, please. :)

    Link to this
  25. 25. Andreas Johansson 3:31 pm 09/23/2011

    Middle Jurassic. Which is odd, because the oldest undisputed rhynchocephalians are Middle Triassic in age

    I assume you’re treating Squamata as branch-based here?

    Link to this
  26. 26. David Marjanović 6:52 am 09/24/2011

    I assume you’re treating Squamata as branch-based here?

    Nobody knows. There is no good phylogenetic analysis, and that’s before we get to the molecular uprooting (iguanians highly nested instead of the sister-group to all other crown-squamates). OK, the Middle Jurassic Marmoretta has been explicitly described as a stem-squamate, and various Late Jurassic animals are considered crown squamates (gekkotans, scincomorphs, anguimorphs even, with various degrees of recent doubt); I forgot if there are other Middle Jurassic supposed squamates.

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  27. 27. Andreas Johansson 9:40 am 09/24/2011

    I meant, if Squamata and Rhynchocephalia are branch-based (everything closer to Lacerta than to Sphenodon, and vice versa, respectively), they’re logically necessarily of the same age, and it might be odd if the one is known much earlier than the other. But if Squamata is a crown group (Lacerta + Iguana or whatever), there’s no reason apparent to me for it to be as old as its closest living sister.

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  28. 28. Glendon Mellow 6:06 pm 09/24/2011

    Gee, those protoceratops up a tree by John Conway are awesome.

    Link to this
  29. 29. David Marjanović 7:06 am 09/25/2011

    Oh. Sorry. No certain stem-squamates are known at all.

    Link to this
  30. 30. JennDeland 10:27 pm 10/15/2011

    Anybody else have a weird feeling – I think the term is deja vu? I am almost certain that I have read this post before on a previous version of Tet Zoo.

    Link to this
  31. 31. naishd 8:43 am 10/16/2011

    Well, I do tend to repeat myself :)

    Darren

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  32. 32. Jman12351 7:00 pm 12/12/2012

    @pmurphy98 C.M. Kosemen is Nemo Ramjet, so yes, it is a reference to his previous book, “All Tomorrows”.

    Link to this

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