Today is a super-exciting day for me and I hope you will find it exciting as well. Why?
Because today PLoS ONE published a paper I am very hyped about – Structural Extremes in a Cretaceous Dinosaur by Sereno PC, Wilson JA, Witmer LM, Whitlock JA, Maga A, et al.
Simultaneously with the publication of the paper at 10:30am EST today (and such perfect synchrony took a LOT of work, sweat and nail-biting!), the fossil itself will be unveiled at the National Geographic in Washington D.C. (and you’ll see some snippets from there on TV tonight – more information on channels and times later).
First, why is this dinosaur exciting and then, below, why is the publication of this paper so exciting to me personally.
A French paleontologist, Dr. Philippe Taquet, who led the first fossil expeditions to Niger in the 1960s., brought home some bone fragments that he never named. It took three decades until more of this dinosaur was found. In 1997., a member of Paul Sereno’s team discovered the skull of a bizzare-looking dinosaurus which they named Nigersaurus taqueti in honor of their French predecessor. In 1999., Sereno brought in a crew that dug out an almost complete skeleton of this animal, a younger, smaller cousin of the Diplodocus, one of my favourite dinos since I was a little kid.
[image copyright Todd Marshall, courtesy Project Exploration – click for high-res image]
It usually takes some time for a big dinosaur skeleton to get cleaned and prepared, but in this case it also took some time to do serious head-scratching! The animal was so strange and difficult to interpret!
Although this is a large dinosaur, about elephant-sized, the bones, especially the vertebrae, are extremely hollow – mostly air. Obviously the animal existed and did fine (I believe they found remains of more than one, including babies) although it is hard to fathom that such a large animal could have such a hollow vertebral column without collapsing under the slightest outside pressure. This calls into question the understanding of what the minimal requirements for bone mass are for the skeleton to be useful.
[image copyright P. Sereno and C. Abraczinskas, courtesy Project Exploration]
The same goes for the skull which is so hollow and minimalistic in its structure that the bones are transparent (see pictures below)! Yet this extremely light-weight skull fed this large animal – again, questioning the current understanding of what the minimal requirements are for a skull to be functional.
The jaw was extremely wide, with about 500 teeth set in a ruler-straight line, being regularly replaced as they wore out. Moreover, the head is positioned in such a way that it strongly suggests that animal was feeding very close to the ground. Apparently, since Marsh uncovered the first Diplodocus in the 1800s, there has been a debate about the mode of feeding in diplodocids, some taking a “long neck = giraffe” view of high tree browsing, while others argued for low-browsing or even grazing close to the ground. The inability of Marsh and later Holland in 1924 to mount the skull of Diplodocus in straight line with the neck (the way usually portrayed in the books of your youth) suggests that the heads of animals in this group tended to point downward, indicating close-to-grouond feeding. Nigersaurus, with the most extreme example of such angle between the head and neck reinforces this notion further. A CT scan of the endocast shows the positioning of the inner ear that also supports this notion.
You can find a LOT of information about the find, pictures and movies, on a beautifully designed Nigersaurus homepage put together by Project Exploration, the science education organization led by Paul Sereno and his wife Gabrielle Lyons.
I got to know Paul Sereno some years ago through his wife who went to grad school at U of Chicago together with my brother. I met Paul in person at SICB meeting in 2000 and then again this summer at Scifoo. Remember this picture:
Yes, that is the Nigersaurus skull in a case I carried from the hotel to the Google campus in August. Here are the pictures I took there that I had to sit on for months now:
During Scifoo, Paul became a strong proponent of Open Access and the publication of this paper in PLoS ONE is a big victory for PLoS, for Open Access and for me personally. In one of roughly 5 billion e-mails I exchanged with Paul over the past couple of months, when he first actually went to PLoS ONE and looked around at papers and author instructions, etc. he wrote back to me [a strong, exclamatory word omitted in order to retain the G-rating of this blog]:
“I have been looking over the PLoS ONE site, what can be attached, how it prints, how it reads online, how it cites, how it allow flexible organization and headings plus it’s commenting and rating tools, it’s so very nice, I don’t think I will ever leave!”.
So, if Sereno likes it, you should, too! Go and read the paper. Rate it. Annotate and comment. Blog about it (I will make a linkfest of all the blogospheric responses) and send trackbacks.
Other blog and media coverage:
Pixelshot: Dinosaur build
University of Chicago News Office: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘Mesozoic cow’
Web is Gold: DINOSAURS: THE EXTREME AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
Latest from the Ann Arbor News: Eureka! New dinosaur discovered
Africasia: Anatomically odd African dinosaur sucked up the greenery
The Associated Press: Dinosaur Found With Vacuum-Cleaner Mouth
MLive.com: U-M researchers had role in Nigersaurus puzzle
Kalamazoo Gazette: Dinosaur hunter has deep roots in Kalamazoo
Newswise: Dinosaur from Sahara Ate Like a ‘Mesozoic Cow’ (press release)
EurekAlert: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘mesozoic cow’
New York Times: A Dinosaur That Grazed Like a Cow
Science Blog: Dinosaur from Sahara ate like a ‘mesozoic cow’
Raw Story: Anatomically odd African dinosaur sucked up the greenery
National Geographic: Dino With “Vacuum Mouth” Revealed
National Geographic: Bizarre Dinosaur Grazed Like a Cow, Study Says
Pharyngula: Nigersaurus, a Cretaceous hedge-trimmer
Scientific Frontline: Dinosaur From Sahara Ate Like A ‘Mesozoic Cow’
Tetrapod Zoology: The world’s most amazing sauropod
Health, Science, & Libraries: Very Interesting …
ScienceDaily: Dinosaur From Sahara Ate Like A ‘Mesozoic Cow’
Raeilgh News & Observer: Dinosaur had mouth like a vacuum cleaner
New Scientist: Odd-jawed dinosaur reveals bovine lifestyle
Pondering Pikaia: Nigersaurus: just when you thought you’d seen everything…
The Esoteric Science Resource Center: ‘…while Nursie is a sad, insane old woman with a dinosaur fixation.’
PLoS Blog: The Nigersaurus has landed
Reuters: Weird dinosaur was ‘cow of the Mesozoic': report
Panda’s Thumb: Nigersaurus, a Cretaceous hedge-trimmer
Not I, Spake the Soothsayer: Meet A New Dinosaur
derStandard.at: Dinosaurus bizarrus
Nonoscience: Nigersaurus, the Open Access Dinosaur
Laelaps: Nigersaurus taqueti!
eFluxMedia: CT Imaging Sheds Light on Saharan Nigersaurus taqueti
Chicago Tribune: U. of C. scientist unveils skeleton of plant-eating dinosaur
Hairy Museum of Natural History: A Great Day for Goofy Sauropods
Clioaudio: The Open Access Dinosaur
Effect Measure: Lightweight dinosaur, heavyweight publishing event
Billy the Blogging Poet: The Mesozoic Nigersaurus Dinosaur
Integrated Sciences: The Open Access Dinosaur
Pixelshot: Nigersaurus – raising the bones!
Science After School: Youth Involved in New Dinosaur Discovery
Transcription Factor: Thanks, Bora!
The Esoteric Science Resource Center: More on Nigersaurus
The Beagle Project Blog: Open access science publishing lands a big one
The Tree of Life: Open Access dinosaurs and way to go Paul Sereno
The Great Beyond (Nature): Dinosaur of the Day: a ‘Flintstones lawnmower’
Wired Science: This Week in Dinosaurs: A Mesozoic Vacuum Cleaner, An Accidental Find
Popular Science Blog: Dinosaur That Munched Like a Cow
NPR Morning Edition: ‘Mesozoic Cow’ Rises from the Sahara Desert
Business|bytes|genes|molecules: Dinosaurs come with Creative Commons licenses too
When Pigs Fly Returns: Lawnmowers of the Early Cretaceous
Microecos: Pod People
DailyKos: Open Science Thread
Greg Laden’s blog: Hey, Sb Readers, Get With It!
Crooks And Liars: Mike’s Blog Round Up
Be openly accessible or be obscure: Nigersaurus, the OA dino
Braving the Elements: Strange New Dinosaur
Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Xenoposeidon week, day 5: the quest for glory
Curious Cat: Nigersaurus
Gypsy’s Blog: Dinosaur – Living Mower?
Hairy Museum of Natural History: Extreme, Bizarre, Goofy, and Strange
Self-designed Student: Nigersaurus…and a question…
Ocmpoma: I heart PLoS
Everything Dinosaur: Nigersaurus – An unusual long-necked Dinosaur that grazed like a cow