Author Archive

So what was it?

July 9, 2010 7 comments

Since I’m getting this blog off the ground again, I think I must clear up some old business. Firstly I’ve already dealt with my nomenclatural blunder in the previous post. Readers may also remember this picture from the old DracovenatorPictured is my wife, Celeste, as a newly appointed preparator to the IHE (Institute for Human Evolution) working away at a hush-hush important fossil that had to be deleted from the picture. So what was it?

None other than…

……the holotype skull of Australopithecus sediba. Its not every day that your handy-work is displayed on the front cover of Science. Well done Celeste! (Yes, I know I’m three months late on this post).

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So I published a synonym

July 9, 2010 Leave a comment

If you’ve been following this blog (what little of it there is to follow) since the old version you may remember me going on about some fossil cowries from South Australia that I had named. Well as it turns out one of them already had a name. Lyncina (Austrocypraea) cadella Yates 2008 was actually named Austrocypraea rumballi way back in 2003 by Dirk Fehse. So sincere apologies to Dirk for not being aware of his work. In my defense Austrocypraea rumballi was published in a difficult to find newsletter of a shell club, and thorough searching by myself before publication failed to produce any reference to it. I don’t mind too much after all I’ve known Wayne Rumball, the guy the species was named after, since I was in high school and apart from being a thoroughly pleasant fellow has donated much of his time volunteering at the South Australian Museum. I just thought I might have had a more substantial number of taxa under my belt before I hit the almost inevitable synonym. The other  species named in the paper, Umbilia caepa, still stands as valid as does the description of  L. (A.) rumballi and the biogeographic/diversity conclusions.

Lyncina (Austrocypraea) rumballi

Fehse, D. (2003) Katalog der fossilen Cypraeoidea (Mollusca: Gastropoda) in der Sammlung Franz Alfred Schilder. III.I. Die Gattung Austrocypraea Cossmann, 1903

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Microraptor’s feathers fully revealed by UV light

February 14, 2010 3 comments

I don’t have much time for an involved post but it would be remiss of me not to mention that my friend and supporter of Dracovenator, Dave Hone, has a new paper out in PLOS One. Dave and several of his colleagues have been looking at famous Liaoning fossils under UV light in order to see what structures may become visible that you can’t see under ordinary white light. The technique has been used to great effect by Helmut Tischlinger (one of the authors on the present paper) on pterosaurs from Solnhofen, revealing all sorts of structures like soft tissue crests, and keratinous beak-tipped jaws.

The present paper answers a very specific question. A halo of non-preservation seems to occur between the skeletons and the feathery plumage of feathered theropods from Liaoning. Is this halo real or just a preservational artefact? Hone et al. looked at one of these theropods, Microraptor, and decisively found that it is indeed a preservational artefact. Under UV light the feathers in the halo region show up nice and clearly, the rachis (‘stem’) of large flight feathers making a connection with their supporting bones, just as in modern birds. This means that a) the flight feathers, even those of the hind wing, were rooted firmly to the skeleton and b) were longer than we had previously realised. If you want to read more check out Dave’s own blog posts here and here. Otherwise download the paper itself - its free.

Figure 1. There be  feathers in them thar halos. The feathers of Microraptor gui (white arrows), and the apparently unfeathered halo (black arrows). Image from Hone et al. 2010.

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Father, Son and Goanna

February 12, 2010 3 comments

Father, son and goanna

Hey everyone, since its been a long time since I posted I’m giving you an extra bonus picture of the day post. This was taken at our rented holiday house at  D’Estree’s Bay on Kangaroo Island. It depicts one of those special moments that happen between fathers and their sons and a random squamate.

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Injuries sustained in pursuit of science

February 12, 2010 4 comments

Hi Everyone, Sorry for the long, long absence. You see,  I had been staying  in Adelaide for several months, where I only had a dial-up connection. It was very slow and well it was my holiday. There was so much to do, so much to show my children that hey, why try to blog? I’m back in Jozi now however so let the blogging commence!

Okay, its not a great lead photo, nor a truly tragic injury  but I did smash my toe in the name of research(I might add that this photo was taken two months afterwards – at the time of the injury my toe resembled a plum in both colouration and sphaericity!). To explain how it happened: I was here.‘Here’ in this are the cliffs of the River Murray, just south of the town of Morgan. Notice all those limestone benches? They belong to the Bryant Creek Formation (formerly the upper Morgan limestone) and I have scrambled over them for the best part of twenty five years of my life. They are, or at least were, solid. This time however one just gave way under me when I stood on it. Down I fell, followed by what was probably a 300 – 500 kg block of limestone. Miraculously the only part of me that got trapped under the block was my left foot. Even more miraculously, instead of slpatting my toe into a bloody pulp, it simply drove my foot into the deep loose sand that accumulates under the ledges (it also helped that the block slid down rather than straight out falling).

So all was well and I was even able to go on collecting. This is what I was after.That’s right! Sea shells. Or more accurately, the spaces where sea shells used to be. No-one has ever really bothered with these, even palaeontologists deeply interested in sea shells, mostly because immediately below the Bryant Creek Formation is the Cadell Formation. This is a soft marl crammed with easily collected shells in an excellent state of preservation so why go through all the trouble of splittng large limestone lumps in the blazing aussie sun for a handfull of specimens when there is a trove of easily collected gems a few metres downsection?  However it was not specimen shells that I was looking for, rather I wanted to see the changes that were occurring in the mollusc faunas after the Cadell Formation was deposited. And what a scientific bonanza these Bryant Creek molluscs turn out to be. Apart from lots of new records for the Miocene of South Australia I found a bunch of new species. And not just small variations on species from the Cadell Formation, these were unexpected taxa that give excellent clues to changes in palaeohabitat, changes in ocean currents  in southern Australia and the evolution of very wierd groups.

I’ll blog about this work, interspersed with a bunch of dino-related stuff.

cheers to all – its good to be back on the blogs.

Categories: Australia Tags: , ,

Earth Claw is here!

November 11, 2009 29 comments

aard-new-reconToday saw the publication of a paper that I’ve working for years to produce. It is an extremely proud moment for me since it doesn’t just represent a new dinosaur I’ve named but a new dinosaur that was found and excavated on my own expeditions. So in a sense it is more ‘my’ dinosaur than any of the others I’ve named, all of which had been found, excavated, prepared and curated long before I ever set eyes on them. I’ll have a lot more to say about the discovery of this new dinosaur, which I and my co-authors have called Aardonyx celestae, in posts over the next few days.
For now I just want to introduce Aardonyx the dinosaur, and say a little about why I think its special beyond its sentimental significance to me.

What is it?
Aardonyx is a sauropodomorph dinosaur. That is a long-necked, small-skulled, plant-munching branch of the lizard-hipped dinosaur group. Sauropodomorpha includes (as the name would suggest) the well-known giant quadrupedal sauropods as well as a range of more primitive forms that don’t appear to have survived beyond the Early Jurassic. Aardonyx is a relatively primitive member of the group and is excluded from Sauropoda (at least under some definitions of Sauropoda), although it appears to be more closely related to them than most other non-sauropod (=basal) sauropodomorphs.


Where was it found?
The bones were excavated from a single small but dense bone-bed that we nicknamed Marc’s Quarry (after my student Marc Blackbeard who studied the taphonomy of the site as part of his honours degree). Marc’s Quarry is one of several sites on the farm Spion Kop, part of a game farm complex in the Senekal District of the Free State South Africa.

How much of it was found?
We were actually quite lucky. We found the bones of two individuals thoroughly comingled. Between the two of them we found a remarkable amount of the skeleton, including the frequently missing skull. The major missing elements were the nasal and quadrate bones of the skull, the humerus of the forelimb and the ilium of the pelvis.


12-aardonyx-skeletonA skeletal reconstruction of Aardonyx scaled to the size of the smaller individual (but using parts from both)

How big was it?
My skeletal reconstruction (scaled to the size of the smaller individual) is just over 7 metres in length when the neck is held straight out in front of the body and stands 1.5 metres high at the hips. Assuming no major proportional changes the larger individual would have been close to 9 metres long and nearly 2 metres high at the hips. The histological work of Anusuya Chinsamy suggests that neither individual was mature at the time of death, indicating that Aardonyx got even bigger. Thus it is one of the largest known non-sauropod sauropodomorphs.

When did it live?
The geology of the site is fairly clear. There are no complex folds or faults, just simple, horizontal layer-cake stratigraphy. Thus there can be little doubt that Marc’s Quarry lies in the upper Elliot Formation, between the lower Elliot Formation and the Clarens Formation. That puts it in the Early Jurassic, somewhere between 183 and 200 million years old. Exactly where in this time range is far less certain but I would guess closer to 183ma than to 200ma.

What makes it a new species?
Aardonyx is blessed with many characters that enable it to be distinguished from all other known basal sauropodomorphs. These unique characteristics include features of the skull, neck, forearm and foot. Within the skull the apparently giant bony aperture of the nostril is especially noticeable. It is true that is a feature of the reconstructed skull and could therefore be prone to error. However I am confident that this is not the case. Firstly The premaxilla and maxilla used to reconstruct definitely come from the same taxon (they share the same set of unusual features such as pointed, virtually unserrated and longitudinally ridged teeth and a wide band of dense ‘micropits’ along the alveolar margins of both bones. Secondly the scar on the maxilla for articulation with the posterior process of the premaxilla is a perfect match. Other unusual skull features include the relatively tiny size of the major blood vessel and nerve openings on the maxilla bone and a very deep, sharply defined groove on the inside of the maxilla- you simply don’t see that elsewhere.
The neck vertebrae are distinctive in their simplicity. Generally sauropodomorph vertebrae become more complex as you progress towards the trunk, with the neck rib attachment scars projecting on well marked processes that are supported by thin buttresses of bone. None of the neck vertebrae of Aardonyx, from front to back, have a trace of a bony lamina or a projecting rib attachment.
As we look at the rest of the anatomy we continue to see odd features, for example the radius carries an extremely large highly rugose biceps scar (present on both individuals) while the fourth metatarsus of the foot meets the ankle in a broad racket-like expansion. All this indicates that although Aardonyx is intermediate between more typical ‘prosauropods’ and basal true sauropods it had been doing plenty of its own evolution since it split from the sauropod line and had accrued a bunch of weird characters that make it highly recognizable.

What makes it special?
Aardonyx seems to lie at the very heart of the transition from basal sauropodomorphs, that we could label ‘typical’ or ‘core’ prosauropods to true sauropods. When I plugged Aardonyx into two different cladistic matrices Aardonyx came out as the sister taxon of Melanorosaurus (or Melanorosauridae) + Sauropoda in both cases. Moreover this result was one of the most robust nodes in the analyses. This is interesting because as we say in the paper we think that committed quadrupedality is diagnostic for the latter clade. However Aardonyx is probably not a quadruped that makes it the closest known outgroup to Sauropoda before their move on to all fours.
Aardonyx also reveals that the sequence of evolution of derived characteristics on the line leading to sauropods involved more convergences and/or reversals than we previously suspected. But more about that later.

PrintAardonyx in its place in a simplified family tree of dinosaurs. Image courtesy of Matt Bonnan

Yates, A. M., Bonnan, M. F., Neveling, J., Chinsamy, A. and Blackbeard, M. G. 2009. A new transitional sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Early Jurassic of South Africa and the evolution of sauropod feeding and quadrupedalism. Proc. R. Soc. B doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1440

And we’re bound for South Australia

October 29, 2009 4 comments

Yes in just a little over two weeks I’ll be heading for my home town of Adelaide, South Australia for an extended break. It is scary the amount of things I have to get done in the meantime. This includes buying a car (the old one is on its last legs), marking a large number of vertebrate morphology exam scripts, the paleo paper challenge and….well you’ll find out soon enough.
So hopefully the future holds lots of blogging about the natural wonders of South Australia. Not many dinosaurs though, I’m afraid. However for those fans of the big scalies there will definately be something here before I go.

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Welcome to Dracovenator reborn!

October 26, 2009 9 comments

Hi everyone! For reasons unknown to me, I lost a lot of functionality on my old blogger site. So welcome to the new Dracovenator. Please stick around while I find my feet. For one the mystery of the skull from the old banner will be revealed…….soon. aard-skull-lat-final

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